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YALI Voices Podcast: Muazu Modu Challenges the Status Quo in Nigeria
April 8, 2019

Muazu Modu Challenges the Status Quo in Nigeria
Doug Smith interviews 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Muazu Modu at the Presidential Precinct at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia.

Growing up in the northeast region of Nigeria in a community called Babangida, Muazu Alhaji Modu experienced unspeakable poverty and corruption. Even as a child, Modu wondered how Nigeria, the world’s sixth-largest manufacturer of oil, with the most dense population in Africa, had no reliable access to water, no stable infrastructure for health or education, and no accountability for government policies. As a product of a rural community, Modu lives the narrative he is trying to rewrite. He himself, afflicted with a bout of malaria, had to be transported 93 miles away just to receive medical care. His situation was not an anomaly but a predictable occurrence, as for so many others in the region. The scarcity of resources in his community and communities like his around the country infuriated Modu, but that fury motivated him to make a change.

As the current chapter lead fellow at Connected Development, where the objective is to improve access to information and empower local communities in Africa, Modu sees the head of the problem as the corruption inside Nigeria’s government. “So I am determined and focused to solve the corruption,” Modu explains. “[If] corruption was solved, the issue of insurgency and inequality will be also minimized.”

In addition, Modu fights day in and day out to restore transparency and accountability, which are two of the largest and most tangible deficits in Nigeria’s government. Where does all the money Nigeria produces go if not to the people? He and his team follow these stories, uncovering the harsh truths about their society. Once these truths are out, not only is the community strengthened in knowledge, but it is also emboldened to never let the truth fall underground again.

Experience Modu’s powerful testimony and ideas about how he is tackling poverty and corruption by listening to the YALI Voices podcast or reading the transcript below.


YALI Voices Podcast: DOUG SMITH Interviews MUAZU MODU


MUAZU MODU: The best way to eliminate corruption is to promote transparency and accountability. Where there is transparency and accountability, there is no corruption.


♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.

2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Muazu Alhaji Modu knew as a young child growing up in the northeast of Nigeria that things should be different. He knew that he and members of his community should have access to clean water and basic infrastructure to support health and education.

Muazu sat down with Doug Smith, managing partner at Stornoway Advisors, a business and government consulting firm working with policymakers, startups and NGOs in Charlottesville, Virginia. They talked about how Muazu works to ensure that rural and marginalized communities, like the one he grew up in, have access to information and how he empowers local communities across the continent. His aim is to bring more transparency and accountability to government and ultimately ensure that those responsible are properly managing the public trust.


MODU: Yeah, seriously, we have issues, the insurgency, and lack of infrastructure, but at times you have to consider what is urgent and what is important. Insurgency is the urgent matter, but you have to focus on transparency and accountability. The corruption in Nigeria is in a state that it’s the prime cause of everything in Nigeria.

When it comes to transparency, insurgency, lack of access to education, inequality, all the prime cause is corruption. If we have a kind of a transparency and accountability, something like this will not happen in our region. So I am determined and focused to solve the corruption. If corruption was solved, the issue of insurgency and inequality will be also minimized. And then lack of infrastructure also, we’d fight.

DOUG SMITH: Now, you say there’s a lack of infrastructure, but Nigeria, of course, is one of Africa’s largest, in fact it is Africa’s most populous country. Am I right about that?

MODU: Yeah.

SMITH: So where is that lack of infrastructure? I would think the infrastructure would be quite, quite significant.

MODU: Yeah. Nigeria is like country with the highest population in Africa, but when you consider infrastructure in rural communities, because I, we focus mostly on rural communities. When you go to rural communities, you find out that they don’t have a basic infrastructure, which is water, health and education. Because as I am talking, I am a victim of all these things.

Because of malaria, I was transported 150 kilometers to access a medical facility. I attended a public school all my life, which is I sat down on a pillow from JS1 to SS2. So when it’s come to water, I’ve grown up in a community where access to water is like access to, it’s more, it’s more easy to access gasoline than to access the water in the summer.

I grew up in a community called Babangida, which is we have seriously, extremely need of water in summer, but we are unable to access water. We have to sometimes travel to other towns to access water. So like all communities, rural communities in Nigeria, in one way or the other, is affected by a lack of water, a lack of health care facility or lack of education facilities.

