APJ: Hello everyone. My name is Memme Onwudiwe and I’m here today with Professor Leslye Obiora.
OBIORA: Hi Memme, thanks for the opportunity.
APJ: Today we’re going to ask a few questions of Professor Obiora and it will be for the Africa Policy Journal. My first question is just for you to tell us a little bit about yourself, what brought you to where you are today?
OBIORA: I grew up in Nigeria. I was born on cusp of the Civil War; we went to war when I was 3. My dad was ultimately a fatality of that war in the sense that he took ill and died after the war. He ended up having 9 children because he wanted a large family. Of all his children, I am the one who is the most Nigerian precisely because I had the good fortune of being my grandmother’s “handbag”. If you fast forward into the future, that was actually very definitive of my path. When all my siblings came to the United States for undergraduate education, I knew enough from the older ones, my grandmother and her peers, to know that Nigeria had possibilities and it needed the younger generation to give it an opportunity.
I opted to do my college education in Nigeria when all my siblings came to school in the US and that was in retrospect probably one of the best decisions of my life. It was very difficult going to school in Nigeria when you do not have light, you do not have warm water and you do not have all that stuff, but that is really what makes you Nigerian. That is what gives you your resilience, that is what makes you always land on your feet regardless of what the challenge of your life are. After college, my siblings had a burning desire to expose me to the West. So I threw a challenge at them and said that I’ll come “if Yale Law School accepts me”. And what do you know, Yale did accept me, I came to do my Master’s there. The idea was to do it for one year and go back to Nigeria. This is my 30th year unfortunately [laughter], from 1987 to today. And it’s not mere rhetoric when they say that you cannot go home again because the reality is by the time you come out, you’re not just that Nigerian but you are the Nigerian who’s been to America and who has become Americanized. You know, in fairness you’re neither here nor there, you’re not really Nigerian and you’re not really American, so you’re that hybrid. I guess the opportunity in it is just to make the best of your hybridization [laughter]. (This comment was directed at the interviewer because he is of Nigerian descent and born in the United States.) That said I did my master’s at Yale, went to Stanford got my terminal degree, the JSD it’s called at Stanford, which is the law equivalent to the PhD and started teaching at Indiana University and then was recruited by Arizona and moved to Arizona in 1997. As I was moving to Arizona, the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, which I guess its claim to fame is it was Albert Einstein’s home institute, gave me a fellowship. I did my fellowship at Princeton, and then two years later the World Bank recruited me to come and do a secondment, managing their standalone gender and law program. That was really my coming of age because I became a lawyer at 20 and went from such a tender age to practice for a year.
I did youth service by the way. My youth service was where I saw the possibilities that abound in service. I went to do my youth service in Calabar. Where I was, poverty was endemic there. I had come from my relatively privileged background with no tools to be the change I want to see, other than critique that change. I had just become a Christian before my youth service, and I told God that I was not going to influence my posting, so I assumed that it was divine that I was in Calabar. Either I went out of my mind condemning what I didn’t like, or I took seriously my agency and tried to figure out how to intervene and help the community. I think one of the things that was really bothersome for me was to see highly jaundice kids and pregnant women who because of malnutrition looked as if you could see the interior of their stomach. It turns out that those were nutritional concerns that you didn’t need rocket scientists or brain surgeons to make a difference. You just have to figure out how to advise the families on better nutrition. Fortunately, most of them had access to organic products because they have gardens in the backyard, they have access to food supplies that they can afford to avoid rickets, a disease born from lack of vitamin D. As I realized how correctible some of those problems were, I thought to myself “wait a minute; why aren’t we doing a lot more in terms of just trying to institutionalize this opportunity to interface with this community to try to advise them on how to better do what they’re doing.” My training happened to be in law, not in the medical sciences. But I went to youth service people and I said, is it possible for you to get the doctors and nurses to help this community. They said, listen, everybody is deployed to respective parastatals and agencies because we’re service providers but we don’t have our own outfits. I said what if I went and tried to mobilize resources in the community, what would we need? The community development person said to me, we would need a building, we would need hospital equipment, we would need the commitment of the village to use it, and then we could furnish the doctors and the nurses. Guess what I did, I was just 20 going to 21? I hit the street! Within less than three months, the community gave me a building. The Minister of Health contributed, Emmanuel Nsang, contributed the facilities that we needed because of Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Health [Ekpenyong Effiok?] was very fascinated by what I was trying to do. He just wanted to see the possibility of what we could do. By the time I graduated, I exited from the youth service, we had launched the community clinic. Incidentally that was in 1985 or 84, and it is still in existent to this day. Something a 21-year-old did on a whim so she wouldn’t not lose her mind.
