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‘Nigerian government doesn’t value youth talent’



Chibuzor Marian Azubuike is among Nigerian recipients of Washington Mandela Fellowship. She recently returned from a six-week civic leadership training in the United States and shares her remarkable experiences with MELODY FIDELIS.

You were in fellowship programme in the U.S. What was it about? Could you share your experience with us?
It’s the Mandela Washington Fellowship, an initiative of the U.S. Government, initiated by former U.S president, Barrack Obama. The idea is to take out young Africans, who have shown leadership qualities so they are taken to the U.S. for six weeks. They are placed in an institute or university for six week to either study civil leadership skills, business and entrepreneurship skills, or public management or Energy skills.

What does it take to be invited to participate in the fellowship?
It’s a very competitive award. In Nigeria, for example, 20,000 young people applied, but only 100 Nigerians were taken. First, you have to write an essay; the essay just tells the story of what you have done. So for me, what made me to be selected is, after a whole lot of advocacy programme, right from my undergraduate days in university, over 10 years ago, I did a lot of programmes. I joined AISEC. So, I have really been involved in community service at the grassroots for a very long time. But one of the projects that won the fellowship for me is my book, The Girl Who Found Water. Another one was the project I did in the north, which is sinking a borehole in my community during my NYSC 2011 year.

You know, after the post-election violence and after Corps members were killed in Bauchi State, I was posted there in less than two months. But despite all this, I was able to sink a borehole in the community and that borehole provided water, for the first time, for 6,000 people. So, they gave me a title and they named the place after me.

The community I served, Bigitudun Wada, were so happy the gave me a title, ‘Lady Haskell,’ which means ‘Lady of the light.’ They also bestowed on me a traditional title, Sarkin Ayyuka, which means ‘work superintendent!’

What are the benefits for those who are selected for the fellowship?
The benefits are many. For me, for example, I was selected for Civic Leadership because I founded an NGO called Haske Water and Empowerment Foundation. So, the benefit is to come back home after the training and implement all that you have learnt in the U.S. and you have access to a lot of grants as a Mandela Fellow. There are lots of grants to access.

What is your book, The Girl Who Found Water, all about?
My book is a memoir of my NYSC experience in Bauchi State. It just tells the story of how I was able to go to the North; it’s not like I was very brave or bold. I went there with tears, felt that God hated me for me to have been posted to Bauchi, where Corps members just died. So, the book tells that story and then how I was able to raise funds to sink a borehole in the village and do several other projects like donating writing materials to pupils. My fear was Boko Haram; that was the time Boko Haram was very active and the North is not a very attractive place for people like us in the South. For me, it’s wasn’t a place of choice or preference.

Now that you are back from your fellowship in the U.S., what do you plan on doing?
First, I want to organise programmes in universities, programmes for final year students, who are waiting for NYSC call up, to encourage them to embark on community projects during their NYSC year because I found out that young people can really do a lot while serving their country. NYSC is the perfect time where you can have the public-private partnership because they are serve their country. It is easier for them to embark on a lot of community projects that even local government chairman cannot do in their four-year tenure. So, I tend to organise a lot of programmes in Nigerian university. I have started working on that right now. I will go to three universities – University of Benin, benin City, University of Lagos and one other university, perhaps in the South East or Ibadan.

Now, aside that the main focus of my NGO is to provide water for rural communities. If you check our website, immediately I came back, I opened up a grant for young Corpers to apply for grant in my foundation. They will be given a small funding of N50,000 to support those embarking on water project in their Youth Service.

Is it here in Lagos, since there is water in Lagos compared to other parts of the country?
Who told you there is water in Lagos? I mean, portable water; there is one thing to have water like an ocean or river, it’s another thing is to have water that is drinkable. Sixty per cent of Lagosians do not have access to portable water. However, because Lagos is probably ‘urban’ and centre of excellent; our focus is not really on Lagos, but there’s a lot of poverty here in Lagos, like Makoko, Ajegunle, etc. Many of these places don’t have access to water. When we are talking about Lagos, let’s just remove Ikeja and Victoria Island from our minds. Many other places, including where I live, people buy pure water. Water for drinking is the basic; you can’t survive without water or you will dehydrate and die.

