The year was 2010 and a young Nigerian woman, who’d just arrived back in Nigeria after pursuing a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) in the United Kingdom, was undergoing the mandatory year of service that all Nigerian graduates are expected to serve, when a friend invited her to a protest against killings in Jos, Plateau State, then president Umar Yar' Adua's absence, and fuel scarcity in Nigeria.
The gathering was in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT), and it was the first ever protest that ‘Yemi Adamolekun had attended in Nigeria. A few weeks later, she joined a follow-on protest in Lagos and by January 2011, she had helped launch a nonprofit organisation focused on civic education and public accountability.
“I had a lot of time on my hands,” ‘Yemi told Global Citizen. “I attended follow up meetings, helped with organising, note taking, and other things.”
Now, 12 years later, she is still organising and educating Nigerians on ways to hold leaders accountable through the organisation she helped launch in 2011, Enough is Enough (EiE) Nigeria. Due to her years of work, ‘Yemi has now been named the winner of the 2022 Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award Nigeria.
The Global Citizen Prize award ceremony celebrates activists from around the world who are fighting extreme poverty and its systemic causes through their work. The Citizen Award recognises incredible changemakers who are working to take actions to end extreme poverty in their own communities and drive social change across the globe.
This year’s Global Citizen Prize is being recognised across three categories: to Defend the Planet, Defeat Poverty, and Demand Equity, with a focus on climate change, empowering adolescent girls, and breaking down systemic barriers that keep people trapped in poverty, with a throughline of amplifying and defending activists and advocates, and defending the civic spaces where citizen’s voices can be heard and not suppressed.
EiE Nigeria is a public accountability, governance, and civic education organisation that has been in operation for 12 years, achieving considerable impact (despite being a relatively tiny team) under the leadership of ‘Yemi.
Global Citizen spoke with ‘Yemi to learn more about her work, what the civic space looks like in Nigeria, and why organisations like EiE Nigeria are so important.
In your words, what is civic space?
Adamolekun: Civic space is just the space that is outside the government or private sector where citizens, either as individuals or as organised bodies like towns, community associations, political parties, any type of organised body, are able to organise, participate, engage, and communicate freely as they enforce their rights as citizens and, to some degree, try to exert influence to ensure that they get the rights that they're entitled to.
Why is civic space important and why should Global Citizens care about it?
Oh, it is absolutely important in all types of governments. But it's a bit more critical in a democracy because it's part of a democracy. Under military rule or a different type of authoritarian regime, [civic space] is not part of the ethos, but the ability for citizens to express themselves, the ability for citizens to organise, to participate, to engage in [enforcing their rights] without government intervention or oppression is at the core of what a democracy is.
To use one of Abraham Lincoln's quotes on democracy: “A democracy is a system of government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That shows why civic space is extremely important for the work that I do, especially within the context of Nigeria.
I think it's extremely important to have that space where citizens can get information and organise in a way to engage power structures. So, you know, EiE runs this thing that we call “Office of the Citizen”. That's the most important office in Nigeria, not the office of the president, because everybody else technically works for us citizens.
That is really the “Office of the Civic Space”, because all of us are operating in the civic space as individuals or as a collective. And that's the office we're really trying to get people to occupy because the more citizens understand the power that they have, the more they are able to wield that power to claim, demand, and enforce their rights, which we believe will lead to better governance outcomes.
What are some globally guaranteed civic rights Nigerians should know about?
One is freedom of speech, and that is a critical one as we’ve seen recently with the Twitter ban in Nigeria. Our leaders have been used to a unidirectional way of engaging with citizens through radio, TV, and so on, which doesn’t leave space for immediate feedback from the people they are engaging with.
Like, I’m listening to what you (the leader) has to say but you can’t hear me (the citizen) shouting in my house: “Why is this politician lying?” But on Twitter I can respond to you and tell you that you are lying and include a link to prove it. Now, there is a problem! So yeah, that’s one.
Freedom of association is a big one too. We had to go to court to get the government to agree that we don't need to get the government's permission to have a protest, I think during the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, because they were trying to shut us down.
