Bilkisu Yusuf: Legacies of A History of Winning, By Jibrin Ibrahim

imageThe death of Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf in Saudi Arabia during a stampede on September 24th provoked in all who knew her deep sadness on the passing away of this great teacher, human rights advocate, networker, committed practitioner of inter-faith dialogue and frontline fighter against poverty and all forms of social exclusion. Her life is a story of winning so many battles on so many fronts to improve society and leave it better than she found it. She fought and won battles in so many organisations over a forty-year period. While I knew her in our days as students in Ahmadu Bello University, I started working with her closely in 1982 while establishing the organisation, Women in Nigeria (WIN). She was one of the founding WINers and I reproduce below her own account of the story of the origins of the organisation. It is just one of the many organisations she devoted her life to founding, developing and using as platforms for struggling and winning.

WIN: In the Beginning

By Bilkisu Yusuf, WIN Conference, Kano, 2006

The organisers of this conference have chosen a relevant organisation to focus on and also an appropriate topic. From the time it was established to the time it started experiencing the seam bursting dynamics of growth, Women In Nigeria (WIN) was the most militant and active women’s NGO in Nigeria. That WIN made considerable impact in the women’s movement is undisputable. However, what many of the founding members, and indeed the diverse and teeming members who subscribed to the WIN vision did not expect was the pathetic and anaemic state to which the vibrant, vocal and articulate organisation has been reduced. Could this comatose state of WIN have been avoided? Can this trend be reversed? What does the future hold? Can the vision be recaptured, reviewed, or drowned? This paper examines the emergence of WIN, its vision, and mission, growth and decline. It makes recommendations on the way forward.

In the Beginning Was a Vision
In 1982 a group of women and men who were lecturers in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria decided to organise a conference on Women In Nigeria (WIN). They were mainly drawn from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and particularly from the Sociology and Political Science departments. Foremost among them were Ayesha Imam, Sule Bello, Jibo Ibrahim, Rauf Mustapha, Renee Pittin, Hauwa Mahdi, Norma Perchonock, etc. They reached out to lecturers in other universities and women outside academia, from other spheres of life to join them as participants at the conference. From other universities came Ifeyinwa Iweriebor, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Arlene Enabulele, Edwin and Bene Madunagu. From the media came Bilkisu Yusuf, Therese Nweke, Hauwa Dangogo, Elizabeth Obadina etc. The aim of the conference was to discuss and analyse the condition and status of women in Nigeria and identify strategies to uplift their status.

The Vision
At the end of the conference, which featured paper presentations, participants resolved to establish an organisation which later came to be known as Women In Nigeria (WIN), a name drawn from the conference theme. From that time, the women and their male supporters never looked back. Fired by their vision of mobilising all for social justice, they designed WIN as a membership organisation. Its aim was social transformation and this it hoped to achieve through engaging in research, policy making, dissemination of information and action aimed at improving the conditions of women. WIN envisioned an equitable society that is free from oppression and where women have equal access to education and other resources that would enable them to shape policies that affect their lives.

WIN’s Objectives Are:
• To promote the study of conditions of women in Nigeria, with the aim of combating discriminatory and sexist practice in the family, the workplace and in the wider society;

• To defend the rights of women under the Nigerian Constitution and the United Nations Human Rights Conventions and other instruments such as CEDAW;

• To provide non-sexist alternatives to government and institutional policies;

• To fight against the harassment and sexual abuse of females in the family and elsewhere;

• To promote equitable distribution of domestic work in the family;

• To provide a forum for women to express themselves;

• To ensure for women, equal access to equal education;

• To combat sexist stereotypes in literature, the media and education materials;

• To form links and work with other organisations and groups fighting sex and class oppression;

• To fight for social justice.

A Feminist Group Emerges
WIN from the beginning made it clear that it was a feminist organisation. The organisation defined feminism simply as “belief in the principle that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men”. At that time, there were groups supporting feminism, but no women’s groups that emphasised their support for feminism existed. Some out of fear of being called a “women’s liberation” group which elicited antagonism from many people, especially men who traced any such group to western style women liberation groups, promotion of male traits, their “bra burning,” anti-family attitudes and inclinations to upset the natural order of biological relations between the sexes.

WIN insisted that it was not a “western style” liberation movement, emphasising that over 70 percent of Nigerian women are part of peasant farming families to whom such a movement is irrelevant. Further, WIN stressed that it was an African Women’s organisation, conscious of its socio-cultural milieu and committed to the advancement of women, using the Nigerian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex as a point of entry. How can any Nigerian disagree with or oppose this constitutional provision? Why would any citizen of the world oppose UN human rights conventions that seek to make the world a better place for all women and men?

WIN used the Marxist-feminist model to explain the condition of women in Nigeria emphasising that women’s struggle must be linked to the wider class struggle in the society. “In this system, women and men are both exploited as members of oppressed groups. Within the system of class oppression, however, women suffer particular forms of exploitation, thus they are subjected to double oppression.”

Women on the Move
One of the early activities WIN carried out was a research on the conditions of women working in the factories around Kano. Other activities included annual conferences and publication of the proceedings, prompt response through press releases to policy issues, particularly those that have implications for the advancement of women, articulation of WIN position on economic, and political polices, documentation and dissemination of such views, participation in international conferences. WIN was represented at 1985 UN Women’s Decade Conference in Nairobi, Kenya where the UN strategies for the Advancement of Women was developed and adopted.

