Celebrating the Resilience of African Women

Courtesy Mohaart: http://mohaart.deviantart.com/art/African-Women-204079160

“I should have known that ambition and success were not to be expected in an African woman. An African woman should be a good African woman whose qualities should be coyness, shyness, submissiveness, incompetence and crippling dependency. A highly educated independent African woman is bound to be dominant, aggressive, uncontrollable, a bad influence.

                  — Professor Wangari Mathaai (1979) right after the collapse of her marriage with Mwangi Mathai

The month of March has a number of internationally recognized days celebrating women’s accomplishments, achievements and the special place women occupy in society. There is the International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrated globally on March 8th and the forthcoming Mother’s day celebrated between March and April depending on the country. In the case of the former, the IWD, despite (ironically) having its origins in socialist political events and worker’s movements in the early 1900s, by 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations (UN) began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March and by 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed by Member States. The official UN theme for International Women’s Day 2012 is “Empower Rural Women — End Hunger and Poverty.”

All over the world, women everyday are taking giant strides in breaking free of stereotypes and in improving their lives, those of their families and of their communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa as well, women are doing remarkable things – from Nobel Prize winners recognized by the international community to the ordinary women doing extra-ordinary things every day.

When strong African women are mentioned, heavy weights come to mind such as the late Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Muta Maathai who passed away in September 2011. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 which planted over 30 million trees, she was an advocate for better sustainability in the management of natural resources, she worked with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water and was a pro-democracy and human rights activist.

Others include Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected African Head of State, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for her efforts in rebuilding post-conflict Liberia such as negotiating significant debt relief, anti-corruption efforts, starting the truth and reconciliation commission to address crimes committed during the Liberian civil war and overseeing a rise in school enrolment by 40%.

Sirleaf shared the Nobel laurel with fellow Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee who mobilised Christian and Muslim women in Liberia to call for an end to the brutal 14-year civil war by fasting, praying and campaigning for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue between the government and the rebels, and also convincing Charles Taylor to step down. The award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell  chronicles the incredible efforts of Gbowee and her women’s movement in ending the civil war. Others include internationally renowned Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working, Siza Mzimela the CEO of South African Airways, Mariéme Jamme a London-based philanthropist, technologist and social entrepreneur, and so many others.

Chimamanda Adichie

Coming closer home, in Nigeria, we have heavy weights such as Professor Dora Akunyili former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) who has received international recognition and awards for her work in public health and pharmacology; Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala the Harvard-educated first female Minister of Finance in Nigeria, famous for negotiating the historic debt cancellation of $18 billion (60%) of Nigeria’s external debt with the Paris Club in 2005 and for fostering greater fiscal transparency in government. Though her reputation and popularity in Nigeria slightly plunged due to her prominent role in the Nigerian government’s recent removal of fuel subsidy, she still remains a powerful and brilliant woman who has made an indelible mark in a terrain dominated by men. Okonjo-Iweala is listed on the Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful Black Women and Forbes Africa’s list of the 20 Most Powerful Women in Africa.

There is also Mrs. Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, currently a World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region responsible for projects, economic and sectoral work in 47 Sub-Saharan countries; Mrs. Amina Ibrahim, a former Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals, described by BBC reporter Mark Doyle as a “frank and intelligent woman”. Also worthy of note is Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (CON) the first female Supreme Court justice in Nigeria, and Mrs. Ifueko Omogui the Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS)responsible for driving institutional changes to reform the tax system in Nigeria.Outside the public sector, we have young up and coming women who are blazing the trail in their various fields of endeavour such as the award winning writer Chimamanda Adichie  listed on the Forbes’ 20 Youngest Power Women of Africa and Nollywood movie stars such as Genevieve Nnaji, who is regarded as “Africa’s most revered actress” and one of the most influential celebrities in Africa. There are many more of such amazing and inspiring women in Nigeria and across Africa.

