‘Why we opposed ‘Buhari daughter’s’ fraudulent hijack of BBOG campaign’- Dr Emman Shehu
In this interview with Dr Emman Shehu, Director, International Institute of Journalism, (IIJ), Abuja, and one of those at the forefront of agitations for the safe return of the missing Chibok girls, he speaks on diverse issues amongst which are the insecurity in the North East, the plight of the abducted girls, his social activism and the monthly Abuja Writers Series he pioneered. Excerpts-
Interview by Sheyi Thomas
You are one of those who never gave up on the return of the Chibok girls and matched words with action. What has kept your hope and indeed the Bring Back Our Girls, BBOG alive
Well there are several factors. The first one has been the fact that we knew that in the Jonathan era, there was no attempt to rescue the girls. So, we knew that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen, something had to be done, even if it meant that there should be a closure. There just had to be something official about the girls, even if they were dead it just had to be certain that there was a proper record and an official closure on the matter. That kept us going and even when the new administration took over it kept us going
Also, another thing that kept us going was the fact that this was creating a very bad image for Nigeria internationally and so something needed to be done to show that Nigerians care about their citizens.
Individually, I think our faiths also kept us going. Our faiths teach us that we should be our neighbor’s keeper, we may not be from Chibok or we may not be the parents of the Chibok girls but they are Nigerian citizens firstly and they are human beings, our empathy is very important. As part of any religion, empathy is significant and so that needs to show that we unlike most Nigerians who are religious, have gone beyond being religious and that we are looking at the spiritual significance of empathy.
In the process of all that we began to realize that fighting for the Chibok girls was also fighting for the soul of Nigeria. So that kept us going and you’ll recall that at some point in the advocacy we began to use a phrase like ‘hope endures’ you know in the bible it says that ‘hope endureth.’ Once you hope and believe that God will intervene then that will happen. So basically, these three things kept us going.
Do you think the present government has done enough to bring these girls back and return normalcy to the North East.
Before the 21 were brought back, I don’t think they had done enough. It was quite obvious that it’s the attitude of Nigerian politicians. Once they get into office they have their own agenda. They want only their agenda to be done and they do not like to be told to do the proper thing especially if it is not convenient for them. So even though the present administration made the Chibok girls issue one of its campaign corner stones, it was obvious that the moment they got into power, that changed and I have the feeling that why it changed was because of the hawks in the military. They had never been concerned about getting the Chibok girls rescued and this has been confirmed by the fact that when the 21 were eventually negotiated for the military were not involved. The realization came that within the ranks of the military there were those who didn’t see it as a priority, so this administration maybe caved in to the pressures of the hawks in the military and decided not to make it a priority at that point. I think it lost the sense of commitment, the sense of urgency to that cause when we realized that we had to keep pressing until we got to a point where we started marching every 72 hours within a two-week action period. They then realized that though we were small the pressure we were building up was getting traction internationally. The pacifists within the government succeeded for once to be heard and this led to the negotiations for the girls to be rescued
I think it is taking too long for the remaining 197 to be gotten out and my hope is that government should realize that releasing 21 doesn’t solve the problem it must get the 197 and so it must take expedite action. There’s no need for these girls to be in the hands of the terrorists for any day longer.
How do you react to the recent reported attempt by the President’s daughter to hijack the BBOG campaign?
I would say it’s part of the mercenary attitude of most Nigerians who are always opportunistic. It’s very interesting that in the 925th day of our campaign that was when she came out, not for once had she come out to march with us or send a goodwill message and then all of a sudden she organizes a program. She says she’s raising money for the Chibok girls, we don’t have any problem. People can raise money for the Chibok girls but it is unfair to include BBOG (Bring Back our Girls). First of all they did not consult us, they went and put up a banner and put our sign- the BBOG sign brazenly on the banner which is fraudulent. You can raise your money but even if you want to involve BBOG, consult us, that is where the issue of fraud comes in. If it hadn’t been brought to our attention, they would have taken that and gone round telling people that BBOG is part of the plan to raise money meanwhile we are not part of it. What is even annoying is the fact that since we started this advocacy on April 15th 2014 we have never raised money. It has been a principle of this advocacy that we do not raise money, our advocacy is not about raising money, it is about creating awareness, it is a self-funded citizens movement, people within Nigeria and outside Nigeria have offered to give us money but we have refused because we know the implications of that. People will think that we are using it to generate money for our own purposes.
Therefore any need that we have had whether it’s to make banners, T-shirts, badges or to embark on marches have been funded by members of the movement. We task ourselves and people donate freely to whatever projects we have, we have never collected money, and that is our policy. We do not collect money in the name of the Chibok girls, therefore it was a clear violation of a cardinal principle of our movement. That’s why we objected, we are not saying do not raise money for the Chibok girls but do it on your own. Don’t associate BBOG because that has never been part of our principle.
And of course there are questions about whether she is actually the president’s daughter because I understand that early this year the president, the villa had dissociated themselves from her claims of being the president’s daughter. That’s also another issue and the gentleman she’s partnering with, I don’t know the legitimacy of the Nigerian Peace Corps which he claims to be running. So if the two of them have question marks over who they are, it goes to show that what they are doing has a big question mark as well and BBOG does not want to be associated with anything that is fraudulent.
Who is Dr Emman Shehu outside the class, literature and social activism?
He is somebody who wants to understand everyday teachings of Jesus Christ because that is part of what motivates me. Understanding the teachings of Jesus Christ not from the perspective of organised religion. I am passionate also about music and am passionate about seeing that Nigeria fulfils its destiny. That’s who I am outside of the class.
