Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Nigeria Reception for Staff, Grantees, Associates
March 1, 2009 | Speech | Higher Education in Russia & Africa, Population & Reproductive Health, Human Rights

I want to begin by thanking Kole Shettima and his staff for organizing this reception and for the outstanding work they do in making MacArthur an effective force for progress in Nigeria. Their deep knowledge of political, economic and social developments in Nigeria, keen judgment about people and institutions, finely honed instinct for the right time and place for MacArthur to invest its resources, gives our Trustees great confidence in our work here. May I ask the staff to raise their hands as I call their names so we can show our appreciation.

  • Godwin Odo, the bulwark of our human rights work and informal legal adviser of the office;
  • Ereopuye Amachree, our key point of contact for grantees, who keeps our office running efficiently;
  • Amina Usman, a new member of our team who has already proved her effectiveness;
  • Esther Ifesanmi, who manages calendars for the Director and the office so smoothly;
  • Waheed Adeniran, our longest serving staff member, whose skills as a driver I have good reason to be grateful for;
  • Susan Paul, who takes care of the welfare of our staff in addition to her other duties
  • Rahab Uzoije, who welcomes visitors to our office with poise and charm;
  • David Amba, who keeps our work environment so immaculate.

Since becoming President of MacArthur ten years ago, I have visited Nigeria once – sometimes twice a year. I have traveled from Kano and Zaria in the North to Port Harcourt in the South, felt the energy of bustling Lagos and the deep tradition in villages like Minjibir. Everywhere I have felt warmly welcomed and secure in the friendships I have formed here which will last a life time.

This is my final trip to Nigeria as President of MacArthur. Our Foundation has fixed terms for Trustees, program staff, and Presidents.

So, I want to reflect for a few moments on our work in Nigeria and what I have learned from you.

When we began here in 1989, times were difficult and the military regime restricted us to the population field. We opened an office in 1994 – that brought us closer to Nigeria on a daily basis, so we had a direct sense of the struggles during the military period. And we shared the hope that came with the return to democracy in 1999. The new government welcomed our presence and allowed us to expand our work to human rights and higher education. Over the years, we have supported 300 organizations and individuals with about $100 million.

MacArthur has chosen to make Nigeria its focus in Africa, in fact, the number two location worldwide for its grantmaking. We do so because we believe Nigeria can show the world that a large, complex, multi-ethnic society can make a transition to democracy. The world badly needs that success story.

That macro view brought us here. But what sustains our commitment and fires our passion are the people with whom we work. Your courage, selfless determination, ingenuity, and basic optimism that good people working together can make a difference, inspire us to stay the course with you.

We have a long-term commitment to Nigeria, buoyed by the progress we have seen: a freer, more vibrant press, a more robust civil society, a stronger and more independent judiciary, significant economic reforms, but most of all, a new generation of Nigerian leadership in government, universities, civil society, media, business, and all the rest.

We wish the last election had been better, but the Electoral Reform Commission has put forth concrete proposals for reform. And, at the State level, an increasingly independent judiciary ordered new elections, sometimes with different outcomes. Through all the tension surrounding the elections, Nigerians held together with a minimum of violence.

As I look over the past ten years and the work we have done together, I see real progress.

The government has placed a higher priority on universities, increasing funding by over 300 percent. MacArthur support has brought universities faster, cheaper Internet connectivity, support for faculty development, and improvements to libraries and laboratories. New computer centers at Port Harcourt and Bayero Universities, refurbished science labs at ABU, a digital library at Ibadan, a new gas and petroleum institute at Port Harcourt – all tangible signs of universities on the move.

In Population and reproductive health through the work of Action Health we see a nationally mandated Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education implemented in more than 20 states. And there is hope that Nigeria’s Maternal Mortality rate, one of the highest in the world, will come down as MacArthur works with the Population Council, Campaign Against Unwanted Pregnancy, and Pathfinder International, to reduce death by post partum hemorrhage and eclampsia. We are so proud of the new minister of Health Babatunde who was a Visiting Fellow to the Foundation, a Member of our Population and Reproductive Health International Advisory Group, and grantee when he was leading Social Sciences and Reproductive Health Network.

And in the field of human rights and the rule of law, we see hopeful signs as CLEEN Foundation, the Network for Police Reform, and Access to Justice educate the police on the virtue of working with the community and curbing police abuse. The MacArthur project to review and publish the Laws of the Federation called attention to laws and edicts inconsistent with the constitution. As a result of that review, and a principled response by Parliament, we are happy to see the deletion of “Decree No. 2, State Detention of Persons,” and “Decree No. 1, Suspension of Constitution,” among others. With MacArthur’s help, the laws of the Republic were printed for the first time and made available on-line.

As I cite these tangible accomplishments, I know there is much more to do in higher education, reproductive health, and human rights. Let alone other challenges like persistent poverty, inequality, insecurity, improving agriculture and food production, and the ongoing crisis in the Delta.

But I am optimistic about Nigeria’s future because of what we have achieved together, because of you and your organizations.

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.

So, I want to thank you for all you are doing to help Nigeria realize its potential to be an African success story. I want to thank you for being such good partners to MacArthur and good friends to its staff. And finally, I want to thank you for teaching me about Nigeria, about Africa, and about the resilience of the human spirit.

I have learned so much from you.

From Nike Esiet of Action Health that young people can learn about responsible sexual behavior.

From Dr. Abubakar Sayyid, Director of Minjibar General Hospital, that even poorly equipped rural medical centers have skilled personnel who can save a women’s life in birth.

From the late Musa Abdullahi, former Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, that a university with limited resources can mobilize to bring itself up to one of the leading universities in the country.

From Nimi Briggs, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, that Nigerian business can be inspired to give generously.

From Innocent Chuckwuma, Executive Director of the CLEEN Foundation, that there are reform minded leaders in the National police who know that they are accountable to the community.

From former Chief Justice of Nigeria Muhammad Uwais, that the judiciary has the courage to exercise independence

From Buhari Bello, former Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, that human rights can be promoted and protected by governmental institutions.

From Representative Saudatu Sani, Chair of the MDG Committee of the House of Representatives that even repressive laws and judgements can be successfully overcome through the legal process.

From Abdullahi Mahadi, former Vice Chancellor of ABU Zaria, that restoring the physical integrity and beauty of the campus nurtures a healthy learning culture.

From Yemi Akin George, former Special Assistant to the Minister of Justice, that patience and persistence are indispensable while working with governmental institutions.

From Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, that a strong and independent judiciary can be the backbone of an emerging democracy.

From Habib Sadauki, Program Coordinator for Maternal Health of Pathfinder, that a simple technology can save the lives of hundreds of women.

From Mohammed Yahaya, former Director of the Center for Communications and Reproductive Health Services and Secretary to Government of Niger state, that a small investment in individuals is a can become a major investment in improving the lives of families and communities.

From the late Bola Ige, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, that courage and risk are the hallmark of leadership.

So, I take my leave more optimistic than ever about Nigeria’s future, an educated optimism inspired by the talented, determined, decent, courageous people of Nigeria.

You can count on MacArthur to stay the course with you, and you can count on me to be your advocate and your friend forever.

And, as General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “I shall return.”

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