SMITH: And so water, you’re saying, is actually much more scarce than gasoline. I presume, in Nigeria, petroleum is one of the most significant products it’s producing.

MODU: Yeah. Yeah.

SMITH: And where is all that petroleum going?

MODU: Yeah, one of the important issues that I always asked among myself is that as the highest, sixth-largest oil-producing country, we are still importing produced petrols outside Nigeria. I was thinking how, as the sixth-largest oil-producing country, we can’t even have refineries that can cut up our need for petroleum.

All these are on account of money, where the raw crude oil will be transported outside the country and then buy back the produced one. In this process, also, huge amount of money will be diverted into private pocket.

We want to start something about that and how to uncover the transaction between where raw crude oil will be sent out to other countries and how to import produced petroleum in the country, because to me it’s a way of kind of diverting public fund into private pockets.

SMITH: So you come from a very particular perspective because you’re coming from the rural areas. Tell me a little more about the work that you’re engaged in and what it is that really drives you to do that work.

MODU: Yeah, when I was, I was a kid, I was wonder why, as the highest oil-producing country, we don’t have access to these basic infrastructures. Then I started work as a volunteer for an organization called Connected Development, which is a nongovernmental organization that focuses on transparency and accountability.

I started as a volunteer, where I learned from their website what they are doing. What Connected Development, we are doing in term of Follow the Money is that we have to find the data about the [inaudible] for rural communities. After we find the data, we have to validate the data. At times, maybe you may find out something online or in a document or in a newspaper, but in reality it’s not true.

So we have to validate the data to ensure that the data is accurate. After when we find the data, we have to go to the community, the beneficiary community, to ground root, to see if the communities are aware of the funds coming back to their communities or not.

If we go to the community, if they’re aware, fine. If they are not aware, we have to inform the community that so-and-so amount of money was earmarked for your communities. So we want to partner with you to kind of track that money, to ensure that what the government allocated to your community reach your communities.

SMITH: If it’s not going into the communities, where does the money fall off along the way?

MODU: So what we do is that we have to elaborate on the freedom of information, so that in the partnership with the community leaders and the youth in the communities, we write a letter to the implementation agency, so, requesting the information about the fund. If the community give us the information, then we will share the information with the community, and we engage the legislator who represented that community to ensure the somewhat track of the project.

If we don’t receive the information from the implementation agency, then we have to organize a town hall meeting, inviting media, community members and all relevant stakeholders to come to table, discuss with them, this is what government allocated to your community. We requested information in partnership with the community, but the implementation agency refused to give us information.

We engage the community, we engage the media, so that the voice of the community will be heard from the government side.

SMITH: So when you speak about transparency, that’s what you are really at, is the transparency, the process, where these appropriations go. Where is the money falling off, based on your experience? Why isn’t it getting to the end community where it had been appropriated?

MODU: Yes, at times when money was appropriated, sometimes, let me give you a story of the community called Tongo in Gombe state. In early 2017, we had a campaign called Furnish Tongo campaign. It was a 20 million naira earmark for the construction of two block classroom in Tongo. So we found data about that construction in a national newspaper, which is Daily Trust, within the advertisement.

After four months, nothing is happening. Then there is a kind of timeframe for everything done in Nigeria, which is four months. We go to the community to ensure whether the communities are aware or not aware of the project. When we got to the community, nobody in the community are aware of the project. So in partnership with the community we write a letter to various and various stakeholders requesting the information.

To our surprise, nobody at the state level knew about the fund. Then we organized a town hall meeting involving all the relevant stakeholders. During our discussion about the money, then a group of politicians barged into the meeting hall, where they accused us of being sponsored by opposition party, to kind of sabotage their party and even threatened to kill us or to injure us.

Thank God, we are able to have the valid data. We write a letter to various implementation agencies, we provide them with the information, we write letters, we write to the various agencies. Then we made a mistake. We, initially, we are not involved in security agencies, but the community invited a police, policeman in the community. So policemen are there in the meeting.

So we convinced the community and the general public that we don’t have anything to do with the politician or politics. We are all there to empower their communities. Then the police officer realized that there is something going wrong. Then he defended us, he protected us. Then, later the politicians themselves claimed that the project is a constituency project for the house of representative representing that community.

