I’m using the Covid-19 holiday to get tech-skills - Ex-UN bigwig, Regina Amadi-Njoku - Paul Ukpabio's Blog


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Sunday, 12 July 2020

I’m using the Covid-19 holiday to get tech-skills - Ex-UN bigwig, Regina Amadi-Njoku

If you say Regina Amadi-Njoku is a walking encyclopedia on gender based issues, feminism, culture and African women leadership, you may not be far from the truth! The ex-UN bigwig, speaks as if reading from a book and you are amazed at the wealth of knowledge that hits you with her every spoken sentence. Yet humbly, she sat with dedicated attention, no airs, but biro and notepad, as she received coaching from youths on tech-skills during this covid-19 lockdown.

In this interview with Paul Ukpabio, Regina Amadi-Njoku who is an ex- UN Assistant Secretary-General/ILO Founder and CEO of Other Half Empowerment Initiative (OH) recalls her success secrets as a woman leader in a male-dominated institution and the challenges that came with being the ILO and Regional Director in charge of 53 African countries. She takes on topical issues and at the same time revealing a lot about her global outlook and lifestyle.

In your estimation would you say that the lockdown triggered off the excessive rape cases that suddenly reared up in Nigeria in the last couple of months?

The incidences of rape and other forms of Violence Against Women & Girls (VAW & G) have always been rampant before COVID 19 in almost all countries, including Nigeria. Actually, VAW & G, including rape and domestic violence constituted a global pandemic long before the COVID-19 outbreak. However, there has surely been a significant spike in rape and gender-based violence cases in Nigeria since March which was coincidentally the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic lockdown. The high frequency of rapes and gruesome rape-related murders exacerbated by COVID 19 lockdown has shaken the entire nation to its core. These heinous acts were quickly denounced with a nation-wide outrage and swift action taken by Nigerians, especially by women who took to the streets to demand urgent action on rape and justice for its victims. This necessitated an urgent response from President Muhammadu Buhari who declared that 'Violence against women is a national crisis' and reiterated his government's commitment to fighting gender-based violence. I really appreciated the governors of Nigeria's 36 states who quickly followed suit by declaring, for the first time in history a state of emergency on rape. The serious mobilization of national consciousness, mostly by women organizations on the horrific nature of rape and rape instigated murders of young women, girls, and even elderly women fast-tracked the adoption of concrete actions to fight all forms of VAW & G. Most important among them is the proposal to establish a registry of sex offenders and rapists for the first time in this nation’s history. This is a very big step in the right direction as Nigerians are mobilized and ready to take concerted actions to address rape, which is one of the most contemptible acts of VAW & G.

Having had the experience of coordinating the first generation of UN global VAW & G campaigns in 2000 as the Regional Programme Director of UNFEM (now UN Women) for West Africa, I greatly admire and commend the Honorable Ministers of Women Affairs and Humanitarian Affairs. Their highly coordinated and rapid-response advocacy and campaign against VAW & G yielded unprecedented, prompt and concrete results. Additionally, their strategic collaboration with women and human rights CSOs, and the clear terms of engagement and partnership with the federal and state governments, and community leaders also aided greatly in this endeavor.

What in essence would you adduce to being the cause for these rampant cases that we now have and how can this be checkmated?

In my estimation, the immediate trigger of the recent spike in rapes and VAW & G is the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictive protocol of lockdown, stay at home, social distancing, restrictive movements and so on, in an unhealthy situation where the workplace melds with the “family place”, where fathers, mothers and children all share the same living/working/schooling/leisure spaces for weeks on end, boredom, restlessness, and irritability can quickly and surely set in. 

Fear, anger, frustration, and uncertainty about the future can inevitably lead to violence. A situation where no one knows how the virus is contracted or if it will ever be cured and where the scepter of death is ever present, even when the protocol is strictly respected, is a climate and recipe for the unimaginable. In a situation where food for most people is sourced on a daily basis, each day becomes a constant reminder of the loss of income and a possible return to abject post COVID-19 poverty looms large. The harsh reality is that for those who pre-COVID 19 were already domestic violence victims in their homes, of which the vast majority of whom are women, children and the elderly, the COVID-19 lockdown living arrangement with its merged work and home places for an unlimited time, quickly become an extremely dangerous place, even death traps.

As a gender equality activist, at what point do you think religion should be the deciding factor in a home and where exactly is the place of feminism in marriage? 

Religion, like culture, I believe has played an important role in human society and family formation and management for many years. First, we have to realize that religion is not necessarily about belonging to some institutionalized faith groups but it is fundamentally the quality of one’s relationship with his or her Maker or Creator. It has been proven that belief in a Higher Being can encourage families to put religion at the center of their relationships and traditions.

