EDIFYING ELUCIDATIONS BY OKEY IKECHUKWU
The other week, the Sirleaf Johnson Presidential Centre recognised three Nigerian Women for professional achievements. It was no political recognition, or some hollow award for attending some nebulous international forum on “moving African women forward.” A day will come when we shall raise questions regarding the “moving forward” of all sorts of things in Nigeria; including elite myopia and leadership incompetence. But since that is not our concern today, let us not digress. The essential point being made in these perambulatory remarks is that the three women under reference are among the few recognised by the Centre in fields ranging from politics, medicine, law and economics. The other point is that they were not recognised because they were part of a government delegation; or just because they were women, no! The honour was not thanks to any affirmative action, or some other presumably emancipatory programme of a concert of overdressed First Ladies, no! They got the recognition because of who they are. That makes a world of difference.
Dr Adaeze Oreh, Ejumola Abisoye, and Ifeyinwa Maureen Okafor stood out, above their peers of exceptional pedigree, to clinch unusual recognition because of their demonstrated capacity for excellence and impressive performance in their respective fields. As these women were announced as part of the 2021 Cohort of Amujae Leaders by the Ellen Sirleaf Johnson Presidential Centre for Women and Development, consternation descended on many who were not familiar with the incredible profile and sustained professional dedication of the women in question. To earn such recognition from a Centre established to catalyse “…political and social change across Africa by helping unleash its most abundant latent power — its women” is no mean feat. The beauty of it all includes objectivity on the part of those who selected and assessed nominees, streamlined the short-listing, kept to the stipulated paradigms and criteria for outstanding performance.
No, it was not like the many plaque-and-certificate wielding women groups here. Such groups always manage to recognise mostly women in elective or appointive positions, as well as the wives of political office holders. These distinguished personages of no particular value coloration are then help up as epitomising the best in Nigerian women. Meanwhile, it is all nothing but a grand swindle, not going much further than sowing of uniforms and provision of paltry transport allowances for a hoodwinked majority of women, who get herded from one place to another on the pretext of driving the interests of Nigerian women. It is sad, pitiful in fact, that most of the discussions about women empowerment, women development and protection of women rights today revolve around the elite aspirations of urban Nigerian women. Many of the latter still do not see the need to change the profile of women in political parties from uniform-wearing, low-quality dancers and entertainers at political rallies to substantive political actors, who can become critical variables for positive social change.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is the founder of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Centre for Women and Development, was the first democratically elected woman President in Africa. The Centre’s flagship programme, the Amujae Initiative, set out to prepare identified women leaders in Africa. The objective is to create a concentrically expanding circle of capacitated women who have the skills, passion and inclination to play critical leadership roles, and excel in them. It is about focusing on, and enabling, women who can be at the peak and still have the presence of mind to understand and address the need for continuous mentoring of new waves of both younger and older women across all spheres and professions.
This 2021 cohort, which threw up Oreh and the others, is as yet the second cohort to have been announced. It cuts across a broad spectrum of African women, out of which a final number of accomplished women emerged from all over Africa. Countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Egypt and Liberia were not left out in the Centre’s searchlight.
Dr Oreh’s recognition came as no great surprise to those who knew her well. She has over 17 years of private and public healthcare experience. She is a woman dedicated to her profession in every sense of the word. Her ability to combine mature personal sophistication, dedication to her family life and genuine concern for the pains of others with an astonishing avidity for knowledge expansion and the breaking of the new grounds, has remained one of her selling points. She is currently a Consultant Family Physician and Country Head of Planning, Research and Statistics for Nigeria’s National Blood Transfusion Service. But hers has never been a desk-bound, “let us do it the way our forefathers did it” professional orientation, no! Her reputation for working with cutting edge policymakers at the highest levels is well known. She has always been a strong advocate of blood policies that reduce maternal and child mortality rates. Her commitment to reducing the transmission of infectious diseases through unsafe blood transfusions is a matter of record. Check out her profile among those who are unrepentantly committed to improving the distribution of safely-screened blood to remote and conflict-affected communities.
