Dr. Uzodinma Adirieje is a World Bank-trained health economist. He is the Chairman of Civil Society Organizations Strategy Group on Sustainable Development Goals (CSOSG-SDGs), and National President, Nigerian Association of Evaluators (NAE). In this interview, he spoke about Nigeria and COVID-19, his life, and work, among others.
How was growing up?
It was not bad because what we didn’t know we asked for. There was brotherhood in the world then than now. I grew up in the village in my community, Ebenasaa in Imo State. I had my primary in Ebenasaa and secondary school was in Orlu. My medical training was in the former Imo State University, now Abia State University. I have been a doctor for the past 32 years. I left medical school in 1988. When I was in primary school, I wanted to be addressed as a doctor, what I was to be the doctor in, I didn’t know. I was not sure until one of my uncles came around in my secondary school years and looked at my result and ordered me to study Physics, Chemistry, and Biology so that I would go to medical school. In obedience to him and not out of desire to be, I started studying those subjects, whereas my best subjects were economics, commerce, and language. I struggled to meet up with my uncle’s challenge for me, and it took all I had in me. In the end, I was offered admission to study optometry.
What about your service year?
I did my national service in General Hospital, Takun. It was TY Danjuma’s hometown. We tried to see him once but he was not coming home, he was well known. The people would always show us his house; it was the only storey building.
If you could wind back the hands of time, would you have become a doctor again?
No! What I have done over the years is to expand my scope far above my primary calling. The primary calling is a benchmark. The medical school training was what I built on to improve, to impact more on society. I have attended 60 trainings outside my calling. I have expanded my scope in knowledge and engagement. I have done energy, environment, biosphere, and financing for development. I have buried myself in so many things that affect man since I left medical school.
How did you become the chairman of CSOSG-SDGs?
I have been in development work all my life. I have not earned a kobo salary from the government. I got involved in a whole number of development projects. I chaired a good number of organizations before the presidency started the SDGs committee; I have a good number of experiences. We have over 80, 000 civil organizations in Nigeria. Coincidentally, there is nobody that is doing something who is not contributing to the SDGs goals, even the person that is sleeping is working within the SDGs because sleeping helps health and healthy living is part of SDGs. So, there is hardly anything you are doing in this world that is not within the 17 SDGs. I was at the national meeting in Abuja where I was nominated and elected to become their chairman, most of them are people that knew my qualities; among the executives is a former member of Nigerian Senate
How does this group benefit the country?
It is new, it works principally to speak for, act for, and consult for the people through all the civil society in Nigeria to bridge the gap between Nigeria and other developing countries in the world. It is to enhance the government work in development. It is channeling basic development to the people.
What is the strategy being used by the group to achieve this?
The first strategy is advocacy. This should be persistent advocacy. Advocacy of the diligent implementation of the SDGs, to ensure that Nigeria delivers on the targets, especially those that have been set up by us, it is to ensure that we also as a people have our target set for us by ourselves to meet the SDGs. To ensure that all stakeholders recognize, appreciate, and benefit from the inputs of civil society whether it is government, business, private sector, government, religious group, and so on, benefit from it. It is a very high level of advocacy. Our role will also include capacity development of our members, ensuring that members of the whole civil society within us are not incapacitated to be able to contribute to the SDGs. We would also work to build partnerships and strengthen existing ones; those who use labour and those who provide labour, those who make, and those who ensure policies; to ensure that the SDGs realized in this country tallies with and benefit all stakeholders. We will strengthen the relationship with youths and women groups. We will also promote evidence generation and research. We want to know what worked and what has not worked in the country. How true is the information being pushed around on the success or otherwise that we have made on SDGs and all related development indicators and indices. We will be available for, conduct, re-conduct, and support research. We would mobilize and generate evidence. We will provide a platform where every government, organization, group, the business sees itself as a principal stakeholder and determining factor in the achievement of SDGs in Nigeria and within our respective smaller enclave we should start from families. We should start by developing families. When families know what SDGs is all about, they can also come up with their targets. What is demanded from one family may be different from another. We would also be interested in organizing outreaches; a good number of our communities are hard to reach. The civil society has been given the mandate to reach the far and wide of the country. Part of our evidence generation will include monitoring and evaluation, the civil society is to independently monitor and evaluate the government. The civil society is here to bridge the gap between people and development. To ensure that what is being done within the SDGs is in line with programme and plans of the global SDGs.
