Asmau Benzies Leo holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Anthropology, a Master’s degree in Conflict Management and Peace Studies, with specialty in Gender, Conflict and Development and a Certificate in Global Executive Leadership from Howard University in the United States of America and another from Harvard University.
She had been honoured Globally with several Ambassadorial titles for her leadership roles and humanitarian activities among which are Global Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Humanity, an Ambassador for Female Wave of Change, a Global Youth Ambassador from the National Youth Network of Nigeria and the Diplomatic Ambassador for the Federation of International Gender and Human Rights, USA.
She is a Vital Voices Fellow, a Gender and Social Inclusion Advocate and the President and Founder of the Centre for Nonviolence and Gender Advocacy in Nigeria (CENGAIN), a non-profit NGO that works towards the Achievement of Peace, Gender Equality and Sustainable Development.
She was among a group of young persons who struggled for the return of Democracy in Nigeria after several years of Military Dictatorship. She was selected among 50 emerging youth leaders in 2002 to serve as the first set of Legislative Interns at the National Assembly (Parliament).
She has worked with the Academia as a part-time lecturer and has consulted for the World Bank, UN Agencies and other Development Partners.
She was also the Head, Gender and Vulnerable Group Care Unit, with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) where she worked with Internally Displaced Persons specifically women and Children affected by conflict and disasters. (She is an Advocate for Refugees and Displaced Women).
An international conference speaker, a transformational leader and public policy analyst, a mentor to many young Nigerians, she is the convener of Peace Hub-Nigeria’ a global campaign on the engagement of young people in building a culture of peace and nonviolence in Nigeria and Women in Public Service Initiatives (WIPSI).
She is currently a member of the Technical Working Group on the Draft of the Nigerian National Development Plan 2021-2025 and Agenda 2030, a steering Committee member on the implementation of the Gender in Agriculture Policy for Nigeria and an advisory board member for the implementation of the NAP on UNSCR 1325 in Nigeria. Her talk show “Quality Life” is set to break the airwaves soon.
She is a recipient of many international awards including the GLOBAL PEACE AWARD 2020 for Creative Nonviolence from the Federation for International Gender and Human Rights, USA, she was listed among the 100 Global FemiList, 50 Most Inspiring Women in Nigeria by Women Hub, by Business Day, Advisory Board member of the 100 Women Lobby Group, Women in Governance Forum, Women in Development by Donors for Africa amongst others. She is currently the Gender, GBV and Social Safeguard Advisor for the Nigeria for Women Project – World Bank Assisted Project.
Starting off in life
Growing up was interesting because I come from a very big family. My father had 12 children and I am the 4th on the line. I had elder ones who would scold me and I also had a lot of people looking up to me. Growing up, I had two phases in life. My initial childhood was full of adventure, from a community where a lot happened. I could see wealth being displayed and multi-race people. My father worked in a place where there were a lot of expatriates. Then suddenly, things changed and we had to go back to the village because my father had to transition from one career to another.
That entailed my mum and my siblings moving to the village for a while to wait until my father got settled before moving to the city.
Some of my siblings who were a bit grown couldn’t fit into the village life but for me, all there was, was play. I had a lot of kids who would drag me to the riverside. I had never seen a river before, so it was exciting for me. Within the family, even though we were many, my father had time for all of us and I was his favorite team player because I was his mother’s namesake, and so he never called me by my name. He always referred to me as ‘mama’ when he comes around. He said that everybody knows that he’s referring to me and culturally he’s not supposed to call his mother by name. So, he never called me by name even till he died. It was interesting. I went to a primary school, even though it was in the village setting, it was a wonderful school. They had a GRA, and we were neighbouring the GRA which was on the other side. The learning experience wasn’t so much different from what was obtained in the city (Remember how education was in those days?). So, for me, I had a very fun experience growing up and I grew up in a loving family. My childhood was an excellent experience and that is what is shaping my life now because, everything about me is filled with interesting experiences.
Passion for female gender matters
I think it started from childhood. When I went to the village, I met a lot of girls who were given out in marriage. When I came back from secondary school after our J.S exam, I was excited to meet my friend only to discover that she had been married off. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I went to visit her and we held ourselves and started crying because she told me she was married off in place of her elder sister who ran away.
