Many Nigerians in the Diaspora are looking homeward in the quest to contribute to the development of their local communities, but often they run into challenges that discourage them from such ventures. Prof Paul Idahosa Eke, Senior Health Scientist and Epidemiologist at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has recently run into one such challenge in his attempt to fix a road and provide streetlights in the street where he grew up in Benin City, Edo State capital. In this interview with Chuks Oluigbo, Prof Eke shares his experience and suggests ways to make the process seamless so as to attract more Diaspora intervention in the local communities.

Who is Prof Paul Eke?

Paul Idahosa Eke is from the Eke family of Benin. I grew up in this community, in Benin, so many years ago. I went to Edo College for my O’Level, HSC, before I went to Lagos to continue my education. I’ve kept close contact with home, which is Benin, for so many years. I currently reside in the United States, but even though I reside there I come home at least three times every year for various reasons, for family reasons and for whatever functions we have here.

Could you tell us about the community development project you have embarked on in Uselu area of Benin City?

Recently I have been keeping an eye on certain problems in my community. One of the problems that I have paid particular attention to was a small stretch of road on the side of my father’s house in Uselu. That road has been abandoned, it has never really been fixed for so many years. But we now noticed that squatters had taken over that road and there were all kinds of nefarious activities going on there, and also because of the erosion issue in that Uselu area, the space there was being eroded and it was beginning to affect the community. Not only was it affecting the buildings there, it was also affecting commercial activities. It concerned me so much but I knew there was something I could do about it. So I consulted with the community, we had a meeting with all the landlords there and we thought of what we could do. We reached an understanding that three major things needed to be done: one, that road needed to be fixed; two, we needed to create a drainage system in that area to drain all the water when it rains, and three, we needed to put streetlights there for security reasons. Those were the three major objectives we agreed on.

We now took the next step to consult with the local government. We went to Egor Local Government office, explained to them what we were planning to do and they gave us go-ahead. That was early this year, around February-March. I have documentation to that effect from the local government. Of course, the community people were very excited about it. I then awarded the contract to an indigenous contractor. The contract was to use cement, so the road was cemented all the way, high quality, 6 inches of cement all the way, first class, and then we built a dual drainage system on both sides of the road that takes water all the way to the expressway. Before we started the road I had consulted with everyone in that community, including the military barracks behind there. This is not the S&T road in the front of the market, that is the official road; this is just a side road in the back, you can take it and get to back of the barracks but it is not part of the barracks. But as part of the relationship we have had with them over the years, we consulted with the commandant that we were going to do this and he was excited. The commandant that I met then has been redeployed, he is not there anymore, but coming from the military I was expecting that his word would be his honour, that whatever he said he was speaking on behalf of his people. I then proceeded to fix the road. The contractor finished with the road and then did the drainage system. Apart from approving the project, Egor Local Government also asked me to pay for signboard, which I did, over N200,000. Once the job had been done, the local government provided two signboards but we just installed one at the beginning of the road. They made the signboards themselves with their logo on them, so the signboards are the property of the local government. I left after that, but shortly after I got to the United States, I got word that soldiers had come to remove the signboard. Who authorised them? It was like “unknown soldier” kind of thing. My informants couldn’t actually say who removed it, but they knew it was soldiers that removed it. What has happened over the years is that these soldiers have been intimidating people in that community. Even though the people knew who removed it, because of that intimidation, nobody would say anything, but we know that it is the commercial interest they have in that area that is driving this whole issue. I tried to reach the commandant in the S&T to see if we could get this issue resolved, but we’ve not been able to get any reasonable response from the commandant. So, I decided to come down here myself to pursue this matter, that’s why I’m here. Luckily for me, I know some people around and we have been trying to bring this to the attention of various people including the local government. In fairness to the local government, they have not denied anything. When I contacted them, you know when it comes to the military people are always cautious, they said, ‘Oga take them to court, then we will testify’. That’s part of the things they have told me informally. But I don’t want to waste additional resources doing all of that.

Why it is critical and urgent to me is that since I have done the road and drainage, the last part of that project is to put the streetlights. Without those streetlights that place will not be exposed in the night. In fact, when I went back there, they have already taken over the place, lorries are parking there and all that. You can see that the purpose of doing that road has not been achieved. I want to really finish the project so that I can achieve what I’m trying to achieve. That’s the bottom line right now, and I can’t tell you how much I have been hurt.

How much have you expended on that project?

Close to N20 million from my pocket; nobody contributed. That’s my contribution to my community. And this is just the start. I grew up here, so whatever I can do for my community I will do. I don’t have to go to Ring Road to do something, I can do it in my own locality. If everybody does that, that’s how we achieve development.

What was it that really motivated you to do this?