So the common practice today with civil society organisations in Nigeria is therefore that you write a letter to the police to inform them of a protest, but it's not to request permission.
I think education is also a big one. Access to quality education has been a constant fight for our country. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been on strike for 80 days and counting (at the time of this interview). It has been a constant battle with governments that don't prioritise the education of its citizens.
There is also the right to equality before the law, which is also an important one. We've seen it over and over again that we are not equal before the law. Depending on who you are, who you know, what strings you can pull, your penalty may be different from mine.
Another thing, and I am raising this only because it has become a huge concern in the past few years, is data privacy. Nigeria doesn’t have any data privacy laws and we give biometric data for drivers licence, passport, National Identification Number (NIN), sim card registration, and voters card, all in different databases that we don’t have laws to protect.
Have you personally benefited from a thriving civic environment?
I wouldn’t say me personally but I see it in the work we do at EiE Nigeria.
So we have radio programmes which we've done in 33 out of Nigeria’s 36 states. The format of our radio programmes is you don't call to vent about an issue — it's not a venting space. You come on, you state a problem. Then we educate you on the dynamics of that problem, landing on who is responsible to fix that problem.
Then we share information we have on phone numbers, offices, whatever it is that we can give you to empower you so you can engage the duty bearer. I mean, on radio programmes when we tell citizens that they can call a senator or house of representatives member, nine times out of 10, they're like, “Really? We can call them?” and we say “Yes! They work for you. Talk to them.”
So for me, it's very rewarding when you see people call [their leaders] and then call us back really excited, either because they got a reaction that was positive or because the government official was very irritated that they were calling. And so for the citizens, they feel very empowered because it shows them that they have the power for that kind of engagement.
What are some inspiring stories you’ve come across in your work?
I think for me the #EndSARS protests were a good symbol of what is possible when issues are distilled in a way that people see themselves in it.
Police brutality doesn't know if you are Yoruba, Hausa, or Igbo, especially in certain environments. Now, a lot of northerners didn't participate because their experience [with police brutality] was quite different and it made sense. I mean, police are not extorting money from people who don’t have money. So their lived experience was very different, which is quite understandable.
But for those who had experienced police brutality [especially in the southern parts of Nigeria], it was a single issue protest, which is the same thing we talk about when we talk about #BringBackOurGirls, you know, when people rally around one particular issue.
But it also showed just how much citizens don't understand about how the government really works. So I believe it served two purposes: one, just showing the power of organising; secondly, it was a crash course in government engagement.
There are also a lot of inspiring stories that have come from our radio programmes. For example, communities that got schools built, Okada riders that stopped being extorted by police in Enugu, people that got a road built in Ikorodu, and many others.
What is your favourite (and least favourite) thing about the work you do?
My least favourite thing is definitely raising money.
My favourite thing about my work, interestingly, is my team. I've been blessed over the last 12 years with young Nigerians and people who match their commitment for Nigeria with the work that we do.
What is one fact about you (or your work) that will surprise most people?
It seems that people believe we're a larger team than we have and we have more money than we have. Because most times [when I tell people] that I have a team of 12, or that time we were 10, they are always surprised.
Why are organisations like EiE Nigeria important?
It is absolutely important for citizens to have space, and so to the degree that we help ensure that happens, and also ensure citizens can speak and understand their rights and responsibilities, organisations like EiE are critical.
Also, I think we’re important especially within the context of Nigeria — a country that's come out of military rule and is running a democracy with citizens who were not taught what democracy means but are expected to engage. It's absolutely critical that we understand that, until we change the type of people who go into public service, health outcomes, education outcomes, infrastructure outcomes, etc., will always be suboptimal.
So all of this, in terms of active citizenship and engaging citizens and the office of the citizen, is to ensure that those who end up in political leadership can do better, because they are held to a higher standard by citizens who understand what they should be doing and can ask them those questions.
