Can you tell us something about your path and current work?
I was raised on a farm in rural Nigeria, near the town of Gashua, outside of Maiduguri, in the far northeast. My parents were farmers. I watched my parents closely and was keenly aware of the hardships of their lives. The farm was mostly arable, with a few cattle and goats. I took food to the laborers, and remember getting in trouble once when I spilled what I was carrying. But often they gave me sweets and were kind. It was a hard life, with kindness but also pain. I determined that I wanted to do something to make that life easier, to improve on the drudgery that is involved in traditional farming.
So when I finished high school in Gashua I decided to study agriculture. I first studied at a university in my region, the University of Makurddi, which is south of Jos, a very different region and far from my home. It has an excellent agronomy department, which specializes in farming systems and mixed cropping systems. The student body was mixed too &Christians, and very few Muslims so that was a lesson also. It had students from several countries. The university has an affiliation with Texas A and M University, USA, so there were contacts across the international agriculture world and contact with world class research persons. After my studies, I went back to Maiduguri and was offered a position teaching in the faculty of agriculture, understudying the senior professors, first as Graduate assistant, and subsequently as a lecturer. I was also able to help with some practical studies in agriculture for undergraduates.
And then I was offered a university sponsored scholarship to the University of Ibadan. Again, it was far from home, but offered a remarkable opportunity for learning, both academic and practical. The academic staff on the faculty was superb and renowned in tropical agriculture. The University of Ibadan, which began as University College, London, is top class, and the teaching staff included big people in the field from all over the world. Their research was in many fields, including farming systems, agronomy, hydrology etc. And I was able to work with researchers at the IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
). They were doing research especially on cowpeas, soybeans, and maize, very relevant for my region. I worked with the great professors whose works I had read, but this time in the flesh.
So I decided to become an academic. I returned to Maiduguri, following my MSC and taught at the university and did some consulting with the agricultural extension services, involving extension outreach to farmers and technical support with regional agricultural research.
And then I was offered a highly competitive scholarship (European Union Scholarship) to go to Great Britain; only four or five were selected each year and I went to Cranfield University, in Bedford, which has a superb agricultural program at their Silsoe campus. Again I studied agriculture with wonderful academics. And the scholarship offered the unusual opportunity to return to my country to do my field work, and it even supported my professors to visit Nigeria. So while my compatriots were studying British crops like Brussel sprouts and radishes and temperate farming systems, I was able to work on African crops and farming systems.
After I finished my degree I went back to the University at Maiduguri, teaching and doing research. But it became a bit boring so I was interested in moving into development work, which I found fascinating. I wanted to find ways to translate my knowledge about farming systems and the life of farmers into practice, by connecting it with the surrounding policy environment. Farmers have far more capital than is appreciated and used. So I was on very fertile ground for a move to development. So how did you end up with DFID?
I began doing some consulting work for DFID (which was ODA & Overseas Development Administration & at the time), on some assessment of pilot projects in natural resources, and they subsequently offered me a job to become an adviser as the national counterpart to the expartrate administrator of their renewable natural resource office, in 1997. I have worked there for the past 11 years except for a short period working on a European Union rural development project.
When the Labour Party won the election in Britain, there were major policy changes that were made across the British development administration. The bilateral aid agency was elevated to Cabinet status and refocused its work in many ways. So ODA became DFID.
I had initially worked as an advisor in DFID focused on NGOs in agriculture, then in the central policy unit in DFID Nigeria. But there was a recognition that the government dominated approaches were not working well, and also that by working on many states the butter was spread too thin on the bread. Nigeria being a large country, the DFID program was refocused to concentrate on four states. I was sent to one of these focus states: Jigawa, which was a new, very rural state, which presented lots of challenges: public governance, natural resources management, primary health care, you name it. My job involved working on strategy and a continuing policy dialogue with the government offices, and trying to help coordinate among different service providers working for us, as well as with development partners working in the field. It was, though, a hell of a time, with positive moments, and at times, presented a huge learning curve, working with both Nigerian and international staff. We continued with this pilot for about four years, when DFID decided that it needed to move to a more regional than specific state focus, as they were missing many opportunities because of the closed nature of the state focus.
In a 2004 reorganization, I was asked to open the northern regional office, with a mandate to look at the whole northern Nigerian region, comprising 13 states. I set up the office, and that is what I am doing today. We have a DFID staff of about 12, 6 Nigerian and 6 international. We work in a number of states, looking to many partnership opportunities. Donor coordination is especially important, and DFID is very much in support of the spirit of the Paris Declaration, so we support a country partnership strategy and collaborate on program coordination on a continuous basis, eg with World Bank and USAID. I am responsible for trying to make sure that DFID programs contribute to a coherent collective whole, and that donors including DFID are not working as individual programs, getting in each other's way. Can you give any examples of how this plays out?
