Hamzat Lawal: Selfless Servitude
Confident, self-assured, dependable and go-getter perfectly describes the man that is Hamzat Lawal but when we ask him to describe himself, he is short of words.
“Hmmm, this is interesting, I have to tell you about myself outside of what I do,” Lawal, the 2019 United Nations SDG Actions Award winner says. A few more “this is interesting,” is followed by, “I am a campaigner, I am passionate about issues around accountability, human rights, the SDGs, activism, I have plenty of energy, my wife complains that I have a lot of energy.” “Does this work for you?” “No, it doesn’t because you have brought your work back in,” causing an eruption of laughter.
The Boy Scouts motto says “Be Prepared,” and its oath- “Duty to God and country,” “Duty to other people,” and “Duty To Self.” By the time children are becoming masters of themselves, their age, names and writing, their interest also reveals itself. While some children were attending school for the many benefits of playtime with friends, excursions, access to candies and assignment, Hamzat Lawal was taking Boy Scouts seriously and trying to live up to the oath taken at his new interest- the Boy Scouts.
It is not difficult to warm up to Hamzat Lawal at the first meeting. With a charming personality and gleaming eyes when he remembers an incident, Lawal who describes himself as “everyone’s sweetheart”, is the founder of Follow The Money- an organisation that tracks and ensures that governments’ and foreign assistance fundings are utilised.
After a falsehood was told against him in primary school and he was “forced to apologise for something I did not do”, the Boy Scouts member’s belief in his motto–to be prepared at all times was strengthened.
“It made me understand that a lot of people don’t like to take responsibility for their actions. It also made me understand that people live in their own world, it also made me appreciate people for who they are.”
Duty to God and country
Lawal didn’t always want to be an activist. While he loved the impact of activism and how it propelled people to be accountable, he was in love with mining and geology. “My best friend’s dad at that time was a geologist.” Besides the perks of travelling, “he was one of the brains behind the Ajaokuta. He was really important at that time. And he made a lot of money, and I just said, I want to be like him when I grow up.” But as he grew, so did his aspirations- from geology to Accounting.
Staying at home for four years, (each time passing JAMB and refusing to pay a bribe into a tertiary institution despite passing the cut-offs) and getting a job to keep busy “because I just didn’t understand why I was not being given admission” was the final stage of his evolution process. His years at home also made him take a firm decision to get a degree but place more emphasis on his acquisition of skills. Working at a Cybercafé and an NGO helped shape what he had learnt at the Boy Scouts. “At that time, my mum did not understand my job description- activist. She could not understand what type of job that is. Now, she is the proud mother of an activist. She says, ‘yeah, yeah, that’s my boy’ ”.
In the course of activism, Lawal has not just emerged as Council of Europe’s Democracy Innovation winner, but as an awardee for Future Awards for Africa in Advocacy and the UN SDG Action awards.
While he is thankful for his win, he opines that the award-winning Follow The Money is his greatest legacy. With over 7000 members, with imprints in nine (9) countries including Pakistan and expansions in Europe and Asia. “I have been able to start up a chain of movement that is reacting towards corruption, social justice, human rights, and just giving young people a platform to ensure their voices are heard around governance. And inspiring young people to say, ‘I am a leader, I am a solution’ and want to go into politics. If I die now and people don’t remember Hamzat Lawal, they will remember ‘Follow the Money’ and that is enough for me.”
In a climate where there is a historic economic downturn and the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, infamously described the youths as “lazy,” what hope is there for the youth whose reality and hope is on a fast-dwindling spiral, and how can they hold the government accountable? Lawal argues that to describe the “young people who voted him into office in 2015 yearning for a change” as lazy “shows he is sadly not in tune with the current realities facing the Nigerian youth and is pushing the blame to others just like other politicians.”
“I think it is also ensuring that as young people, ‘who do we identify as our model?’ How do we derive inspiration from these young models? What are the yardsticks used to measure these models? Representation, to me, is not about giving you a seat at the table. True representation is about ensuring that people enjoy the basic necessities first.”