What that showed? I happen to be Igbo, and we have an odd conceptualization of God. We believe that we are our own god, that your god is as good as you want your god to be, so it’s really about the power of agency. What it did show to me is that God has way too many problems to deal with like nuclear ammunition and stuff like that. The other problems are for you. You are his or her hands and her feet, go solve the problem. That was a turning point in my life. I just evolved a problem solving the approach to problems that confronted me. Part of it is that I don’t do luxury of not doing that because who is going to do it for me? Is it the failed government, who would do it for you? Really, the stuff about leadership and change is to look in the mirror – you are staring at the solution, rather than expect that the government or somebody else will do it for you.
That is how I went and eventually did my Masters, started teaching and went to the World Bank. With that as my orientation when I went to the World Bank, I wanted to hear what the people at the grassroots had to say. Again, that was incredibly instructive for my purposes. From the program that I designed at the bank that the bank as a bureaucracy that takes time to change was not going to act quickly on, I took as an academic and went and piloted the model in my hometown, Oguta and it worked brilliantly. I felt wow, if it could work, what happens if the next community tries it or other communities that have people like me who can provide the modest seed funding to do it. That was how I went from the grassroots initiative that we did under the auspices of the Institute for Research of African Women, Children and Culture [IRAWCC] to an initiative to stimulate the growth of indigenous philanthropy. This was really looking at the high net worth individuals I could tap on and gathering them together to have a conversation of how they do the philanthropy that they were doing a lot more strategically. That was in 2004. In 2005, we started doing those and stimulating indigenous philanthropy. It was supposed to be three modules of workshop and as an academic, I could only go home when we recess for the summer to do the research. We did the first module 2005 and went back to Nigeria 2006 to do the second module. The keynote speaker for the second module was Fazle Abed, the founder of BRAC. He incidentally happened to be the keynote speaker at the minister of conference I held at the World Bank in 2000 as well. When I presented that model at the World Bank, which eventually became IRAWCC’s founding initiative, Abed was the one who encouraged me to found IRAWCC. So when I founded IRAWCC, he said “come to Bangladesh and see what we’re doing”. I went to Bangladesh and I saw what they were doing. He built my confidence so eventually when I thought I could do it in Nigeria and I went off to do it. When I did and saw that it was a success, I asked him to come and keynote for me to bring more people to start thinking much more strategically at how to do philanthropy. That was in 2006.
Three days after the conference, I hear from a newsman that I had been nominated minister for the Republic of Nigeria. I became a minister, served did my term, and then eventually returned to academia. The interesting thing was that from 1991, I seldom went back to Nigeria. I came to the US in 1987, went back to Nigeria in 1991 to do the fieldwork for my PhD. And got deathly ill because of some contaminated water that I had drank. I think that really alienated me from Nigeria, between that and the press, because from 1991 to 2004, I never went back to Nigeria. I actually went back in 2000 for two weeks for my sister’s wedding. I then became a dislocated Nigerian who was so anxious about how I could stay so long in to strange land. Literally, I’d say “How could I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? I want to go home – I want to go home, but I don’t want to go home now because things are not good at home”. I think it was Cardinal Arinze who said to me “you can light the candle than curse the dark; why not?” All those confluence factors helped me trace my path back home, and I will tell you it’s been joy ever since then. [laughter]
APJ: In your opinion, when will Nigeria have their first female President?
OBIORA: I think we are getting there. We are a very young nation in many ways. Got our independence in 1960, stumbled upon all sorts of challenges. The third republic just came into existence in 1999 as we wrestled with military administration and eventually democracy was reintroduced. So 1999 to 2017, which is where we are mean we’re only barely 18 years old. But at least we’ve seen different successful handovers from one democratic administration to the other. I am confident that we will get there. There are challenges with the way we are practicing our democracy. We borrowed it and we are doing it the way we are told that it works. In terms of the authenticity of it, we have not tried to figure out what works for us. I think that to the extent that democracy is a practice, perhaps even in just doing it by the book, we are practicing and training our muscle, and eventually we would find what works for us. You learn your way through the maze and even when you fail, you fail better; you fail forward, learning through what you are doing. The key point about this for me has to do with the party line democracy that we have in Nigeria, because the determinants make it problematic for women to be that competitive. To the extent that we still have the structural constraint where the party leaders determine who their candidates are, then pass out benevolent charities to women and women’s groups that will not work. Quite frankly I have nothing but contempt for the way it’s being done today. But I was in office with five other incredibly dynamic women. Your mother may not be a Nigerian, but your father can tell you that Nigerian women ada ata ntifa ata, whatever that means. I know what it means, but I am not going to translate it. It’s like Latin, you go figure it out [laughter]. I know that eventually, one of our most transformative moments would be going back to our roots, realizing the asset that women constitute, trying to figure out how we can work with them where they are and empower them to do what we need to do.
