Everything you need to live well

Amina J Mohammed: Giving Hope To Nigeria And The World Through Public Service

 

The human family faces colossal challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change to deepening inequality, spreading hatred, and persistent armed conflict.

Yet this is also an era of opportunity, with an ever-expanding knowledge base, ever-more-remarkable technological advances, and an agreed global framework for action: the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Turning peril into progress requires us all to contribute in whatever way we can, whether in our families and homes, in our communities and workplaces, or in the political arenas, national and global.

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Shattering The Ceilings As An African Woman
My engagement is rooted in a set of varied identities and experiences: woman; Nigerian; African; heir to a rich ethnic and religious family background; holder of jobs in government, civil society, and the private sector; and, today, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.

As a woman, I strive to see women and girls living free of violence, their rights respected and their talents taking flight. As a Nigerian, I want my compatriots to enjoy equally the fruits of our nation’s dynamism and natural wealth. As an African, I draw inspiration from a diverse continent and work for ways to advance its collective peace and well-being.

As a practising Muslim with a Presbyterian minister for a grandfather, I aim to bridge divides and help people appreciate the multitudinous influences that are part of us all.

And as a second-in-command at the world Organization, my job is this: “to build a world where every girl and boy has the tools and support to make their dreams a reality”. That is the pinned tweet on my Twitter account, but it is also more than that: it is my daily touchstone.

Transforming Realities Through Education
I am convinced that we can achieve these goals, in and beyond the borders of Nigeria. But we need to put certain enablers in place and summon the leadership to make it happen.

Consider the challenge of getting girls and boys the quality education that is their birthright – as enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 4 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Nigeria has schools. Our country has well-elaborated structures of government that know what to do and have the mandate to do it. We even have money. Those resources need to be spent not just on buildings, but on curriculum and especially on teachers.

It’s not enough to get children physically into schools; they need the tools that will bring classrooms to life. The software of education needs just as much attention as the hardware.

Education is fundamental to the success of a country and critical for addressing the plight of millions of children, especially our street children, in Nigeria.

Every child out of school is not only that child’s tragedy but all of society’s. Any child without a home or shelter is left vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and abuse.

The DSG with a baby. 17 November 2020, Ghana. Photo credit: Daniel Getachew

Children forced to fend for themselves are ripe for recruitment into gangs. They also face stigma and exclusion. Their rights and wellbeing are in essence the measure of our human values, and we must do far more to meet that standard.

The Need To Save Our Planet
Safeguarding the planet is another imperative, as set out across the SDG framework with dedicated goals on land, water, clean energy, climate action, sustainable cities, and responsible consumption and production.

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As Nigeria’s Federal Minister of Environment, I saw the many ways in which the threats we face are tied to resources and the natural world. Climate change is turning arable lands to deserts, leading farmers and herders into conflict over diminishing resources, and making it harder to feed a growing population.

Extractive industries are sending primary products off to global markets, leaving little natural wealth for Nigeria itself, and leaving contaminated communities in the wake of their operations.

The horrific situation in Northern Nigeria has many causes, but the degradation of the Lake Chad Basin is a leading factor that takes away jobs, destroys hope, fuels radicalization, and perpetuates the terrorism of Boko Haram. In Nigeria and elsewhere, protecting the environment is part of the pathway to peace.

Protecting The Girl-Child
Any efforts to break these cycles of impoverishment will only be possible if we achieve gender equality, to which all countries committed in Sustainable Development Goal 5.

Getting it right for girls has knock-on impacts on individuals, families, and society as a whole. This work must prioritise ending all forms of violence against women and girls, and preventing child marriage.

Such violence is a violation of basic rights, and there has been an alarming increase since the outbreak of COVID-19 – globally and in Nigeria, risking the loss of years of slow but hard-fought gains.