“Create a new table and bring our chairs to this table. Let’s break this existing table because it does not bring about the representation, equity, justice, integration. So let us not break the legs of this table, but throw it away and build our new table and chairs but as we think through this process, they have to think about the value they are bringing to this table because the world now is run by ideas. Power is never handed out as À la carte.”
“Do A Good Turn Daily”- Boy Scouts Slogan
When Lawal got the email nominating “Follow The Money” as a finalist for the UN SDG Action awards, the highest SDG awards in the world, not once did it cross his mind that “Follow The Money” would beat France and Philippines representatives to emerge as the winner, he says animatedly. While he was excited about the win, the impression the win had on him first as a winner and then as a Nigerian was the message it sent to world leaders and the 1500 delegates from across the world.
“Good things are coming out of Nigeria, inspired and led by young people; it is actually a Nigerian award because Nigeria created that platform for me. It showcased to young people that when you invest your time into something, these are the kind of rewards that will come out of it.”
“Follow The Money” was birthed in 2012 after he travelled to Bagega in Zamfara state and “found out that over 700 children had died and it was underreported because they said 400 children, 1500 were very sick, their environment was contaminated, and I launched a campaign called #Savebagega which went viral. And in less than 72 hours, the then president approved the sum of $5.3 million which was close to a billion naira and then my campaign started following the money from Abuja to Zamfara to the community.” “Follow The Money” hasn’t looked back since then.
To ensure that “Follow The Money” stays true to its service as a voice to the marginalised, Lawal alongside others he is mentoring, stay in the underdeveloped parts of a state.
Hamzat Lawal’s advocacy extends to the girl child. Promising to never let the pain he saw in his mother’s eyes when she narrated her story on she was deprived of education due to marriage return, he partnered with Nobel Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai who sought to meet with him based on his work on education fund tracking. Today, he is the Malala Fund Global Education champion helping to advocate and accelerate progress on girls’ education, starting with the Northern part of Nigeria.
Lawal’s passion is also seen through the National Agency for the Great Green Wall (GGW). On how he became a part of the GGW, he says that he started an investigation into the N10 billion fund enacted during the launch of the Great Green Wall (GGW) by the Goodluck Jonathan presidency. This investigation led him to 11 frontline states where he found that many projects were abandoned and a lot of places were plagued by drought. His passion to see a change saw him write to the Ministry of Environment who invited him for a meeting.
“I went in with I think two or three of my colleagues and saw the DG and all the management staff. I look small, so they pointed and said to my colleague, ‘Are You Hamzat Lawal?’ And he said, ‘No, this (pointing at him) is Hamzat Lawal,’” he says with another twinkle in his eyes, recalling the disappointment on their faces. They would end up staying for three hours in the meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes. The information he passed to the affected communities. But beyond that, the official tracking began. Now a global campaign in collaboration with the UN on the GGW is underway. Meanwhile, a documentary which he participated in during this time will be released soon. “I’m gonna be on Netflix, I am going to be a celebrity,” he says pointing to himself, while we chuckle.
In Conflict With ‘Duty To Self’
Afrobeat pioneer and legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, has one of his songs titled, shuffering and shmiling where he spoke on the fine mastery of concealing suffering with a cheerful face. Lawal was also “shuffering and shmiling” at his wins. While the world celebrated his wins, it brought with it pressure and expectations that led to a phase of depression. Besides this, he faced rejection from a long-term partner who had been supporting his campaign. To motivate the young, he wrote an article titled “How To Survive Depression During The Pandemic.”
“Why I didn’t tell people then was because a lot of people wouldn’t get it. When you are depressed, there is a lot of thinking, but I had lessons that I learned: Smile; Breathe and Keep moving.”
Like most great men of the world, all Lawal wants is a simple and idyllic life with his wife. Lawal dreams of a time when he and his wife (Ummi) would watch the sunrise at the countryside with his grown organic food and a job as a lecturer when this is over. This isn’t too much to ask for and that is why his quest for a better world is not a far-fetched one.