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Being the first girl to attend secondary school in my community was like a taboo — Habiba Lawal

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie and Fehintola Adewale
13 August 2022   |   3:51 am
Dr. Habiba Muda Lawal has just bowed out of Civil Service as the Permanent Secretary, Ecological Project Office, Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF). Although retired, she is absolutely not tired.

Mrs Habiba Lawal

Dr. Habiba Muda Lawal has just bowed out of Civil Service as the Permanent Secretary, Ecological Project Office, Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF). Although retired, she is absolutely not tired. As the first girl to attend post-primary education in her community, she recalled the aspersions cast on her family for choosing to train a girl, and decided to spend her post-retirement period engaging parents to unravel reasons girls education remains a mirage in some Nigerian societies.

In this interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE and FEHINTOLA ADEWALE, she gave insight into the activities of the Ecological Project Office where she served until her retirement last week.

You came from the part of the country where female education was not encouraged, what would have motivated your early education?
My father was educated. That time, they were called nurses and in the community where I grew up, it was only in my house that people went to school. The community wondered why my father was sending girls to school, but they felt that by the time I get to primary three or four, he would stop me. And when I finished primary education, he kept telling me that I was going to be a doctor. He was a nurse and he felt I should become a doctor.

The community kept saying I would soon get married. They didn’t mind the boys going to secondary school. I have two senior brothers. I came from a very large family of 40 children. I am the first female and number three in the line of the 40. My two elder brothers went to secondary school ahead of me, but when it was my turn, everybody was looking forward to me getting married, may be to one local champion, but my father insisted I was going to school and the entire community started coming to remind my father that I was a girl and that I may end up being wayward or bring back unwanted pregnancy if allowed to go to secondary school.

But my father stood by me and said I will go to school. He was my greatest fan. Though he has passed on, but he saw me becoming a Permanent Secretary. I was in this office when he died. We were 20 males, 20 females and we all went to school. And it is only three out of these 40 that did not further from secondary school. Everyone had a paper outside secondary school out of the remaining the 37; nurses and midwives were highest in number. We had engineers, medical doctors and lawyers. When we were younger, he would sit us down to listen to Network News even though we hardly understood the English they were speaking. Siene Allwell-Brown and Bimbo Roberts were my role models and my father encouraged us to be like them.

From Sciences to Women Development, were you trying to switch career?
We were not many core Northern Muslim women in academics then and the British Council came into the university where I was and they wanted to support some of us. I had completed my Ph.D and they wanted to empower me. So, I was given what was called a British Chevening Scholarship. I became a British Chevening scholar and they started to look for what I could do, because already, I had a Master.

So, I was given an opportunity for a Diploma in Development Planning and then, a Professional and Personal Competence in Women’s Development. I learnt assertive skills, confidence building, gender and development.

Looking at Nigerian politics and women’s involvement, what would say is responsible for their backwardness?
Factors mitigating women in politics are god-fatherism, money, cultural and patriarchal issues that make it difficult for women to lead men, especially in communities. There is also the issue of resources. But god-fatherism is the major issue.

What happened during the recent primary elections showed that women are not ready. Women must also prepare and be ready too. I have been talking about it. I was a Director, Women Affairs between 2005 and 2007. I went back as a Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development in 2013 and was there for 20 months before leaving. I was a director of women affairs when I piloted the development of the first Gender Policy for Nigeria. We brought awareness to the issues of Nigerian women and give women opportunities across sectors within different levels

Is there anything you are doing presently or have done to empower women from your area?
I am mentoring quite a lot of people but very few from my community, because I am hardly there; I am not physically there to do good mentoring. Most of the people I mentor are those around me, but now that I am retiring, I am also instituting a scholarship. I have written a small book and all the proceed from the book would be dedicated to 70 per cent supporting girls who want to go to school in my local council first from primary to the university, so that once a child shows promise and quality and intelligence, scholarship will back up such a girl.

I am also building a school for girls so that parents that don’t want their girls to go to mixed school can hand their girls to me sponsor with all the religious expectations so that they will not have any reason to keep their girls at home.

Looking back at the kind of community you were raised, what role should women play in raising girls that are confident and self-assertive?
I think she should have a balance. She should be able to tell the daughter how to do the right thing. If the mother believes that her daughter needs to go to school and behave in a certain way, she should train her daughter to do that. I don’t expect a mother to tell her daughter to expect all that the community is talking about. If things are static, we will not improve. So, teach your daughter to say her view; what she wants, what she believes so that as such views do not conflict with the religious scriptures.

I am a religious person and there is no religion that says a girl should not go to school, should not be empowered or should not talk to a man. My view is that parents should teach their children the proper things and don’t make them accept everything that the community says must happen. They should check whether it is doable or not, but they must also not turn 100 per cent against the community, because the children will find it difficult to grow up and engage with that community, because whatever happens, they will have to engage with the community. If they find them role models early enough, that will help them.

I am first female in my community that went to post-primary school. I grew up milking cows until I was seven years when my fathers asked them to bring me back from my grand-mother in order to go school. It was like a taboo within the community.

Though retired but not looking tired, what would you be doing afterwards?
I am looking forward to one month of rest, then I am going to run a Foundation as I said. So, I am going to sort things out, rules and regulations. While I was in Women Centre, I was good with some donors; I would also be busy doing some small donor works. Then, I will also love to write my life story. I believe it will motivate some parents to allow their girls to school and should motivate some girls to say, ‘I will excel like so, so, so.’ I will also engage some parents to know why they don’t want to send their girls to school. I want to give to the society I come from; let them know that I have come.

