Dr. Kole Shettima , director, MacArthur Foundation, Africa Office, Abuja, is responsible for grant making in the Population & Reproductive Health area, Human Rights and International Justice, and the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.

Dr. Kole Shettima

Besides, he is on the board of several civil society organizations including ActionAid Nigeria, Center for Information Technology and Development; Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center; and Center for Democracy and Development.  Shettima holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, a Masters Degree from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; and  first degree from the University of Maiduguri where he is a faculty member.

He speaks on what his foundation is doing in Africa and what government and individuals should do to eradicate poverty. He is our role model for the week.

How did you start out in life?

Like most Nigerians, I am from a humble background. I lost my father, Mallam Karagama, when I was very young and indeed I have no memory of him. Fortunately, that never deterred my life. I grew up with my father’s trusted friend, Mallam Mammadu, a Quranic teacher.

As you may be aware where I was born Machina in Yobe state and among my ethnic group, Kanuri, being the first born of my mother, Ya Amsatu, I was not expected to grow up with her.  I have no biological siblings in the sense that I am the only child of my parents. I lost my mother when I was an adult.

Machina is about five kilometers from the Nigeria/Niger border. We had no pipe borne water, no electricity and no roads but we had human beings with soul.

Growing up, I did what my peers did: played pranks, went to Quranic school, did home chores, farmed, reared animals and the one I hated most was cleaning horses during the raining season. My narration certainly doesn’t sound rosy but I really don’t have bad memories. Life was simple.

Most people looked the same and therefore the contrast between people wasn’t much. I always thought that I had two fathers and two mothers. My maternal grandmother was wonderful. She sold everything in the market to support my education. I named my daughter Zainab after her.

What informed the choice of your career?

I joined the field of philanthropy through the MacArthur Foundation for two major reasons. First I have been carrying out community-oriented service since I was a teenager.

In my primary, secondary and university days, I participated in several community activities: community self-help clubs, teaching adults’ literacy; community theatre etc. I held leadership positions in many of my community organizations.

In my school settings I participated in several campus initiatives from anti_apartheid movements to feminist cycles, social justice organizations and pan_African solidarities. I had my share of brushes with the military and university authorities who thought we were not doing what we were supposed to do as students and teachers.

I came to know most of the civil society organizations in the country. Secondly, my humble background brought me close to the poor, oppressed, disenfranchised and the voice less and I enjoy doing it.  When I saw the announcement of the position of an officer at the MacArthur Foundation with responsibilities for supporting organizations committed to improving human condition, I thought that was meant for me. I have always wanted to be of service to people.

As someone in the field of philanthropy, what have you done?

Changing the lives of ordinary people positively inspired me. What you see in their faces and their emotions are enough inspiration to assist them. We also support tertiary institutions. For example, we supported more than 200 teachers and administrators from the University of Ibadan to go outside the country on sabbaticals and fellowships.  These people are now in the forefront of teaching and research.

The impact is qualitative  education in our schools.  I was listening to the Hausa Service of the VOA when a matron at the Murtala Mohammed Specialist Hospital was asked about eclampsia (an illness during early stages of pregnancy that involves high blood pressure and convulsions). Her response was “giggiga tazama tarihi” meaning eclampsia is history.

We know from facility-based data that as many as 35 to 40 percent of pregnant women die due to eclampsia. I am happy that our Foundation introduced the use of Magnesium Sulfate for the treatment of eclampsia. Loss of blood during child birth is another major cause of maternal mortality.

The Foundation introduced what is called Anti-shock Garment, but the Yorubas have named it “Gbekude” meaning “that which binds death and holds it captive” and the woman who used the garment is referred to as “Ayorunbo” meaning “she who has been to heaven and returned”.  Another area I will also mention  is the support that the Foundation gave to clean up the Laws of the Federation.

By 1999, when the military left, there were more than 500 military decrees which were either inconsistent with the 1999 Constitution, otiose or outdated. You may recall there were decrees which the military used to jail journalists and detaining anyone for three months without any reason and no court had authority to question such orders.

I am glad that the late Bola Ige as the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister Justice asked us to support the review of the Laws of the Federation in consonance with the 1999 Constitution.  Many of the people we support in the field of human rights are putting their lives on the line. Indeed it is a privilege to work in philanthropy.

I don’t dream to live like people who are above me. Rather, I always look at those who are less fortunate than myself.  Again,  I always pray to God never to give me something I can’t share with others.

Where do you think philanthropists should direct their resources to?

Tragically, there are many things we can do for the continent. In addition to what the MacArthur Foundation is doing, I would recommend three things. One is wealth creation. We have too many poor people in the continent.

But the number of our unemployed and underemployed young people is a time bomb. So, they should concentrate on wealth and job creation. Secondly is to improve governance. Our continent is blessed with human and material resources but we are saddled with more politics than governance.

That is why we have low  quality of leadership and it shows in governance at all levels.  The current ones might have studied in some of the best universities in the world but apparently that has no relationship with how they govern us.

How do you think governments and individuals can help to eradicate poverty in Nigeria?

There are many ways we can do that as individuals and governments. Certainly wealthy Nigerians and even those who may not necessarily be referred to as wealthy can set up private foundations dedicated to poverty eradication.

I am glad that Dangote early this month put aside N10 billion for the purpose of promoting small scale industries. Our governments must pursue social, economic and educational policies that will protect the poor and provide them with social safety nets because part of the reason for poverty is the existence of a tiny stupendously rich people.

Many of these rich people don’t have any visible means of income. Fighting corruption as individuals and by governments would help to bring services to the poor and improve their living condition. The poor may be cash-poor but not asset-poor.

Many poor people own land but their wealth is locked-in the land because they don’t have titles. You can unfreeze that wealth by simplifying the process of acquiring titles. Our GDP can increase by 25 percent by improving power supply. In other words, we have several means of eradicating poverty in this country.

Any new project you are embarking on now?

Last year, we started supporting programs in four universities namely:  University of Ibadan, Bayero University, Kano, University of Port Harcourt and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The idea is to fund programs that could improve the quality of lives of citizens.

For example, at the University of Port Harcourt, we have a grant to train the next generation of geo-scientists. Currently there is a dearth of them in the Gulf of Guinea and most of them are trained outside of the country.  In BUK, we gave a planning grant for the establishment of a center for dry land farming.  We know agriculture accounts for more than 40 percent of our GDP.

The Foundation is considering the possibility of an integrated program in the Great Lakes. That region of the continent epitomizes many of our problems. Second potential area is on girl’s education with a focus on secondary level. In so many ways girl child’s education is a vaccine against many of our problems.


NAME:             Dr. Kole Shettima
AGE:                50s
FOUNDATION:      MacArthur
POSITION:         Director,  Africa Office

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