A former UN Under-Secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Valerie Amos is the first black woman to head a university in the UK. As a director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, University of London, Amos recently led a delegation to Nigeria during which she participated in some events. In this interview with Anthony Akaeze, associate editor in Lagos, Amos speaks on a wide range of issues including the plan by SOAS to deepen its relationship with its alumni members, migration and human trafficking among others. Excerpts:
The School of Oriental and African Studies has a long history with Nigeria and Africa. But with Brexit, things might change. With Britain now out of the European Union, and with restrictions on immigration and all of that, some people feel it could affect the number of international applicants from countries like Nigeria. What do you think?
One of the things we have been campaigning very strongly on at SOAS but also with other colleagues from other universities across the UK is the importance of international collaboration, international partnership, a diverse student and staff body for higher education institutions like SOAS. I mean, we at SOAS, absolutely pride ourselves on our diversity. It is at the heart of who we are and what we do. Right now, we have students from over 130 countries on our campus. We have staff from over 90 countries. So, we have been very clear in the messages that we have been giving the British Government that, it’s important, despite the vote that was taken to leave the European Union, for Britain to remain open, for us to continue to welcome international students. Of course, I am extremely worried that some of the rhetoric, the way that the national conversation has gone around some of these issues, will be extremely off to students who are thinking about coming to SOAS and that is why we have been very keen to use our Centenary Year as a mechanism and means of making sure that there is recognition across the world, that we continue to be open, that we want to welcome students from everywhere, that international collaboration helps us to achieve the academic excellence which is so much part of who we are. Students come to SOAS because they are interested in the world, they are interested in global…, they are interested in the way that countries and regions from which they come are affected and influenced by what is happening in other parts of the world but also they are interested in wanting to learn to engage to understand how they can put back, influence and change what is happening in the world. So, how we keep that engagement, that message of openness is an important part of what we are seeking to do here in Lagos and of course having alumni from across Africa and here in Nigeria, who are from all walks of life, retired judges, lawyers, business people, politicians, artists, who are able to make the same case and put the message across about why SOAS education is so important is also a key part.
Are there ways you collaborate with your Nigerian alumni to perhaps advance some cause?
Our alumni have now formed an alumni association. They are looking at ways in which they would like to collaborate further with us in terms of issues that they are concerned about and engaged in. The law is one big area. We have a huge number of law alumni here in Nigeria. Dr. Emilia Onyema is one of our staff in the School of Law. We also have with us here as part of the team, Professor Badarin who is in the school of law too and is also the chair of our centre for African Studies. We are looking at converting that centre into a SOAS Africa institute with a dedicated director and head of the institute. We have the largest body of academic staff working on Africa related issues in SOAS outside the African continent. So, if you look at any African institution, be it in the United States, in Europe or anywhere else, they are not so many as they are in SOAS. So we are working with our alumni, looking at different areas in which we can deepen the relationship, deepen the engagement, deepen the research collaboration. And of course, we also have universities in the continent that we also partner, here in Nigeria and also Ghana and elsewhere.
You worked as UN Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs. We have a crisis on our hands now with refugees and Internally Displaced People everywhere. Can you give us a sense of the challenges the agency faced at that time compared to what we are seeing now?
When I was at the UN which was five years between 2010 and 2015, we saw humanitarian crisis escalate across the world. Syria was a major example of that but also South Sudan; continuing crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly in the east, we saw what was happening in Iraq, in Yemen. There wasn’t a region of the world where you couldn’t point to escalating crisis; some of the conflicts were related, some as a result of natural disasters. And what we also saw was a rise in the number of people displaced internally within countries but also leaving those countries and becoming refugees in other countries and of course, what we know is that it’s the neighbouring countries that bear the burden of refugee flows. So, in the case, for example, of Sudan, South-Sudan, you have Kenya, in the case of Somalia. We’ve seen in the past the role that countries like Tanzania and Uganda played and also Nigeria itself as a refugee receiving country but also people leaving parts of northern Nigeria and going to neighbouring countries. So, the refugee situation has got much worse over the last few years across the world and this is as a result of conflict but also environmental degradation and climate change and natural disasters. We are also seeing an outflow of people from parts of the world where people want to go to another country because they are seeking a better life for themselves and families. Very often you will see people move because they can’t get a job. For example they are able to get a job somewhere and that job is able to feed a family or an entire community. And the worry that I have is, not only are the numbers going up, but the political rhetoric that we are seeing, for example across the European Union, in countries like the UK and elsewhere, is extremely negative. There is not a proper recognition that the majority of refugees actually settle in the countries that are close to the countries that they live, and that those countries require a huge amount of support, to make sure that, particularly the social services in those countries, education, the provision of healthcare for example, support with employment, that these are things that the countries which are richer in the world, need to support those countries to provide those services for refugees.
