Dr. Maryam Abdullahi is the founder Women for Peace in Nigeria (WOPIN). She is one of the delegates at the on-going National Conference in Abuja. Senior Reporter, Anthonia Soyingbe, spoke with her on the state of the nation, her interest at the conference, and other issues. Excerpts
... Delegates at the National Conference are representing diverse interests. What interest are you representing and can you tell us your agenda at the Conference?
For me, I try to look at Nigeria as my agenda. People have different agendas but I tell others to keep their personal agendas aside so that we can collectively look at the agenda which is Nigeria. Nigeria is my agenda; I am looking at the future of Nigeria. I went into the conference having Nigeria at heart because I feel that if any part of the country is sick, it affects the whole country. I went in there with Nigeria at heart. 100 years have gone, what have we achieved and what are we going to prepare for posterity in the next 100 years? Many are speculating that Nigeria will break up by 2015, are we going to allow it to happen? God forbid that Nigeria breaks! We will still remain as one. Those agitating that Nigeria should break up will see Nigeria as one and we are going to remain as one. We should begin to look at the things that would likely bring problems to us and begin to find out how to tackle them. Nigerians are looking at the delegates and are waiting for the outcome of the conference. We should begin to look at some areas that the government itself will have to concentrate on to bring peace.
Do you see this conference as part of the solution to Nigeria's numerous challenges?
There are many issues on the ground; we need to look at the beginning of our 100 years of existence from our founding fathers. We need to look at issues surrounding the many challenges we are facing. We need to identify those issues and once the issues are identified, we can now start talking about solutions. Mr. President has done well by calling this conference so that we dialogue as all Nigerians are represented there. The selection of Nigerians for this event is a very unique one because everybody is represented. It is not easy at all bringing people like that together. We are all there to ensure that we contribute our own quota to the development of Nigeria. I am sure that, by God's grace, we will try to do our best and we must have Nigeria at heart because of our children and posterity. We cannot enjoy Nigeria and at the end of it destroy it such that our children and posterity will not benefit from this great nation. Some are clamouring for the break-up of Nigeria, and have argued that the amalgamation of 1914 has been frustrating. What is your opinion on this?
We are still one and nothing can tear us apart as a nation. Like I will always say, we need to look at the issues that brought us here because if we don't do that, it will become a problem for us. The issue is, do we really feel that anywhere we are in Nigeria is home? Ordinary Nigerians do not have problems with one another, because they see one another as siblings and they interact peacefully as neighbours and colleagues. The problem of Nigeria is mainly with the elite.
Can you expatiate on that?
The elite focuses on how to loot our national resources and whenever there is conflict, they turn back to the ordinary person. They amass wealth for their immediate family and they don't care about their neighbour who doesn't have anything to feed on. The elite are the cause of the problems in Nigeria. Some Nigerians are of the opinion that the conference will fail because they believe that there are some people in the conference who one way or the other has contributed negatively to some of the crises in the country. What are your thoughts about this?
People have the right o say what they have seen or feel but for me if they are there then God really wants to change this country for the better because it is an open place where everybody is allowed to talk and say whatever he or she feels. There are people who really have done badly and they want to correct such. Some people who have done badly in the past may decide to contribute to the success of this country so such people should be given space to make amends.
Another issue many have been criticising is the remuneration of delegates of the conference. Is it that the delegates can't do that for free for their country?
Lots of people there are not there for the money and I am sure you know the calibre of people that are at the conference. Even those of us at the grassroots are not there because of the money, but we are there to contribute our own quota to this country. Some of the delegates don't have homes in Abuja and they need to pay for their accommodation and transportation. Some people turned down the remuneration and are part of the conference. It is common knowledge that Nigeria is one of the largest countries in Africa. It is blessed with human and economic resources and the sixth largest oil producer in the world. In spite of this, majority of Nigerians barely earn a living. We keep on proclaiming that we are practicing democracy and this connotes freedom of choice and good governance, as well as improving the economic status of the people. But many people now begin to wonder whether democracy is actually good for the people since most of them live on empty stomachs.
It should be noted that democratic culture and political stability cannot thrive in a society where there is abject poverty. Our poverty alleviation/eradication programmes have so far failed to tackle the problem. Our economy is still in a bad shape; the exchange rate is about N170.00 to the dollar, inflation still haunts our hope for good take-home pay, the manufacturing sector is not performing as expected in spite of the privatisation process; there seems to be greater invasion of our market by external forces than investment. Our infrastructures are dilapidated, our educational system is collapsing and the health sector is in pains. In addition to this, the private sector is still leaning on the public sector. The poverty alleviation we so much talk about has been distorted and neglected. While some states government have shown relative concern for the plight of their people, others are more concerned about structurally unrealistic projects than projects which would liberate their people from the pangs of hunger, poverty and diseases. In addition, corruption has worsened the situation. It is common knowledge that for poverty alleviation, money is thrown down the drain-pipe at state and local government levels. Poverty can only be eradicated when our leaders begin to shun corruption and display purposeful determination towards alleviating the suffering of the people. As a result of economic hardship and high unemployment rate, armed youths are recruited by unscrupulous politicians as political thugs to cause violence and destruction of properties in the community. In this respect, government must assume the responsibility of generating employment in order to ease the socio-economic hardship.
