Elisha Attai incorporated Africa Women Leadership Organization in 2009 to mitigate these challenges especially for those in leadership, having discovered the challenges facing African women. Attai is also the Managing Director/CEO of Studio 115 Integrated Services which is also passionate about women issues. These have earned him international recognition as UN Women’s Ambassador. He has hosted successful conferences since its inception in Africa and beyond. In this interview with Sunday Sun Explore, the father of four reveals his motivation behind AWLO and why women in leadership positions are not succeeded by women:
Please tell us about yourself and what you do?
My name is Elisha Attai. I am a PR consultant and founder of African Women in Leadership Organization. I founded this organization about six years ago to create a collaborative platform for women leaders across Africa.
Having worked with a lot of African women across the continent, I discovered that if women can realize and come together to enhance, support, and exchange ideas among themselves, they will do much better as leaders. I saw women’s potentials and the need to provide mentorship. I felt the more experienced ones amongst them should share their experience with the younger generation and also exchange ideas among themselves. The organization is unique in that it filled a void. There was no other cross-continent platform that brought women leaders from across all sectors together.
What’s the main objective of AWLO in Africa?
Our objective is to enhance leadership qualities among our women across the board by hosting knowledgeable women that have distinguished themselves in what they do as well as bringing people together to exchange views and see how we can educate and empower one another.
Why isn’t a woman organizing this initiative?
I have been asked this question several times, and my answer is why not? I believe it’s a combination of destiny and sense of purpose. I strongly believe I am doing what God wants me to do. I am so passionate about the ability of women and being a good organizer, I leveraged my strength and passion. I see women as better managers and given the influence of my own mother, I know that if we leverage their potentials, we can do better across the board. Women have great influence and can change lives beginning from their homes. Take for example, the issues of corruption and insecurity, don’t you know that if they are better equipped and empowered, they can address these issues beginning at home?
What have you accomplished since you set up this platform?
We have made steady progress. Every year since 2009 when we started, through our annual conferences, we have created a platform for women leaders, across Africa. Our conferences highlight their issues and help them to function well as leaders whether in politics, business and other endeavours. Other organizations have also emerged as a result of our initiatives. For example, Women for Change Initiative which is currently headed by the First Lady was organized after our 2010 conference in Abuja. As you can see, the influence of this organization contributed to the achievement of the 35 per ecnt leadership stake given to women by the present administration. In addition, we have encouraged many to stand for elective positions.
We have consistently created opportunities for them to network, receive training, and take advantage of business opportunities both here at home and abroad. Last year, in collaboration with the Black Caucus in the State of Georgia’s Senate, we brought them together with US law makers and women leaders in Atlanta, Georgia.
A lot of women think men always intimidate them when it comes to leadership. What is your take on that?
I think that kind of intimidation always comes from men that are insecure. But you know everyone is work-in-progress. Given the prevailing culture across Africa, we are also bringing more men on board as active partners. Not only to support women but to change their perception of our women. I believe people do better when they know better. Real men support and encourage women. But beyond the men, I have also observed that many times, women themselves pose greater challenges to one another. I encourage them to stop blackmailing each other, but rather work together especially in setting examples for the younger generation. Women need to support each other much more than they are doing now.
So, are you saying that women are a problem to themselves.
What I’m saying is that some of the major challenges we had before was caused by disunity among women but that is beginning to change. They are doing better now, but much more needs to be done.
Talking about a long way to go, a woman presidential candidate in 2011 appeared to have only one vote, meaning she voted for herself. In a society like Nigeria, women are more in number, why can’t women support fellow women to become president and governors ?
There are many factors at play here including cultural, religious, and leadership structures. And, this is not just a Nigerian problem but a challenge that has persisted across the world. In over 200 years of existence, the greatest democracy in the world is yet to produce a female head of state. I am not suggesting that we wait for them, but just to let you know that all hands must be engaged to make this work. It’s one thing to encourage women to run for office, it is another to create a conducive environment for them to do so. In this election, some women emerged as candidates after party primaries. That is a right step, but we must continue to encourage them. We must create more awareness, educate, and re-educate where necessary to make sure everyone is on board.
A lot of women don’t stay long in leadership. They are being kicked out. Why is that ?
Do you think it happened because of their gender? I don’t think so. We have had more men booted out of the lower and upper chambers. It happens in politics. I am not sure how they handled it with regards to their leadership style and abilities. And again, as I have said, it’s for such reasons we must help them become more effective leaders. It’s one thing to get into a leadership position, and it will be even much a greater disaster to repeat the mistakes of men. But we also have women who recorded great progress in their positions. Look at the late Dora Akunyuli, where would the fight against fake drugs be without her resilience and outstanding leadership? Look at the case of the former aviation minister, before then, there was no aviation minister that did better in terms of the transformation in that industry. And even when they are entangled in controversies, it is not peculiar to them.