Regarding the ceaseless travel on the Mediterranean Sea that we see today, was it something that was common five years ago?
It was something that was already happening five years ago, but there wasn’t such a spotlight on it. And you may recall at that time, there was a kind of sense that, because much of those flows were into Italy particularly and Greece, that it was the responsibility of those countries. It was only as the numbers of refugees increased, as we saw more and more concern about what was happening in terms of the human cost of those flows, with people being lost at sea, that the responsibilities across the European Union became recognized. But I think there were those flows at that time, but I think there was not such a spotlight on it.
There’s also the continuing trafficking of women and children which is a global issue and Nigeria is usually mentioned each time it’s discussed. How worried are you, seeing that the trend continues in spite of efforts to curb it. Are there ways or things you think could be done to effectively tackle the menace?
First of all, I think that we should all be appalled that the trafficking of girls and women is still so prevalent in 2017, that we are seeing the equivalent of modern day slavery occurring in many countries including trafficked women and children turning up in the United Kingdom, in countries across Europe, in the United States and elsewhere, so you have to tackle this from a variety of different sources. You have to deal with the traffickers themselves, the fact that this has become such a lucrative business is something that needs to be dealt with, it needs to be dealt with through legal mechanisms both in the countries themselves and internationally because this is a global trade, but you also need to choke off the demand, because there would not be a profit from trafficking is there is no demand as well. So you also need to choke off the demand. You need to look at supply and demand and those who are engaged in trafficking need to be dealt with through international law and domestic law as well and the penalties in my view need to be much greater than they are at present.
Many of these girls are lured into the trafficking trade because they are told that Europe is an Eldorado kind of place. Is that a right perception?
Well, very often what people are looking at is that there are opportunities for employment, which means that if they do become employed, they can help families and communities and of course those people who are able to gain meaningful employment in countries are able to do that, but what the whole trade and what trafficking has done is essentially turn people into equivalent of slaves, that people pay, you know, a family may work for a very long time to raise the money to pay to a trafficker to get a member of that family into a country in Europe or elsewhere with the expectation that when that individual starts the work they will pay back the debt. It doesn’t work like that. So, we also have to raise awareness with families that the reality is very different, so there’s work to be done there as well.
You are reputedly the first black woman to head a university in the UK. How would you assess the progress of women in recent years, in the light of your own success? Would you say it’s laudable?
Well, I’ve been at SOAS now just under two years. We have not seen any other black women come through as vice chancellors or directors of universities. We still have a situation where the number of black professors and black female professors in the United Kingdom is extremely low. The numbers are much better at SOAS but we are not complacent about that because that is partly about the fact that we are a very international institution. If we didn’t have professors from all over the world and only looked at professors who are from the UK, then our numbers would be much lower and would be much more in line with the practice across the sector as a whole. So this is an area that we have to continue to work on. There have been great improvement in other sectors across the UK but the higher education sector remains one where there’s still a great deal to be done and I absolutely recognize that.
So, if I may put it another way, just like in Nigeria where women complain of marginalization, it’s also the same in the UK and elsewhere?
I don’t think it’s just about marginalization. I think the picture is more complex than that and I think it’s the same in Nigeria. So, yes, there are elements of marginalization, there’s discrimination, there’s prejudice, (but) there are also success stories. So, the picture is more nuanced than the picture that is very often portrayed.
If I may use you as example, did you imagine you were kind of under pressure to get to the top? Did you have to struggle twice as hard as the men to get to the position you occupied?
Well I don’t think that I was under pressure to get to the top. I don’t think any woman who is successful is going to say to you that she set out wanting to, as it were, get to the top. The thing that has always driven me is a real kind of commitment in my work to working to achieve social justice and equality. That’s the thing that has driven me. I haven’t gone for a particular job from the basis of I’m going to be the first in what I do. What I’ve done is sought to do each and every job that I do to the best of my ability. That’s what has driven me. But I would also say that women are judged very differently to men, that we do have to work much harder to get the same kind of recognition. I think that the majority of women would agree with that.