By far, one of the most remarkable and extraordinary instances of a woman’s resilience in the harsh terrain in Sub Saharan Africa is that of Rabi’atu Abubakar Mashi, the female truck-driver with Dangote Cement company, in the conservative Northern state of Katsina, perhaps the only female truck driver in Northern Nigeria. Hers is a story of courage as she defies stereotypes whilst eking out a living doing something traditionally not associated with women neither in the developed world nor in the developing world. Her interview with the Weekly Trust newspaper HERE reveals that:

Photo, courtesy Weekly Trust

As a divorcee with two children it can be inferred that Rabi’atu’s income comes in handy in catering to her basic needs and that of her children, keeping her self sufficient, in an environment where the rate of divorces is reaching alarming proportions and divorced women who are typically without meaningful sources of livelihoods end up as dependents and a liability to themselves and their families.

Interestingly, Rabi’atu acknowledges that she is doing something extraordinary and hopes that other women will follow the trail she has blazed. Having successfully trained and mentored another woman, she confirms that her protégé could soon start driving her own truck for the same company. Additionally, Rabi’atu is mindful of her deeply conservative environment built on mostly cultural and Islamic prescriptions which place a high level of importance on marriage. Thus she hopes to be remarry but prays that her husband doesn’t discourage her from the lucrative truck driving business she is very passionate about.

This is an amazing story of strength, courage and resilience. For pursuing her dreams in a tough environment and perhaps inspiring other women to take charge of their destinies and empower themselves, Rabi’atu deserves to be crowned woman of the year. I am probably over-excited and stretching it a bit, but a Nigerian Woman of the Year award would do. The fact that she is from my home state, Katsina is a plus and a feel-good factor for me ;-). There are certainly many more women like Rabi’atu all around the world setting the pace in their own unique way, yet it is their individual efforts which collectively make a difference.

Fuel Subsidy Removal: Messing With the Middle Class

ANNOUNCING A CALLOUS POLICY WITH IMPUNITY

A liberalization move by the government to deregulate the downstream sector of the oil industy by removing subsidy on petrol was announced on Sunday 1st January, New Year’s Day just when Nigerians were reeling from the shock of deadly bomb attacks on Christmas day and a spate of sectarian killings in Ebonyi state, the South-East of Nigeria. This unilateral decision by the Executive arm of government took Nigerians by surprise as it was meant to take immediate effect, and as government was supposed to be conducting “wide consultations” with stakeholders on the controversial and highly unpopular policy decision, and even as the National Assembly was yet conclude deliberations on the issue.

NIGERIANS TAKE TO THE INTERNET… AND TO THE STREETS

Despite our renowned resilience and almost legendary perseverance in any situation, the removal of subsidy seems to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. We took to the internet, especially Facebook and Twitter to express our vehement disapproval of this insensitive policy and its callous and untimely implementation on New Year’s Day. That same afternoon, people started mobilizing on social media for mass protests the next day in Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna and other cities across the country. Even the leading opposition parties and professional associations like the Nigerian Bar Association and the Nigerian Medical Association issued strongly worded statements condemning this move in its entirety and threatening mass action.

Most Nigerians are particularly incensed because this policy is not only highly unpopular, but also because the government has had little consultation with the public. After the last (public) meeting it had with the media and some stakeholders in Lagos in December where people expressed their extreme disapproval, government promised to continue consultations before fuel subsidy would be removed from either January 20th 2012 or April 2012. The government’s unilateral decision on New Year’s Day which appears to be a stealthily well-planned siege on Nigerians has further heightened Nigerians’ extreme distrust for the government and vindicated our view of government officials as highly duplicitous. Most importantly, Nigerians are infuriated by the immediate effect of this policy which has resulted in inflation in transport fares, food stuff and basic commodities by as much as 200% as fuel prices have increased from N65 ($0.48) to over N140 (almost $1) per litre. In some places like Calabar, fuel is reportedly sold for over N200 per litre.

In Lagos the commercial capital, mass protests began on Monday which were largely peaceful:

In Abuja the capital city, scores of youths led by a former Federal Legislator, Dino Melaye on Monday marched to Eagle square carrying placards and signed a protest register. The police tried to foil the protest and to confiscate the protest register but they later returned it. Several protesters including Melaye were arrested by the police and taken to the Anti-robbery Squad but were later released.