Violence against women and girls will only end when men and boys take responsibility, not just for perpetrating the violence but for victim-blaming, covering for their peers, and normalizing abuse.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (left) greets female deminers at a UN demining site in the province of Bamyan, Afghanistan.<br />The Deputy Secretary-General visits Afghanistan in order to put “women at the centre” of focus on issues linked to peace and security ahead of the upcoming presidential election, and lend support for a sustainable and durable peace process. The Deputy Secretary-General was also joined by Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (third from left), Executive Director of UN Women; and Natalia Kanem (centre), Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The delegation met with Ashraf Ghani, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of Afghanistan, as well as a diverse group of women hosted by Afghanistan’s First Lady, Rula Ghani. They also visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.

The Spotlight Initiative, a United Nations partnership with the European Union, is a global undertaking to end this violence, and Nigeria is the single largest country investment. We are scaling up action — but we need each Nigerian to join this effort.

When I joined the private sector, I was often the face of my company, and I met men who had never imagined a woman from Northern Nigeria could have my level of professional experience.

This was insulting, but it only made me more determined; as a Northerner, I felt it was especially important to show what any girl, anywhere, can achieve. I came to see that the so-called glass ceiling is not just a barrier to executive suites; it is present every step of the way, even sometimes just getting in the door.

Women must be at the table as equals and respected because they are an asset and have value to add to nation-building.

It has been proven time and again – and we are seeing it in the response to the current global crisis – that women’s leadership promotes greater effectiveness.

Women and men both have skillsets, lived experiences, and perspectives; we need to combine these to get the best of both worlds.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a great many global fragilities and vulnerabilities. In so doing it has opened new doors to addressing them; recovery must not take us back to a status quo that exacerbated inequalities, discriminated against women, despoiled the environment, left people in poor health, and failed to give children a proper start in life.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be our guide; it applies to all countries, regardless of their level of development, and has at its core a promise to leave no one behind. With leadership, smart policymaking, and budget allocations as we emerge from the pandemic, we can re-dress many ills, re-set our path, and re-imagine our future.

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Youths As Protectors Of Society
Nigeria has experienced an additional wake-up call on top of the pandemic: the country-wide protests of the ENDSARS movement.

Young people were right to take to the streets against police brutality, at the same time I condemn the violent escalation that resulted in the deaths and injuries of many Nigerians, including the police.

I support the movement’s five key demands: the release of arrested protestors; justice and compensation for families of victims of police brutality; an independent assessment of misconduct; retraining of police; and better salaries for police officers who protect citizens.

Putting these issues on the table was a great victory. Now it will be crucial for ENDSARS to protect itself against being hijacked by those with other motives while staying focused on strengthening the country’s governance, which is the heart of the matter.

Portrait of the DSG for The Guardian Nigeria. 16 December 2020, New York. Photo credit: Mark Garten.

This will be a long but essential struggle – one that echoes Black Lives Matter, School Strikes for Climate, and other movements that are rightly forcing a reckoning with injustice, calling for a strengthened social contract and justice and dignity for all.

My message to all Nigerians at the beginning of a new year is to harvest everything that has happened since the outbreak of the pandemic.

We didn’t foresee the virus or the protests; but amid the death and the pain, we can also see the resilience of the human spirit and seeds of solidarity that can help us to come out stronger.

Across my own path, I have been an activist and I have worked in the private sector, but the most enduring gratification has come from public service. Then and now, my overarching aim has always been to make sure that every step is about the benefit of others. I have also kept my eyes on intergenerational solidarity so that we can look young people in their eyes and know we are on the right side of history.

Dream It, Live It!
I am filled with gratitude for how Nigeria has prepared me for my current role: my work with the country’s parliamentarians was a baptism for working with the representatives of Member States; my contacts with the different levels of Nigeria’s Government has equipped me for a similar array of UN bodies, and my time as Environment Minister showed me the immense value of inclusive approaches ensuring a balance between people and planet.

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Family, friends, and colleagues have given me a powerful support system; even amidst the necessary social distancing, we are staying close.

Like many Nigerians, I travel with a fair amount of luggage (I won’t mention how many bags I had on my most recent trip home).

But what I carry with me most of all at this time is the conviction that we Nigerians can make 2021 a year of achievement that will advance the opportunities of our country and have resonance around the world. I look forward to working with all partners in that vital endeavour towards the betterment of all humanity.

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