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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tinubu Administration’s Efforts to Support Chibok Girls and Promote Women’s Empowerment: An Interview

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Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Uju Kenneth-Ohanenye, took office in August 2023. In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ameh Ejekwonyilo at her office in Abuja, Ms Kennedy-Ohanenye talks about how President Bola Tinubu is responding to the aftermath of the abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls from their school in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, a decade ago. The minister also explains why she prefers “sustainable empowerment” of women to organizing conferences and workshops.

PT: The horrific abduction of over 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram terrorists from Chibok in Borno State occurred 10 years ago. Is there any hope of rescuing the remaining girls in captivity?

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Kennedy-Ohanenye: The issue of the Chibok girls was domiciled in the Ministry of Women Affairs. When I came in as minister on August 20, 2023, the issue of Chibok girls was one of the issues handed over to me. The report that was handed over to me said about 77 Chibok girls were at the American University of Nigeria in Adamawa State. Most of the girls were in their seventh year when they were supposed to graduate. They began their studies with pre-degree programs for two years before they moved on to the full five-year program. The government was paying their school fees. Remember that when the Chibok incident happened, it was shocking to everyone. Nigeria was not even used to that kind of issue. Consequently, quick decisions were taken which our current administration may not agree with. One of those quick decisions was taking the rescued Chibok girls to an expensive school when the girls and their families needed other monetary help to better their lives and secure them. But no one thought about the welfare of the Chibok girls’ family.

Then the girls were enrolled at the American University of Nigeria. So, when I came in, because of the kind of president I am working for, who wants the best for both the Chibok girls and their families, to improve their livelihoods, I did not buy the idea of the American University. So, (concerning) the last payment of N450 million as tuition fees for the girls, I had to call the American University for a meeting and we agreed that the government cannot pay such humongous fees. The university ought to have given the girls a scholarship allowing the government to pay up to 30 per cent of the fees. So, the university agreed and we were able to pay half of the N450 million, while the school will give the girls’ families cash for businesses and empowerment equipment like industrial machines and tricycles. The university has provided the industrial machines but efforts are on to disburse the funds directly to the genuine families of the abducted Chibok girls.

Now, President Tinubu is handling the Chibok girls issue differently (from the way the previous administrations handled it). I am sure the girls will prefer the government enrolling them in affordable schools, then use part of the money for the empowerment of their families and provide security. You know security and economy are top on Mr President’s priority list.

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PT: Currently, how many of the Chibok girls are at the American University of Nigeria?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: There are 77 Chibok girls at the university. They are graduating in two months. Even the girls with babies are graduating in 2024.

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PT: Is there any hope of rescuing the remaining Chibok girls in captivity?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: Oh, yes, there is a hope of having all the Chibok girls back. You could see the commitment of the president to tackling insecurity by rescuing abducted schoolchildren from criminals without paying a ransom. Even with the security challenges in southeastern Nigeria, the president has done a lot in rescuing victims of the violence and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Now, talking about insecurity in Nigeria, for instance, I don’t think we have security challenges in more than five out of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). So, why are we blowing our situation out of proportion as if we are the worst in the world? I know people whose countries are full of security challenges. We are not doing badly. With President Tinubu, Nigeria will surpass some of the countries with over 200 years of democratic journey in development.

PT: What are some of the federal government’s interventions in women’s empowerment?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: The ministry, prior to my assumption of office as minister, was busy spending money on advocacy, meetings, consultancies and workshops without sustainable women empowerment programs that are cash-based.

For instance, you spend N250 million to go and advocate for rural women on why breast ironing is harmful to their well-being. These locals are in dire need of economic empowerment, but these non-governmental organizations carry out their advocacy programs, they simply walk away without any form of financial benefit. So, I went back to Pygba and four other communities in Abuja, where girls were subjected to breast ironing, a harmful traditional practice aimed at making women unattractive to men. I gave them money to do sensitization. The people carried a band and sang in their dialect and sensitized the people. After the advocacy program, we bought them sustainable machines and gave them some money for small-scale businesses.

So, when I assumed office as minister, I told my staff members that no one spends N250 million on advocacy, consultancy, meetings, and talks on building policies when you have not even implemented any of the policies you have drafted all these years. Therefore, whatever you call a program must be sustainable empowerment. I made it my own vision and way of running this ministry which is in tandem with the Renewed Hope Agenda of President Bola Tinubu.

PT: So, how do you intend to empower women if advocacy programs are not allowed?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: What I am simply saying is that a larger percentage of funds that are earmarked for advocacy programs should be channeled into procuring items like machines that ensure sustainable empowerment for women. We have already clustered these women. This initiative is changing lives; giving women reasons to live.

PT: Are there specific tasks assigned to you by the president?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: Yes. Mr president gave ministers deliverables. In those deliverables, the president did not mention programs. So, you don’t expect me as a minister to allow them (civil servants) to lavish the whole funds on workshops that do not yield tangible results. The deliverables are parts of those sustainable empowerment programs that I am insisting staff members of the ministry must deliver. That is what I have changed at the Ministry of Women Affairs.

PT: But are your workers in support of the new empowerment policy?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: Oh, yes. That is what all the directors at the ministry who readily support are doing. They are excited about it. So, all of them that have collected their monies for the programs did exactly that. We have evidence of our delivery of impactful programs to women in 15 States across Nigeria. The 15 states that have received the items are Lagos, Benue, Oyo, Adamawa, Anambra, Niger, Rivers, Kebbi, Kano, Katsina, Gombe, Bayelsa, Jigawa, Imo and Ebonyi.

The empowerment items to the 15 states mark the first phase of my ministry’s crucial intervention programs in line with the President’s.

PT: What were these empowerment items?

Kennedy-Ohanenye: The items include 60 garri processing machines, 75 industrial sewing machines, overlock weaving industrial machines, industrial buttonhole machines, fish grilling machines and rice milling machines amongst others.

A total of 387 sets of equipment have been used to empower rural women thus far in phase one of our program. Subsequent distributions will be made in the second phase to extend to other states.

There is also the garri processing compressor which drains the water from the cassava before it gets to the dryer. Then there is a machine that fries two 50kg bags of garri at once. It uses gas thereby saving the environment in terms of clean energy and making things easy for the women. It takes an hour for the machine to fry the garri. For instance, if there are 50 women in the cooperative society, they all can fry their garri one day, because these are industrial machines.

So we gave 12 cassava and garri processing machines per state. We have delivered the machines to 15 states. For example, Benue State has taken off. Women in Benue quickly installed the machines and sent us videos of how they are processing garri.

For the northern states in the country, we gave them rice processing machines. If you go to the rice processing machines, it has a rice boiler, the chaffer, destoning and peeling. In addition, we provided women with fish grilling machines that can grill 6,000 fish a day and it takes one hour to grill 500 fish.

In less than a year, the president has recorded tremendous successes contrary to some media reports. For instance, the First Lady (Remi Tinubu) is doing so much for women. Everyone can testify that no First Lady in the history of this country within such a short time has achieved what Her Excellency Remi Tinubu has accomplished; combating HIV/AIDS and other healthcare interventions, empowering local female farmers with N500,000 each to ensure sustainable means of livelihood. Before now, many vulnerable women were left out of government empowerment programs. Today, the First Lady personally gives out these funds to the female farmers. She gave N500 million in Kaduna; all the farmers opened bank accounts and from the First Lady’s office, monies were transferred through the banks to the women’s individual accounts.

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