So the money, they also don’t know what is happening. The money was released, but they don’t know where the money is. To our surprise, when we engaged the media in that community, then the construction started less than a week. And the construction, they construct a two-block classroom in less than 10 days.

SMITH: I believe provocateur is what some might consider you.

MODU: Yeah.

SMITH: Is that what you do? You’re really prompting transparency to push a particular agenda. What is the agenda?

MODU: Our key mission is to empower the marginalized communities. The Nigerian government are allocating a lot of money to health, water and education, and then the money is like, it’s a coverup, it’s going to private pockets. So if communities and general publics are aware of such communities, Nigerian, like, kind of people are kind of very vigilant. If people are aware of what they are doing, they will easily implement the project. If nobody is aware of the project, then more of it will be going to private pockets. So in order to avoid that, we have to mobilize people at the grass root. If people at the grass-root level all know what is going on in the government, then people will be kind of, the politician will kind of implement what he is supposed to do. But if nobody is talking, then they hide the money.

SMITH: This sounds like dangerous work. Have you felt as though you’ve been in danger at times?

MODU: Yeah. Normally if you are doing good work, you have to be in danger, always threat, from one threat to another. But you have to overcome this, because what I realized that, you have to, at times, you have to sacrifice for greater good. If you are not ready to sacrifice, then you are doing nothing in your life.

SMITH: And what makes you do this work?

MODU: Because since I was a kid, as an African, I was thinking that I was born as African to make change in our communities. We, as African, we are not — making changes in our communities is not a choice or an option. We are destined to make changes. If we don’t make changes, nobody will change things. We are being called Dark Continent because of our underdevelopment. We need to do something, we need to make our communities to compete with the rest of the world, so we have to sacrifice for our communities.

SMITH: So why is this transparency so important to you?

MODU: Because transparency — corruption is the prime cause of everything in Africa, ranking from inequality, insurgency, inaccess to education, whatever, infrastructure. So for you to tackle all these problems, you have to eliminate corruption. So we promote transparency and accountability to minimize or to eradicate corruption in our country.

SMITH: What kind of leaders are required to bring more transparency to the system, not just for the work that you’re doing in the rural area, but throughout Nigeria? What are the hallmarks of leadership that you think are required?

MODU: To me, like, we need youth in governance in Nigeria. We need youth in the, youth in collusion, because from recent statistics that we do about the youth in Nigeria, the average Nigerian youth don’t want to become — youth in Nigeria don’t want to become rich, they just need a decent job. If youth are in power, I think the level of the corruption will be minimized. Always Nigerian youth are, their dream is to have a decent job, a good salary. That’s all they need. If we have real youth in power, We have, the level of corruption will be extensively minimized in Nigeria.

SMITH: And are there unique challenges that the rural areas have that you can describe?

MODU: Yeah, that’s why Follow the Money, as an organization, we have a thematic focus, which is health, education and washed, water sanitation facilities. All the rural communities in Nigeria have these similar problems. Either they have lack of access to quality education, or they have lack of access to good health care facilities, of they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. These are the three problems Nigerian rural communities have in common.

SMITH: And so you’re speaking about education, water sanitation and health care. Now, this, I’ve heard these three bundled together, there’s an organization called the ONE campaign, or ONE. You’re involved with ONE, right?

MODU: Yeah, yeah. I am the ONE champion in Yobe state, 2018.

SMITH: A ONE champion. Tell me about being a champion.

MODU: Yeah, ONE champion is all about championing the grass-root mobilization and advocacy for transparency, gender inclusion, and then recently we launched another campaign called Electoral Process, where we engage Nigerian youth on how to engage in the electoral process.

Initially Nigerian youth, like, kind of many don’t have a permanent voter’s card. They don’t want to involve themselves in the political process. So we have to mobilize the youth at the grass-root level to go and collect their permanent voter’s card so that they can vote for the leaders they want, not always complain on social media that our leaders are doing this, our leaders are doing nothing, and all of this. If you have your permanent voter’s card, you can vote. We also did a campaign in 2016 which is Make Naija Stronger. It’s all about investing 1 percent of our consolidated revenue to health care facilities, primary health care facilities. We recently just a few months back, Nigerian government has already approved that.