DFID in Nigeria is almost entirely involved in technical assistance today, and we are fighting the many difficulties that go with technical assistance and capacity building, including donor fatigue. One area of emphasis is education. Various donors are involved, including the World Bank, which, as an example, supports textbooks, instructional materials, and classroom construction. We were able to weave a collective effort among the different programs so that they now form a collective whole, an attractive bundle. They provide the hardware bit, whilst we support with the software aspects needed to use well the hardware resources. Together, we achieve complementarity. These common approaches, though they are hard to design, are clearly the best way to go. How does religion enter into the picture? For yourself, and for DFID?
It is a challenge to work as a Muslim in a British agency in Nigeria. Northern Nigeria presents some special difficulties and sensitivities, and some programs and issues do tend to arouse religious sentiments.
An example is the provision of insecticide treated bed-nets to prevent malaria. Some of the Islamic sheikhs on the conservative side came out and said publicly that these bed-nets were impregnated with birth control medication and the program was thus population control by the back door. We rely heavily on evidence to counter views like this, working to be as transparent as we can possibly be. We show exactly what goes into the treatments of bed &nets and the recipient state governments have arranged visits to other countries with similar programs, like Indonesia, and visits by Muslim leaders from other countries to Nigeria also. The evidence shows clearly that the bed-nets have no negative effects. Over time this has helped to defuse and diffuse the controversy. We had similar controversies around childhood immunization, ordinary vaccinations like DPT and chicken pox. Again, there were accusations that the vaccines were impregnated with birth control medications, and again we responded to the challenges with facts and exchanges. Dialogue is the only way and the key to bringing people along with us.
Being a Muslim myself has both advantages and disadvantages. When I go to a meeting, people may tell me things that can be helpful, that give insights that a non-Muslim would have trouble hearing. People may give the real reasons they can or cannot support something, and I can convey what we can and cannot do to help. But sometimes the discussions can be frank and even very nasty. So I find myself in a rather delicate balancing act, between my DFID and my northern Nigerian constituencies. I want my colleague to understand the realities and cultural sensitivities, yet I do not want them to be too frightened by what they hear. How do Muslim/non Muslim relationships affect DFID supported programs and development more generally in Northern Nigeria?
There are several important currents. A number of the Muslim leaders in northern Nigeria are playing constructive and dynamic leadership roles. The Emir of Zaria and the Sultan of Sokoto are examples. They are strong supporters of education and have been for many years. They also advocate unequivocally for their followers to send their daughters to school. We include them in the dialogue processes that DFID is involved with.
We also have organized visits of British Muslim leaders, including some who are in the Parliament, as well as academics and businessmen, to northern Nigeria and that has had important benefits. There has been much learning from such processes and it creates much good will. It is all about bridge building.
Interfaith dialogue is quite active in northern Nigeria and DFID has supported it, with funds but granted through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, specifically through a small grant to the interfaith council in the region that has done important work. It includes imams, sheikhs, and bishops and does good work. There is active involvement from a wide range of senior faith leaders across the region, including notable clerics such as Sheikh Usman from the Islamic Mosque on Wharf road Kaduna, the Sultan of Sokoto supports this as patron, Sheikh Sulaiman Orire from JNI, and Bishop Peter Jatau. How are other international agencies involved in this dialogue?
Many are quite active though each tends to take a rather distinct approach. For example, USAID has focused a lot on issues around HIV/AIDS, which are very significant. They are pressing for more testing and looking to religious leaders to support acceptance of testing.
Many donors are also involved in issues around education, and the approaches to different kinds of schools. How are the debates about religion and education changing in northern Nigeria?
It is a complex and dynamic situation. At present, in Kano, for example, there are about 600,000-700,000 pupils in the public, secular schools, and only a third or even a quarter are girls. In contrast, in the Quranic/Thangaya schools there are 1.8-2.0 million pupils, and nearly half are girls. So the former is less attractive as schools of choice to parents for sending girls than the latter. And yet the former is fully government supported and the latter is not. The situation is complicated as the age groups can be quite different & older children may enrol in Quranic schools and there is literacy training across all ages, even some carter for married students.
But the basic reality is that if Nigeria is to achieve the education MDGs, the Quranic schools have to be involved. And that is still rather controversial with quite different views and approaches. Can you tell us more about why the numbers of girls in Quranic schools is so much higher?
Parents are very uncomfortable to send their daughters to the secular schools. They find the secular schools too empowering. The fact of the matter is that they prefer their daughters to be rather docile. This may be selfish but it is the reality. Parents also face the challenge of marrying off their daughters, as they have to send off a girl fully equipped, with furniture and all. Thus they often prefer to see their daughters involved in petty trading so they can build up some funds rather than going to school.
So what DFID is doing is supporting curriculum reforms in the Quranic system, especially in the areas of math, English and social sciences intergrated into the curriculum. Teacher training for these schools is another priority. This reform has the support of the emirs, who are advocating for more secular content in the Quranic system. Our view is that if we want to ensure that more girls go to school we have to work through this system. And the genuine support of the enlightened Muslim leaders in the north for education has great importance. Can you describe briefly how the systems work on the ground in the north?
