Mrs Dehab Ghebreab, is the outgoing Public Affairs Officer of the United States Consulate in Nigeria. In this interview with YEMISI AOFOLAJU, she speaks on her time in Nigeria, and how she has contributed in empowering the womenfolk in the country. EXCERPTS:
When you heard about your posting to Nigeria, what was your immediate reaction?
The fact is that we choose where we want to serve. When it was time for me to select where I wanted my next assignment, because we do this a year in advance, I included Lagos because I knew this would be my last assignment. I felt Lagos would be good because I love Nigeria so much, though I knew coming to Lagos would be very hectic and exhaustive, but it turned out to be probably one of the best assignments that I have had so far.
Why is your Lagos assignment one of the best?
The experience has been wonderful. I have accomplished a lot. My staff were very supportive of my assignment especially educational and cultural programmes and my work with the media. During the 2015 general elections and the Ebola virus crisis, we worked to support the Nigerian leadership in order to contain the virus. We advocated a free and fair election and it turned out to be peaceful. We feel good about this. At that time, I didn’t want to get engaged in any tiring job. But the fact that I came to Lagos and I had great time has left me with an experience that I would never forget. By the time I go into retirement, I will miss the job.
What was the most challenging experience you had?
I am not deterred or concerned much about challenges. It is the way one handles challenges that matters. Some people will view a challenge and say, ‘this is too challenging for me, I don’t want to do it, I want to stay away from it’ while others will say ‘challenges are opportunities; this is an opportunity for me, I will go for it’. Yes, there are challenges, but therein lie opportunities. I think if you invest time and energy, one gets good results.
How were you able to combine your roles as a mother, wife and careerist?
Really, when my children were very young, it was very tough. In the US, I had no house help, because one cannot easily hire one. Only wealthy people do. As a result, I wake up early in the morning to prepare breakfast for my children and husband and thereafter sending them off to school. I would then go to work, come back home to prepare dinner while also helping the kids with their homework. By 10 pm, one is exhausted! So, this was the type of life I had. But as the children were growing up, we taught them how to be independent and take care of the home. The kids then were responsible for taking care of their bedrooms and laundry during weekends. In all, we shared the responsibilities evenly with my husband.
What is your general perception of Nigeria?
Based on my service and working and living in Nigeria, I make bold to say that Nigeria is the giant of Africa in terms of its population, economy and natural endowments and resources. However, there have been challenges in terms of development and poverty in some parts of the country. Furthermore, there were opportunities that were lost in the past when resources were not used to develop the country and grow the economy so that the people can have a better life. But the struggle still continues. I have seen that Nigerians are very entrepreneur-conscious. All of these at one point are coming together to make this country a leader not only in Africa, but in the rest of the world.
What sacrifices should a woman make to get to the top of her career?
There are challenges and in some cases very serious ones, to me it starts in the home. I have three children -two sons and a daughter, who is the eldest. Generally speaking, the eldest is the most responsible. Sometimes intentionally, I burden her with so much responsibilities than the boys not because she is a girl but because she is responsible. With the benefit of hindsight now, I think I burdened her too much. But in the process, she developed a lot of skills that are necessary to make her succeed in life.
Now to your question, from early childhood, the girl-child carries a burden of responsibility in the home. It is true that women carry the heaviest burden in any family even in developed countries. But it is also hard to generalise, it is more of stereotyping to do that because there are responsible men who take on equal responsibility with their spouses like my husband. The challenges are huge, but what I believe in is that every woman should strive to develop herself so that she is financially independent. Education is key to achieving this. If you are financially independent, no matter what happens in life, you will be in a position to help your children and move on with life. It is hard, especially in rural areas. Rural women face quite a lot of challenges globally. The more reason the US foreign policy is targeted at women/girls empowerment. In some cases, it is deliberate that this policy is prioritised. A few weeks ago, we had a pre-departure orientation for Nigerians selected to participate in our exchange programme. When I took census of participants, we had 50 per cent women in attendance which is highly commendable. We have been trying to select qualified women based on merit which is hard sometimes because women don’t apply or that they do not know how to present a very strong application which made us to scramble to get the best we can. Most of the time, it is difficult to get 50 per cent women participants which is always our goal in whatever we do. For instance, for the Mandela Washington Fellowship Programme, we received close to 14,000 applications, but women were not well represented. It was really hard to get the number of women because we wanted to make it 50-50. Though we managed to do this, but it was very difficult.
What is your assessment of the series of empowerment workshops that your department organised while your tenure lasted?
Yes, I am satisfied because we were able to engage in capacity building. We organised workshops, seminars on entrepreneurship which involved mainly women participants addressed by speakers from overseas. It is not that one is satisfied with what we have done because there is still much to be done. Such is never enough, because the capacity was limited as well. We can only make efforts to do the best we can to be gender inclusive. Annually, we announce opportunities for small grants for community engagement. Last year June/July, we received 300 applications from Non Governmental Organisations. Of this figure, 30 proposals that focused on helping women to acquire skills, generate income, develop IT skills or encouraged to study Mathematics and Science Technology were selected.
What is your rating of Nigerian women in politics?
During our Women History Month when we focused on women accomplishments and what can be done to elevate women, the last edition had Professor Remi Sonaya, presidential flag-bearer of KOWA party as the speaker among other speakers. We discovered that the challenges for women in politics are tremendous than those in business. They said it, I am not the one saying it . This is probably because Nigeria is a country culturally male-dominated which makes it very hard for women to really succeed in politics unless they have a lot of money and support from the major parties and the push to make things happen. To me, education is important, hence the need to educate women and girls about politics. You can correct me if I am wrong there are more women in Nigeria than men. Question is: why are women not active politicians? And women are voting for men? If women are educated about the importance of public service, young women would run for various offices. The issue is not only about women voting for women, but with a very good agenda/platform and campaign, there is no reason why the contest will not be competitive. But this will take some time.
Your description of a Nigerian woman
Whaooo! This is actually your best question. Nigerian women are amazing and very determined. They are resolute, and they are fighters. I thought Nigerian men are very aggressive, determined and engaged, but Nigerian women are the same.
What are you going to miss about Nigeria?
Quite a lot actually, because I have spent almost eight years in Nigeria altogether; three years in Abuja, almost four in Lagos and I was in Nigeria many years ago as a little girl. First and foremost, the team I worked with here is amazing with a lot of competence and work ethics. I will miss also all the friends I have made. I will also miss all the people who supported me to make my stay here successful. For me, I have affinity with Nigeria. I see good people, I see the ingenuity and creativity of Nigerians and how hard they work. You see a young man going to college and at the same time, he is working and there are non government organisations contributing to the growth of communities. It is incredible because I have not seen this kind of ingenuity and drive in other places. But I know that I will stay in touch and in tune with happenings in Nigeria.
What would you loved changed in Nigeria?
The change will come and it is coming though these are difficult times because of the economy, insurgency, conflict in the Niger Delta. For all of these reasons, it is not the best of times, but if all Nigerians come together and really work together for a purpose, there will be a change. It is a matter of time.
Now that you are retiring, how are you going to keep yourself busy?
I wish I could continue to work for at least five years, but the system here at the State Department calls for retirement at a certain age. But it does not mean that I would not be doing something really meaningful.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I will like to be remembered for my leadership and work ethics and those I mentored and developed to unleash their potential. I think in my career, I have had opportunity. I was mentored and helped by quite a lot of people and I have given back the same way.
If you are asked to come back to Nigeria, will you welcome the offer?
I will again and again.
Will you say you are fulfilled?
Yes, absolutely. I am content with my accomplishment.
What is next for you?
I am going back to Washington.