How do you view the pen profession vis a vis the media terrain as a trainer of reporters?
Like every other institution in Nigeria, Journalism has suffered. First of all, the quality of people who come into the profession (shakes head vigorously) the quality is not that good and so there are deficiencies in terms of people I see coming to train to be journalists.
There’s also the issue of the feeling that journalism is another opportunity to survive until you get something better. That takes away commitment from the profession and so when people practise they are only marking time pending when they get an opportunity to move on to something else.
And thirdly the professional ethics has been totally compromised. This has been brought about by social media. Due to that everyone wants to claim that he or she is a journalist simply because he/she has data and can get on the internet and has a device that can take pictures or record. People do these things without understanding the professional ethics. Journalism like other professions has ethics and the ethics should be the guiding principles, it’s even worse because everybody thinks that once you set up a platform on the internet you can take news from any other source and recycle it. Its not helping because in the process. What happens is that people do not even have that information apart from plagiarism which is very bad. There’s a lot of unsubstantiated news which come up on social media, people just cook up something without any investigation and it becomes a trending news item on social media. Its unfortunate that even the traditional media or main stream media are not helping matters. Publications in the past 3 to 4 years have degenerated from what they used to be before. Government owned organisations are not showing professionalism in terms of letting people hear both sides of a story and so there’s no balance. It’s a very sad period for the journalism in this country since the Press Council itself is not empowered to sanction. I don’t see how we may likely get out of this problem.
Abuja Writers Forum and the guest writers’ series is gaining grounds in literary circles. Do a quick assessment of the strides and pitfalls you have made and surmounted in recent years?
Let’s start from the difficulties. We started from a difficult position. I was in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and we fell out. I felt there was no need staying in a place where the politics was more important than doing the act of writing or creating capacity for writers to thrive so I moved on to start Abuja Writers Forum and the first problem we had was the attempt by the so called godfathers in ANA who felt that except they give you a go-ahead, you cannot do anything on your own therefore there was the malicious campaign to make it difficult for us to get sponsors. We were being portrayed as ‘419’ (fraudulent). I, in particular, I was called a 419. There was a lot of character assassination but I have soldiered on with those who have believed in the vision. I contested for two elections in ANA. I had manifestos. The person I contested against twice had no manifesto. I am just working basically on one of the things in my manifesto which has to do with capacity building. We have soldiered on for eight years now. It’s been difficult but just as you said yourself we are gradually gaining grounds.
The Guardian even from the early days has regarded our guest writer session as the most consistent literary event in Nigeria. It’s not easy every month for you to do guest writer session and we have done this for eight years. If you go to the internet and google Abuja Writers Forum you’ll see we are all over the place. Even though we are in Abuja our vision is national and global and as resources become available we are putting all those aspects together. Hopefully by next year, people will begin to see these visions manifesting beyond what they see.
Over the period of eight years we have done two things consistently. We have the monthly guest writer session where writers within and outside Abuja come to read. Every Sunday, apart from last Sunday of the month we have writers bringing their work to be critiqued and what that has done is it has given a lot of writers’ confidence in their writing. We were also running occasional workshops, now we have structured it properly. Not every writer can teach creative writing so we decided that we don’t necessarily need to bring people from outside so the workshops are in three phases- the introductory, the intermediate and the advanced for poetry, fiction and drama. The vision is that once you go through those three phases you are equipped in your area of specialisation. The next phase after that is to run a certificate course in creative writing. We barely have such a thing in Nigeria, the institutions that teach creative writing in Nigeria teach it basically as elective courses in Universities so what we intend is to have a certificate course where you can come in for six or nine months whereby for that period a participant would have to decide the genre where he or she would work. If its poetry, by the time you finish that certificate course you would have finished a collection of poems. That means when you are coming you are not devoid of the necessary skills because I know if we announce that there’s certificate course a lot of people would rush in and that would defeat the purpose of the program. So that is what the workshop is doing, preparing people for the certificate course so if its fiction, you can either do a collection of short stories or a novel. If its drama you can do compilation of plays or a major play
What does it entail to acquire a membership status of Abuja Writers Forum
N3000 and monthly dues of N1000. However, people have to pay for the workshops because the resource persons are being paid. We are having an additional workshop which is the free workshop because people may not understand what a workshop is about so if they come to the free workshop it’s an open house for one day to see what they can get from the main workshop.
Also in the cause of promoting the structured workshops we’ve heard people say, ‘do you have to learn how to write?’ Yes you may have talent but you must hone your skills so yes you can be taught how to write. The important thing is acquiring the skills so that you can become a craftsman and then even if you don’t have the talent you can by a dint of labor produce something. We started publishing journals but then we couldn’t raise money because of sabotage. A lot of our supports grew cold feet because of what they were told but we are working towards new source of funding. Our vision is to produce journals locally that enable our story being told properly. That’s also part of where the workshop comes in. Like we always say nobody can tell your story like you so you owe it to the world to tell your story properly.
What words of advice do you have for budding writers and young journalists?
Understand the demands, understand what it means to be a journalist, understand what it means to be a writer. Writing requires skills, get the skills because if don’t have those skills then your talent counts for nothing and even if you don’t have the talent but you have the skills you can still get away with it. Write often, there’s no way you can learn without writing, the more you write the better you get. Its always good to build up your portfolio, there will be difficulties like rejection slips but it comes with the terrain, rejection slips for a writer are just motivation to go on.
Major writers have rejections. The lady who has become famous and rich for Harry Porter series had her first manuscript rejected by over thirty publishing houses before eventually somebody published it and today the story is different.
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