Sena Alouka is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Young Volunteers for the Environment, a civil society organisation (CSO) with presence in 28 countries in Africa, including Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with LEADERSHIP Friday Editor, Ruth Tene Natsa, he speaks on the challenges of running a CSO in Africa…Excerpts
How would you rate the response of African governments to CSOs in the 28 countries, where you have offices?
Our problem in Africa in the past decade has been that we, as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have failed to work with government as partners. I think we should take the blame and responsibility, because we are in a learning process. We have an adage that says if you want to measure the depth of the river, you don’t put the two feet in it as you could be swallowed by the river. So we are in a learning process, putting in a feet at a time. And in that end, we end up creating lots of animosity, useless ones in that matter from the government. Government takes NGOs as competitors, as anti-development organisations, as radicals and sometimes as terrorists groups and such feelings are not conducive for government to support NGOs in Africa.
Would you say African Governments support CSOs?
Speaking of Togo, I would say the political will is there and when it comes to international conferences and opportunities, they do not hesitate but the point is we fail to take them as partners. So, government supports morally, but we still have some who are uncomfortable because you put fire on them, that is fine. We are not doing this job for people to give us love letters; we are doing it for a purpose. Also, what you cannot expect from government in Africa is for them to provide you funding or invite you, they will not, because of the heritage of what they have seen. They have seen our predecessors transform NGOs into political parties, micro finances and even seen some transform clinics and banks into NGOs just to avoid paying taxes. So, do not expect them to respect you. Today, in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals, I was able to bring together nine NGOs to discuss on one issue, where we talked about SDGs, voluntary national reports, high level panel forums and we agreed to occupy the space and we did and today, we have the largest CSO around the SDG. Today Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya have presidential committees on SDGs, but still when you talk about civil societies, it is a disaster. So, while we take the blame, at the same time we know that some NGOs are playing the fools. However, I am grateful for what the government is doing, theirs is to set up the enabling environment and give us authorisation, we are not asking any money from them. Theirs is how to make sure that we are secured and when we want to get some funding, that we do it properly and in safe condition, so I think it is ok.
What inspired you to go into the protection of the environment?
It is from various factors, first of all my mother who was a community mobiliser, she supported women to go and farm for the community chief every Thursday morning. Secondly, was an issue that happened when I graduated from the university and we saw fire on the mountain and all our communities rushed there to try and stop the fire. They returned with burned cassava, maize and chatted the whole night. We realised at that point that the issue was not just on the mountain top, but rather that the whole village was disappearing and we discussed about it and from there, created this organisation. I must also confess that there is a spiritual dimension as I am one of those who believe that there is no fatality and God has a plan for all humans on the planet and that he purposed it for something. That purpose has not yet come through and one day, He will definitely transform this earth into paradise. So, everything I am doing today is to make this planet a better place. So, it is in line with what I have been told in my spiritual learning, making sure the environment is safe because one day, paradise is coming to planet earth.
Tell us about the celebration of the biodiversity cultural celebration.
Since 2003, we have tried to understand the linkage between nature and culture and for the fact that the inter relations are so intricate, the point being that there are customary laws that protect the environment. Meaning if the environment is safe, traditions are kept. For instance, if you protect the environment by preventing fires, that is an environmental issue, then you can get help from physiotherapy or tradotherapy. At the same time, there are traditional laws that say one is not allowed to have a farm eight metres close to the river, so by respecting such traditional laws, the ancestors also protect the ecosystem. No doubt the degradation of the environment has serious impact on the environment. We need the skin of an animal to produce a drum and a drum is a cultural thing, but the skin is from the environment, so that is why we did an event to draw the attention of people to that and encourage them to do their best so that never again will we have to lose our seed, our knowledge, our language and our values. Rather, we should make sure we protect them now and forever.
What challenges have you faced while preaching the message of cultural diversity?
I will say myself, myself as a result of my capacity to be better every day, to renovate and drive the change to the best of my capacity, to be the world and the change I would like to see. Also, the community, people, you try to work with a times. Martin Luther King said, if you are not clever, the media would push you to like your oppressors and hate those who are fighting for you. Sometimes, people you are trying to work with end up thinking they are not benefiting that much or the benefits are too slow, same with young people who are my target group. My success has always been a challenge. My village for instance, saw the birth of the largest non-governmental organisation in Africa. We created an amazing movement with offices in 28 countries including Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Burkina Faso among others. When you develop something from a small village that encompasses almost the whole of Africa, if you do not pay attention, it will crush you. Like they say, humans create institutions and institutions transform humans.
How would you rate that achievement?
I am quite a happy man today, because I can see the impact of our action. Every day I wake up and I am very thankful to God, because some young guys go to school somewhere because we have provided some platform. Some lady is at home happy because her husband got a job, thanks to our programme, I am happy because somewhere, a teacher is providing education using our guidebook, so I am happy because I see the change, it is so vast and all that helps me to overcome whatever challenges. The good thing is that challenges always hide opportunities, so I am yet to meet an obstacle.
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