Okonjo-Iweala Seeks Safe Schools Initiative’s Restart to Curb Abductions

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•Calls for empowerment of MSMEs, women in exportation

By Ejiofor Alike in Lagos and James Emejo

The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has urged the federal government to restart the Safe Schools Initiative launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Abuja in May 2014 to protect schoolchildren from abductions.

Okonjo-Iweala, who is on an official visit to Nigeria said in an interview with ARISE NEWS Channel, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers, that she had discussed the programme with President Muhammadu Buhari and the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed.

At another forum yesterday, she also expressed concerns that the Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) as well as women-owned businesses have been relegated in the country’s export drive.

Okonjo-Iweala expressed optimism that a former British Prime Minister and United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Global Education, Mr. Gordon Brown, who was one of the backers of the initiative when it was launched in 2014, on the heels of the global outrage triggered by the abduction of 276 pupils from Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, and the UN would be willing to support Nigeria to restart the programme.

At the launch, more than 500 schools in the North were targeted to benefit from the initial $10 million fund pledged by a coalition of Nigerian business leaders.

Brown had stressed the need for action to stop the repeated assaults on education in Nigeria.
He said: “The first step in response to this crisis has been to show our support. The next phase is now to take practical measures to make schools safer.

“We cannot stand by and see schools shut down, girls cut off from their education and parents in fear for their daughters’ lives.”

Okonjo-Iweala described the abduction of schoolgirls and young ones as unacceptable, warning that it amounted to the destruction of Nigeria’s future.

“I think it is totally unacceptable to have young girls taken out of school – even young boys. You know, the parents will feel insecure. The more you do this kidnapping, the more likely they won’t let these children go back to school, especially the girls. You know the country is not going to move unless we educate our girls– educate our young people. So, this kidnapping is something that is terrible and should be stopped. The kidnappers are trying to do damage to our very future,” she stated.

The WTO DG said she had raised the issue with the president and the finance minister.

She said: “I raised the issue because we had started a safe school initiative with the former Prime Minister of the UK, Mr. Gordon Brown, who is a UN Envoy on Education. And I think they are willing to help us restart that initiative and say, how do we protect our schools? What are actually the things that allow bandits or kidnappers to come in at will and abduct hundreds of children, which is unacceptable? How do we better protect them? I think that is what we should look at.

“We spoke about it today. I think the government will be looking at how to improve the safety of the schools through the initiative.”

She also urged the private sector to contribute to the scheme as part of their corporate social responsibility.

Okonjo-Iweala lamented that some schools have no fence or gate or even power supply, adding that the non-availability of such facilities make them prone to attacks.

She identified the needs of some of the schools to include: “Simple things like making sure you have electricity in all schools so that they are not in the dark for people to come in and abduct them, and having more security and fencing. These are some very simple things you can start to do.”

The short-term objective of the initiative was to build community security groups to promote safe zones for the stakeholders in the education sector – teachers, parents, community leaders and young people.

The long-term agenda of the Safe Schools Initiative was to improve the safety of schools by providing school guards, training staff as school safety officers and providing counsellors to schools that are prone to attacks.

One of the prominent business leaders to support the initiative and Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of THISDAY/ARISE Media Group, Prince Nduka Obaigbena, had during the launch of the programme highlighted that the Nigerian business community was behind the initiative.

He had also pledged their readiness to work with the communities, youth, government and the media to ensure the safety of schools.

Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iweala yesterday expressed concerns that Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), as well as women-owned businesses, have been relegated in the country’s export drive.

She stated that small business remained crucial in transitioning the country from an oil and gas-based economy to one that relies on other sectors and sources of growth.

Okonjo-Iweala during a visit to the head office of the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) in Abuja, said lowering obstacle to businesses of all sizes, especially women-owned companies to participate in international trade would help revamp the economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said while trade could help improve economic outcomes of women by creating more and better jobs, raising wages and lowering costs, a business that engages in cross border trade was likely to employ more women.

She added that MSMEs constitute the major backbone of the Nigerian economy, accounting for over 76 per cent of jobs and nearly 50 per cent of GDP.

Okonjo-Iweala stated that when MSMEs thrive and become productive as well as formalised, the people become the greatest beneficiaries.

According to her, connecting to the international market could drive economies of scale and learning and lead to higher productivity and higher wages.

“But as we speak, even though MSMEs account for 76 per cent of the jobs in the country, they only account for 7.6 per cent of exports – so, very much underrepresented in the export sector,” she stated.

Addressing women exporters who made presentations on their efforts to access international markets, she said: “In Nigeria, this reservoir is deep: only about half of the women are part of the workforce and most are in the informal sector.

“Wages of men are 30 to 40 per cent higher than for women in the formal sector.

“So there’s a missed opportunity for all Nigerians and for the country in not tapping the reservoir of talents we have in our women.

“The evidence shows that women empowerment is not about moral imperative only, it is good economics and it’s smart economics.”

She said trade could help improve economic outcomes of women by creating more and better jobs, raising wages and lowering costs.

She noted that the WTO would work with Nigeria to enhance the quality and packing of non-oil export products to boost their accessibility to the international markets.

According to her, the purpose of the WTO is to create jobs and improve incomes to support sustainability, among others.

She, however, commended recent efforts by the federal government to trade agencies, particularly NEPC, to enhance the quality of export products working with international partners.

She said the organisation would help Nigeria to enhance the quality of its products designed for export.

Okonjo-Iweala also commended the Chief Executive Officer of the NEPC, Mr. Segun Awolowo, for his role in encouraging women entrepreneurs and exporters and giving them platforms to thrive.

Earlier, Awolowo had said the country had come to a defining moment for international trade and shared the council’s giant strides towards implementing the zero oil plans to boost exports.