Curiously Dr Oreh is a passionate and prolific writer on prevalent health and development issues in Africa. Her publications in international, national, and local media outlets speak for her in this regard. She was handy during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when her risk communications expertise helped drive several components of the communication template for handling the health challenge. On that alone, Oreh took part in some 30 interviews. She also published more than 50 relevant public guidance materials, to help educate the public on the pandemic and how to escape it worst threats. Perhaps her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka explain her professional skills. These may have been further enhanced by her Master of Science degrees in International Health Management from Imperial College London and in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Of note, too, is her Leadership, Management and Public Policy certifications from Oxford Saïd Business School, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the University of Washington. But it was “who she is and what she has done with her education” that got her the recognition we are talking about today.
There are hundreds of medical professionals of equivalent, or even higher, academic certificate. But how many of them were named one of 25 recipients of the Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellowship, in 2019? Why was Oreh among the few women in the world singled out by this initiative, which recognises only “changemakers in global health and development.” Oreh is a Fellow of the West African College of Physicians, the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and the Royal Society of Public Health and sits on the Governing Council of Nigeria’s first private university of Medical Sciences. As they would say in Warri pidgin English: “No be for dash person de take get 100% for mathematics.”
Oreh’s co-winner of the Centre’s recognition, Abisoye, is not some unknown quantity with government connections. She is a lawyer with great and confirmed experience in development finance, project management, and monitoring and evaluation. She has a track record of impressive performance over the years and is currently the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Secretary of Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSTEF). In that capacity, she coordinates the design and implementation of programmes that address youth unemployment in Lagos State. The creative endeavour she has brought to bear on her current watch has provided support for over 15,000 small businesses. As a result, more than 100,000 jobs have been created and sustained. This is in addition to the training of over 5,000 youths.
Abisoye also “went to school,” as our local pallance would say. Besides her LLB Law from the University of Ibadan, where she graduated best in the Department of Private Business Law, Abisoye has an LLM in International Trade and Investment Law from the University of Pretoria. She is also an alumnus of Yale University’s Women’s Leadership Program. All of this, in addition to concrete experience when compared with other equally high profile women, landed Abisoye the recognition we are talking about today. It is an honour well deserved.
The other star of the Centre’s recognition, Okafor Essien-Akpan, attended the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, where she graduated with a first-class degree in Law. She is a Chartered Accountant and Governance Professional. She is a former Managing Director of International Packaging Industries of Nigeria Plc, who spent the first fifteen years of her career in banking and financial services. Her record of service in several professional associations, including as Treasurer and Member, Governing Council, Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria, and Training Coordinator and Member, Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture Business Women Group, speak well for her. She was also a Commissioner on the Imo State Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Contracts from 2011-2019.
All said, this is an exciting tale of three Nigerian women, in a new year that offers us very little to be happy about. Security, roads, electricity, education, health and possibly even the weather, are all against the Nigerian people. That is only to be expected, when unintelligent spending, unmitigated corruption, unproductive consumption and refusal to learn are the Four Cardinal Points of statecraft, as it is in Nigeria today. But let us not dwell too much on all that for now.
Let us note, instead, that the EJS Centre is using its work to ensure that more voices are heard, greater talents unleashed, and leaders groomed (or encouraged) to launch themselves and push for a better world. The Centre envisages that one way of doing this to prioritise the aspirations of women towards greater, all ground, fulfillment. Its mission of championing women’s ascension to the highest levels of leadership presents a challenge to systemic and other barriers to girls’ and women’s holistic advancement. All good. But the Centre may need to turn its gaze also to the distinction between womanhood motherhood. The two are worlds apart.
It is sad, pitiful in fact, that most of the discussions about women empowerment, women development and protection of women rights today revolve around the elite aspirations of urban Nigerian women. Many of the latter still do not see the need to change the profile of women in political parties from uniform-wearing, low-quality dancers and entertainers at political rallies to substantive political actors, who can become critical variables for positive social change.