Chime O. Asonye is the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor of Abia State on Sustainable Development Goals. Previously, he worked as an Associate for the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on the UN Millennium Development Goals (OSSAP-MDGs). For his work at OSSAP-MDGs, in 2012 he was nominated for the Excellence in Public Service – Government award by The Future Awards, which Forbes has described as “Nigeria’s most important awards for outstanding young Nigerians.” Formerly, he worked as a Program Assistant for the Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa portfolio in the Africa Division of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a US government funded democratic assistance organization. In the past, Asonye has worked with the United States Agency for International Development, Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations, Illinois Human Rights Commission, and the United States House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. As a consistent advocate for Africans, he is a former Commissioner on the Washington, D.C. Commission on African Affairs; Executive Director of NaijaDC, a global, collaborative, social conscious community of Diaspora leaders focused on advancing Nigeria; Global Shaper (Abuja Hub), an initiative of the World Economic Forum; Associate Fellow of the Nigerian Leadership Initiative; and Founder of #Songs4Change, a weekly dose of revolutionary music for Nigeria and Africa. Asonye graduated as a Chancellor’s Scholar with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also has a Juris Doctor from Northwestern University in Chicago.
When we went to Abia State, there was no way we were going to leave without seeing the super susty young man of Abia state who also claims to be an Azonto champion of his village, we love interviewing Chime because of how much passion and zeal he has towards doing good in Abia state. Please read his very interesting interview below:
Kindly Introduce yourself
My name is Chime Asonye, I am a young person who believes he can make a difference.
Kindly give a brief background on your education
I schooled primarily in America, I schooled at Whitney Young High School in Chicago (Where Michelle Obama also went to), there I did my Nigerian equivalent of secondary school then I went to the University of Illinois where I studied Political Science and Philosophy and then I went to Northwestern University and got my doctorate of Law.
Briefly talk about your work in the Abia State Government
I am the Senior Special Assistant to the governor of Abia on the Sustainable Development Goals aka SDGs. My days at work are different, as you know the Sustainable Development Goals are 17 in number, focused on improving the state of our world; they are the most ambitious international development agenda ever, they cover a wide variety of things from alleviating poverty to partnerships for development. So literally, my days change and are different every day. Some days I’m working with an international development agency to try to think through interventions that we can both do in Abia State in the waste and sanitation sectors, some days I’m trying to develop and cultivate partnerships, so different organisations or international partners of the diasporas as it were can help rebuild our hospitals. Some days it has to do with the awareness to promote the SDGS, it varies from day to day but I would say that if I have to reduce my job to three things to make it more manageable for people, I would say: first there’s an awareness component, which is very key, the SDGs are an evolution of the MDGs which lasted from 2000 – 2015 which were focused primarily on human development but the SDGs take that and expand it, they expand in not only human development but now they focus on things like Environment, Institutions, Peace and Justice and Partnerships for Development very critically and also issues like inclusive growth are also included in the SDGs, so when we think about the MDGs to the SDGs which are from 2015 – 2030, we need to a lot of awareness on what these new ambitious goals that the world adopted are. The second component is Coordination function, so since the SDGs are spanned from anything from women empowerment to water and sanitation to issues of works, we try to work across ministries to make sure that they are achieving the SDGs with their own individual targets because the SDGs are time bound, measureable goals, so we need to make sure that within the ministries and parastatals and also the different unit is , that they are all working towards achieving the SDGs with what they already do, and then the third component has to do with Policy Implementation, there are set aside patterns for the SDGs that are done in collaboration with the State, Federal and Local Government, so making sure those funds go to specific policy interventions so whether that is in building more boreholes or building or renovating classrooms or providing more materials and drugs for our hospitals are the various things I do.
What is the idea behind #AbiaWeWant?