Constitutional amendment is one of the expected results from the conference. Should Nigerians still expect this? And, from your point of view, will it be of benefit to people at the grassroots?
We need to propose some issues to be included in the constitution like women in crisis situations, especially widows and orphans. The issue of indigenship is still a very big issue we need to critically look at. Nigerians can live in any part of the federation with all rights and privileges any citizen deserves. Most Nigerians still believe that there is indigenship. People still go to their place of origin to get indigenship certificates before they get some things in the country. This shouldn't be like that, we should begin to see ourselves as one and I can live anywhere in the country and people there will see me as an indigene. Can Nigerians live anywhere outside their states of origin and claim indigenship? That should be amended in the constitution. We often talk about unity and so let us start from there, so we can be more united. We have to promote the sense of integration and nation building in other to have unity in this country by building our state institutions to enforce our laws. It is there in our constitution that anywhere you stay for 10 years has automatically become your state but this law has not been enforced. During the military era, there was relative peace in the country because all negative emotions then were suppressed but people are now free to talk in this democratic age. We should endeavour to look at the law. Since the handing over of power in 1999, people have become more aggressive over their quest to acquire political and economic power because of their ethnic or religious group. Nigeria doesn't need this now because if we truly aspire for unity and progress in this country, we have to really work together as one. Politics is for the children of God and you can't go there and begin to misbehave. Nigerians still recognise that there is indigeneship. A Yoruba man or Igbo man whose grandparent or parents were born and lived in Kano, Sokoto or Jos or Makurdi for over 70 years cannot claim indigeneship of those towns. Conversely, a Hausa/Fulani, Kanuri, Berom, Nupe or Tiv cannot be recognised as indigene of Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Calabar, Benin or Warri no matter how long he has lived there. One has to go back to where his/her grandparents originate and get indigenship certificate in order to even be employed by the Federal Government. A good example of this is an Igbo high court judge who worked for over twenty years as a judge in the state of her husband. When she was to be promoted to the Court of Appeal, she was rejected on the grounds that she happened to come from a state different from that of her husband. In order to have peace and stability, we have to promote the sense of integration and nation building by building our state institutions to enforce our laws.
You founded an organisation which encourages women to promote peace in the country. How best can women, who are mostly vulnerable, promote peace in the country, especially in the face of violence?
One thing is to involve women in peace processes, and women should be involved in any decision that has to do with peace so that they can contribute their quota to it. They shouldn't be neglected. In conflict situations, women and children suffer most because they suffer trauma through rape and many other things. Orphans and widows are mostly vulnerable and that is why we are advocating that women should be involved in peace processes so that we can at least give some ideas. It is not all crises that require confrontation. There are certain crises that need mediation which can be resolved amicably without confrontation. Women should be carried along in terms of peace processes. When God created Adam and sent him to the earth, he deemed it proper to give him assistance and a helper by creating Eve. The original intention was for them to jointly work as a team. That is why it is important to treat women right and guide their products on how to achieve relative peace and comfort during their life span. However due to domineering attitude and quest for power by the men who are the products of women, they relegate women to the background. We have now reached the age when the entire world is realising the importance of women in contributing towards human development. We are witnessing gradual involvement of women in the affair of states by the level of involvement of women in decision-making processes. What is the government doing to empower women and children here?
What are your wishes for women and the youth as regards this conference?
I hope and wish that the outcome of the conference will make women to be better protected and women involved in peace processes. I am proposing that a Ministry of Family or Family Affairs Ministry should be created where the youth and women will be together as one family. It should have a Director of Orphans and Vulnerable, Director of Women Affairs and Director of Youth Affairs and this should be headed by one Minister because we are all families. There should also be a director of men. It will reduce lots of stress. Religious intolerance has been identified as one of the factors responsible for violence in Nigeria. How best can this be tackled?
Religion is a very sensitive issue and some use that to cause lots of problems because they know it is sensitive. There are enough evidence to show that most ethno-religious conflicts are caused by politicians and other members of the elite. The level of hypocrisy among our political leaders is quite disturbing. Some of these politicians are detached from the masses and, thus, become incapable of competing fairly with their opponents. Therefore, in the event of losing in any electoral competition, they resort to ethnic and religious sentiments to cause confusion and mayhem in the society They exude religious bias and ethnic sentiments with arrogant attitude. They symbolically use churches and mosques as their theatres of operation in the day time while consulting cultist or even ritualists at night. They pollute the minds of the youth and use them as weapons of achieving their political goals. They also incite the children of the masses to engage in violence and destruction of lives and property in the course of which so many die while at the same time hiding and protecting their children from sustaining injury or death. This shows how inhumanly wicked they could be. The only way for government to tackle this problem is to be ethnically and religiously blind and punish whoever is found to be engaging in such acts of hooliganism.