Last week, friends and associates of the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, gave her a befitting celebration as she turned sixty. The timing was perfect as her boss had just won a second term in office and offered her the opportunity to continue the journey with him of carrying out the onerous job of the UN in keeping international peace and security while promoting social progress, which is today encapsulated in advancing the agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Clearly, Antonio Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the UN believes they are a winning team, which is why he rushed to reappoint her although the second term will only start in January next year.
All the Presidents of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic had worked with her and were well pleased with her output, but above all, the great results revealed the massive results of the positive outcomes she produced in the critical field of addressing poverty, inequality and social provisioning for the downtrodden. She was the Senior Special Assistant to the President on MDGs to President Olusegun Obasanjo and worked with Presidents Yar’Adua and Jonathan in the same capacity. She was appointed by President Buhari as Minister of Environment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria where she steered the country’s efforts on climate action and efforts to protect the natural environment at the critical period of agenda-setting for the Paris Summit.
Her performance on the MDGs was so spectacular that when the then United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, was looking for someone to transition the world from MDGs to SDGs, he appointed her as Special Adviser in 2012 with the responsibility for post-2015 development planning. She led the process that resulted in global agreement around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Hajia Amina Mohammed began her career working on the design of schools and clinics in Nigeria. For most of her life, she had been an advocate focused on increasing access to education, health and other social services, before moving into the public sector, where she rose to the position of adviser to four successive Nigerian Presidents.
The theme of the Amina @ 60 Celebration Symposium was “Overcoming the Challenges of Africa’s Transformation.” The keynote speaker was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian President. She gave a very thoughtful presentation of the challenges of keeping focus on serving the needs of the people in a context in which power tends to alienate people who exercise it from the grassroots. She had the grace of posing the question of whether she herself had done all she could for the people when she was in power and urged all those currently in power to continuously ask themselves the question. She had worked closely with Amina Mohammed in developing the SDGs and described the celebrant, like many others did, as a force of nature with the uncanny ability to always stay focused in achieving the objectives set out.
During the symposium, there was a lot of friendly banter between Inuwa Yahaya, Governor of Gombe State and Nasir El Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, each claiming Amina as their own – by blood or by residency and President Sirleaf had a direct question for them. Rather than fight to be associated with the glory that Amina Mohammed has become, should they not pose the of question why none of Nigeria’s great women had ever succeeded in becoming a state governor, not to talk of President of the country. More importantly, she added, what are they currently doing to support Nigeria’s large pool of competent women in accessing political power as 2023 approaches. I feel this is a great question as Amina Mohammed has already created her own pathway to success and the important issue for Nigeria is to create pathways for other women and indeed men also, with zeal and competence to get opportunities to make their own contributions in advancing the development potential of our country.
I worked closely with Amina Mohammed when she was appointed the Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on MDGs in 2005. It was a completely unscripted job. She was charged with the coordination of Nigeria’s debt relief funds toward the achievement of the MDGs. Her mandate included designing a Virtual Poverty Fund with innovative approaches to poverty reduction, budget coordination and monitoring, as well as providing advice on pertinent issues regarding poverty, public sector reform and sustainable development. There was no precedent for the job description in Nigeria’s public service. It would be recalled that Nigeria had signed up to the MDGs in 2000 and no mechanism for implementation was set in place until the debt relief issue came up and development partners were asking questions of what will happen to the gains of debt relief, which was 1 billion dollars annually. It was this amount that Amina was charged with using to advance the fight against poverty and the provision of social services in the country. That was the promise that cleared the hurdle for lifting Nigeria’s crushing debt burden of about $35.9 billion with over 85 percent owed to the Paris Club. President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala negotiated with the Paris club and just before the G8 meeting in 2005, the Paris Club granted a debt relief to Nigeria canceling $18 billion from the debt but requiring Nigeria to pay $12 billion in six months and comply with the agreement on the Virtual Poverty Fund.
What Amina Mohammed did was to set up a team of competent civil society organisations to work with private sector consultants to ensure that every kobo was properly spent on projects that were useful to people’s lives. She basically reinvented monitoring and evaluation in Nigeria’s public sector – letting public officials and political appointees know that the eyes of the Nation were on them and projects must be completed in conformity with design and conditions and above all, that the projects must serve communities that were targeted. I led the civil society component of the work and what I found most satisfying was engaging with communities to know what was being built, by whom and according to what time frame. Success, Amina always told us, is when the communities themselves realise these projects were for their benefit and they themselves become active as beneficiaries keen on monitoring and evaluating that these projects were indeed for their benefit so they had a stake as citizens. Keep the flag flying dear Amina.