The story of Nigeria is a story of the momentum from a demographic ascent. It is a country where 65% of the population are less than 35 years old. The 65 year olds to the octogenarians and older are less than 5% or maybe even 5%, but they are the ones all the headache comes from. You could say they would soon die and we would soon have a reprieve, but that is not the way it works – it is really about socializing and pipelining for leadership. How you do put in the Memmes, the Ntianus, (the names of 2 young people in the room), the younger generation so that they can – not just hold the older ones in contempt and think that if they had the opportunity they would do it better. But, to learn what has not worked from what the older ones are doing so that when they get the opportunity, they would actually improve on it.
How do we rather than just imagine a revolution that will transfer power to women, figure out how we can begin to build the capacity of women for leadership so that when they get into those offices, they are not just reproducing disquieting patterns? Africa has now had two female presidents; their record have not been that redeeming. Why do I want to be don’t want to be president of Nigeria if I’m going to go in and business as usual and then I’m going to leave? Ellen Sirleaf came into office better celebrated. This October 10th, after 10 years in office her term is over. Her history today, it stinks from the perspective of so many Liberians. What is it about power that makes us put these women in place to lead change under crisis situations without leaving them bandwidth to actually reform let alone innovate. I would love to see us come to that place where in the event that the mantle does fall on us, that it would be one to make a difference and not just to count heads. To just say that we’ve had a female president, I’m not interested in that. I would love to see a female president that makes a difference.
APJ: You’ve already sort of touched on the demographic challenge faced by Nigeria but I was hoping to ask a bit more. Nigeria is projected to have the third largest population in the world by 2050 due to its rapid population growth. Is that a blessing or a curse?
OBIORA: I can only say it’s a blessing. I guess part of my Christian orientation doesn’t let me even perceive it as a curse. We’ve been endowed at this particular historical moment with a challenge. Apparently, the Chinese character for challenge and opportunity is the same. Therefore, we have a dangerous opportunity that we must figure out how to attenuate the dangerous dimension or potential of it and build more opportunity of it. This is where we really come to the question about what are we doing with our youth? It’s a sad commentary what the state of youth development is today in Nigeria. For all of us who are watching this and for the rest of the world, I tell them that to engage with Nigeria today is not a choice; it is an imperative. Because if you are told by 2050 one out of 10 births in the world would be a Nigerian – 1 out of 10 births, assuming the UNICEF for whatever report is correct, it is just not enough to say the future of humanity is increasingly African. The key point is what are you doing about it? Because you know that if there is a problem that it’s going to be your problem all over the world. Then it is more for us who are the most immediate in position to figure out how and what to do.
I say that if there was reincarnation and if I had 10 lives to live, I would still love to be a Nigerian. I have no regrets. I love my people because they have such dynamism that even a 2-year old Nigerian, you can pick them out from the crowd! There’s just something about how we are hardwired. The regret is that we have not figure out how to harness and channel that in a way that is productive and equally creative. However, it all goes back to the leadership that we have. If you do not invest in social development, you do not give these kids a chance. I told you that in 1980 when I had the opportunity to come to the United States to study, I voted no and went to the University of Nigeria instead. If the University of Nigeria was still the same today, I’ll tell all my children to go to the university of Nigeria. But it’s not the school I went to. Isn’t it tragedy that in 2017 I look back and I say, “that’s not the school I went to?”. You would’ve expected it to improve. Why is it that we think that the best education can only be those that we get from Harvards or whatever? You have Nigerians who come for executive programs here and they go back and call themselves “Harvard Alumni”. Meanwhile, they are the captains of industry who command all our resources. What would it take for you to build your own Harvard? It is not going to become Harvard overnight. Harvard took how many years to get to where you are today. But why don’t you start something? People, even some entrepreneurs, have discovered that there is a lot of opportunity to make money in private sector education. What worries me about that is that we are going to make a mockery of a primary social good like education and make it only worth it for the rich. But were not even there yet. In Africa, we have some heartening examples emerging. There are people who have undertaken this imperative for learning seriously and are trying to figure out how they can model some opportunities. So going back to the question about what we make of this potential to be the third most populous nation by 2050 after displacing United States, I can only see good in it but I know that there are conditions to make good of the good in it.
APJ: Going back to the World Bank, I know you were there for just a short time but were you able to institutionalize any of what you saw.
OBIORA: I’m not sure if it is so much of policy change. It was refreshing to have the bank finally discover gender and to even give me the opportunity to try to manage a portfolio that tried to pay attention to how they can use the legal reform initiative to improve the lot – welfare and agency – of African women. I think the problem has to do not just with the bureaucracy itself but with the leadership of the institution. At the time I was there, Jim Wolfensohn was a breath of fresh air in many ways because he was trying to engage in constructive dialogue with civil societies and with the broader stakeholders to implement some changes. But there was just something fundamentally wrong with the structures, because he was responsive to a board that had not necessarily bought into that vision. The president leaves, even board members change, but when you institutionalize a value, a core value, and you say “this is a value that will define everything we’re going to do from now and on,” it doesn’t matter that you have attrition, or you have the transition of your president. It just becomes your culture; it becomes part of your DNA that you have a commitment to do these things. You have a commitment for participatory development beyond rhetoric, beyond what your professional development practitioners or careerists do. That’s still the problem of the World Bank.