Personally, I believe and know that a family that shares and practices the same faith and religious beliefs has a better chance of holding together, developing more cohesive relationships with one another, enjoying more emotional stability, and supporting one another in difficult times. A great dividend of having a strong religion and faith in a marriage or family is that it tends to encourage the children to remain more connected to the family.

On the other hand, I recently co-authored the book:  Culture, Gender and African Women Leadership. It addresses among other issues, African feminism and its difference from western feminism.  Feminism, in general, refers to any ideology that seeks equality in rights for women, usually through improving their status, and access to shared power with the men. Simply put, feminism is about all genders having equal rights and opportunities. A feminist marriage can be described as a marriage, where both partners recognize that they have equal human rights, and therefore must respect and treat each other as equal partners in the marriage enterprise with the man taking the lead. Because the concept of feminism and the movement that promotes it is primarily and globally championed by Western women, feminism got a bad reputation in Africa as it was and is still viewed as the inculcator of Western women concepts of freedom and liberation in African women. This assumption undergirded by the western accelerated move to educate the African women, obscured the real meaning and objective of feminism which was and still is to ensure that both genders (male and female created equal by God) should have equal rights and opportunities. In fact, feminism and feministic instruments for maintaining gender rights and equity existed in Africa, in Nigeria in particular way back in the 16th Century. And we have examples in  Queen Amina who lived in the 16th century and in early part of the 20th century, Madam Funmilayo Ransome Kuti.

We are at a crossroads, and we must strengthen the modern justice system by integrating positive aspects of African traditional gender justice system in marriages, families and communities. Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Liberia and Gambia still maintain some women and family courts that are strengthened with traditional and modern capabilities and skills to adjudicate traditional gender rights cases in marriages and families in villages.

It’s indeed admirable to see a woman climb to the top like you have done in the public and private sector of the economy. What motivated you from childhood to aim for the top?  Were you privileged as a child?

My life is simultaneously forged in City and Village! My childhood was quite colorful as I was born in Lagos, the Capital of Nigeria, precisely in the Campos neighborhood famous for its multi-national and multi-cultural dwellers. The unique place of my birth, my family intergenerational living arrangement; my formal western education and the combination of my living in the city and spending long holidays in my parents’ rural communities in Southern Nigeria shaped my hybrid cultural upbringing and prepared me to easily straddle a dual cultural lane of traditional and modern lifestyles. Campos and its upscale environs of Onikan, and Ikoyi was home to European expatriates and many Nigerian professionals, male and female. Lagos was and still is a real melting pot of cultures, inhabited by peoples from various cultures: Nigerians, Brazilians, Sierra Leoneans; Togolese, Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Lebanese, Chinese, West Indians and Europeans. Lagos was a “mini United Nations” enclave.  Children in my neighborhood benefited from traditional African collective childrearing from parents of the community. We were taught that education, community service, excellent social manners, good character, honesty, and compassion were the hallmarks of a good upbringing.

I grew up seeing different people confidently going about their businesses, and living out their culture from norms, food, clothes, festivals, and religions and so on, I saw women being homemakers, and also professionals such as teachers, nurses, secretaries, accountants, doctors and lawyers. I never felt that my gender could bar me from achieving my life dream. I naturally assumed that I was going to be a homemaker and a professional.

At that tender age, what were you curious about?

I was curious about the abundance of amenities in Lagos and the scarcity of the same amenities in the rural villages we visited during the holidays, especially since my grandmother made me go to fetch water in the stream and pick up firewood. I think that the village experiences subconsciously guided my choice in profession. I just knew that whatever profession I would choose, it would have to be modeled after the ones exercised by the women around me in Lagos and the development work my grandmother and her rural women groups were doing to improve lives in their communities. My career path may have been influenced by my growing up in the city and the villages, but my leadership and management qualities were forged through an adjustment to my mother’s premature death. As the first child of my father who was an only child, I had to take up leadership and management duties very early in life. I benefited from inter-generational mentorship and coaching from women and even men in our extended family. My father was the most important role model of disciplined, yet nurturing leadership for me and my siblings’ lives. He believed I could achieve great things and gave me an extraordinary dose of confidence, pushed me to get the best education and to aspire to the highest position possible. I am ever grateful for his support and contributions to my life achievements. He used to discipline us with many sayings and proverbs. Notable among them are “Survival is seized in the midst of tragedy”, “Leadership is acquired in the trenches of crisis” and “Management is learnt in the midst of scarcity.” The wisdom in these sayings I hold dear to my heart and have tried to pass it on to my children.

As Regional Director for Africa at the International Labour Organization (ILO) with the grade of UN Assistant Secretary-General, we understand you were directing ILO programs in the then 53 countries of the Africa continent and at the same time you were ILO’s Special Rep to the African Union, the Regional Economic Communities, the United Nations Economic Community for Africa and the African Development Bank, how did you feel wearing all these hats at the same time and what were your challenges then?  