We also did a Poverty Is Sexist campaign, which is about girl child’s education. Girl childs, normally in northern Nigeria, like, there is the cultural and religious barriers that a girl child’s education, girl childs are not enrolled in school. So we have to mobilize the communities to know that girls have equal right as male boys, so that they have also right to access quality education. If you empower a woman, you empower a society. If you empower one man, you empower just a man, not a society. We also, during our ONE campaign, we partner, like kind of as then, as we partner with the ONE campaign, as then I am not the ONE champion, we partnered with the ONE campaign, we did a campaign about primary healthcare facility in Yobe state, which we tracked 400 million allocated for Yobe state by the World Bank for the Save One Million Lives, where we take Lantewa community as a case study, where we tracked the 400 million naira, which is about 1.2 [million] U.S. dollars.

SMITH: Hmmm. Tell me, so you’re working in the rural areas, and you’re very attuned to the cultural challenges there. As you think about creating more transparency and in some ways modernizing or bringing the rural areas into the process, what are the cultural challenges that you are struggling with right now in those rural areas of Nigeria?

MODU: This is the questions always people ask me about. I’m always surprised. When I started these things, I was thinking of resistance from the rural communities, but to my surprise is that always the rural communities are ready, because they are kind of being devastated by these issues. When you go a rural community, meet the people, and ask them that you came to assist them to kind of access other health facility, education facility, or water sanitation facility. They are eager to kind of partner with you. There are times when you go to rural communities, what they know about government is police, because government is doing nothing to their benefit, so when you say you came, government allocated something to their community, you want to kind of partner with them to ensure that this, what government approved to their communities, reached their communities. They will kind of even push you to do more. They will keep calling you — what is going on, what level are we? They push you. Or when we have like kind of three different activities that we are doing in the campaign. We are doing advocacy, which is to advocate for a community with highest need of infrastructure, or tracking, which is money allocated for the community, we have to track for the community.

Or did you realize many people in rural communities cannot write and read, so you can’t expect somebody from rural communities to understand budget information. So you have to kind of visualize that for them to understand. So when we give them like kind of infographics about this is what is allocated to them, they can easily understand. When we are advocating for their community, they will be actively engaged in the advocacy process. When we invite them for, like, kind of media engagement, they were always eager to come for the media engagement.

When we are tracking, when we are account writing or account cosign, like kind of invitation letter or request letter, they are eager to sign, they are eager to engage in the process because they want to have access to such kind of facilities in their communities, because they want to know, they are even eager to have more, to engage their children in this process. They also, they want us to train their children to continue doing such activities in their communities, because if we, as an individual, can partner with them to do this, their children also can be doing something for their communities. So always when we go to a community or when we do a campaign, they are kind of requesting us to kind of engage their children in the process.


SMITH: You’re part of a growing network, pan-African, the Mandela Washington Fellowship. What’s that been like for you as you have participated in the Young African Leaders program?

MODU: Um, this is, um, like kind of a lifetime opportunity for everyone who participated in this program. I learned a lot of things during this fellowship, which I like to share with my network and other networks. I learned, initially I was thinking about solving the problem of transparency and accountability in my network, but with the introduction of the concept of wicked problem, I realized that I need to network with more people. I need to network with other organizations in order to do what it’s supposed to do, because as an organization, we can solve the problem of transparency and accountability. Like I have a great network, which is a network of 500 people, 500,000 people, which is YALI Network. I will leverage on YALI Network to engage more people in various communities. In partnership with the organization, with the YALI Network, we will do more, we will provide more services to rural communities in terms of transparency and accountability.

SMITH: And you, I presume, plan on being very engaged and participating in the network, because there may be others who also need advice from you.

MODU: I will actively participate in every YALI activity, and I will also be part of the YALI Network transparency and accountability team. We are ready to partner with any organization or any member of the YALI Network. We will support any YALI Network member to carry out transparency and accountability in their communities. As our idea of Follow the Money is like now is a YALI Network idea. Everyone wanted to know about how to engage legislators or communities in terms of transparency and accountability. We are always ready to partner or to engage with the person to do transparency and accountability movement. We, as members of the YALI Network, we kind of create kind of a platform for everyone in the network to engage in the transparency and accountability movement. We’ll also partner with anyone in the network who want to, us to participate in his activities, whether transparency on nontransparency or girl child’s education, access to quality education, LGBTIQ, any campaign that somebody is doing on the YALI Network, we will actively participate in things in his campaign.

