We’re All Potential Refugees!
GUEST COLUMNIST BY BABATUNDE FASHOLA
When my friend and brother, Jimi Olusola, asked me to be the speaker at this event, I had no hesitation in accepting, because he indicated that it was Papa’s 10th memorial. Although I was unaware that it was World Refugee Day and neither was I aware at the time that a book was to be presented, my mind was already invoking thoughts about refugees.
When he responded to my inquiry about what he would like me to speak about by saying, “Tunde he was also your father, choose your topic,” that decided me. I was going to speak about refugees, because that was Ambassador Segun Olusola’s final signature and most compelling work of art that he left us with. (Pun intended. Ambassador Olusola was an artist’s Artist).
His passion, commitment, sacrifice and dedication to the cause of refugees, a compelling humanitarian undertaking to which he devoted his personal resources, mobilised others to form and to join and contribute, immersed his immediate family and friends in, was arguably his most selfless of his many undertakings while he was with us.
Having now settled on my subject, a big problem then arose: What was I going to say about refugees that my audience does not already know about? After all, there are refugees everywhere, so what is new? Then I thought to myself speak about the fact that he created Village Headmaster, he was Elsie Olusola’s husband and Nigeria’s Ambassador to Ethiopia.
While I was flirting with my options, the casual invitation by Jimi was formalised by way of a letter signed by no less a person than Chief Mrs Opral Benson, OON, the Honorary President of AREF, and on the letter was boldly printed the names of the patrons of AREF, starting from Dr. Christopher Kolade to Major General Ike Nwachukwu to Aremo Taiwo Alimi. And that stopped me dead in my tracks.
These were Ambassador Olusola’s peers, many of who stood in Loco Parentis to Jimi and I. What was I going to tell them about Ambassador Olusola, Aunty Elsie, Village Headmaster or his stint in Ethiopia?; events and stories they partook of when I was in my toddling and adolescent years. In the hope, therefore, that I would have something worthwhile to say, I have titled my intervention HOME AND ABROAD.
Around these two words and their simplest and extended meanings, I think there is sufficient elasticity to interrogate my subject, which is the issue of refugees, from multiple perspectives. I think it is too pedestrian to attempt a definition of what or who a refugee is, except that we can agree that a refugee is one who is seeking refuge, who has lost his sanctuary and in this sense his HOME and depends on the help, charity or benevolence of others.
Very often for us who have a HOME to go to at the end of each day, when we return to our house as a HOME, we return to the embrace of our family as the people that make our house a HOME, because they are not strangers, it is easy not to pay attention to the plight of refugees because we are far removed from it.
I got quite close to the world of refugees in very unusual circumstances that provided a rude awakening, over two decades ago. It is a story I find relevant for this occasion. Please permit me to share it.
It is the worst kept secret that I still attempt to play football long after my school days and myself and a group of friends constantly indulge in veteran football as a way of keeping fit and also strengthening bonds of friendship that were struck decades ago.
One day, we got an invitation for a friendly veteran match somewhere in Ogun State, in a place called Oru, that I had never heard about. My recollection of the details is hazy, but my experience remains indelible.
As we arrived at the destination, I saw a sign indicating that it was a refugee camp, I cannot recollect if it was an AREF camp but my hazy memory suspects that it was. As we alighted and we were introduced, we interacted with men, who looked as healthy as us. As they spoke, I immediately discerned their accent.
It was distinctly Liberian (Mrs. Opral Benson has not lost hers and this is something about the place called HOME that I will come to shortly) and the first wave of reality hit me. The conflict and war in Liberia were not as far away as we thought, when we saw it on the television or read about it in the newspapers.
It had come to the place we called our HOME. Not only had we sent troops there, they had sent some of our brothers and sisters to us, albeit against their will. The conflict had taken their HOME from them and sent them ABROAD against their will.
Football became immediately unimportant and even though we still played, I don’t remember who won. My image of refugees before experiencing Oru, was that of poor people, people at the bottom of the pyramid, dislocated by forces of nature mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. This was different.
As we interacted, I found there were lawyers like me, professionals of all capabilities who had lost everything but their lives. Their HOME has changed from the house they built in Liberia to a contrived shelter in rural Ogun State. Their family members were not necessarily their spouses and children or siblings, it was the nearest person in the boat of their tribulations.
That experience was and remains numbing to me. A situation that makes me take flight, that makes all the things that we value, become minor distractions except life, and translates one from self-sufficient to totally dependent still sends chills down my spine. I hope it tells a story that I seek to share about HOME and ABROAD.
That experience and its known causes, including conflict and war, left in me a quiet resolve never to be consciously a cause of conflict or a promoter of conflict. I have seen and experienced its consequences in a most fortuitous and humbling way. For those who still beat the drums of war and conflict as their preferred solution to disputes and misunderstandings, I say be very careful what you wish for. I do not wish a refugee status on anybody.