To comprehend my challenges as the first women Assistant Director-General of the ILO and Regional Director for Africa, it is important to describe the uniqueness of the ILO.  It was created in 1919, after a destructive world war, with the aim to pursue a universal and lasting peace that must be based on social justice. After the UN was created in 1945, the ILO became its first specialized agency in 1946. Incidentally, the ILO established its first field office in Nigeria in 1959, before the nation’s independence in 1960. ILO is a unique UN agency with normative and developmental objectives. It has a tripartite structure of three stakeholders...the governments (regulators of labour), the workers (suppliers of labour) and the employers (the demanders of labour). ILO is highly political as it aggressively advocates labour standards, employment and job creation as effective instruments for economic and social justices for all peoples.

This is the world I entered in 2000 to take charge of all ILO programs in the whole continent of Africa. I was prepared to a certain extent for this daunting job as I had worked at the World Bank and UNIFEM now UN Women. I had also lectured at universities and had been a civil servant and a diplomat. The skills acquired through these positions prepared me, to a large extent, to perform and excel at the job. But they did not prepare me for the kind of the tough tripartite negotiations required to broker industrial peace between unions, employers and the governments in a continent of different language blocs which included Anglophone, Francophone, Arabophone, Lusophone. I had to learn fast! The great confidence my boss had in me, his coaching, the well of support from my country’s government and some colleagues, especially the women, helped me to perform well and achieve the objectives of not only the ILO office but also those of the tripartite partners. I was one of the few regional directors recruited from outside the ILO who stayed for a long time, a term of eight years.

What were those challenges that you faced?

Yes, there were several challenges of which the greatest among them was leading as a woman in a predominantly male dominant institution while managing some major events which occurred during my tenure. Firstly, the transition of the OAU to AU with the primary responsibility of my office to support the reform of the role of the Labour and Social Affairs Commission in AU. Secondly, the occurrence of some national conflicts on the continent that required intensive hands-on attention of the ILO in mitigating their negative impacts on job creation and labour relations. Thirdly, finding a balance between a high-level job that demanded constant travel and while balancing family life was extremely challenging for me and my family. Nevertheless, I immensely enjoyed the experiences and achievements the job offered me and I remain ever appreciative of the experiences, expertise and networks acquired through the job of which I have been sharing with African young professionals and leaders of today.

As an expert in labour issues globally, has the average Nigerian worker fared better over the years, compared to global standards?
I will be very cautious in answering this question as I have been out of the loop of active labour sector management for a long time. However, from what I learn from the media, from the Covid-19 reporting and personal observations, life is becoming increasingly untenable for workers in most countries, including Nigeria. Most of the gains made in MDGs are fast evaporating and hopes of effectively implementing SDGs are threatened. Poverty is on the rise among workers and families. The Nigerian workers’ situation is exacerbated by the devastating health and economic impacts of Covid-19 which have made a bad situation worse, in that it has triggered high inflation, a steep fall in the value of the naira, and high rise in the cost of living, all in the contextual climate of an existing high unemployment rate and cessation of non-essential work due to Covid-19 lockdown. The most painful fallout of this is that any prior discussions on minimum wage becomes impossible now since the minimum wage must be recalibrated based on the newly increased cost of living and the depreciating Naira.  

Furthermore, the criteria of access to social protection and security that favors the workers in the formal sector and excludes those in the informal sector heightens the insecurity for the majority of the population who operate in the informal sector while fueling some sense of insecurity. All this creates a conundrum of challenges exacerbated by COVID 19 and its attendant health and economic costs. The challenges are also worse in the informal sector where income for daily bread is also sourced on daily basis and the majority of the populations, workers and families are disproportionately affected by limited access to utilities like water and light, needed for implementing the Covid-19 protocols for protection from Covid-19 infections. The availability of sufficient palliatives and access to them may prove difficult as the determination of beneficiaries will be challenging especially in cities and even in villages.

So, is there any good or hope for the Nigerian worker?

Curiously a protective solution adopted to stem the spread of Covid-19 which constituted in total lockdown and mandatory working from home for non-essential workers may offer a unique opportunity to start addressing the dichotomy of attention given to workers in the formal and informal sectors. We can take advantage of how the big companies are re-imagining work, workplace in the home spaces; and worker rights and conditions, including emoluments and benefits packages, to start thinking out of the box regarding the employment reform needed to enhance and harmonize the treatment of all workers in the formal and informal sectors of the economy.

You have worked in Nigeria, Switzerland, USA, from your experience which of these countries have the best work culture and environment. And do you have any experiences you had in this regard that you want to share?

