Making Nigeria whole by investing in the girl-child

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The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is a global milestone. It is a prototype of counter-terrorism, as defined by the West, and its efficacy, and also brings into sharper focus the role of women and the effects of the exclusion of women in any society, especially those whose economic evolution is still emergent.

In the same week, the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria published an article in the Financial Times, as if in recognition of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. He wrote about the dependence on or the request for the West to intervene on behalf of Africans, especially across the Sahel, as we fight the Salafist fundamentalists using the force of arms to try and take over different countries, and leaving trails of the mass murder of cross-sections of our societies. Even whilst during a resurgence in the ability of the Nigerian military to curtail the power of both ISWAP and Boko Haram elements combined, it seemed ominous. Especially as he highlighted the profound demographic change across our country.

As reports of mass surrender by some members of these terrorists forces in Nigeria increase, the president, quite eloquently, casts in sharp relief the fact that military victory itself is not victory, because there is a demographic shift across the Sahel and especially in Nigeria, meaning that, fundamentally, a lot of young people who have not been engaged economically or in the process of nationhood, are gun fodder for these kinds of extremist forces. And, no matter what is done militarily, if nothing is done to support the creation of jobs, the engagement of these young people in productive work, everything else will be a failure.

It is a major point that the president has put forward, but it overlooks something very fundamental, an omission that is very egregious, which is also apparent in the Taliban takeover. That is the role of women – 49.3 per cent of the Nigerian population and 48.7 per cent of that of Afghans. Any society that is incapable of creating a climate for the girl-child to grow into her own self-ownership, into her own humanity, to participate and contribute effectively in society, will fail its posterity, if not its immediate challenges. And, as such, the world is a failed place because whether you are in the West, in the South, the East or the North, what is clear is that women play marginal roles, in comparison to what they can play if society was more just and committed to the humanity of all, rather than misogyny.

We have, through various means, created a climate in which a woman is subject to a systematic form of oppression. And these are not just emotive words. These are very rational, considered reflections. In the U.S.A that often offers itself up as an example of what the world should aspire to, underage girls are still legally married off, from the age of about 15, or maybe even younger in some states. They are also under different kinds of control from the American version of Taliban orientation, on abortion and such like. So, it is very clear that the U.S.A is not an example of the empowerment and the engagement of women. We see a lot better in the Scandinavian countries. And even there, we still know that the ability of women is considered somewhat lesser than those of men.

These issues come into sharp demand in a developing country like Nigeria, where misogyny is almost synonymous with all the cultures that we brought out of our colonial experience. It is very clear in the North that women are married off at a very tender age. A girl-child suffers a lot of abuse. She is not given as much education as is possible, and she is not given as much value as she ought to be given. It is not a lot better in traditional societies of the South. It would be quite a lie to say that because it is obvious in the North, the subtler things happening in the South, including underage marriage, including a rape culture, are non-existent.

Primarily, the issue still comes back to a fundamental understanding of what is a healthy, effective and prosperous society, that has very little to do with materialism and more to do with the genuine well-being of the people; the ability to live fully in the best of themselves? To have a society where the tides lift all boats together. And what is clear, not just from Malcolm X but from all other intelligent and articulate people, is that to train a woman is to train a community. To train a man is to train an individual. In fact, in development work, what is clear is that when you invest in women, you fully invest in the family. When you invest in men, you only marginally invest in the family.

So, the roles and capacities of an entire society are highly dependent on what you do with the girl-child. We cannot continue and we must not continue to bring up our daughters to become wives only. We have to create a society that appreciates them, that understands them, that propagates what they contribute. I am not advocating the kind of competition that becomes a total annihilation of each other. What I am talking about is trying to get the best of our diversity to bring forth the best for our world.

For men, part of the things that kill us at a tender age is the toxic masculinity that barely appreciates the contribution of women and rarely recognises the interdependence of the genders in the production of a healthy family, healthy community and a better world. In order to build the Nigeria that we want, we should start to work on making sure that a girl-child has the same educational foundation as a boy-child. We must make sure that she has viable options. We must make sure that she has the capacity, whether she is married or not, to provide for herself and those that depend on her. We have to also make sure that she has the opportunity to exercise the kind of leadership that she can bring to bear on the challenges of our society. In that way, we are able to use the broad spectrum of the skills, knowledge and attitudes of all our people to create a better society. Our ancestors say no one claps successfully with one hand.

In essence, we must come to where Nelson Mandela suggested to us, that the future of the world is African and she is a woman. It is very clear that until we do that, until we are able to harness that, we cannot imagine ourselves being the nation of our dreams. We cannot imagine ourselves being the economic powerhouse of Africa that makes a significant impact on the well-being of all our people. We cannot have domestic violence, we cannot have rape, at the levels that they are, and then see a society making progress. We cannot have paedophilia at the level that it is. We cannot have the kinds of human trafficking in women that we have and think that we are a good society or that we are an effective society. We can’t have 50 per cent of our population only perform marginally and think we will be a success.

On global indicators and rankings on gender, in 2019 Nigeria was 128th in the world and 27th in Africa. Compared to the top four countries, Nigeria only outperformed as number one on economic participation, showing the industry of Nigerian women. On education, for example, South Africa, Rwanda and Ghana have education at 90 per cent levels and Nigeria is far behind at 80 per cent. On political empowerment, Nigeria is ranked 146th, with only 6 per cent representation in the federal House of Representatives and the same 6 per cent in the Senate.

Ultimately, our success in Nigeria is going to be dependent entirely on the Nigerian woman. President Buhari has a powerful opportunity in the remaining period of his second term in office to leave a mark that will position Nigeria beyond the ethnic polarisation and competition that toxic masculinity has given to Nigeria. He has the opportunity to balance the aggression in the public domain. He can make Nigeria whole and healthy by empowering women. What is clear to us who are his genuine, avid supporters is that in the next two years, he must do something that cements his legacy, not just in terms of infrastructure, but also intervention with people.

What will determine that, what will give him a special place in Nigerian history is his prioritising and lionising the issue of the Nigerian woman to become a critical factor that defines his administration. A genuine push for the next two years for the Nigerian girl and women in all areas will not only transform Nigeria but also will humanise his considerable achievements on infrastructure and accountability, along with the emergent victory in the war against insurgency. A Buhari transformation of the place of Nigerian Women will be a legacy fitting for his great contribution to building the foundation of a nation fit for purpose.

Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.

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