We will do all our necessary part to see YALI Network reach, like, kind of a height or the vision of the YALI Network to be achieved.

SMITH: Well, I know how important the network and the Mandela Washington Fellowship program has been for the Presidential Precinct, which my own institution, Montpelier, is one of the founding partners in. Knowing that the network is literally touching hundreds of thousands of people throughout Africa, I mean, the impact is really quite empowerful, and I’m just wondering, what would you want network members to know about the support that you need? How can we continue to support you, the work of transparency, the struggle with rural communities, not just with your organization or your partner organizations like the ONE Campaign, but people that are doing the good work like you’re doing? What do you need us to know to support your work in the field?

MODU: When it comes to leadership, Presidential Precinct is, like, kind of a giant. As a leader, I don’t — I know I’m doing a lot of things, but what I don’t purely know what I’m doing until I come to Presidential Precinct. I was exposed to concept of design thinking. I was able to learn how to differentiate between what is urgent and what is important. Presidential Precinct is a kind of a … organization that accelerates your leadership skill. As a network, I received every support I needed as a leader from Presidential Precinct, and then the YALI, the Network, the Presidential, PPN network that the Presidential Precinct provided to the fellows which link, network us with a lot of network individuals, network organization, which we can partner with them to execute our project. Presidential Precinct, as an organization, what we want to partner in future to execute in our transparency and accountability movement in Africa is that to provide us with technical leadership assistance, because what we learn in these six weeks, we need our members to also learn more, and including the fellows, because this is only six weeks, we learn a lot. Assuming if we have a lifetime partner with Presidential Precinct, we will learn more than enough to do our job in our various communities.

SMITH: Yeah, and that’s, of course, the value of the YALI Network, is there are so many fellows and so many people that the fellows have now trained and touched that’s creating not just a network, but almost a mesh of leadership across the continent. Next year in Nigeria I believe there are some elections.

MODU: Yeah.

SMITH: How do you anticipate that going?

MODU: You know, initially youth don’t — kind of have no opportunity to participate in election process, because as I mentioned earlier, is that Nigerian youth are kind of most transparent youth across the globe, but the problem is that they are not being engaged in the activities due to the lack, age limitation and other stuff. Financial constraints and other stuff. But now, with the help of youth across Nigeria, we had a campaign called Not Too Young to Run, in partnership with YIAGA, where we advocate for age reduction. And then we successfully execute that campaign, which the Nigerian government has already passed the bill, which is you can contest for, like, um, any position at the age of 35. Which initially you can contest for the presidency at the age of 30 or something like this. So we engaged youth. First, we do three things: We mobilize youth to collect their permanent voter’s card to vote. We also [inaudible] youth not to involve in violence, possible election violence. We also engage the youth on how to vote once.

Sometimes you maybe find people are voting more than once. We also engage youth on how to make a good decision, not selling their vote, because if they sell their vote, then the person who will buy their vote is not a good person. If I have to buy your vote to become a leader, it doesn’t mean necessarily I’m not doing for the sake of the community, I am doing it for my own sake. Secondly, youth are always a victim of the post-election violence. The politicians are not involving their children or their relatives in the post-violence process, which is youth among the youth, in both parties or both oppositions, youth are the victim of the violence, which you have to kill your own brother or own relative or your friend or your family for someone who is not willing to engage his children in such process. We incentivize them to just vote and to protect their vote, not to engage in any post-election violence. Also we engage them on how to collect their PVCs. If you don’t have a permanent voter’s card, you don’t have a say during the election. You have to have your voter’s card, because voter’s card is your right. You have a right to vote.

SMITH: From the Potter Studios at James Madison’s Montpelier, this has been Doug Smith, along with Muazu Modu. Thank you for joining us.

MODU: Thank you.

VOICEOVER: Thank you, Doug and Muazu.

Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.

Our theme music is “E Go Happen,” by a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow, Grace Jerry, and produced by the Presidential Precinct.

This podcast was recorded in the podcast studio at James Madison’s Montpelier, a partner site for the Presidential Precinct.

James Madison was the fourth president of the United States and is known as the father of the U.S. Constitution. Montpelier is now home to the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution.

The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.

Photo caption: Doug Smith interviews 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Muazu Modu at the Presidential Precinct at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia.