I got a heartbreaking note yesterday, from a lady I have never met, who was a beneficiary of the 2011 round of scholarships.
I knew Godwin a long time ago. He was a brilliant and fearless journalist, and active pro-democracy voice during the darkest days of military dictatorship. Tragically he died in 2006, shot by unknown gunmen on his way home from the office.
Back then, all I could do was to help his family in the best way I could, by including his daughter in that year’s scholarship list for her postgraduate studies in Scotland. Back then I was mostly focused on helping young Nigerians go to study abroad, because we were all on the edge of exile anyway, and we thought it was best to send young people out to go see how freedom and democracy works, so they could come home and help make the country better.
I can vaguely remember one of my close staff and friend talking about Godwin’s other daughter applying for a scholarship in 2011, but because the scholarships were awarded on merit, all I remember was asking “Is she qualified”. I didn’t know she had been awarded the scholarship by the office. Not until yesterday.
My son sent me this note written by Godwin’s daughter, Ruona, and I was really touched by it. For very many reasons I cannot put down in words. I have given thousands of scholarships over the years, and read many “Thank You” notes, but this one stands out – not only because it thoroughly embarrassed me as Ruona intended, but because she has in her own decided to pay that gratitude into the lives of others by offering free journalism training.
Yes Ruona, I got to read your piece, and I’m truly touched. I also visited your twitter timeline, and saw someone’s testimony as being one of the beneficiaries of your training.
So I would tell you now that you owe me nothing. Instead I should say thank you. Thank you for being a great example to your generation, by offering voluntary service without compulsion. By investing in the lives of other people, you have laid a foundation for greatness in the future.
I wish you well in all you do, and pray that the sacrifice of your father and many other heroes never be in vain.
Read Ruona’s letter that embarrassed Atiku below.
I hear it every time, and feel somewhat guilty when they all say it. Distinguished men old enough to father me; young journalists who are often gobsmacked that I look younger than they expected and organisers who are simply relieved their events have gone well.
They all say: Ruona, thank you.
And each time, they do not believe me when I cringe and reply with: Please, don’t mention.
For the over 100 journalists and PR professionals I have ever been privileged to have sessions with, I want you to know today that you are thanking the wrong person.
All I know and have been passing on for practically free and totally free has been mainly because I was given a scholarship in 2011 to study at the University of Westminster, London. Today, I am graduating with a Merit in Broadcast Journalism from this prestigious institution and the sense of pride my family has is down to a man I have never met.
In thanking this man, I must now apologise to him because I am doing something which I have come to know (through his colleagues) he hates intensely—putting him in the limelight.
That man is Atiku Abubakar.
Again, I have never met Mr Abubakar, but knew early on in the 90′s that he was fondly called Turaki by Godwin, my father. After the Abacha regime incarcerated Godwin for one long spell, Turaki sent messages of encouragement. I know this because I eavesdropped as my trip to boarding school in Ogun State was delayed so Godwin could receive his friend’s guest.
When Godwin was assassinated in 2006, Mr Abubakar gave my sister a full postgraduate scholarship in Scotland, where she was living at the time, all with no physical contact with our family. From then on he seemed to fade from my consciousness, until December 2010.
I was having a brief stop in Nigeria from Johannesburg, and in the midst of preparing to move eventually to London by mid-2011 due to my marriage. I had applied for numerous jobs and was not called for a single interview. Citing the recession, my friends in London advised me to study in the UK to increase my chances of employment and learn the trade properly, since I was to settle here.
I applied for scholarships but the fact that I was not going to return to Nigeria fully anytime soon meant a bank and one popular global UK scholarships provider turned me down with expected alacrity.
I made up my mind to get any job, even if menial, and work my way to pay for the degree whenever I began living in the UK.
And so a few weeks before I left Nigeria, I ran into one of Godwin’s former colleagues. He asked me what I had been up to since my father’s death. When I explained my situation, he said he was aware Mr Abubakar had a long-running, informal set-up where he provided scholarships for “young people who show promise.”
As someone who never believes in the concept of the free lunch, I blurted out the first two things that came into my head—after helping my sister would Mr Abubakar help me as well? I had never met him; what if he began trying to influence my work?
I was immediately assured of two things. First, though informally given, all scholarships had a selection process with requirements. Secondly, Mr Abubakar had no idea of my work, even though I liked to think I was somebody who had recently won an international journalism prize. And in the event he did know, Mr Abubakar was not that kind of meddler. Basically, the dude could not be bothered.
I got in contact with Mr Abubakar’s Abuja office and went on a recce of sorts. I met a little line of people seated, holding large brown envelopes; took note of NYSC certificates peeking through transparent envelopes and listened as a member of staff received documents. I was informed I would need to write a cover letter explaining why I felt I deserved this scholarship, attach an offer letter from the UK University, show all my previous academic credentials; include a CV; and provide two letters from academic referees.
I got all the documents together, posted them to the address provided and promptly forgot about it.
A few months later a Dr Andrew Okolie informed me by email that I was to be given full tuition for my postgraduate degree. I was asked to provide the school’s bank account where the fees would be paid in directly, told to make the best of the opportunity and remember to bring honour to my country.
And that was it.
There was no further contact.
Even when I went to drop my first semester transcripts I was warmly thanked for making the effort. Mr Abubakar’s colleague told me: “Not many people who get scholarships from this office do that, Ruona and we do not impose conditions on them.”
I was surprised, and honestly felt guilty and undeserving. And so I began wondering how to repay this act of kindness. My contacts shrugged, telling me their opinion was that the best way was to emulate Mr Abubakar and give support to others.
I have always loved teaching, so I began to offer short courses for journalists whenever I got the chance to be in Nigeria. Charging the barest minimum or nothing at all in some cases, I found a way of fulfilling my interests whilst passing on the knowledge this scholarship has given me access to.
Even when it turned out to be a very difficult academic year in which I had to undergo surgery, the office sent their best wishes with every email update I sent. They added no pressure; instead they basically just trusted me to get on with it.
Everything came to a head on August 31st this year. It was my husband’s birthday and we were in Lagos, with my elder brother holding his marriage rites on that same day. Instead, I preferred to miss all the festivities in favour of running a free training course with young journalists in Lagos. Their eagerness to learn and the way we rubbed off on each other touched me beyond words. On the way home, I finally felt the greatest sense of fulfillment. And gratitude. I wouldn’t have things any other way.
I have written this because today I am graduating, and I want it on the record that Mr Abubakar’s commitment to education has always been present, regardless of whenever he has been in power or not. I am solid proof that well before the Education Solutions programme the man has been operating scholarships silently with no gender or tribal bias.
Today, I am an accomplished professional and able to uplift my family, country, craft and colleagues because Mr Abubakar took a look at several pieces of paper and made the decision to support a young lady he had never met, and probably never will.
And that is why, as I prance in front of the mirror, pose for pictures and take my place on the podium I ask everyone I have been privileged to work with not to thank me—or even Mr Abubakar for that matter—because he may actually be too busy to read this.
Rather, I ask that like Mr Abubakar, you be that person who creates a chance for others to excel.
Or you can be that person who makes the best of every chance they get in life to excel…and when they do excel, they create chances for others to excel.
Thank you, Mr Atiku Abubakar.
My apologies if I have embarrassed you.
It was totally intentional.
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