I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to this occasion that brings together individuals and organizations MacArthur has been supporting in Nigeria.  I also welcome friends from the government, civil society organizations, other donor agencies, and members of the media who make common cause with the Foundation and its grantees in working to achieve a better future for Nigeria.

We meet to celebrate a spirit of partnership between MacArthur and Nigeria.  This is an historic moment for us: it is the first time that the MacArthur Board has held a meeting outside of North America.  Our visit underscores our sense of Nigeria’s importance to Africa and the wider world: Nigeria has the opportunity to show that a large, ethnically diverse country can move from authoritarian rule to healthy democracy and from economic stagnation to a vibrant market economy that distributes the fruits of growth fairly.

We know we come at a critical moment in Nigeria’s post independence history.  Your approaching election will, we trust, transfer power peacefully from one democratically elected government to another.  We hope for a vigorous debate of the issues, a minimum of interference and violence, a strong voter turnout and a process that is – and is perceived to be – fair.  These are all vital signs of a successful election and a maturing democracy.

We are here to meet our grantees, leaders of civil society, university faculty, government officials, business and religious leaders to learn first-hand how this moment of history is unfolding.  And we want to hear your thoughts about how we can help, not so much in the next month, but over the long haul.

We have been making grants in Nigeria since 1989, supporting 300 individuals and organizations with nearly $100 million.  We opened an office here in 1994 and I am glad that our first director, Professor Bolanle Awe is with us tonight.  Her energetic and dedicated leadership has been matched by that of her successor, Dr. Kole Shettima, and his talented staff.  Together, they have made MacArthur a trusted and respected force working for a better future for Nigeria.

We believe our chosen fields are critical to that future.  Attention to women’s reproductive health and planning will give women choices about family size.  More modest population growth can, in turn, help economic development and reduce poverty.  MacArthur’s human rights work aims to improve the rule of law, reduce the incidence of police abuse, and enhance the trust that citizens have in their government.  And our work with higher education aims to strengthen universities as a source of well-trained professionals, solid policy advice, and research that contributes to a stronger economy.

We are committed to Nigeria, convinced of its strategic importance, and energized by the determination of the Nigerian people to build a country that will be a beacon of hope for all of Africa.

When I speak about my optimism for Nigeria’s future, some think I am naïve.  Not so.  I know the challenges your country faces are complex and formidable.  You have a young population that needs access to high quality education, your health-care system must expand the network of basic care and combat the threat of new diseases, and the divide between rich and poor stubbornly persists.  As you approach your election season, the underlying tensions and divisions between religions, ethnic groups, regions, and classes may appear more visible than ever.  But let us put the challenge and the progress in perspective.

Stable democracies take time to build and secure.  It was after all, 12 years from America’s first article of confederation to the ratification of its Constitution (1776-88).  And it took a generation until its politics entered into a stable party system.  So even success stories take time to unfold.  They require patience, good leadership, and widespread citizen engagement.  Very often, they need also the emergence of a younger generation fired by the vision of what can be and ready to move beyond divisions that stifled progress in the past.  On this trip, we have seen that new generation already taking responsibility.

Next month’s election will tell us something about the future, but is only one data point.  The next five, more likely the next ten years will be the crucial test of whether Nigeria will take its rightful place as a leader in Africa and in the world.  With a trusted democratic government, an open and tolerant society, balanced economic growth fairly distributed, respect for human rights at home, Nigeria can be a model for other developing nations and, we trust, an advocate for the highest international standards abroad.

I firmly believe that a true measure of a healthy democracy is the strength of civil society revealed by the number and quality of NGO’s operating in the community.  The record in Nigeria is encouraging.  There are now close to a thousand NGOs, a number that is increasing at the rate of 5 percent each year.  This means that, in health, human rights, education, rural development, conservation and women’s issues, citizens are coming together, unmediated by government, to address problems and seize opportunities.

We have seen your accomplishments with our own eyes and believe that our financial support has been well used.  Rural health clinics, legal services for the poor, after-school programs for young people, universities on the move, and more lift our spirits and deepen our determination to stay the course. 

I can feel the power and potential of direct citizen action in this room – it is palpable and pervasive.

None of us here can be sure of the future.  All we can do is work hard together in the spirit of realistic optimism.

I doubt there are cynics among us; we are idealists committed to working together and building for the future with confidence.  We are united by a common goal:  to enable Nigerians to seize hold of their destiny and create a bright future for all.

MacArthur is privileged to be welcomed here as your friend and partner.  We believe in you, and all you do.  We will not let you down.

Africa, Education, Nigeria