Dr Eleanor Nwadinobi is a physician, gender and human rights expert and President of Widows Development Organisation, WiDO. She holds the European Union Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation from Venice, Italy and she sits on the Board of several international and national organisations. In this chat with Vanguard, the Centennial Public Relations Subcommittee Chair of Medical Women’s International Association, says Nigerians are doing well outside Nigeria because Nigeria has not provided a conducive environment for that to happen here.
Is this the Nigeria you grew up in?
No. The Nigeria I grew up in was a Nigeria where you would proudly stand as a patriotic citizen, sing the national anthem with pride and be happy to say ‘I am proudly Nigerian; we were the beautiful bride, we were not ashamed of our passport, we had a rich and diverse culture. Some of my parents’ best friends were different tribes, religions and cultures. I come from a mixed background myself, my mother is a foreigner but we were truly one. The best relationships were forged with those who you just saw as an extended family; you would show off part of the culture that was Nigeria. We didn’t grow up saying ‘oh this is your tribe and therefore, this is your cultural dress. We were happy to wear the different attires that depicted the different cultures.
We went to school and learnt in the best of circumstances and environments; we were provided all that we needed. We were comfortable – whether in the classroom, dorm or hostel. We could eat limitlessly several times a day even in the night. We had a wide array of beverages – tea, Bournvita, Horlicks etc., in our rooms. As a medical student, I had a room to myself. We had cleaners that would come to clean our rooms and make our beds and then recreational facilities were available. That was the Nigeria I grew up in. So when I look back in retrospect, there is one word that springs to mind and that is DECAY.
What I can see now is decay and as a medical doctor, when you are looking at something decaying, it’s like an open wound that is festering because it is being attacked by microorganisms – it could be bacteria or viruses eating away slowly. So unless you address that festering wound from the root cause, if you just put band aid or plaster over it, festering underneath continues so we need to address that wound.
Right now, Nigeria is bleeding. Nigeria is wounded. Nigeria needs healing. That healing will come if every Nigerian agrees that there is a problem and that problem is surmountable and then we purpose in our hearts within our circle of influence to heal our land. It’s going to take prayer and commitment.
The very first place of learning is the home. We need responsible parenting. What are parents teaching their children? Are they teaching them that Nigeria is a great country with great potential; that we can make it right? Or are we leaving such a bad example for our children to follow? And then it continues from the home to the school, to the community, back to the home. So if you don’t equip them to say: ‘there’s decay going on but you do not have to be part of that decay,’ by the time you in your corner with that commitment and purpose in your heart, make an impact in your circle of influence, the next person in their corner makes an impact in their circle of influence, it’s like concentric rings; you drop dye in the middle and it begins to spread. So you need to drop the dye of that sense of pride, that sense of country; that sense of ‘we can make it right,’ and then you begin by doing things right yourself. It will spread in concentric rings, wider and wider and at some point, it’s going to meet the next person’s own and eventually, it will coalesce. But if I’m in my home doing everything wrong and my children copy me, I have taken it to the next generation. The school is part of the problem; the teacher is showing you how to be corrupt.
After-school lesson, an aberration
When I was in school, there was nothing like lesson; we didn’t need it because we got the best in the school; the teacher felt it was his/her duty to impart knowledge that would improve you. Therefore, the best of the knowledge was imparted from 8am to 2pm. You went home and it was time for recreation. Then we started seeing a situation where the teacher tells you that you have to come to her class after school in order to do well; so what was he/she doing between 8am and 2pm?
Then the children learnt that if you go to Uncle A’s class, he will teach you in a way that you will know what is coming out in the exam. Then you bring gifts to the teacher and the teacher decides to give you marks. Your little child comes and tells you: “Mummy, my friend’s mommy gave teacher a watch and now, my friend is the one chosen to go for debate,’ when you know you are better at debate. Corruption begins to sink in.
Vicious cycle of corruption
You want to get into the university, they tell you who you need to see. You graduate and need a job; you are qualified, competent, with all the skills and the capacity and someone who is less qualified, has less capacity and experience, gets the job. So it’s a vicious cycle but the cycle can, and must be broken. I believe that leadership is important but it begins with individual leadership. The leaders are taken from society and everyone of us is a leader in one sphere of life or the other; either as a parent, choir leader, ing in your choir, or you are a leader in politics, how are you leading for others to follow?
But I think our major problem is tribalism/religion. How can we solve this?
It’s unfortunate, that is what is happening today. In the political space, a lot of the narrative is quite divisive – ‘which tribe are you from?’ ‘What are the assets that are coming our way?’ ‘I must put my own person in place,’ so we need to get back to the fact that our own person is anyone who is a Nigerian, looking at competence. But you cannot put a band aid on this festering wound. I believe we must tackle it from the root; the starting point is the root, the first school which is the home. And then we need to name, shame and challenge that narrative to say ‘that’s divisive, we don’t want to hear that.’