I believe you are familiar with the issue of Chibok Girls. This is the third year into their abduction…
I don’t think anybody thought it would go on this way. I remember when the campaign first started in relation to trying to ensure that those girls were freed, we all hoped that it would happen much more quickly than it has, that this was an issue which will be dealt with through a combination of working together of security forces not just here in Nigeria but working with others around the world, to try and identify where the girls are being held, and then to try to get them back. It’s very difficult for us to understand now, three years in, why it has taken this long (to get them back) and of course the longer it takes, the more people lose hope. And I cannot imagine what it feels like for the families of those girls, for their mothers, their fathers, their siblings, their wider family, their communities that the situation still continues and to be imagining what is happening to those girls and young women, it is absolutely tragic (82 of the girls were freed a week after the interview in a swap deal between their abductors, Boko Haram and the Nigerian Government).
There was a recent report that Britain plans to deport illegal immigrants most of whom I understand are Nigerians…
I’ve not seen the figure that most illegal immigrants are Nigerians…
Under Theresa May, from reports, that’s what she proposes to do. And some Nigerians were deported sometime ago.
There’s a very strong UK Home Office agenda which has been in place for a very long time which is about, first of all, prune down the numbers of migrants into the UK but which is also focused on deporting illegal immigrants but I have never, or may be this is something that I’ve missed, I’ve never seen the figure which indicates that the majority of illegal immigrants are from Nigeria. I’ve not seen that.
But taken on a broader scale, if we are to extend it to Donald Trump’s own agenda as well: anti-immigration. Is it something you think is tenable, to just want to deport people because they came in illegally but they have lived here for a pretty long time?
Oh, it is not something that I agree with at all. I’m someone who thinks that, as a world, the movement of peoples around the world is something which enriches and enhances societies. I do think that it is very important for societies that there is a sense of fairness. What I have seen in the UK, is people, British people from all over the world, feeling concerned if they think that people have somehow jumped the queue, have somehow tried to get into the country not using the legal mechanisms. That is something that people worry about. But, in terms of migration generally, in terms of the important role that migrants bring to society, I myself, I’m a migrant. My family went to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, so, my parents were, in the current parlance, economic migrants, so I personally…
From Guyana, in South America. So, I personally think that migration is of great benefit to societies. At the same time, I think it’s important for people to understand what the mechanisms are, to enable them to get into countries as migrants and I am not someone who thinks that, migration on the basis of being an economic migrant is something which should not be encouraged because I think the movement of peoples across the world, as I said enriches societies but I also think that it is important to distinguish that from the responsibility that countries and governments and people have to give support to people who become refugees and are forced to flee because they face insecurity in their countries of origin and we should be welcoming refugees and I’m appalled at the way that the debate and discussion around refugees and the rights of refugees is being conducted right now including in the United Kingdom.
You said this is not your first time of visiting Nigeria. What’s your impression of the country?
Well, I arrived two days ago. I had not been in Lagos, I think for about five years, so I can see that there are many changes and also a huge amount of focus on construction and getting the infrastructure right. One of the things I’ve always loved about coming to Nigeria and coming to a city like Lagos, is the energy, the entreprenuership, that sense of can-do, which I think is extraordinarily important as we see parts of the world which are turning in on themselves. So, there’s the energy, drive, innovation and creativity here.
Given your accomplishment, you are a role model to women. If you were to advise young girls about life, what would it be?
The first thing I would say is that education is really important. So, don’t give up easily. Nothing comes without a great deal of hardwork and tenacity. So, stay in education and get the best possible education that you can. Sometimes it’s not always possible to know early on, what you want to do with your life. Don’t let that constrain you. There are many, many more options open to girls and women now than there used to be. I would say, look for support and advice from those around you that you trust. Try and get as much experience as you can so that you get the best possible sense of what you like and what you don’t like. Think about what your passions are in life. It’s very hard to succeed in something if you don’t like what you’re doing. So I do think that having that sense of what motivates you, what drives you, is important to do. And the final thing I would say is that, look for guidance but, no one else can answer your questions and tell you what you should do with your life. It’s very hard to just look to other people to give you the answers. We can have concessions, we can say, this is what worked for me; think about what that advice means for yourself, but at the end of the day, you’re going to make your own decision