Today, the need for intervention is the most striking in the North East of Nigeria, within and around the areas controlled by Boko Haram. People have been touched by bombings and paramilitary attacks; many have fled the conflict. On 31st December 2015, it was estimated that over 2 million people had fled the conflict region, staying temporarily elsewhere in the country. Yet the Foundation has adopted the same response protocol to disasters in across the country, ever since the establishment of the Foundation in 2002.
Should they be so inclined, journalists could spin a tragic tale from the facts of Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode’s early life. And since it is an African story, it is safe to assume that many would do just that. Aisha’s father Murtala Muhammed, the then recently appointed President of Nigeria, was assassinated in 1976 when she was just twelve years old. The country was plunged into crisis – so was her own life. She was neglected by her father’s immediate family, who could not forgive her from having a mother from a different tribe. As young as thirteen years old, her uncles sought custody. Her mother afraid that her uncles were planning to marry her off moved across the country to keep her safe. At sixteen she was sent to the United Kingdom, again to protect her from an early marriage.
But Aisha’s story is not a tragedy. She obtained an LLM and an MBA, she has run a real estate firm, and is the CEO of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, one of Nigeria’s largest charitable foundation with operational offices in Lagos, Kano and Abuja and programs across the six geo political zones of the Federation. Rather than a tale of woe, you could tell a tale of struggle fostering strength, of pain cultivating empathy, and empathy giving birth to action. But it it’s not really her story anyway. Or not just. There are so many stories to tell about Nigerians, so many untold. Like those of 276 girls abducted in Chibok in Northern Nigeria in April 2014. 276 girls, each of whom deserves to be more than number. Aisha wants their stories to be told, and heard, and shared. How else can we keep their memory alive? How else can we fight for their return?
Through the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, Aisha wants to make sure that we never forget. To this end, the foundation has commissioned journalists and photographers to talk to the families of the disappeared young women. It has convinced US-based publishing house Powerhouse to publish the families’ testimony, describing the hope they had for their daughters as they undertook their education, the shock of the kidnapping and the aftermath of the dramatic events. The book will be distributed worldwide through the Penguin Random House network. Through this partnership, the Foundation hopes that the book will get the attention of global policymakers. Whilst there is work to be done to awaken consciences abroad, an effort in Nigeria is needed too. Many - perhaps in an attempt to protect themselves from the awful truth - continue to deny that the kidnappings ever happened. This means that there is too little pressure on the government to go after the kidnappers.
And she can’t help thinking: if her daughter were to be abducted, would she expect anything then a ferocious fight to keep her name and the hope of her freedom alive?
“Where does it end? Where should we stop?” That was Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode’s key strategic question that she sought to address at a program for young philanthropic leaders.
The foundation has commissioned journalists and photographers to talk to the families of the disappeared young women.
The proceeds of the sale of the book will be distributed to fund development in the Chibok community, particularly focusing on education and the restoration of livelihoods. Since the abduction of the Chibok girls, all of the 14 schools in the Chibok Local Government have been shut. Farming, which is the mainstay of the economy and which is primarily carried out by the women in the community, has suffered because of the attacks on farms by Boko Haram.
For Aisha this is a project that strikes a personal chord. It reminds her of the fear some men have of educated girls, a fear she experienced in her own family. It reminds of her grandmother’s fight to educate her mother. And she can’t help thinking: if her daughter were to be abducted, would she expect anything then a ferocious fight to keep her name and the hope of her freedom alive?
This is just a small part of the Foundation’s response to disasters and tragedies, whether they be man-made, or have natural causes. Today, the need for intervention is the most striking in the North East of Nigeria, within and around the areas controlled by Boko Haram. People have been touched by bombings and paramilitary attacks; many have fled the conflict. On 31st December 2015, it was estimated that over 2 million people had fled the conflict region, staying temporarily elsewhere in the country. Yet the Foundation has adopted the same response protocol to disasters in across the country, ever since the establishment of the Foundation in 2002. There are three levels to the disaster response. In the emergency response phase, the Foundation is involved in distributing relief materials, through local NGOs, such as blankets and clothes. Between 2013 and 2016, the Foundation estimates that they, with some corporate partners, have contributed to the distribution of over $250,000 of relief materials. During the rehabilitation and recovery phase, the foundation supports families from internally displaced person (IDP) camps and works on increasing school enrollment and the return to livelihoods, albeit in a different place and context. For example, they are building a solar-powered computer lab for IDPs in Borno State, North East Nigeria, which is intended to provide facilities for 5,000 people, who may need IT access to build their future. Finally, the Foundation, through local NGOs, works with local communities to build resilience, should another disaster strike. For example, they train community leaders in identifying and providing support for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), encourage local leaders, such as mayors, to establish databases of local residents. This may prevent a difficult situation, which is unfortunately prevalent in Nigeria, in which children whom appear to have been orphaned by a disaster are precipitously adopted by other families. Complications ensue when the parents return. The Foundation also encourages local people to put something aside for a rainy day – after all, in the event of a disaster, they cannot necessarily count on the government for support. The Foundation estimates that, over the years, it has reached over 2 million Nigerians in the wake of various crises. To ensure scale, where the Foundation does not have direct presence, it partners with local organisations.