If someone is meant to be jumping 10 feet high and he's jumping one foot, but nobody's challenging him to jump 10 feet, he will remain at one foot because nobody is asking questions. So that's why it's important that citizens understand enough to ask those questions to ensure that we get the result that we need.
And as citizens begin to engage and ask those questions, then the quality of political leadership must change because it will then show up that the people who are leading or serving can't deliver on what is required.
What are some ways EiE Nigeria is helping people understand the power they have?
Well, part of our election campaign, which we started off in 2011, is RSVP (Register to vote, Select credible candidates, Vote NOT fight, Protect your vote). We partner with the 2Baba Foundation, which runs a “Vote Not Fight” campaign.
But on that bit of selecting credible candidates, we organise debates. We've done this since 2011, because we believe in the fundamental principle of what a debate is in a democracy. In a parliamentary system of government, they debate all the time so it's not a big deal, but in the presidential system of government that we practise debates are critical.
Why are they critical? Because usually at a rally, it's unidirectional like I mentioned earlier. [The politician is] speaking to you, everybody is clapping and dancing. You can't hear half of what [the politician is] saying. We all dance, eat some food, and everybody goes home. But, debates allow candidates to challenge each other's ideas so it becomes an arena of ideas.
That’s something we have done over the last 12 years that I'm really proud of — the culture of debates that EiE Nigeria as an organisation is pushing in Nigeria. We are the organisation that has hosted, or co-hosted, the most debates of various formats in Nigeria’s history.
In 2019, we hosted a presidential debate called "The People's Debate" — well, people called it "The Alternatives" because the two big political parties didn't participate — but it was the first time in Nigeria’s history that a presidential debate was simulcast live on radio and TV.
So, for context, the presidential speeches are never live — they are always pre-recorded. When the president does his message on Oct. 1 (Nigeria’s Independence Day), it's pre-recorded. They just play it at 7:00 a.m. but it is not live.
Our debate was live! And not only was it live in English, we partnered with TV Continental (TVC), BBC Africa and Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) for that one. You could hear it in Yoruba, you could hear it in Igbo, you could hear it in Pidgin, and you could hear it in Hausa, and on radio.
For our 12th anniversary this year, we aimed to bring all of that home. So we invited Janet Brown, the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates in the US — she was a keynote speaker. We also had Tunde Fashola (Nigeria’s current Minister of Works and Housing and former governor of Lagos State), who is the most debated politician that I am aware of — in his first term [as governor] he participated in 11 debates in Lagos.
So we're really very proud of how we continue to push that and we look forward to taking that to another level for the 2023 elections.
How can Global Citizens anywhere take action to defend & protect the civic space?
Well, understand the power that you have as a citizen and just recognise that, as long as we're discussing a democracy, that it is an innate power that you have. And it's both ways: we have rights, and we have responsibilities as well. But the whole essence of democracy is that we elect people to serve our interests because we have a voice. Do you understand the responsibilities of those who represent you? Are they working in your best interest, whatever that might mean?
Secondly, understand your community and pay attention. As with everything we see around the world, things degenerate when people are more glued to their phones and their devices and don't engage. We're human beings, we are social animals. We are meant to connect and relate to people. So don't neglect the community.
And then thirdly is the whole idea of enlightened self-interest. When you think about doing things in your own enlightened self-interest, we end up making better decisions. And that's what we do for the public good. For example, it is in my enlightened self-interest to ensure that public school is affordable, because I want to be able to send my children. So if you are advocating for that, you benefit from it as well. So there's something to be said for that.
On May 22, all eight Global Citizen Prize winners — including 'Yemi and her fellow Citizen Award winners from around the world, as well as this year’s Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award winner, Nidhi Pant — will be celebrated at an awards ceremony and intimate gala dinner event taking place at New York City’s Gotham Hall.
The event will recognise the winners’ extraordinary work, with an exclusive stream of the Global Citizen Prize event airing on YouTube on June 2, at 12 p.m. ET.
You can also find out more about how you can join ‘Yemi Adamolekun in taking action to defend the civic space here.