It was a bad experience for me, and I grew up with this in mind, so I said whatever it would take for me to fight for the rights of women, especially rights to education, right to sexual and reproductive health, gender equality, I will do it. Right from that time, I made up my mind. I didn’t know when or how I was going to come up with something, but with that desire in my heart, there was no going back. Finishing my university, fortunately, I read sociology and anthropology, and in the course of time, I discovered the issue of class, discrimination, harassment and the likes, and those experiences made me know that we’re not treated equally in society, that there are preferences given to the male gender. I discovered that as a woman, especially an African woman, there are so many things that are working against you; cultures, norms, values, religion and the patriarchal system, all of which do not enable women to exert their God-given potentials. So, I made it a sense of duty and responsibility to lend my voice to the advocacy for women.
We’re all members of the same human race. If given the opportunity, we can all be all what God has created us to be. There’s nothing that women desire to do today that they cannot achieve. So, why should women face discrimination? Why shouldn’t girls be given the opportunity to go to school, build careers and marry the men they want to marry?
With that in mind, I began to do this advocacy. People were telling my father that the way I was going with the advocacy, I wouldn’t get a man to marry. My dad responded saying “If this is what she has chosen for her life, allow her. I have no problem with that.” When I wanted to marry, his friends tried to discourage my spouse, saying my eyes have ‘opened’ and that he wouldn’t be able to control me. Interestingly, most of my cheerleaders today are men and that is why it’s important that men should be involved in supporting women to be all they desire to be.
Asmau Benzies Leo
Centre for Nonviolence and Gender Advocacy in Nigeria (CENGAIN)
For us, the organisation started in 2002 with a few young people. Before then, we were just activists merely protesting. But let it evolved. We came out of school and during my youth service, I got a state award for community development project which I did on girl-child education and prevention of HIV and VVF. After that, I said there’s so much to go for and while being a legislative intern, and during the training by an American organisation, I met a Black woman who groomed and mentored me. Fortunately, I was the only female for Northern Nigeria.
She said, “Asmau, you’ve got potentials and your region is underrepresented. Can you do something in relation to your passion so that you could reach out to more women and begin to replicate people like you in your community?” I never gave it a thought until 2006, during the Jos crisis, and I saw how women were suffering and how the IDPs were all over, and we rallied down with some friends to support them. Thereafter, I said I needed to do something, and we came together with a few friends and started CENGAIN. What we seek to do is to achieve a peaceful society, gender equality in terms of opportunity, rights and fairness, and I started agitating for that, to ensure there is sustainable development.
Since we started it, we have never applied for donations from any foreign donor and it’s because we want to be a model that organisations could emerge organically and evolve. I pray for God to make me very wealthy so that I can fund not just my NGO, but other NGOs so that we could have less dependency on foreign aides because they come with conditions, and some of these conditions have selfish interests behind them.
So, if we want to have African approaches to African problems, we have to begin inwards. That’s one model our organisation is using and even though we’re now emerging into a national organisation in terms of policy issues, we’re grassroot in nature. We work with grassroot people to discover the solutions to the problems within them and we leverage on that solution to give back to that community.
We work with women who are victims of domestic violence, GBV and rape. We’ve worked with women in humanitarian context and female migrants. Right now, there’s a shift, and we’re working more on policy issues because we discovered that the grassroots alone cannot give us the needed results, so we needed to factor in the issue of influencing policy so that it can be favourable to our recipients at the grassroots level.
How do you integrate the women you work with back into the society?
On the issue with integration, we don’t work in isolation. We make a lot of referrals. We follow the referral pathways in any community we go to work. We find out who the service providers in the community are, we liaise with the justice and security apparatus, we work in consonance with the medical people in the community, we work with people offering psycho-social support in the community, even NGOs offering shelter that can support survivors. So, we like them up, refer them. If it’s something that needs justice, we ensure we get pro bono service from lawyers in other legal aid organisations to assist in terms of access to justice, medical services and ultimately the psycho-social support system in terms of trauma, counseling and other forms of support systems.
