(Keynote speech at the annual conference of Rotary District 9125, comprising all the 19 Northern States, FCT as well as Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti States, in Ilorin, Kwara State, on 20th May, 2021)
There is this story of a Rotarian who was raising money to build schools in a neglected community when he died and arrived at the Pearly Gates about the same time as a wealthy doctor and prominent lawyer. To enter Heaven, the new arrivals were told by St. Peter that each could have one thing with them. First to be asked was the doctor and he requested for a million dollars which St. Peter promptly availed him. Not to be outdone, the lawyer asked for $2 million. “Very well,” replied St. Peter who also obliged the request and opens the gate of Heaven for the lawyer. Finally, it was the turn of the Rotarian. When St. Peter asked him what he would like to take to Heaven, he moved up very close, and in a soft voice asked, “If it’s not too much trouble, can I just have the names of those two people who were ahead of me in line?”
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, for the Rotarian in that story, it was more important for the doctor and lawyer to put the three million dollars they collected into worthy causes than seeking anything for himself. It was all about providing opportunities and making impact in the lives of others. That sums up who a Rotarian is. All over the world today, Rotary members are engaging themselves in infrastructural projects, digging wells and boreholes to provide potable water, working to enhance the health of local communities, and building schools. This is in recognition that the degree of development in a society is measured and evaluated not by the material wealth of a few, but rather by how the weak and the powerless in their midst are treated.
The Governor of Rotary Nigeria, District 9125, Mrs Jumoke Bamigboye, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, when I got the invitation to be at your annual conference this morning, I did not even hesitate before accepting. I have always admired what Rotary Club is doing in our communities and the impact its members are making in our world. And at a time like this, you could not have come up with a better theme than ‘Opening Opportunities, Impacting Lives’. As the late American Catholic Sister widely acknowledged for her work with homeless youth, Mary Rose McGeady, teaches us, “There is no greater joy, nor greater reward than to make a fundamental difference in someone’s life.”
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am aware that speaking to Rotarians about providing opportunities and making impact is like preaching to the converted. But, at least for the sake of those that are not your members, let me share briefly what this great institution is doing which, if replicated by others, would make our society better to live in.
At a time like this, every Nigerian with a conscience cannot afford to sit back and do nothing, especially in the areas where we have the capacity and means to make a difference. Impacting lives does not necessarily have to be in big gestures so it is something that each of us can do. A kind word, a listening ear, and respecting others. That is why I admire Rotary Club. The real essence of the Four Way test that drives your interventions is anchored on these ideals: Truth, fairness, building goodwill and friendship and ensuring that whatever you think, say or do remain beneficial to all concerned. Put simply, it is about making positive impact in the lives of others.
In the few minutes that I have before taking my seat, please permit me to look at four of the areas where Rotary Club is providing opportunities and making impact.
Supporting education is one of the cardinal objectives of Rotary Club. It is a worthy example that other critical stakeholders must follow, especially at a period when about 10.5 million Nigerian children between the age of five and14 are not in school. The statistics are quite alarming. Only 61 percent of those between the age of six and 11 regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 percent of children between three and five years receive early childhood education. The situation in most of the states covered by Rotary District 9125 is even worse. If we must break the barriers of inequalities in the education system and provide a more targeted learning opportunities for our children, all of us must be involved. This is where Rotary is leading the way.
In March this year, Rotary International supplied N2.5 million worth of e-learning equipment to Okota Junior Grammar School in Lagos. The equipment was jointly donated by District 9110, Nigeria, District 9455, Australia, District 3610, South Korea and Rotary Foundation. The materials include interactive board, projector, laptop computers, e-content to aid teaching and 2.3KVA generator to the principal of the school. It is the 12th school to benefit from a structured interventionist programme in the educational sector in the state. Across the country, many Rotary Clubs are granting scholarship to indigent students and funding other educational programmes for the left-behind of our society. On a personal note, my wife and I are also involved in an educational support project involving 54 children and 17 young adults. It is called Not Forgotten Initiative (NFI). It is a fulfilling experience which reveals to me that if we all imbibe the spirit of giving back to the society, like Rotary Club has been doing for decades, we can rid our country of the menace of out-of-school children.
Nigeria owes a lot to Rotary Club for the relentless efforts which eventually culminated in the eradication of polio virus after the disease had claimed thousands of lives and permanently crippled a substantial proportion of the infant population. For several years until recently, Nigeria was the only African country and one of three countries in the world with the stigma of the disease. While Polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nigeria is now rid of that emblem of shame, thanks to Rotary. Incidentally, I was there at Sheraton Hotel in Abuja in 2013 when Rotary International inducted the Chrome Chairman, Sir Emeka Offor into its Hall of Fame for philanthropy as the single highest donor to the organization from Africa. His efforts in the fight against Polio were duly acknowledged.