Recent and ongoing events in Ukraine that are creating a global humanitarian crisis of refugees and economic pain and distress is a call to our common humanity to bring it to an end. I have recent and first-hand experience of the anxiety and anguish that a war in which we seemingly had no stake has caused many Nigerians. It speaks eloquently to my subject of HOME and ABROAD.
Many parents who could reach me, called and sent text messages incessantly inquiring what our Government was doing to bring their children HOME from Ukraine. I can say here confidently that our government stood in the gap and responded to her citizens ABROADbecause she brought them HOME. Nothing speaks, perhaps, eloquently to the role of our Government at the onset of the Ukraine crises than the text of a relieved parent, who had been in anxious and expectant contact with me.
Let me share it with you. He texted on March 13, 2022 at 1:04 p.m:
“Honourable Minister thank you very much. My daughter has arrived on the last flight yesternight. She is with her sister in Abuja, may God reward you immensely thank you.”
Right inside Nigeria, in spite of the best efforts of government, the actions of an obvious minority, who have chosen to act outside the law, has displaced thousands of people, who albeit are at HOME in Nigeria, but are also ABROAD as internally displaced persons.
But conflict is only one of the more talked about causes of human displacement that results in people being refugees, whether at HOME or ABROAD. There are many more causes of varying degrees of devastation that I think now deserve not only our attention, but also our action, in order to support the work of institutions like AREF; and I will attempt to shed some light on some of them, because I cannot be exhaustive.
For this purpose, I invite us to highlight governance, good or bad, and politics as a source of conflict; and let us underline political persecution, genocide, religious intolerance, rising nationalism ethnic or racial supremacy, as State policy undertaken in the name of governance.
The way some governments deliberately or inadvertently become instruments for political persecution, genocide, ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance, or agents of racial or national dominance create problems at HOME for their people, that result in dislocations and refugee crisis ABROAD. In other words, the Government turns against the people it should protect. To whom should they turn for redress?
Regrettably, I do not have a failsafe solution to this problem, neither do I have a silver bullet that guarantees good governance globally and protects our civilisation from ourselves, however, I believe that if we resolve to find an answer, we will bring many of the problems under control, if not to an end.
On the brighter side, I can point to a reliable precedent, which is the United Nations Organisation and the global charter on human and people’s rights inaugurated at the end of the Second World War. This is the global legal order upon which the world has been run with occasional modifications from time to time for a little over seven decades now.
I am convinced that our world has changed significantly over the decades, to remain sustainable on a legal framework designed over 70 years ago, when nuclear capabilities were just emerging and not yet fully harnessed, and there was no globalisation, Internet or the social media.
We are now in a world where everybody can publish and disseminate information, whether true or false, and no one is really in control, in spite of government’s efforts to regulate microblogging sites from which verified, unverified and unverifiable information can travel almost faster than the speed of light and effectively at a push of the one button which reads – SEND.
In other words, every one of us, can cause a problem ABROAD from HOME; or cause a problem at HOME from ABROAD at the push of a button. This is a big concern. I propose, therefore, that the global legal order requires urgent and compelling revision to bring about global consensus on matters such as regulating these kinds of things, creating identifiable institutions, who can be held responsible and accountable for what is published.
The global legal order must also evolve new rules for governments worldwide about setting minimal but enforceable standards of protecting citizens and immigrants from genocide, ethnic cleansing, political persecution racism etc as potential sources of conflict, and dislocation at HOME and ABROAD.
I acknowledge the ground-breaking and commendable work behind the establishment of the international court of criminal justice, but it is hobbled by many other well-intentioned principles like sovereign immunity and equality of states around which, perhaps, a re-think is now necessary.
After all, the citizen will now ask: yes, I accept that my country has the same rights as others and no country can come and overrun our boundary and territory as if we were a vassal state (until Russia entered Ukraine without a deterring military response); but what is the value of protecting my state from another state, when nobody can protect me when my state turns against me?
The quicker we find answers to this problem, the easier it will be for institutions like AREFto do a lot more, because for now, organisations like AREF with very frugal resources are standing in the gap for people with problems created by state and governmental entities with vast resources. Apart from governance and politics, environmental issues resulting in extreme weather conditions have become a recurring cause of dislocation and displacement of people.
There are many ways in which these manifest, but perhaps one to which I can advert our collective attention is how extreme shortage of water is not only dislocating people but is also a cause of conflict.
At HOME in Nigeria, the shrinking Lake Chad is a local example and ABROAD globalIy, there is an estimated 2 Billion people, who according to UNICEF, live in countries, where water supply is not only inadequate; there is also an estimated 700 million people, which could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.
These ecological and environmental challenges now commonly discussed under the banner of climate change represent perhaps the most daunting challenges yet of the human civilisation. Whatever views you hold, the science and the evidence of it, is compelling and riveting; things are manifestly no longer the same as we used to know them.