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Coming from abroad, sometimes you look at the models out there. We have three tiers of government here – federal, state and local governments. But it’s at the local level that the rubber meets the road in terms of what affects our lives – road, light, primary schools and all that. And I have noticed that is where there is no infusion of help. Most people come here and have medical missions in hospitals, state hospital or UBTH. Very little in terms of Diaspora activities happens at the the local level, but that is where we really need intervention, and that is where you can intervene with small money; you don’t have to have billions, if you give a school $5,000, that is about N5 million, it can make an impact, either the school fence or the field or whatever. What I’m sharing with you is this, that we need to figure out a way to encourage people to invest at the local level and not only these grandiose programmes. There are small things you can do in your community, like fixing the road, fixing the schools, providing security, whatever you can afford, but what I find is that that mechanism is not there. When you look at medical programmes, for instance, whether by Nigeria-America Medical Association or other such bodies, they have been coming here and having health programmes, health fair and all that, but these are institutions, they have the money, they have the staff to invest in the initial programme coming down here, but individuals don’t have that. Individuals are working, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the network, the connection, and if they face challenges like I am facing right now, they don’t know how to address it. So, there is a need. The local governments can open an office where Nigerians in Diaspora can start that process and get the support of the government to initiate some of these programmes, because of the contributions you can get from abroad, from the Diaspora. It is not only institutions like Edo National Association, there are a lot of individuals like myself who are willing to contribute to their community but they just don’t know how to go about it. Anybody you tell, they say, ‘You know Nigeria is very insecure; they will steal my money’. But these are little things that can be resolved if there is a mechanism through the government that provides that security that they need to move forward. I’m not saying we should create any additional burden for the government, but the government can help to facilitate things like that. That was what I did not have, like now I have this challenge, there is nowhere to go, I have to be fighting the problem myself, that’s additional cost for me, whereas if there was an office I could go to and say, ‘See this situation, you guys have to resolve it’, that minimises my cost and it allows me to share a pleasant experience with my colleagues when I get back to the United States.

Are you discouraged by the experience you have had so far?

I’m a son of the soil. I grew up here. If I can be discouraged or if I feel bad based on what I have experienced, imagine somebody else who doesn’t have the same level of commitment. You know, social commitment varies from person to person, but if you make a process more manageable, more people will take advantage of it. If I go back now and say, ‘This is what I did and this is how the government supported me. You can do it easily, just call this number and they will take it up from there’, more people are more likely to participate. Some of these projects we are talking about, they are within the range of N10 million to N20 million, there are many people abroad who can sponsor these projects if they just know how to go about it; they can go to their former primary school and say, ‘Ok, I want to light up the football field so that kids can play in the night’. This might just take N5 million or N10 million. That mechanism needs to be in place where they feel at ease. That mechanism also addresses the issues of insecurity and fraud. By going through a government office, the government guarantees that that project will take place and no one is going to interfere and harass anyone. And then security, because you are going through the government, the government can recommend contractors; there are things these contractors can do without putting that extra burden on the government. And once that process gets publicised, people begin to find out about it, then you will see more and more input. I know that for certain because we Binis abroad talk about investing back at home all the time, but two things always come up: ‘They will kidnap you’ or ‘They will steal your money’. And then, they always talk about projects at the state and the federal level, people are not paying attention to issues at the local level, and that is where you have those factors that really affect the quality of life directly.

Regarding the very issue you are facing right now, what would you want to see happening so that you can move forward with the project?

Well, at some point I will like to see the military commandant get involved to instruct whoever removed that signboard to go and put it back there and also use that opportunity to emphasise to them that you cannot interfere in community projects, especially community projects that people are voluntarily undertaking, that people in the Diaspora are spending their own money, particularly when these projects have been approved and endorsed by the local government, not as if I’m just randomly doing anything I like. That is very important. And where possible they need to even appreciate because in this case, this is a road military people can also use, all things being equal. They can appreciate that, because there is nothing as good as appreciation. Abroad, everywhere you go you see a square named after somebody. It’s an incentive for people to invest back at home. But when you encounter this kind of problem, which is a problem like the name of a street, it’s like a turn-off. The community, the local government can give people plaques at the end of the year, or can even just publish their names for the assistance provided; it serves as an incentive and it is on record that this person did xyz, small things like that, that’s the way I see it. But going back to the office I have talked about, if I have a problem like this, for instance, I don’t need to be running around, I will just go to that office and say, ‘This is what is going on, you guys were involved from the beginning, you know who to call and who not to call’. By the time I get back to the United States, I would have spent at least $10,000 on hotel, fare and everything on this trip, which is the money I could have given that community to do something else. That’s why I keep emphasising the need for this office because I find it an important gap, not at the federal or state level but at the local government level.

You said something about people being afraid to speak up when the military is involved. So, do you think there is a way the state needs to come in?

People are afraid of the military, that’s a fact. The average person who has not eaten and has not been able to take care of his business, you want to drag him in? We are not sure where this was coming from, but I have done my investigation and I know it is not a formal thing. I didn’t get any letter from any military or anything like that, some people are just taking it upon themselves. But we shouldn’t put that burden on the people because they do not have the resources to fight that, that burden should be on some office as part of the local government where people can make a call and straighten things out. When you look at that road, it is a local government issue, nobody has any business coming there, the local government is the alpha and omega as far as that issue is concerned, so I should be able to go to the local government office, lay my complaints and they would make sure that the agreement we reached is implemented as we agreed right from the start.

Are there other gaps that you have observed that you believe should be bridged?

The two concerns that I always hear abroad are the issues of insecurity and fraud. I have to be honest with you, in my experience when I come home, I have not experienced this insecurity issue yet, although I hear it left and right, but nobody has ever attacked me, I go out anytime I want, so I have not seen that yet, but I hear. In fairness to the government, I have always felt secure coming here. The fraud issue, that’s beyond the government, it’s between you and contractors and all of that. But if there is a government backing where you can report a contractor or somebody who has defrauded you to this office, and they can blacklist that contractor or they can on your behalf take some action, that will help to address those two concerns. The third one is to publicise this resource at the local government and state levels, let people abroad know about the resource, why it is there, and what they can do at the individual level. People need to hear things like, ‘There is something you can do. You can come to our office and we tell you the things that we need, or you can design your own yourself and say this is what you want to do’. Then someone can go to a particular school and say they want to build a whole block of classrooms and this office will take it up with that local government and make sure everything is fine. It’s a simple process. The person doesn’t even have to come here, he can send the money to the office or to the contractor, the work is done, he is recognised for what he has done and it makes him feel good, and you will be surprised how many more people will be willing to do this.