Why is the civil society not interested in zero hunger in a country like Nigeria?
There is what is called Voluntary National Review of the SDGs. It is a United Nations marked activity. Every year, when the committee meets, countries state their VNR to the UN and it is deliberated on and approved. This year, from the presidency, the Nigerian government has selected SDGs, 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 16, and 17 as the focus of their SDGs. It was done because that is what could be done, not because SDGs number 2 (Zero Hunger) is not important.
It’s not possible to fight hunger?
No! If you look at the SDGs, if you eliminate poverty, hunger will disappear, if you achieve SDG Number 1 (Zero Poverty) nobody will die of SDG number 2 (Zero Hunger.) the SDGs are interlinked.
If the SDGs are not achieved within the year in review, what happens?
We will do everything to achieve the SDGs and where we fail, we will re-programme, but not having a plan at all is what is wrong, not having a goal is what is criminal but when there is a goal, monitoring and evaluation enables you to process, readjust, and reprogramme as you grow, if need be. Remember that the world had Millennium Developmental Goals but 15 years into it, the world could not keep up and it adjusted to SDGs that will be ending by 2030. This is our decade of action. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has come in and the world is suffering.
How has COVID-19 affected these SDGs?
The truth is that COVID-19 has reversed most of the achievements in the SDGs. The mortality rate has suddenly increased, people are dying everywhere in the country. It has adversely affected the SDGs all over the world, it has made mincemeat of our efforts but we would not succumb to it. The world will brace up and pursue SDGs to the logical conclusion and achieve the SDGs to the shame of COVID -19. What it requires is for us to re-strategize. It is not the time for anybody to slack on any of the SDGs; rather they should strengthen and enhance machinery achieving SDGs while tackling COVID-19. The world and Nigeria should not focus its attention on COVID-19 and allow SDGs to suffer. They need to tackle both together to avoid future disasters. COVID-19 has affected most development indices. In the past weeks, a great part of the country has been in quarantine. It is a lot of resources gone. A lot of human time wasted. It became necessary because it was done to prevent loss of life but it was a lot of global loss. Even in the midst of all these, COVID-19 should not take the attention of the world and Nigeria because SDGs also need our immediate attention. It would be suicide if Nigeria focuses on COVID-19 only, we should continue to achieve the SDGs. COVID-19 is one of the SDGs, so we can’t focus on one leaving other 16. This is the decade of action, if Nigeria misses this decade, it will be hard to catch up. We need to scale up all machinery of SDGs.
We keep saying civil society, what classifies a civil society?
Civil society is that group of human society that is outside the government and the commercial concerned. An organization that is not after profit and as you can see the vast population of the world is within the civil society. But it does not mean that it should not pay a salary, it does not mean that it should not empower people to prosper.
How has the experience been?
This is the first time Nigeria is having a group like this where SDGs are pursued at the national level. The experience has been awesome because I have much older civil society players in the executives. I would not say about the experience for me, I would say it is an experience for us. We found that the group ought to have existed a long time ago, it was supposed to exist even before Nigeria was given independence.
How do you relax?
I do a lot of physical exercises. It is the only thing I can do outside thinking civil society.
What makes a woman a wife material to you?
I am a Christian and my response will be tilted towards my faith. The bible says he who finds a wife, finds a good thing and obtains favour from the Lord. Wife material to me is someone who is naturally beautiful, loyal, humane, intelligent, and plans with me. These are the things I hold dear. I said naturally attractive because when all the makeup goes away, we behold nature. Loyalty must be in terms of friendship and not servitude. She understands your concern and tells you the truth at every point in time.
Out of the countries you have traveled to, which one is the most interesting?
I have been to not more than a dozen countries; the most interesting country is Kenya. I have been to America and Europe. Kenya is the most interesting because it is the only country that I traveled to and feel I am still in Nigeria, among my people. You don’t feel like all eyes on you. For me, that is what makes a country interesting. It is not like some other country that you will have to hide from pillar to post. When I went to Italy in 1992 to attend a seminar on cyber warfare and military establishment, I was the only black in that training. Something happened, part of our schedule was to attend a football match in Trento, I was on a kaftan, and I didn’t know that I have become a focus of attack. The next thing I noticed was that my European friends came and sat around me to guide me until we got to the car. After the game I was told that xenophobia was in place and I was lucky. You can’t have that experience and still see the world the same way. It is how I am treated in a country that determines my love for the country, not the edifices.