For every professional, each country offers some advantages and disadvantages. The most impotent advantage is the peace and support in the workplace that helps professionals achieve the institutional objectives. The next advantage is measured by the facilities the city of work offers the professional and family, like housing proximity to the office and transportation and security. Of course, a low cost of living is a big plus in a city of work. The greatest advantage is a city that enhances a professional’s ability to enjoy quality work, life and family balance. Geneva offered most of these advantages whereas, Nigeria offered me the work-life and family balance. Washington was very advantageous in offering phenomenal access to enormous networks of learning from peers and institutions. Accessing supplementary education is very easy in the US. As I said each city of work offers different comparative advantages for the professional or worker.

What inspired you to write your first book and how many have you written now?

My childhood experiences, being born and having lived amid people from many cultural backgrounds, watching the gender relations between men and women, and witnessing the fact that men and women worked in different professions, all these predisposed me for a career path in human development with a focus on culture, gender and work. It is then understandable that my writings will focus on development issues. I have written many chapters in books, published articles and presented numerous papers in different fora. I could only write my first published book after retirement. 

I recently co-authored a book on Culture Gender and African women leadership with two other African women that featured 15 prominent African Women Leaders of the ilk of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. My experiences in leadership and management at a high level in international institutions and the challenges that I faced in those positions inspired me to write the book. African women who accede to high-level positions have difficulty in finding models of leadership playbook and mentors that can help them lead as women and with African cultural knowledge of gender relations and leadership.

The goal of my first book is to help African women complement their modern leadership strategies with lessons and tools distilled from traditional women leadership roles, experiences, and networks that can empower them not only to lead more effectively and confidently in the hybrid cultural environment in Africa but also to promote the emergence of a critical mass of African women leaders sorely needed to populate the apex governance and private sector decision making institutions. There is strength in numbers and numbers garnered with the support of the menfolk will definitely facilitate the route to gender equality for both men and women! The book provides insights into understanding how women can leverage lessons of their mother and grandmothers' wisdom and leadership skills and styles, it distills men's views on gender equality and sensitizes them on how to gain by sharing power and challenges at home and so on.

What have you been doing in recent times in terms of work and how have you been doing generally under Covid-19 lockdown?

At first, like most people, I never thought we will all be locked down because of a pandemic. Slowly, I became alarmed that I was going to be bored to death as I was not used to staying home and idle even in these retirement years. Lo and behold, I became pleasantly surprised that in the midst of potentially deadly danger posed by the pandemic, I can work and even do more of what I love which are, writing and praying, since I am at home and with minimal distractions, no travels and no visits, I have greatly improved my tech skills with coaching from the younger generation in the family and have invested in tech tools. I am becoming adept in zoom meetings and webinars. I have even edited my next book ready for publishing. I am still mentoring young ones through zoom and having more meaningful and frequent zoom chats and mentoring sessions with my family members in Nigeria and abroad. The question is what happens when the pandemic is over to our new found effective home workplaces? Before then, I intend to enjoy this arrangement to the fullest, praying that we all survive the pandemic.

Your message for the girl-child in Nigeria

In my view we, the adults, are failing the girl child as well as the boy child. Both are dangerously exposed to negative development events and technologies of the 21st century. Of course, the girl child bears, as her mother, the brunt of most of the negative cultural and technological driven disadvantages of development.

The only advice I can give a girl child is to create an awareness in her regarding her precarious state that could even start before her birth ‘femicide’ and provide her with strategies, skills and networks to enable her to fight off the numerous abuses she will be subjected to before her teenage years and adulthood. The girl child is a legitimate heiress of her mother, in all respects, made to accept and cope with her preordained and pre-birth lower status, the paucity of her rights, and the presumed ownership of her body by boys and men in her life. The boy too is a real heir of his father, proudly modeled after him even before birth, with high status, numerous rights and limitless access to leadership, ownership and power over man, woman and nature. The stage for suffering abuses related to women inequality is set for a girl baby and a girl child. The rest moves into action, like a movie. The irony is that we adults marvel at how and why the girl child should suffer so much abuse. We conveniently ignore that we wrote the script and we direct the movie of her abuses.

I have tried to address this and other inequity issues suffered at all ages through an NGO “Other half Empowerment Initiative” that I founded several years ago.

If you were not what you are now, what else would you have loved to be and why?

I would not want to be any other person than who I am now. I am content with who I am, my family, friends and networks. I have been exceptionally and abundantly blessed, and have had the wisdom to appreciate my ‘becoming’ throughout my different life cycles. Yes, I have had and surmounted great difficulties as any other person but those difficulties were the great building blocks of my character and personality.  

Age teaches you to stop aiming for different alternatives and to settle comfortably to savor who you are and with what you have in terms of family, friends and assets. It is fun to be at an age when one can savor each day with all its opportunities and challenges, knowing that all will pass except the love we share which will forever endure.

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