We have cases of women with children who have nowhere to stay, we recommend to NGOs that run shelters. This is how we work, in synergy with other partners.
Fighting for democracy
Then it was ‘fashionable’ for us because when we see our comrades going to the streets to protest, we thought it was the trendy thing because everybody wanted to vent. We had a lot of energy and we were looking for where to dissipate it. It happened that we were kept at home for almost two years due to ASUU strike and it ‘aligned’ with the dictatorial regime of the day, so we felt people did not deserve to be victims of that kind of regime, we also had to protest and we started.
We would demonstrate on streets, the police would scatter us, teargas us, still we would go and gather. Then we got some intellectuals, lecturers in other schools who were young people, and we started writing anonymous pieces in newspapers before we were discovered.
When Obasanjo became president, some of us were selected across the nation to be the first part of the legislative interns, and we were trained as democratic leaders and tomorrow’s leaders, as people that would hold positions in government in Nigeria because they discovered talent and the quest from us for a better Nigeria.
From then on, I went into the NGO sector, many people went into policy-making, law and established their own chambers, human rights, and so on and a lot of us are doing very well for Nigeria and ourselves, and it’s something to be proud of.
What does democracy mean to you?
No matter the democracy that we’re practicing in Nigeria, one thing is for sure: democracy is better than any form of government that we could have. For me, the ideal democracy that I’ll desire Nigerians to have is not what is playing out now, but it is better than having dictatorship. For me, democracy is the ability for people to speak their minds, freedom of speech, and ability for people to choose their leaders irrespective of who is there. It is the availability of dividends of democracy where people can access basic services, it’s about security when the lives and properties of people are priorities of the government. So, all these to me constitute what democracy is.
Your desire for 2023
There has to be a complete paradigm shift. Nigerians should open their eyes very well. 2023 should not be business as usual. It’s going to be a defining moment not just for Nigeria as an entity, but our major survival as a people is dependent on the election. The outcome would determine the security of people and the next cause of action for the people. So, we cannot afford to have an election that is as usual. People should not be carried away by salt and wrapper elections anymore. Campaign manifestoes should be issue based, people should move away from voting based on sentiments, even zoning system should be discouraged and candidates should come out based on competence and not because you come from a particular place or because your party put a quota or zoning system.
So, we need a person who has in-depth knowledge of our history and has an idea to where Nigeria is going, someone with the qualities of a good leader, and not a leader to a section or a part of Nigeria. That is the kind of leader I desire to see. For the electorates, let us not be carried away with campaign of ‘colouring’, we must be wise.
Women inclusion in politics in Nigeria
I’m working with other partners on this issue of women inclusion in politics. Even on the bill for 106 seats in the legislature for women. We have done a lot of advocacy, sensitisation and ground work. I belong to the Feminist Manifesto Group and I know how much effort we have put in to see that this bill came to light, and I know how much consultation we have done at all zonal levels.
I also belong to the hundred women lobby group in Nigeria. We’re having strategy meetings and a lot of engagements with different women groups at the grassroots level, to see the structures we can put in place for women who desire to run for offices.
We have even been doing mapping and sampling to see women we can support among others that will go and represent us. It’s not every woman that is up there that has the interest of women at heart. There are many women who are sponsored by their godfathers, by their parties and so when they go there, women issues are not their priority. They look at what they would do to suit their godfathers, or their parties.
For 2023, it should be women that will understand that going there is not about the individual interest, but about the collective interest of the Nigerian woman.
Funding for women
Elections generally are expensive. Campaigns especially, and we have to put strategies in place to support women. So, the Nigerian Women Trust Fund is there and other organisations that are willing to work with aspirants and groups to support. So, my recommendation is that we should begin to gather funds, whereby Nigerian women will begin to contribute certain amounts of money. In fact, we’re coming late. If we had started this since 2015, with contributing N1000 monthly, I believe by now we would have millions of Naira in that purse.