WIN: An Organisational Development Cycle
In the past two decades, various theories and frameworks for analysing organisations have been developed. Organisations are defined as “collections of people, joining together in some formal association in order to achieve group or individual objectives”. Galbraith (1987) focused on organisational structure, which is “the formal configuration between individuals and groups with respect to the allocation of tasks, responsibilities and authority within organisations”. The organisational structure holds the organisation together as a cohesive unit, providing the mechanism for its control and ensures coordination between activities, allowing for differentiation and integration.

WIN in its formative and active years had a very effective organisational structure at the national and state levels. There were elected national officers and state coordinators who provided the mechanism for control. The constitution provided an anchor for due process while the various chapters had enough autonomy to provide for differentiation and diversity. So what could have gone wrong?

Organisational development theorists posit that organisations like human beings have a life of their own, they are “highly complex, dynamic systems which emerge, develop and decline in diverse and changing technological, economic and social contexts. What is appropriate in one context may be totally unsuitable in another”. In analysing organisations, six characteristics are taken into consideration. People, strategies and plans, technology, environment, structure and culture.

The People
This focuses on the members of the organisation and their associates, their attitudes, values, aspirations and experience. This is the most important component of the characteristics that is critical to analysing the problems and the sources of stress and strains that WIN faced as it developed and later declined.

In the beginning, WIN relied on the spirit of voluntarism, members paying their way to meetings and staying with friends and relations. There was commitment. As the organisation grew, clash of values and aspirations became imminent, between the Marxists, and non-Marxists, those who opposed acceptance of grants from imperialist governments and those who wanted to network with all women across borders, the academics who were research focused and non-university based members who wanted WIN to diversify its projects and activities and concentrate less on research and conferences.

However, given that the organisation was gender focused, the source of tension that was a paradox as was the attitude of the men in WIN. Some of the men felt marginalised by the opportunities that feminists said the women who were the only ones who could be leaders in WIN were reaping such as attendance at International conferences, and national recognition as leaders of civil society. The men started opposing such activities as opportunism, diversionary actions, and designed to compromise the organisation. The men started pulling their weight to ensure that only women who shared their views emerged as leaders of WIN. There were rumours of the women compromising themselves just to earn male support in order to win elections.

Others argued that the men in WIN were not envious, rather they were “purists” who were unhappy about the general corrupting atmosphere that pervaded WIN which had been turned into an avenue for making deals with donors and a “platform where people accumulate wealth and make connections for future use.” According to a male supporter, “most of these ambitious women see these men as obstacles to their ambitions. The persistent call for a return to the original creed is seen as a strategy for male domination and manipulation”.

While WIN was battling with these internal dynamics, an external threat emerged. As the organisation was preparing for the Enugu AGM where elections were to be held, two of the candidates contesting for leadership were supported by different factions. One was supposed to be an employee of “an imperialist government donor agency” and her opponents argued that her election would amount to outright sale of WIN to capitalist movements. The other contestant was described as a federal government agent, paid to infiltrate and capture WIN. This would neutralise its militant and critical approach to issues and compromise its ideological stand. There were allegations that plain clothes security officers and policemen were drafted to the venue of the Enugu AGM to prevent the non-government candidate from emerging as WIN leader. After the Enugu conference, the organisation at the national level split into two factions. However, both contestants and their followers became too preoccupied with other issues – one got a job abroad and the other an appointive and prestigious position in government. The immediate past president migrated to the United States claiming that she was being hounded by the Abacha regime for her criticisms of government. Without a leader, WIN at the national level ebbed into oblivion. The state branches tried to survive on their own but it became too difficult for them. They gradually ceased to function, and have become dormant as members joined other NGOs or founded their own. As I write, only two state branches of WIN are still active, the Kaduna and Bauchi state chapters.

…And Today
The reality today is that some of the predictions of an anxious WIN member shortly before the stalled Enugu AGM have come true. “It can therefore, be said that a fierce class struggle is raging in WIN. If the feminist/opportunists win, then the organisation will degenerate and join NCWS in the dustbin of history. However, should the purists win or force a compromise, then WIN may retain some relevance to the struggle for liberation and class justice in Nigeria.” Committed members of WIN can still make an effort to revitalise the organisation, beginning with re-activation of state branches.

A strategic thinking workshop to assess WIN to envision a future should be convened using the Strength Based approach also known as Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry is particularly recommended for development workers who tend to be bogged down by problems and often focus too much on solving problems that they forget to see the strengths they can tap from organisations or communities they want to assist. Appreciative Inquiry is a way of being and working, it is deliberately positive and hopeful. It believes that the past is a source of wisdom, and a learning experience, it therefore values organisational history. Appreciative inquiry believes that something works in every organisation and in every community (Abantu 1998). For the civil society activists concerned with charting a new path for WIN and documenting the organisation’s history, appreciative inquiry is the relevant concept to apply in arriving at the reality of WIN’s past and its ability and strengths for taking full charge of the future.

Appreciative Inquiry “is an approach for fostering innovations in organisations and communities that translates images of possibility into reality, beliefs and practices. It focuses on “doing more of what works” as opposed to the Problem Solving Approach which focuses on “doing less of something we do not do well”.

I hope this conference will look beyond today and assist those WIN members who are still committed to the organisations ideals to chart a new path for all who want to see social justice reflected in all aspects of life.

Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf who passed on recently during the Mecca, Saudi Arabia stampede of September 24, 2015 was a journalist by profession and a political scientist by training. She was the first newspaper editor from Northern Nigeria and was very active in the Nigerian civil society for over four decades. She made this presentation at the WIN Conference in Kano, 2006

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