The Foundation has also started working on the aftermath of traumatic events. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hits a large number of survivors of traumatic events but, when symptoms emerge, most people lack an understanding of what is happening, let alone have tools for dealing with it. Medical treatment and psychological treatment is the ideal; yet unfortunately most Nigerians will never have the chance to access these evidence-based interventions. The Foundation has a two-pronged strategy to deal with this: one is the building and financing of the running costs of six new public trauma centers in the North East. The first is in Kano (Nigeria’s second largest city, situated in the North West province). The second centre is planned for Borno, North East Nigeria, where they are partnering with another organization until their centre is completed. The centre in Kano, which opened in 2014, has already treated more than 1,000 individuals. In addition to this, the Foundation has worked to distribute a leaflet, in English and Hausa, about how to recognise and manage PTSD and sub-clinical reactions to trauma in the community. This is very important, since without an understanding of PTSD, families can be very frightened by their loved one’s behaviour, and they may seek to hide them or disown them. 120,000 copies of the leaflet have been so far produced in English and Hausa (a major local language) and are distributed in communities where the Foundation works. The translation of the leaflets to Kanuri, which is the dominant language in the North East, is underway Among the recommendations are: give yourself time, avoid bottling up your feelings, face the reality of what happened, form links with other survivors and return to some normal activities. The material came from the British Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Foundation had it translated and illustrated with images of Nigerians.
The Foundation’s engagement with disasters came about almost by chance. The Foundation was established in 2002, 26 years to the day after Murtala Muhammed’s untimely death. A large Nigerian newspaper, The Daily Times, had for many years run an annual lecture in his honour. When the paper shut down, Murtala Muhammed’s immediate family felt it was the right time to think about how his legacy could best be preserved. Though Murtala Muhammed was president for just one year before his death, his memory is vivid in the minds of many Nigerians. The international airport in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, is named after him. But the family wanted to do something concrete, something that touched people’s lives. Just as they had set the Foundation up, disaster in Lagos erupted. Around 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the wake of a fire that was set off when army munitions that had been stored carelessly began exploding and the military district was set on fire. People ran to escape the blasts and many ended up trapped by the canal. They subsequently jumped in and drowned. 5,000 were injured and an estimated 12,000 were left homeless.
So disaster relief became a priority for the nascent foundation, and once the immediate crisis in Lagos had died down, they rebuilt 38 classrooms so that nearly 10,000 children could go back to school. Defining additional priorities for the future, they also chose to continue with the annual lecture launched by the Daily Times, and additionally to focus on education: particularly girls’ education, given the struggle Aisha and her mother faced to complete their studies. In this area, since 2015, the foundation has partnered with the Cherie Blair mentorship program to support 30 women entrepreneurs annually and also finances the “Women in Development” programme providing opportunities for women enterpreneurs to travel across Africa to uncover potential business opportunities. They also have the chance to meet and be inspired by figures such as Graca Machel, and former Malawian president Joyce Banda. Another programme, “Computers for Schools”, has built school computer labs in 50 public schools, using computers sourced from a UK based computer firm which offers reconditioned computers to development projects and building computer-based literacy through a Microsoft curriculum.
Technology, somewhat surprisingly, can be a way to get past concerns about “western education” in conservative Northern States where young people may have been persuaded by the ideology of Boko Haram that western education should be forbidden. For some reason, new technologies are not seen as western. At first, schools couldn’t believe their luck, and phoned the Foundation to check that there was no catch. With time came reassurance and the computers were such a hit that the Foundation is now using the computers in place to boost learning in other subjects, such as maths and science. As part of the program, teachers are trained in new and emerging teaching methods and the schools are encouraged to integrate ICT into their curriculum.
“Where does it end? Where should we stop?” That was Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode’s key strategic question that she sought to address at a program for young philanthropic leaders in 2012 at the Harvard Business School. In Nigeria, needs are seemingly endless and it can sound callous to contemplate walking away. Aisha’s question is still pertinent today and the Foundation still has a plethora of programmes. The decision that the Foundation has taken is to move progressively to a focus on strategic and policy-based approaches to these problems, such as working on developing an effective humanitarian response protocol for the country and a consistent framework for dealing with PTSD, as well as the book on the Chibok girls.
The Foundation is also thinking about seeking external sources of funds. Up until now, the majority of the financial resources have come from family business, largely real estate, agriculture and oil and gas and other family money. But in a country where needs are great, the reputation for credibility that the Murtala Muhammed Foundation has built up could be a valuable asset – for funders, for beneficiaries, and the Foundation. They see a potential to channel donations from outside Nigeria to its tried and tested programmes. They have already earned the confidence of well-known figures such as Cherie Blair, the former British Prime Minister’s wife, and of institutions, such as the Ford Foundation, Nestlé and Accenture. As the Foundation re-evaluates its focus and financial model, changes to the board may emerge as well. The trustee board consists of Aisha (who is also the Chief Executive), her mother, her brother and her father’s closest friend, as well as two former heads of state and a general (all colleagues of Murtala Muhammed). Having bolstered the foundation’s reputation and built up its credibility, the four older men are now at an age where they may wish to retire.
Working in Boko Haram-hit territory is not for the faint hearted. The Foundation, which has ten full-time staff, works with other aid agencies operating in the North. When they go into difficult territory, they do so in convoys, accompanying one another and staffed, remarks Aisha, by bold young people who don’t want to forget what their compatriots in the North are going through. It’s hard to imagine that the Murtala Muhammed Foundation’s staff and trustees, who dare to fight for the Chibok girls, will face their strategic dilemmas with any less courage.