Yet, it’s not too late. We can still start at any level, so that we can share that money between the aspirants we believe in at the national, local and presidential levels because we’re hoping we’ll see women contest for the presidency, see women becoming Vice Presidents or aspiring for the highest political offices in the country and it doesn’t come easily. So, we have a lot of work to do in terms of resource mobilisation to ensure that we support women candidates.
We have a lot of rich Nigerian women. They can simply put in part of the CSR to support women candidates with their own profits. That’s what men do, support each other. So, we have to also begin to support one another.
World Bank relationship
I’m a consultant, my work is advisory and I consult as far as on the side of the Nigerian government. So, my interest and benefits are to my country. My work is more with the Nigerian government inasmuch as World Bank is supporting Nigeria. It’s been cordial.
The World Bank has been a partner with Nigeria for years and they’re supporting a lot of programmes and are doing very well for the Nigerian government. We’re partners in terms of development.
Challenges with NGOs/Identifying authentic ones
Basically, the challenge is funding. It is a major challenge for every NGO, because the donour space is shrinking because of COVID-19 and the global economic crisis that hit the world at a point. So, those monies they were distributing are no longer there. The little ones available, many NGOs are struggling to access them. So, you have to be at the top of your game for you to access these funding because some of the conditions that are given are strict, as such, not all NGOs can access these fundings. You have to have the cutting edge advantage to thrive in that space.
Another thing I’ve noticed about people’s trust in NGOs is that most Nigerian NGOs lack street credibility. Most perform out of negative motives or ulterior motives. People go into NGOs because they want to make money and it makes it worse when they begin to lie to donors. I’ve worked in the humanitarian sector, and I know how people will go to the IDP camps and take pictures with them and send to the White people in the western world and say this is how people are suffering and we need money to help them but at the end of the day, these monies don’t go to the recipients.
For us as an NGO, we are doing it ourselves and not waiting for western intervention. If you don’t have conscience, remember that one day, you’ll be no more or also be in a vulnerable situation. So, never use the position of other’s vulnerability to enrich yourself, it’s a bad precedence to set for yourself and your future generation.
I feel NGOs should step up. If you’re setting up NGOs and you don’t have the basic requirements and the takeoff funds, go and sleep. Help yourself before you help others. Don’t say you want to help the world while you don’t have the means. Work hard. Save. Begin to help people in your community. You must not save the world at the same time. Start with the neighbour next to you, the family next to you, the community next to you before you say you want to access millions of dollars to help someone.
That’s the message for upcoming NGOs. NGO is not a moneymaking machine. NGOs are not established to enrich people but are a call to service to God and to humanity.
The negative sides of partaking in advocacy…your experience
I have had bad experiences. There are times we go to communities for capacity building, and when we try to discuss the issue of human rights, we intentionally begin with human rights principles, and then integrate gender equality into it. It was our strategy, and while we did that, we got acceptance. However, there was a day when we began to do the syndicate group, there was almost a violent situation in one of the states in the North. They questioned how we could say girl education is a priority. A particular man was so violent that we had to leave that place. It was supposed to be a three-day training, but we had just a day. The introduction of the concept was what was done, and we had to leave because he was violent and making threats, and we don’t take threats lightly. This is just one of so many others like that.
We have had men say we’re at their location to make their wives disrespect them by dictating to the women what their wives should do. Some said If they empower their wives, the next thing will be that they will want to control them.
When people think this way, it affects our work. I remember a time I was working on peace building, many people sent me threats because I called out the failure of government in the northeast a lot on social media, and it was almost the period of elections. Some people felt with those kinds of insinuations, I was targeting a particular political party. I was getting death threats. They would also insult me in Hausa and threaten to ‘finish me’ if I didn’t stop spreading western ideologies on social media.
One of my uncles had to tell me to delete a post because it threatened my life and that of my family, and I had to do it at that time. Nevertheless, this is something that I live for, so it doesn’t matter.
Your view on domestic violence
If it’s a threat to your life, run away. If you run away, you’ll live to fight another day. You should not tolerate violence because it’s about your own life and wellbeing. You need to be alive to take care of your children. You need to be alive to be married. I am not an advocate for divorce but if a man becomes violent, you need to stay away for a while during which you will then be able to know what to do next.