I think that is a great question and I would answer it in two ways: the first thing I would say is that the SDGs I repeat again are the most ambitious international development agenda ever, they are also the most participatory international development agenda ever, being a global dialogue that took place around the world with the public citizens and NGOs etc thinking through what they wanted in the international arena so when it comes to Abia, when we think about domesticating these global goals here, we adopt that moniker because it’s what the world the wants and we want these development gains to happen at a sub-national level, we want them in Abia, so it’s the Abia we want when we think of domesticating these goals to the local level. Secondly, it’s a play on words, the truth is that the slogan for the global goals is the “World We Want” so when I said we are stepping it down to the sub-national level, I think the Abia We Want is a clear and call. I think it’s so important because the international community conversation’s focus on the SDGs has really been on national sovereignty and not sub national actors but it should be because that is where a lot of the bulk of the work happens, that is where direct implementation happens, where you meet with the grassroots etc, that is where you have political capacity and there’s a reason why Ban ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, when he was coming as the SDGs were going to be adopted talked to the governors’ forums, he told them that he’s putting these SDGs on their door mats, this is where development is going to happen and they are critical actions to make sure they step down and make sure they domesticate these global goals , the Abia We Want capsulates that idea, we want to take on the world we want but also to make sure it happens within our local community.
What inspired your decision to work for your state, specifically on the SDGs?
Well, so I used to work in the MDGs office in the presidency at the time the SSA to the president was Amina Mohammed and after then it changed to Dr Precious Gbeneol. So that experience was amazing as I worked in this unit called the Conditional Grant Scheme and there I was able to travel across the country and witness the impact of the MDGs specifically on issues like water and sanitation, health, education and some other areas, I was able to see what this meant the grassroots, we were able to do needs and baseline assessments etc and so we understood that MDGs were about putting people first and development going to the last mile and it was a wonderful experience as I got to see development day to day, I got to see what it meant for a community that had not experienced water to now start having water, and seeing the kind of social conditions that that would engender. So it was basically my experience and also Dr Ikpeazu to his credit who is the current governor I serve thought the MDGs and now the SDGs was a place where Abia could use some help, where we could move the ball forward in a progressive way and I think that he with my experience and passion based on our conversations to make it work, he thought I would be a good fit and I think that it’s a testimony to him that he feels like young people, diasporans etc should come back and help serve their community and their state. I think I ultimately had the passion and experience for it and I had a governor with a political foresight to say lets shake these things up and put a young person who think he knows what he can do and let’s give him a chance and I think that we have been pretty successful so far.
So far, would you say that Nigerian youths have embraced the SDGs?
Well, yes and no. For instance, I do not say that the SDGs were the most participatory development process ever for any odd reason, its true because one thing that the SDGs had in the post-2015 development process is the survey called the My World survey where people could contribute and discuss the development priorities that were important to them and we saw that Nigeria had the most votes in that survey. So there’s already been some knowledge and awareness with young people about the post-2015 process but in the context of explicitly SDGs and transition from the MDGs, I don’t think there has been a lot of awareness and there has to be a lot more which is why in the first year, a lot of what we are doing is concentrating on awareness activities and ways to mobilize especially young people which is the future we are fighting for to understand the SDGs and it has incredible benefits. First is that they understand what the SDGs are, what the purposes behind are so that they can commit to them within their personal communities. Second is that it is a counteractive mechanism for young people, they need to know what the SDGs and so when they see these development projects, they can ensure that they are properly handled and they are operated sustainably and they know who to track if there are issues or problems. We have had a huge challenge to be frank in Abia in the context of out project implementation and in the sustainability of our projects so we really want abians to know what the SDGs are and we can avoid some of the problems we face with our projects. Though there have been some gains but there can be some much more awareness happening in Nigeria.
What exactly is #Songs4Change all about?
So, I love music and I love to dance, I often say that I am the azonto champion of my village [laughs]. But I believe that there is something so inspiring about music, I think Fela talked about music as a revolutionary weapon and that’s just the truth. People respond to music, it is dynamic, its fluid, it speaks to our humanity, our best and worst selves etc. The fluidity and dynamism and the way that we can connect to music is something that you cannot use anywhere, other types of expression really cannot encapsulate it , and I think that there’s something unique about music as a cultural expression and also when we talk about issues about justice, those are issues that we need to humanize, those are issues that affect real people and connect to them in an emotional state. Music has the ability to take you to those emotional states, it has the ability to put in that frame of mind, it can make you hear the pain in the song, in their voices but also the possibility for potential good.
So Songs for Change is a weekly dose of this kind of music, it is a weekly dose of revolutionary songs dedicated to Nigeria and Africa, every week, we put out a song and it could be on anything from Bring Back Our Girls to issues of good governance and democracy and even women empowerment to health issues or even things like protecting our environment. I think that the point of it is to help have a sound track for revolutionary enterprises focused on civic engagement and also to inspire us in the everyday ways, when we work out, when sleeping, when walking, we could be thinking about social justice issues in a way that doesn’t beat us over the head but really gets us to our emotional state. So Songs for Change has gotten a lot of positive response so far and we hope that it’s a project that can continue, so more people can be inspired to make changes in Nigeria and Africa.
What would you say about the current state of Sustainable Development in Nigeria?
I think that the Sustainable Development Goals have a priority for the presidency and also this present governor of Abia state. I would start with my governor and government where I think that the state of sustainable development is positive and good because my governor was one of the first governors to appoint a senior aide on the SDGs, he sent me to New York to learn best practices when the SDGs were going to be adopted and so Abia state has been marching towards the beat of the SDGs since inception and we have been a trail blazer in various respects, for instance we were the first sub-national government in the world to join the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development data, we are also one of the first government in the world and Africa along with Liberia to pilot something called the SDGs Youth Action Mapper which is a tool where young people can use to track what the SDGs are and to identify SDGs opportunities within their communities and also to search and track basic matrices towards the SDGs. So I think in Abia, we are really trying to help push the efforts forward, I also think that efforts are resonating at the federal level as well, I think that they are still trying to identify exactly how they are going to approach the SDGs especially in light of the MDGs and current economic situation but the president has appointed an SSA on the SDGs, who is the former deputy governor of Lagos State and I know they had a policy retreat, so I think they are still mapping the general vision but I think we all understand that we want long term gains this time and we want the development priorities to be strategic and resilient, which is why we return to things like made in Aba, made in Nigeria and why we are thinking of more indigenous production and long terms issues like environment change etc so I think that we can do more and one really good things is that unlike the MDGs, what we have seen in the SDGs is that there is a lot more attention on data and that is critically, because it allows for the policy agendas to be set by the local context and conditions versus multi-national perspectives and that allows us to visualise what is working and what is not and that is a true marker of a sustainable intervention, tracking when you’re at point A and when you end at point B. I think we are generally headed towards the right direction but we just need our governments to boost things like technical assistance and capacity for our statistical offices and also our ability to enumerate data and have a commitment to use those data because data that is just big data is not very helpful, but data that is useful, dynamic, analysable and can be visualized is something that you can utilize and then act on.
Who are your Sustainability Mentors?
I always mention Amina Mohammed as one of my mentors even though she is a mentor from afar, she is the current minister of environment and she was a senior adviser to the Secretary General of the UN on the post-2015 development process. As a matter of fact, before I came to Nigeria, I saw an advocacy project in my old job that focused on women in government and the type of impacts they were making and they highlighted Amina Mohammed, this was how I learnt about the MDGs office in the presidency where I ended up working later on, so I have always been inspired by her story, I always thought that she is a trendsetter and I am glad that she is back to serve her nation on these issues of sustainability and environment and you can see that one of the first things she is tackling is something Abia knows well as a member of the Niger Delta which is the ND spills and clean up. The second person is my boss, the governor – Dr Okezie Ikpaeazu, the truth is that he is very committed to Sustainability. Being the youngest senior aides in the government shows that he believes that young people can help define the future of sustainability and that he brought me here from America and to help shape it and this took a lot of political will, he is certainly my mentor for knowing that he can make a decision like that and also give the support to help me advance SDGs in Abia state.
Are there plans for massive waste management processes in Abia State?
Yes, there are things already in place and there are things being planned for the future. For instance, just the other day, we were in conversation with DFID, they are exploring opportunities in the waste management/ recycling sectors and trying to do this in sustainable ways, so we are looking at interventions that would help waste collectors generate income to help with the cycle of recycling.
Secondly, one of the things we are piloting is trash bags for homes to sort and put recyclable waste, we also have a couple of projects that Abia has engaged in that is going to help with things like drainage and waste management collection, they are all in the works as we speak. And if people have other ideas, they should bring them to the table because we are always thinking of ways to empower local recyclers, help them do make their jobs better, one of the most important thing when we talk about the issue of waste management are health issues because there’s a lot of unsanitary conditions that people are exposed to in that sector, we are also thinking of ways to have good health interventions for people that in sector and to make sure that they do their jobs better, safer and healthier.