There are two different kinds of Quranic schools. One is called the TsanGaya, which is the traditional system. A young sheikh sets up a school and perhaps 30 to 40 or so young people attend classes. Mostly it involves memorizing the Quran and writing on slates. This happens in the morning and at night, and during the day the students are sent out to beg to find ways of fending for their food through menial jobs, but mostly through begging. The teacher has no resources, and the idea is that this will teach resilience and toughness. The students go in a group so the idea is that they are safer. They emerge with a knowledge of the rudiments of the Quran and with survival skills, though the system is subject to abuse.
There are some variants today in this system (which is very local and decentralized), with some adding more content in the curriculum, some focusing on artisanal and trade subjects. Some schools teach carpentry and other skills.
The second type of school is more formal. These are full schools, with structured hours. They are based in each community, run by a community committee, with a principal of the school. They teach in Arabic and have a full curriculum. Some are financed by the waqf, the religious endowments, either individual or tied to the community. Overall the system is very decentralized. The Emirs do have a quality control board governing regulations for quranic schools.
And the system is changing today, especially with a sharp influx of new private schools. This is a very large and important trend. Most are entrepreneurial, some are financed by philanthropists. A few are religious but most are not. Is there an Islamic University?
There was one that the Libyans supported in Kano, but it was shut after two years of preparatory work. The government was concerned that it would support Islamic extremism and decided that there should be no religiously affiliated universities. They are concerned about opening the door to militancy and extremism, which would be difficult to control.
However, there is some change, and there are actually two Christian universities that have opened recently. One of them is the university that Dele Olowu supports in Ogun State, The Redeemed Christain Church Of God, near Ibadan. Another successful church is applying for a licence to open a new University, Madona in the East of Nigeria, near Enugu. There is also the Jubilee University which the Catholic Church is supporting,in Wukari. Can you relate this to your own experience?
I myself went to a state, secular school all the way. But I also went to the Islamic school for two hours each afternoon. This was very much the norm at the time and remains so in much of the north. How does DFID as an institution approach religion?
DFID is very secular. It essentially tries to keep religion out of decision making, in an explicit way. But much funding does involve religious institutions, for example the Islamiya schools and Islamic hospitals. We can support faith inspired projects and do gain good will that way. The approach is inclusive; we do not exclude. The World Bank is even more secular in its approach, and will not go as far as DFID does, especially in education where there is some difference in approach. You mentioned earlier that there are some restrictions on funding of religiously supported projects? Do you mean Christian projects?
Yes. DFID will not support Christian projects, Catholic or Anglican, in the north, for fear of not been labelled as proselytesing. In southern and eastern Nigeria, the situation is quite different and there is active cooperation between the churches and a lot of donor partners in health because the church missions are very visible and credible service providers, active in schools as well as hospitals. You mentioned Islamic hospitals. How extensive is this system and how does it work?
There are a number of hospitals that have Islamic names and are supported by Islamic foundations. They include the usual Islamic sects supported services in places like Kano, zaria and Kaduna, such as the Ahmadiyya hospitals, linked to different Islamic sects and movements. Can you give any insights on recent developments within the Muslim community in the north?
Northern Nigerian Islam is mostly Maliki, but the Sunni,and the Wahabbi strands are very visble and vocal. But Islam is diverse here as in many places and there are different movements, including Sufi movements with huge influence such as the Qadriyya.
There have been many difficulties especially since 9/11, and the government has frozen funds to some Islamic movements and activities. This involves the federal government working often with the US government to freeze accounts on the grounds of threats due to extremism.
One subject I hear people complain about is that the Aga Khan Network does not support projects in northern Nigeria, it seems because there is virtually no Ismaili community there. Can you give a distilled picture of what this all means?
There is much passion in politics in Nigeria, and it spills over into religion, to an extent that people are ready to kill for it. The passion, though, comes from the politics, but many issues are analyzed in terms of religion. This is far more true in the north than in the south, however. Religion in the north is almost always a sensitive topic. In Ibadan, and most of Western Nigeria, in contrast, there are intermarriages and a real acceptance of people from different faiths, in families and in communities. People never fight about religion. That is part of the Yoruba culture and tradition. The Yoruba identity is far more important than the religious identity. But the opposite is true in the north.
There are leaders who are playing positive roles in bringing about changes in the situation. What is happening with the fierce debates around Sharia law?
Sharia has gone very quiet. If no one draws attention to an incident, it tends to be quietly settled, in the civil courts. But if the media does blow it up there is likely to be an incident. Pride comes into the picture. But essentially many are unhappy about the law, given that it was differentially and dishonestly enacted in the first place by politicians. Under the state law in many states, citizens can chose to go to the Sharia or civil courts, but it is not applied much in practices. In speeches in Washington recently, the Sultan of Sokoto was emphatic in emphasizing the time bomb of young people who could not find jobs. How do you see this situation?
Yes, it is a time bomb, as is the inequality between the north and south in Nigeria. The underlying problem is the economic decline in the north. A recent survey in Kano showed a dramatic decline in industrial enterprises, from 330 functioning industries in 1986 to only 70 in 2004. They simply cannot compete with goods produced in China and elsewhere, despite varying degrees of protection. That affects textiles, shoes, and other industries. The cheap goods pour in and the factories close. And production costs keep rising. Just recently one industry fired 30,000 young people. The leaders just do not know what to do.