Meanwhile, Rotary has also made impactful contributions on community hygiene. The need for a more strategic framework to address the issues of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in Nigeria has never been more urgent. In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need to encourage and promote the importance of handwashing and other critical measures to prevent people from being sick cannot be overstressed. We are now seeing several systemic breakdowns that are limiting access to those basic needs because of the growing economic inequality. Rotary members recognise the consequences of inaction and have invested heavily in this area.
In 2012, I had reason to be in Kpaduma, a shanty in the shadow of Asokoro. The residents basically are the poor, the displaced and the dislocated of our society. Kpaduma has no water, no road, no school and no basic social amenities. It was the Rotary Club of Asokoro that provided a six-unit latrine and a borehole for the people in collaboration with the Rotary Club Malcolm, United States of America. We need to replicate such examples.
Growing local economies
In January this year, Gbadada Rotary Club released their third set of annual micro-finance loans to empower small scale entrepreneurs within their community. Several other Rotary clubs support projects that empower the most vulnerable groups like widows. They help them with money to acquire machinery or cash for their businesses. There are lessons we can take from what Rotary is doing. Our approach to empowerment must change. We need to investigate the underlying factors that are limiting access to funds for small businesses at the level of communities.
I welcome the news that Microsoft will be collaborating with the Nigerian government to accelerate digital transformation in the country. I think this is one clear example of how to create and open opportunities for our people to gain valuable skills so they can be gainfully employed in the knowledge economy. The project is aiming to create over 27,000 new digital jobs in the next three years. Such innovations should be encouraged. The impact of the pandemic on the job market is astounding and it will take a very long time to come out of it. Rotary Club takes empowerment very seriously and that is a lesson we need to imbibe.
Protecting the environment
Even though the threat of climate change is being addressed globally by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Nigeria has a role to play. It is a shame that at period other countries are taking concrete measures to mitigate the impact of climate change, we are cutting down trees in the name of stopping currency black market traders in Abuja!
Nigeria has a serious climate change problem even though many do not see it. Recent years have witnessed whole communities being submerged by storm water as well as schools, hospitals and farmlands being washed off by rainfalls. The combined impact of climate change and heavy rainfall has forced streams and rivers to overflow their banks with dire consequences for lives and livelihoods in the country.
While no country can legislate against the fury of nature, we can take bold decisions to mitigate its impact in a bid to building a resilient, inclusive and sustainable future. The demographic time bomb also deserves serious attention but it is one we hardly concern ourselves with. It should worry us that our population growth rate far outstrips our resources and productivity. How then do we ensure that the Nigeria of tomorrow offers greater opportunities than today?
Sustainability of our environment is key on the agenda of Rotary Club. It is therefore my hope that District 9125 will lead the charge in getting Nigerians to begin taking seriously environmental issues.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as I take my seat, let me commend the leadership and members of Rotary District 9125 while also thanking you for inviting me here today. What Rotary does by its varied interventions is to challenge us to think about what we can do individually and collectively to make a difference in our world.
Rotary Club has shown us the way on what we need to do. We can all make impact within our little spaces. With the COVID-19 pandemic still very much active in our country and globally, and the recent report that the coronavirus strain circulating in India has been detected in three African countries, including Nigeria, we need the support of all critical stakeholders to fight the spread of the disease. We need to continue to mobilize, educate and empower healthcare workers to do their work effectively. Beyond that, each one of us should begin to think beyond our immediate environment. We should be our brother’s keeper.
I recognise the work Rotary Club is doing in Nigeria and indeed globally. It is selfless service. You are setting a very clear example for us all on how to make a mark in the lives of other people. Beyond what government can and should do, it is important that all stakeholders begin to look for ways they can open opportunities for the less privileged and make impact in their lives.
As a nation, we are going through hard times. There are millions of children who are out of school because their parents cannot afford the fees and there are also millions of adults who cannot put food on the family table. There is so much deprivation in our society. What members of this distinguished Club have shown is that with a commitment to serving others, we can light exemplary candles in the darkness of want, provide opportunities for the most vulnerable people in or society and make significant impact in our world.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I thank you once again for inviting me and for indulging me this morning. Mrs Bamigboye, I salute you. I thought I should take the liberty to remind us of our obligations as citizens and I speak also to myself. Let me leave you with the immortal words of Shannon L. Alder. While admonishing that we should carve our name on hearts rather than tombstones, the inspirational author and therapist reminds us: “A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
Thank you very much for listening and good morning.