What are weaknesses of such women who fall from grace?
I do not see it from the point of weakness. I only see the need for improvement. Such issues are not gender-based because anybody in leadership can fall from grace. This is why what we do is important. We are not just creating opportunities for women, we also want to ensure they do not repeat the mistakes of men.
Do you have any forthcoming conference you are about to host and what should people expect from you?
Yes we have. We started the global conference last year and after the conference, we had a lot of calls, emails, and enquiries from women in the Diaspora especially in the US. So, last year, we were actually invited by a Senator in Georgia to bring the event to Atlanta. So, from this year, it’s going to be two conferences a year; one in Africa, one in America. So between August 12th and 16th, we will be in Houston, Texas for another global conference. Our theme for this year’s conference is African women transcending the globe and breaking barriers.
What are African women in leadership doing to curb rape?
Rape should have no place in human societies and those caught in such atrocity should receive the maximum punishment. As an organization, we have made this part of our conversation by raising a strong voice and helping women leaders who directly relate with victims.
Did your childhood prepare you for all you are doing now?
Yeah, I would say that I have been influenced so much by my mum. I love my mum and she kind of prepared me for this. I grew up in a Christian background. My father was a pastor of The Apostolic Church though he is late now. So, I grew up in a very morally sound environment and my mum imparted good values in the family. I think that has influenced me to respect women. What I’m doing now is supporting women, I may be founder but everything here is being run by women.
Despite civilization, some men still believe their wives are made for the kitchen. They do not think they should get involved in the corporate world, or politics. What is your take on that?
As I have said before, everyone is work-in-progress. There are many cultural and religious strongholds that must be broken, and these are not the easiest of things to change. Therefore, while we work with the women, we must also help the men to understand that women have much more to offer than a place in the kitchen. I understand there are men like that but I want you to know that it has more to do with culture and environment than it has to do with any particular man. For example, when such men move to more advanced societies like the USA, everything changes. You see some of them play active roles in the kitchen. It is for this reason, I said earlier that we must all work together to create a conducive environment to harness the potentials of our women. And the fact that an African man like myself founded this organization is a testament that change is on the horizon. Not just myself, I can tell you that there are many others working behind the scenes with us on this project. This year, we look forward to honoring some of them.
How do you identify such men?
These are men who understand the value of women in their lives and are playing very active roles in promoting our cause. They have set specific examples and have made significant contributions towards women’s empowerment.
What are the challenges your organization is facing at the moment?
Running any successful organization can be tasking especially when I combine this with my work. But I think the greater challenge is funding because sometimes you are limited and not able to expand the vision as much as you would love to. Right now, we are looking for a secretariat that can be solely dedicated to all the departments we have. We have had discussions with major companies like HP to set up a dedicated training center, but we need to have a place to do that. We are looking forward to a TV/radio station that can focus solely on women development and women issues.
Do you think women have been given fair opportunities in this present administration ?
I think the present administration of Goodluck Jonathan has done very well on that. He kept his promise so I will give him a pass mark. But when you realize that women are usually the most vulnerable when there is poverty and insecurity, then you will understand why I must urge him and all our leaders to do more. The Chibok girls and all the women who have been kidnapped in the Boko Haram madness is a constant reminder. We must do more to protect our women and punish those who threaten their freedom or liberty under any guise.
Why is it that when most women leave an office, they hardly have a successor?
That is where we come in. It’s for such reasons we decided to create a structured mentorship platform where women can empower emerging women leaders. These leaders cannot all do it by themselves. We are encouraging women leaders everywhere to come on board and use our platform to impart what they have into young women. We have more Akunyulis, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealas and Mo Abudu’s in our young women. We just need to help them especially given the difficulties of our present environment. Leadership is about improvement and we cannot improve if we do not have a generation that will do better than we are doing right now.
What’s your definition of an African woman?
An African woman is a special creature of God with sound moral values that define the true meaning of a woman as a helper, home builder, and nation builder.
Which do you cherish most of your awards for your role on women’s cause?
It’s the one from the United Nations given to me last year and I cherish it so much. It was one of the biggest awards I received, in recognition of my support for gender development in Africa. Another was given to me by the Senate of Georgia, the ordinary citizen award. That motivates me too because the reason for all these is to make me do more.
Your wife must be a lucky woman. How did you meet your wife?
We met in Lagos here, in the church. Today we have two girls, two boys. She is a lucky woman; but I’m even a luckier man to have her and her support. She has been a strong pillar to all of this.
What’s your vision for this establishment?
My vision is to see a continent that gives women equal opportunity.
Do you have any regret?
I’ve no regrets but I would say losing my father a week to our 2013 conference was painful. His death really shook me.
What’s your philosophy about life?
The world is big enough for anyone. Hurting someone or blackmailing someone should be the last thing anyone can think of.
What kind of women do you expect in your conference?
It’s open to every woman because I believe every woman is a leader.