Which rural areas are you starting from?
Right now, they are several areas that we have like some places in Kano and some places in the North. I don’t work alone; I have young people who volunteer to work with the NGO. So, we are going to evaluate from the critical, places where water is more critical.

What happens if you find it difficult getting NYSC members?
I will keep talking. Americans rely on speeches, the power of the mind, convincing people. Throughout last year, I visited Lagos, Ogun, Bauchi and even Oyo camps. I have gone to several NYSC camps and spoken to over 10,000 youths on the need to embark on projects. We can’t relent; we will just keep talking until the message sinks in.

Are there benefits for Corps members involved in your project since most youths no longer engage in selfless service?
I started from doing selfless service and I have gotten recognition. So, for them, they stand to learn a lot about project management, government, leadership, fund-raising plus skills that will help them for in their lifetime.

It is impossible for you to help someone else without achieving something; so, in the process of volunteering, you discover things that you never knew that you have.

You said you are current doing a masters programme in Diaspora studies. What is it about?
I am currently doing my Masters in Diaspora and African Studies at the University of Ibadan. I am currently researching on the Bakassi people, studying how they are coping in their new homeland after their original land was ceded to Cameroun. They have a lot of problems that people are not actually looking at, with the potential of bringing more problems in the future. So, I am studying these people and that got me a slot to be selected for Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation’s grant. It is a U.S.-based foundation that supports young scholars, who are researching specifically on violence, aggression and forced migration.

What would you say have been your major challenges in the advocacy programme?
I think the major one is that governments at all levels in Nigeria do not care! You can have all the willpower and all the ideas, but if there is no synergy or collaboration between private civic leaders and government, there is just very little you can do.

Have you approached, say the Ministry of Woman Affairs for support? Have you ever approached any government for assistance?
I have done a lot. I went to my state, Anambra. I wrote to them because I translated my book into Igbo and the idea is to promote our local languages. We need to decolonize our minds first and start thinking African before we can actually grow. So, the idea is to translate the book into Igbo. I visited the Ministry of Education in my state and the governor’s wife and I went to the Ministry of Youth. I wrote to them several times what I intended to do and have done. I submitted my manuscript to them and I didn’t hear from them. I have gone for meetings. Sometimes, you want to see them. For example, I tried to see the chairman of my local government Nnewi, and I end up sitting at the reception an entire day.

To be honest with you, I told myself I am not going to bother myself trying to see any politician because when I went to the U.S., I met U.S. Congressmen, Senators and state governors. All you need to do is just send them a mail and the next thing is that they have you in their office and they are treating you like a princess. They allow you to come in; they hear you out; they talk to you. They tell you to please keep in touch with them. But my own government, I can’t.

Another example is this: Before we went for this fellowship, and for each Nigerian fellow, the U.S. Government wrote to the governor of states of residence and the governors of our state of origin. Like me, I live in Lagos, the U.S. Government wrote to Lagos State Governor and also wrote to my state governor, Anambra State, about me. These two governors didn’t invite me, but Edo State Governor invited the fellows from the state and told them that immediately they come back they would want to partner with them, work with them and put in use all what they had learnt. Other countries’ embassies hosted their fellows, but Nigerian Embassy in the U.S. did not. It was so embarrassing for us; we were like orphans.

In our form, the U.S. Government spent USD$12,000 on each fellow for the trip, the trainings and everything. It was a fully funded six weeks’ fellowship programme. What can you do when you reach out to the government and they don’t reach out to you and your letter is probably stuck somewhere; you have to go there every day. It’s very frustrating.

What is the solution to this problem? How do people like you, through your advocacy, make aspiring politicians have a change of attitude to political office so it becomes service-oriented rather self-oriented?
The best model of leadership is servant-leadership and leaders that exemplify servant-leadership are seen in leaders like Nelson Mandala. That is why I am doing this programme, talking to young people. My aim is to tell them that leaders should be the ones to serve, not the ones to be served!

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