In Kaduna on Monday, scores of protesters gathered at Murtala Square to peacefully sign a protest register but were later dispersed by anti-riot policemen.

In Kano, the turn out, just like in Lagos was huge. Hundreds of protesters turned out en masse on Wednesday 4th January and even spent the night at Silver Jubilee round about which was christened Kano “Liberation” Square.

In several other cities across the country, scores and even hundreds of protesters have been pouring out onto the streets as the pictures below show: from Kebbi, Katsina and Bauchi in the North, to Ibadan, Akure and Benin in the South. Nigerians are angry and are not hiding it.

The two images above are from the Northern city of Katsina.

These two images above are from Benin city, the capital of Edo state, one of the states in the President’s home region, the Niger-Delta.

The image above is a picture taken of Ijaw youths (from the President’s ethnic group) protesting the removal of Subsidy on Wednesday 4th January.

Protesters in Bauchi in the North East, at the Emir’s palace. Unconfirmed reports later stated that the Emir joined the protesters in marching through the city.

Abeokuta, Ogun state.

Ibadan, Oyo state.

WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS?

The demands of Nigerians basically centre on the reversal of this decision: mainly restoring fuel subsidy, cutting government waste, tackling corruption, provision of infrastructure, repairing the ailing refineries and building new ones. While many protesters have been calling for the President’s resignation and indeed the popular use of the term #OccupyNigeria by protesters could mistakenly give that impression, there are really no explicit political goals from protesters. The protests are simply an expression of indignation at a policy which will and is already bringing untold hardship on Nigerians. The labour unions – the Nigerian Labour Conress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) have given the government an ultimatum to reverse the decision by Monday 9th January or face nation-wide protests which would shut banks, schools, offices, oil installations, airports etc and effectively cripple the economy.

This video below sufficiently captures and encapsulates the demands of many Nigerians:

TECH-SAVVY YOUTH MOBILIZE… AND BROADCAST TO THE WORLD

With a population well over 150 million people, Nigeria is reported to have over 43 million Nigerians (educated middle to upper class) on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and connected to the internet. Nigerian youths have mobilized to take to the streets and challenge the government’s unpopular decision. In the face of scant media coverage and even blackout towards the protests by government owned television and radio stations like the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) and some government friendly newspapers, it is social media savvy youth who have broadcasted images and updates to both local and international media. Citizen reporters on ground tweet pictures, videos and live updates of events and use Facebook, Youtube and blogs. These updates are sent to local and international media like Channels TV, BBC Africa, CCN i-report, Al-Jazeera stream and others using the hashtags #FuelSubsidy and #OccupyNigeria. Notable citizen journalists and activists include Sahara Reporters, Japeth Omojuwa, Kayode Ogundamisi, Gbenga Sesan and scores of others.

In an ironic, but not surprising twist of fate, President Jonathan’s Facebook page which he and his advisers have severally used to brag about his social media savvy-ness and popularity has been bombarded with tens of thousands of highly critical messages by his Facebook fans expressing raw fury and emotion, with some comments bordering on downright insults and curses. President Jonathan seems to have set the record as the “most cursed person on Facebook

THE GOVERNMENT’S OBSTINACY, HALF-TRUTHS AND MANIPULATION 

Knowing the Nigerian government’s antecedents of its brazen disregard for the feelings of ordinary Nigerians, its actions, statements and responses to the mass opposition and protests against its deregulation policy since New Year’s Day did not disappoint in the least bit. It only served to vindicate Nigerians’ massive distrust and growing disdain for government officials. Here are some instances:

The Minister of Labour, Chief Chukwuemeka Wogu in his reaction, on Channels TV, to the threat by Labour Unions to embark on massive strikes said: “As a government, you don’t succumb to threats or pandering… from the people you rule…” You can watch the video clip HERE.

Ahmed Ali Gulak, a Special Adviser to the President on Political Affairs, in an interview with the BBC World Have Your Say programme on Wednesday 4th January claimed that “majority of Nigerians are in support of the removal of subsidy” to which a Nigerian, Nicolas Adikwe, present at the BBC studio countered and said it was an “insult” to Nigerians out on the streets, and that it was misleading.

The Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minster of the Economy Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (believed to be the arrowhead of this allegedly IMF-backed policy) have rehashed the same well worn-out economic arguments to justify subsidy removal, albeit with complete detachment from the reality of the Nigerian socio-political environment.

The government in an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday has stated that it remains firm and resolute on this decision and will not reverse it.

GOVERNMENT BRUTALITY AND REPRESSION

While protests have been largely peaceful, the government has in some cases used violence to brutally repress peaceful protests.

In Lagos, this video shows a protester being beaten and brutalized by the police:

In Ilorin, witnesses say an unarmed protester; Muyideen Mustafa was brutally shot by the Police on Tuesday, while Police Officials claim he was stabbed by protesters. He was the first casualty of the protest and his remains have been laid to rest.

In Kano, though the police behaved well on Wednesday towards the protesters, they waited until the early hours of Thursday from around 02.00am local time to lay a cowardly late night ambush on protesters, beating them and firing tear gas cannisters. It was a hair-raising moment for social media users keeping tabs on the events in Kano as most liaisons and citizen reporters giving live updates from the Silver Jubilee roundabout (Liberation Square) in Kano were unreachable for several minutes. An estimated 40 people were reported to have been injured.

In Ibadan, protesters, mostly students were tear-gassed by security forces.

UNITY IN DIVERSITY: A SERENDIPITY

One of the most remarkable serendipity of sorts to have occurred so far is a growing sense of unity amongst Nigerians hitherto known to be deeply divided along ethno-religious lines. Perhaps the shared sense of frustration, anger and oppression by a ruling class cutting across most ethnic and religious groups is finally uniting Nigerians and achieving what political scientists, sociologists, historians, religious leaders, donor agencies, countless government committees and integration policies have failed to achieve.

This bond and unity was most evident in the city of Kano, hitherto a hotbed of inter-religious squabble, where Christians on Wednesday 4th January stood guard to protect Muslims as they prayed. A mutual agreement for peace was said to have been reached between Muslims and Christians where Muslim would protect all non-Muslims and escort them to their places of worship and vice-versa. They vowed to resist any attempt to use religion to divide them with a register opened to that effect.

Similarly in Kaduna, an agreement is reported to have been reached between Christians and Muslims today (Thursday 5th January). The photo below shows Christians surrounding and protecting Muslims as they pray.

It is too early to tell whether this bond would grow stronger and whether it would be replicated in other parts of the country, but it certainly is a welcome development

“EMINENT” AND “RESPECTED” RELIGIOUS LEADERS: MUM IS THE WORD

As some Nigerians are gradually uniting over their shared sense of frustration, virtually nothing has been heard from most of the prominent Islamic and Christian leaders, neither on the fuel subsidy removal, nor the mass protests enveloping the entire country. With the exception of local imams, pastors and some catholic bishops, “eminent” leaders such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) President Ayo Ortisejafor, the Sultan of Sokoto, the Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI) and others who are usually very vocal towards many national and political issues have surprisingly maintained a deafening silence on this. You tend to wonder…

A SENSE OF HUMOUR, AGAINST ALL ODDS

Trust us Nigerians. Our resilience always unleashes bursts of creativity and even humour, as these pictures and video show:

“Praying”  that water turns to  fuel?

FINALLY, A NIGERIAN “ARAB SPRING”?

So is this the start of a Nigerian “Arab Spring”? There are certainly a number of similarities with the uprisings in the Arab world: a shared sense of anger and frustration; a growing unity amongst hitherto divided people; protests mobilized by an educated, sophisticated and tech-savvy youth; wide use of social networking and growing support for the protests and so on. However, as mentioned earlier, there are no overt political goals yet as most Nigerians simply want a reversal of this policy. Therefore, the labour unions could reach a compromise with the government as is usually the case with unpopular government policies. What seems to be different this time around though, is the widespread anger and disenchantment by the public and also that Nigerians poured out onto the streets without waiting for the go ahead from the NLC/TUC. Nigerian youths also for the first time in a long time feel as if they are really part of something, by expressing their displeasure and protesting. It remains to be seen how things pan out in the next few days.