The impact of these changes will task the resources, adaptability and resilience of institutions like AREF at HOME and ABROAD as they seek to sustain their work of putting their arms around displaced and vulnerable people the world over. One thing that I am certain about, is that we alone, the human race, hold the keys that unlock the solution; and the simplest of things that we can do is to restrain our greed, preserve nature’s bio-diversity and what we take from nature, because nature is fighting back.
Right here in Lagos and at this location, we are just a few Kilometres from the South Atlantic Ocean and many are living witnesses to the years, when the famous Bar Beach used to wash up as far as Bonny Camp and flood Victoria Island and Ozumba Mbadiwe Road. Unverified reports about how the sea took over and displaced the house of one Mr. Maja were the stories I grew up with in my younger days.
The whole of Victoria Island was a potential community that was sitting and waiting for ocean flooding, displacement and possibly AREF. That has been averted by the solution conceived by the Government of Lagos State and implemented in collaboration with Messrs South Energyx to protect that shoreline, during the time of my predecessor in office, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Without indulging in self-adulation, I feel proud to say that the administration that I led after his tenure, progressed that work to the point that incidents of those annual flooding agonies were substantially mitigated. Not a few people here will recall the famous Ogunpa River flooding in Ibadan, Oyo State and the human casualty that it exacted.
The moral of the recall of these incidents is to remind us all, about the roles we have to play in preventing flooding, by not building on drains, not obstructing them with our waste, in order to reduce incidence of flood induced displacement and support the work of AREF.
Please indulge me, as I take a little more of your time to share a personal experience in order to recommend what more I think we can do to support AREF. Whilst the work of protecting the Bar Beach shoreline was going on, I lived in mortal fear of what we would do if it failed or if as some “experts” predicted, that Victoria Island would be washed away.
I raised the matter at one cabinet meeting of the Lagos State Government and my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that at least, we would not be totally helpless if we built a resettlement camp or facility. Since Victoria Island was measured as lying at 2 metres below the level of the sea, we charged our surveyors to find us suitable higher ground to which people could be evacuated in that eventuality as a first response.
And so was born the Ikorodu Resettlement Facility, which has proven repeatedly handy on at least two occasions, when large settlements of people were displaced by fire in Makoko and Bariga. Apart from shelter and health Facilities, the settlements have, embedded in them, other life continuing services like schools; and every time we had unfortunately used them, we ensured that none of the children lost school time, because we moved teachers and educational support services there.
We added another facility in Alimosho to increase capacity and to diversify risk. It is fitting to mention that when the Grenfell Tower fire occurred in the city of London a few years ago, one of our team members rightly pointed out that the displaced people had to be sorted to different hotels, because there was no resettlement facility like those of Lagos in London.
My recommendation, therefore, is that whilst we must do all we can to avoid situations that result in the displacement of people, we can respond better, when they suddenly happen if every local government and state begin to think about building a resettlement centre as a first response mechanism. Afterall, is that not what UNHCR does when it brings its tents to displaced communities to set up temporary camps as shelters.
The Lagos resettlement centres are Lessons from HOME that we can share ABROAD. There are other events, incidents and accidents such as economic and health from which hardships, displacements and eventually refugee situations are created.
The COVID-19 pandemic was one of such. I remember the people on the cruise ship trapped between Japan and America, who became refugees through no fault of theirs, as borders were closed and neither nation wanted ships carrying possible or potentially infected persons berthing at their ports. I remember also some Qataris, who were trapped ABROAD because their HOME government had closed its borders to all incoming traffic without exception. For the period that the situation persisted, these persons were essentially stateless, because there was no relief from HOME and ABROAD.
Commendably, the Government of Nigeria, while she enforced the lockdown, kept her doors open only to her citizens enabling them to return to the place called HOME, from places where they had been locked out ABROAD. This intervention would be incomplete without a mention of economic refugees some of who either deliberately dispose of their assets in search of “greener” pastures or those who are forced to seek those pastures that turn out to be anything but green.
Many lives have been lost across the desert and others have been captured into slavery or perished at sea. Again, one cannot ignore the commendable effort of the federal and some state governments in helping some of these people return HOME from ABROAD even if only to begin again.
These pictures I have painted of the diverse and seemingly unending problems of our civilisation – displacement of mankind at HOME and ABROAD and their characterisation as refugees, is the work that Ambassador Segun Olusola dedicated his life to, and to which he applied himself till his last breath. He became the Refuge of Refugees through AREF.
What a man! What a life! What courage! What selflessness! What sacrifice! To him and to all of you, who hold the torch of this devotion to humanity aloft through AREF, I doff my hat.
*Minister of Works and Housing, Fashola, delivered this abridged version of his speech to commemorate World Refugee Day 2022, and the 10th memorial of AREF’s founder, Chief Segun Olusola, OFR, FSBN 1935-2012.