There is a lot about the Ecological Fund or Project Office that most Nigerians don’t seem to understand. Can you give us insight into the fund, its dispensation and its utilization?
The Ecological Fund is separate from Ecological Project. The Fund itself was created in 1981 as a consequence of the Okigbo Commission and it was meant to ameliorate ecological challenges across the country. And the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission was the one that was set out a dedicated amount that was then approved. That dedicated amount is 2.32 per cent of the sales of crude as Nigeria’s income comes from crude. So, this 2.32 per cent is set out as funds to be utilised by the federation (Federal, States and Local Governments), to take care of the ecological challenges, and in 1985, the Ecological Fund Office was created and at that time when it was created, the entire fund (2.32 per cent) was under the control of the President through the Ecological Fund Office.

So, what used to happen is that state would request the federal government to release some certain amount for them to be able to execute some certain ecological problems within their constituencies or their state and the Fund Office then would process that request through the SGF and it would be taken to the President, and if the President approves, then, that money would be released to the state government for the project to be executed.

When democracy came back in 1999, Lagos State protested that we are a federalism and as such, each tier should be given their money and that the federal government should not hold their money and ask governors to come. During that time, a case was instituted and it ended up in the Supreme Court in favour of the states. With that, the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission and other stakeholders came together and it was shared based on the ratio of other funds that are shared.

Consequently, the local government takes 0.60 per cent of the money (the 2.32 per cent); that means the entire 774 local government would share 0.6 per cent of the Ecological Fund, while the 36 states would share 0.72 per cent. So, between state and local government, they take 1.32 per cent while the federal takes 1 per cent. Of course, the percentage has shifted eventually. It did not start like that. It keeps moving and changing and currently, this is what holds and the federal release 2.24 per cent of its money to augment the state so the states will get a little more.

Since the Modification Order of 2004, which is what we are currently on, the states now take their funds directly at the Federation Account Allocation Commission, which takes place monthly. So, each state and local government takes its funds together with other funds meant for state. Only the federal government share is left at Abuja and the federal government share is being enjoyed by four other agencies, Ecology makes it five.

National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA takes 20 per cent of that one per cent monthly, North East Development Commission takes 10 per cent monthly, National Agency for Great Green Wall takes five per cent monthly and Northern Resources Development Agency (NORDA) takes 10 per cent monthly. So, it is only 55 per cent from that one per cent that Mr. President approves some money for this office to function.

The fund used to be solely under the control of this office, but now, we don’t control it anymore. We are only part of the agencies that do and work and projects using those resources. So, we are also stakeholders in the utilisation of ecological funds, but we are not in charge of the management of the funds, which is why we went for a change of name.

Does the federal government have controlling power over state government in this case?
No, the Federal government does not have any controlling power over the funds that the states have, because they are a tier of government. They are essentially in charge of their own funds. The only thing we do at this level is that the federal government decides where to put her own share of the funds, but of course, federal government does not have land asides in the Federal Capital Territory.

Requests come from everywhere, including the states and the state governors; they all send request and when all of that is done and selections are made, what we do at the federal is to implement. We don’t give move money to states since they have their share.

You recently launched a compendium of over 260 projects completed across the country out of over 300 that approved. Are you saying all of them were executed without states input?
The entire compendium is what the federal government used its own share of the money to do. We don’t know what the states have done and we don’t ask them. We are not related and we don’t have a functional relationship as to what they do with their funds. The entire compendium is what this administration from May 2015 to where we are now, what the President has approved.

We have 332 projects and we have completed 284. By the time we went to the press, 266 were completed while 48 were ongoing. This is Mr. President’s efforts and all that he has done nationally since he came on board.

Your office was usually bombarded with requests from which you would have gotten insight into the enormous ecological challenges confronting the country. How would you describe Nigeria’s ecological challenges?
In 2017, the Federal Executive Council directed this office to document all the ecological challenges in Nigeria and we were able to document over 2,700 ecological challenges across the nation and that means that the current ecological situation is static, nothing changes; no new development for the next 40 years. With the volume of funds we have, we will not finish the ecological problems that we have presently. I just want you to have an insight into the ecological challenges we have in this country.

When you consider the fact that environment is everything, don’t you think there should be an increase in the ecological fund?
I do think so and I am beginning to say so. And I also think in addition that (some people will not like what I will say) some of the agencies receiving are not using it for ecological purposes. So, their act needs to be reviewed so that we can stop them from using ecological fund for other purpose and so that the money they get would be used for what it is meant for.

We all see and hear about gully erosion in states like Anambra, do you think that can be handled by states alone?
Anambra has deep gullies, because the soil type they have is susceptible to being washed away by flood, but the work we did shows that there is no part of this country that is not bedeviled with one ecological challenge or the other. Theirs is soil erosion, but others have pollution site, desertification sites, coastal zone erosion sites and the likes.

There are some communities that oceans are threatening, and the kind of funds we have here cannot cater for everyone. I think we need an international intervention.

If you were to advice the Federal Government towards upgrading the ecological fund, what percentage would you project?
I think the minimum should be five per cent of the whole derivation on ecology. To make it useful, the state should also have their ecological state office and be made to put their own share funds to utilise just the way Mr. President is utilizing its own. It won’t solve the problem, but it will go a long way in ameliorating the sufferings of people.

Secondly, public awareness, prevention, advocacy are essential, because when ecological problems start, if you mitigate it as soon as possible, it reduces the cost and makes life better. If not, every raining season makes it deeper, wider and more costly. So, because we don’t have timely interventions, our projects become costlier.

So, we need awareness. Increase in funds is also very important and then, ensuring that every tier of government focuses and utilises their own share of funds. For big projects, Nigeria can shout out to international development partners to help us.

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