‘Culture, religion still frustrating community services in Northern Nigeria’
What is it the experience like piloting the affairs of Lions Club in Nigeria?
I took office almost a year ago, precisely on July 1, 2017. It has really been challenging, although there are the upsides too.
Holding the position enables you to see the problems of Nigeria as a country, the organisation itself and the fact that we can really do a lot more when we all join our hands together as opposed to when individuals work alone.
This is a service organisation and we are the largest community service in the world in terms of size. We have 1.4 million members in over 200 countries. We are on all continents.
We have membership issues in Nigeria and we are just about 6,000 members presently. We have a target of 10,000 members between now and the end of the year. We need more members to join.
As the council chairman, it is challenging because it is almost like a full-time job. It is difficult if you are not in control of your time. There are a lot of travels that come with it; some at very short notice.
Of course, a lion can represent, but when you occupy the kind of office I hold, it is mandatory that you have to be there. But it is also very interesting.
How did you become the Multiple Council Chairman?
To become a Council Chairman, you must have been a district governor. I was district governor 2013/2014 in my district; 404B. Now, becoming Council Chairman means you are leaving one district to oversee the organisation nationally. The main challenge we are having is that we don’t have enough publicity and we must give more attention to that. We are supposed to be more attractive than other service organisations, because we are less stressed as we meet once a month.
What is the Club’s level of impact on the community compared to other service organisations?
I will take that question on two sides; global and country-specific impacts. At the global level, which is our centennial year, we set out to serve 100 million people from 2015 to 2018.
We have doubled that impact serving 200 million people. There are several areas of services. We have the environment, diabetes and sight, which is our main activity.
In Operation Sight First, we have lots of people getting eyeglasses, eye tests, sponsored cataract operations and cornea replacements as well all over the world. In terms of the environment, we plant trees and clean our environment.
In Nigeria, several programmes are on. For instance, we have commissioned a diabetes centre in Ede, Osun State. We are building Eye Hospital in Abuja. We must also understand that the official name of the club is The International Organisation of Lions Clubs.
The organic unit of our relationship is the club. There is so little I can do, but each club has a project and when they do, we count all together as the services we have rendered as a district or as a country.
Right now, we are mopping up the campaign against measles to vaccinate about 17.5 million children over a two-month period in Nigeria. It started late last year in the North.
The southern month started around February and March. Our role in measles is interesting; we don’t give injection but only do advocacy and mobilisation; going from house to house and giving the Information Education and Communication (IEC) materials.
We realised that in the area of immunisation, the donors and their partners are doing a lot but the people don’t come out for it.
So, we are impacting by filling that gap. And immunisation rate has since increased from about 70 to 90 per cent through our efforts. We also do a lot of partnering. We are partners to the Primary Healthcare Development Agency on measles. We don’t give them money, but support with materials like the aprons that they use.
Do you have any activity in the northern part of the country?
Let me say that we received a grant for the measles programme in Nigeria from the Lions Club International Foundation (LCIF), the arm that funds our activities worldwide, but with a caveat that we should no spend it in the north.
Why? We do not have clubs in the north. We used to have in Kaduna but they have not been doing very well. This particular programme that we ran is in the south, but with the inclusion of Kwara and Kogi states. We now have clubs coming up in Benue, the middle belt.
Why is Lions Club not in North?
Essentially because of religion and culture. I spent a bit of time in the north. I served in the old Borno State, now Yobe. Religion plays a key role because there is that element of misunderstanding about what clubs do.
Again, the sexes hardly meet; it is not encouraged. Even Rotary Club is having problems in the north.
Beyond Kano, I doubt their presence beyond few northern elites of southern extraction. But again, efforts are still being made. We are also making progress in Benue and Plateau.
From your position, what will you say is the problem with your organisation and Nigeria?
This organisation is non-religions and non-partisan. By and large, this is a great country and I have spent all my life here. I do a lot of travelling but I have not had any education anywhere outside Nigeria.
The challenge is that my organisation is not big enough. And have not grown enough because of the needs of communities.
I will also say that as an organisation, we don’t provide what government is supposed to provide. We took vision as a singular activity among the under-privileged. That is the problem of my own organisation.
For Nigeria, it is poverty. Don’t ask me why. Poverty is endemic. And sickness and diseases go hand in hand with poverty. So, malaria is a problem and eye diseases and so on are thriving on ignorance. In the last 20 to 25 years, we have spent a lot of money on Onchocerciasis (river blindness).
We got a grant of $1 million in the 70s and most of the money is spent in the southeast and middle belt. We are doing a lot in the area of cataract, glaucoma, free glasses and so on, because poverty is an issue.
In the area of education we have done Read Action Programme (RAP), teaching people to read. But right now, the focus is on five areas: youth, environment, diabetes awareness, youth cancer and measles. The more lions we have, the more we can serve people.
What is the remedy for tackling endemic poverty?
The key is education. We need to send more people to school to get the right education. Once you give the right education, you will solve most of the problems. People that are very young and old should be able to get easy access to healthcare. Because when people retire, they become poorer.
Incomes drop, just like when a family loses the family head. It is a question of priority. Rather than build an airport, you could give more money to health and develop the human capital. As a nation, we have not given enough attention to that.
What attracted you to Lions Club?
I joined Lions in 1999. I believe that I have a sensitive social conscience. I always feel for people who don’t have the privileges and background I had. I had a funny background though.
I was an orphan right from the early age and my relations took me in and very well loved. So, I lived like any rich man’s child. I graduated at the age of 24 in 1975 and left pharmacy school when Gowon was Head of State.
So, you can image the kind of Nigeria I lived in. We were the first set of NYSC members. I got a car from car-allowance and a quarter on getting to Maiduguri.
But generally as a person, I have that social conscience. So, joining Lions Club was not difficult at all. Rotary Club has always been asking me to come but couldn’t just cope with the meeting of once a week. Lions’ meeting is once a month, with which I could cope.
Again, the circumstance that I found myself in is such that they were founding a new club in Akowonjo and I was invited to join. They were having the third meeting and election when I first attended, and at the end of the day I was elected President. I was shocked.
They had actually prepared someone else to be the president and that happened to be my former colleague. I was his boss when we worked together. He had already told them that they should make me the president, if I show up. I did so, I was elected president.
Again, I had a rapid rise. The following year I became the zone chairman, followed by region chairman.
Then one of my very close friends contested for District governor and won. Less than half the time he was supposed to spend, he died.
I was elected to replace him, though I didn’t campaign, neither did I do first or second Vice President. So, God in his own ways had his plans.
There must be something outstanding that made you emerged the president of the club on day one.
Let me say that in terms of personal attributes, I am loyal to my friends. Also, although I don’t make friends easily, I keep them for long. I walk straight. Again, I believe that if God has blessed you, He did not do so for you alone.
It is not a safe country or society where everybody around is going to bed hungry and only you is full. You better just watch your back. I’m always conscious of that and I always look out for what I can do to help others.
Why is it difficult to have more people join the club in Nigeria?
I think it is more of our own fault because we don’t market enough. In our clubs, we have membership directors. We should also have marketing directors. We don’t use the marketing tools enough and there is so much ignorance about what we do. Some would say it is a cult and so on.
I have seen all about cultism while growing up but Lions Club is a plain organisation of professionals.
If you can buy a bottle of coke a day, then you can be a Lion. You don’t have to be very rich. You need to have the heart of helping other people that don’t have as much as you do.
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