I don’t think we’ve gotten to that point…
Some people are being vocal. The thing is, there needs to be a safe space for people to speak their minds, to express themselves.
People complain the economy has been neglected in the name of fighting corruption, do you suscribe to that?
We need to first of all define what corruption is so that everybody will be part of the fight. The definition that has been given to corruption right now is unacceptable. We need to be able to say, if you are looking for a compensation that is over and above and not commensurate, that is corruption. If somebody wants to jump the queue where there are benefits, believing that they are more important than the next person, that’s a form of corruption. So we need to call corruption what it is, deal with it holistically and it should not be to the exclusion of some. It saddens me greatly when I hear that somebody stole a mobile phone and he is behind bars while somebody who has stolen millions and billions hasn’t been brought to book. So it has to be fairly and holistically fought and we need to define corruption properly so that it encompasses the types of corruption and make sure the perpetrators are appropriately punished in a way that is fair and inclusive but the minute you start to pick and choose the type of corruption or who to call corrupt, you haven’t defined it.
Change the narrative
We have the National Orientation Agency and the most vibrant and amazing media. We want to see mainstream and social media constantly talking about how great Nigeria is and what potential the country has as opposed to negative narrative. How can we switch the narrative around for us to believe in our country?
How many countries can you go to and suck an orange, throw away the seed and come out in a few weeks and an orange tree is growing? Fertile land! But there are those who seek to desecrate our land. How are we harnessing these blessings? There are those who have to use three different types of soil and irrigation and all sorts of things before they can get one. We are a blessed land but we act as if we are cursed. It’s orientation; once we realise that the first school of learning is the home and decide to be parents, then we must pay attention to the generation we are bringing up. It’s not just to have children and send them to the streets without parenting them. Everything is left for the teacher who might not be giving a good upbringing so the parents should not renege on their primary responsibility. Responsible parenting is hugely important, that is where it starts.
Things happen here and Nigerians swallow it but less serious things happen in some countries and there are serious consequences – the Arab Spring for instance. Would you say Nigerians are docile?
Nigerians are resilient and resilience is positive depending on which prism you look at it from.
In the news, you’ll hear: ‘Oh government has demolished a community,’ you see members of the community crying; you go back there in three weeks, right on the rubbles, you see a woman frying akara, people smiling, they would have built shacks.
That resilience can be turned into something positive. We are creative, with an entrepreneurial spirit but it doesn’t mean that because we are resilient, we should continue to be knocked. There is a limit to which you knock something that it will react; but despite everything, we are still suffering and smiling. We are named the poverty capital of the world and the 6th on the misery index; there is so much to make one miserable and to think that my father took us on a tour from north to south in his car in this same country while growing up! We were able to go to Kainji Dam, Yankari Game Reserve in Bauchi, out in the open and we felt safe. I can’t remember talking of locking doors.
Now people rush home and lock their doors and there are certain parts of our beautiful country that are no-go areas. Here in Abuja, we are surrounded by the most beautiful hills, people are paying in other parts of the world to climb hills like these but here, we can’t really tap into the most beautiful sites we have for tourism. Some countries make a large percentage of their income from tourism and Nigeria has deserts, rivers, lakes, hills, waterfalls, mountains. Look at the Plateau, foreigners leave their countries not just to visit but to live and enjoy the Plateau.
What’s the solution?
There has to be massive sensitisation. Each of us must take that responsibility and decide to do our best. We are about 200 million people; so if each of us is sensitised to say: ‘Look, I can turn things around,’ then if we are in the same circle of influence, no matter how small, five of us say ‘look, we are going to do things right, be an example to the next person, we are not living in an island, we can be here and purpose in our hearts and step out the door, meet a hostile environment but have that sense of character to say: ‘I’ve just got to remain dogged! Now on social media you see: “Oh, Nigerian bags best prize in an Ivy league institution; Nigerian best in every sphere of life. We are doing this outside Nigeria because Nigeria has not provided a conducive environment for that to happen. But as long as we sit down, fold our hands and wait for government, we are not going to move. It has to be holistic right through – whether it is government, civil society, media or our traditional/religious leaders, we have a lot to do because no matter who you are, you come from some traditional community that is headed by a traditional leader. He or she can come up with ground-breaking policies in that small community. It could be a policy on keeping the environment clean. Example, ‘in this community, if you drop sachet water nylon, we will fine you.’ People will say there is a community in Nigeria where you can’t do that. Then the next community will say ‘wow, we can copy that.’ Why can we not have these islands of best practice from which others can copy? By the time we have several islands, what happens with islands eventually? They will come together, coalesce.