Having just traveled for 22 hours from Nigeria where she had witnessed the country’s dramatic presidential election to Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County, it wasn’t surprising that she admitted being somewhat unsure of what time zone she was in.
Robin R. Sanders, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and the Republic of the Congo, was standing in front of a conference hall full of Georgia Gwinnett College students. It was 11 a.m., April 2.
The college’s provost, Lois C. Richardson, had provided the formal greetings, adding that Dr. Sanders would be in front of one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States including students from several African countries.
Although Dr. Sanders’ address would be on the more general topic of the necessity in her view of linking economic development with civil rights, she did provide insights into the Nigerian election specifically.
The election, she said, was not so much won by Muhammadu Buhari, the general who ruled as a dictator for a few years after a coup d’etat in the early 1980s, but rather lost by the former government of Goodluck Jonathan, whose government had been plagued by widespread corruption and unable to crackdown on the Boko Haram militants who have been marauding villages and kidnapping girls in the northern parts of the country.
She cited the willingness of the voters, many of them women, who waited 15 hours in the hot sun without food or water, to cast their ballots. “They believed that they could have a transparent election,” she said, adding that it lived up to their expectations.
Buoyed by the relatively peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria, she spoke of “a new global order” and asked rhetorically, “What is the future that you will face?”
While in the U.S. diplomatic service, Dr. Sanders served in several other positions besides the ambassadorships, including deputy commander of the Eisenhower Resource College at the National Defense University in Washington.
In response to her own question about the future, she cited former President Dwight Eisenhower’s advice to “think in time.” “Think strategically about the time in which you live,” she counseled.
Her address was officially titled “Civil Rights and the Global Context: Where Does Africa Fit In?” But right at the start she said that the issues she would cover weren’t limited to the African continent.
Laced throughout her address was the challenge for the students to become “global leaders.” And she was unfazed when she was challenged by one of the students about why should someone try to effect change overseas when so much needed to be done at home.
“You don’t have to be on the world stage,” she replied. “You can be a global leader in your own community, even in your own family.”
The issues abroad are often the same as those at home, she added, including access to food (food security) and education, protection of the environment, encouraging sound economic policies providing living wages, democratic government and the development of self-reliance.
In Africa, she said, these issues are particularly challenging in the face of ongoing developments. For instance, she pointed to the demographic projections that by 2050 sub-Saharan Africa’s population is to grow from 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion, providing greater pressures on societies to provide jobs to sustain this number of people.
While this challenge by itself may seem overwhelming, Dr. Sanders wasn’t pessimistic, pointing to positive developments such as the growth of seven African countries among the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world.
She also cited the growing middle class and the positive impact of technology with 736 million of the 5 billion mobile phones worldwide being used by Africans in Africa, with mobile phones playing a positive political role as they did in the Nigerian election by enabling widespread monitoring of the electoral process or by being a boon to commerce.
The U.S. should play an active role, she said, by looking for opportunities to further develop the continent’s information technology networks, improve agricultural practices and encourage environmentally sound development.
In addition, she said, U.S. companies should help build affordable housing — in Nigeria alone there are 17 million people who don’t have secure shelter — provide entrepreneurial opportunities and work with governments on enforcing transparency and anti-corruption policies and practices.
She also called for more partnerships and people-to-people programs.
“Lean forward in your thinking,” she advised, encouraging once again that the students look ahead and grasp the opportunities made available in this day and age.
In her own life, she currently is addressing these issues as the chief executive officer of FEEEDS LLC, an acronym using the first letter of what she considers today’s main global issues: Food Security, Education, Environment-Energy, Economics, Democracy-Development and Self-help.
And she has launched FE3DS LLC, which provides business strategies for working in Africa.
Dr. Sanders’ book The Legendary Uli Women of Nigeria in which she describes the role of culture in African sign and symbol systems important to human cultural communication was published recently.