We’re literally having this interview now as I’m participating at the Albert Hirschman Legacy Conference at Boston University. That’s the conversation we’re having out there. The World Bank people are there. That’s the conversation we’re engaged in. I remember one of the speakers made a presentation about how he is one of the people in the vanguard of trying to get the bank to be more of a learning organization that incorporates feedback from the field into the work that it is doing. He said that he had presented a paper to the board and he was surprised to see that somebody had made almost the same recommendation about 20 years before he made his presentation. I told him that it reminded of Albert Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Why has the bank been able to get away with doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? It is not just a matter of “oops, it didn’t work”; it is “oops, we just destroyed lives“ with the mess that we just made. I said, corporations are held accountable by their shareholders, right? For doctors, it the risk of liability and their professional oath to first do no harm that tries to keep them on the straight and narrow. The bank can go to Nigeria and wreak havoc with structural adjustment programs and say, “oops it didn’t work, let’s see if we can be a new bank.” No consequences!
So how fix we do this? Perhaps the young ones like you can figure out a vehicle that they could be used to hold them accountable. Perhaps something along the lines of public interest lawsuits, what would it take? Do you sue the board members as you can sue board members of corporations as individuals to make sure whoever wants to be on that board is someone who is serious about paying attention to what is going on? Or is it aggrieved country that sues the bank? Like if the younger generation said, “Abacha mortgaged our future, you colluded with him by giving him loans for which he was not accountable because you were more focused on meeting your lending limits” – or however it works. I know I’m simplifying things, but hopefully not to an absurd extent.
At the end of the day, Nigerians ended up being the ones to have to pay it back. I don’t know what mechanism you can use to inject a commitment to meaningfully socialize the bank to greater accountability and responsibility. That is the question, that’s the question we wrestled when I was there in 1999, that’s the question they are still wrestling today, and jury is still out. The people who bear the brunt of the work that the bank keeps doing and keeps failing at are also partly responsible. When you talk about African agency, we are responsible for the mess that people make of our lives, beginning with our leaders to the external institutions that we allow to come in and do this. Let’s not just act like, “look at what they are doing to us!” Why are you letting them do that to you?
APJ: As the former Minister of Mines do you think there are any natural resources in Nigeria that were being neglected due to the focus on oil and crude? [This text is not in the recording due to audio issues]
OBIORA: I had asked you earlier if you knew Siyan Malomo. Malomo was one of my directors when I was the minister of mines and he went on to run NEITI. I think he was in charge of geological survey and eventually became the head of NEITI. I vividly remember when I was a minister and they had branded the ministry to say that we have at least 34 minerals. They said that although Ghana was known as a gold coast, Nigeria’s gold belt is six times the size of theirs. Our mineral sector has been moribund since we discovered oil. The reason why we were designated a strategic ministry when I was there was that we were trying to figure out how to diversify our economy to do more with all the potentials that we had hidden under the ground. Part of my most humbling experiences was when I came as a professor of law really poised to figure out how to advocate for foreign direct investment and for the kind of legislative framework that we needed. The technical aspect of it was my priority and wasn’t really what was most urgent for me to focus on. I would go to these conferences and Shiyan Malomo would be the one who presents on the technicalities and I’d follow up to say “Indeed, Nigeria is a choice destination. We have at least 34 minerals one of which is bitumen. Our bitumen reserve happens to be under the mining portfolio. Our bitumen reserve is twice our oil reserve. Our bitumen has crude that is as good as Venezuela crude. So if you think we have oil, can you imagine what would happen if we developed our bitumen potential.”
I remember one conference; it may have been in Australia. I was talking about 34 minerals, and this guy said, “but can you dig it?” and I thought “sure. You get what I mean – 34 minerals; can you dig it!” [Laughter.] I thought he was like applauding this potential. He actually meant, “Do you have the science for it; can we go in and dig it?” He did not mean “Groovy! Can you dig it”? He just meant, “Madame, can we get real here? Do you have the science to back it up”? And what does it take to have the science to back it up? The government has to have a commitment to the mineral sector and make investment in the scientific explorations that would show the depth, quality and so on and so forth of what they have. So back to your question, we are an incredibly resource rich country, but we’re yet to take seriously the obligation to meaningfully map out what the assets are so that we can position ourselves for global competitiveness as a mining destination.
APJ: Thank you so much, we really appreciate it.
OBIORA: Thank you.
Recorded October 6 2017 Published December 16 2017