How have you been able to position yourself to be in forefront of young people working for the SDGs in Africa?
I think that the truth is that I run an organisation called NaijaDC, we are a global organisation of socially conscious connected diasporeans, it is an organisation of quality not quantity, so we try to promote and support each other so we can make a difference in our communities. I don’t think it is about making a lead of anything or being at the forefront of SD advocacy for young people in Africa, I think it’s about connecting myself with great people who have the same vision, who are able to help me amplify my efforts and those partnerships to be able to make a difference. NaijaDC is an organisation I’ve been able to rely on for Nigerians who want to see progress in Nigeria and they have been able to help me in different ways, whether it’s in collaborators for Aba Urban Development Summit (which was big on Goal 11) or Partnerships in Niger Delta (PIND). But more critically, the truth is that people do not just have access to government and they think of it as a mystery, they aren’t connected to anyone and they can complain about it because it’s a thing that is just ubiquitous and just functions, the truth is that the government is nothing but you and me and we need to get more involved. What I’m trying to do is to provide access to individuals who have good ideas and to help amplify their efforts within govt because it is not hard to do; we just need to help channel these ideas with the force of the state to make things happen. But I also personally believe in visibility, people need to know what you’re doing and then they are able to critique, help and assist you so I try to be very proactive so people know what happening in Abia state and how they can connect to it.
Would you agree that the SDGs are achievable by 2030? And why?
I have just returned from the World Economic Forum where I represented Abia in Rwanda and you need to see what Rwanda is doing; a country that was literally hell, it was a place where violence tore through the streets with genocides just two decades ago and you see where Rwanda is right now and what President Paul Kagame has done with Kigali, they are among the top places do business in Africa according to the World Bank , they are just about to start drone operated blood transfusions to the rural areas, they are one of the most connected places in the contacts of ICT and wifi and you see they have young people who help leading these changes. I met the equivalent of the minister of tourism and she’s a young person and she’s making change. I think that everything is achievable. Nothing is impossible, everything is achievable, and we have a game plan and a blueprint. Now, we may not execute it perfectly but we execute anyway, we have our road map, and we would fight towards it. I don’t think that we should say it’s not achievable, I think we should say that it’s a roadmap and everything is achievable because that is the power of this generation, to believe that even if it’s not possible, it would be possible.
But even if it can’t be achieved, we can certainly achieve some of the goals and so Abia is prioritising goals that are important to the state, things like Agriculture, Education, Health, Water and Sanitation etc. So even if do not achieve all, we would focus and achieve some of the goals.
What are your favourite SDGs? And why?
I will personally pick five, but I would cheat and put two more, because I love all the SDGs.
The first is Goal 2 – which has to do with agriculture and not just agriculture as with a lot of people miss with this goal, it talks about good nutrition, because it is not just about putting things in our bodies, it is also about what we put in our bodies, especially for kids growing up and functioning adults etc. Goal 3 – Good health, there is not much of anything you can do if you don’t have good health so its critically important, Goal 4 – education allows us to self define our own future, if you’re educated, you can make decision on how you want your life to go, if you’re not then other people would make the decision for you. Goal 6 – Water and Sanitation is so important especially in a place like Abia where there have been challenges with water and waste removal but it is something we are working towards now. Goal 11 – Urban, Sustainable Cities and Resilience which is so key for me.
The extra two have to do with empowering our ladies; Goal 5 is key because they are half of our population, and we are having a lot of issues as regards this in Abia especially with women in public life, but our women we know can lead because we see them making things happening in their home fronts and so there is no reason why they cannot take charge in the state and in Nigeria in a whole especially in the legislative arm of government etc. The last one, which could be because of my legal background and because I believe it is an important notion in our SDGs is Goal 16; Peace and Justice.
How do you think the #BuyNaijatoGrowtheNaira trend would promote trade in Nigeria especially in Aba?
I think it is an interesting mental gymnastics to make that phrase work, Aba started the Buy Nigeria movement, people don’t know this but that conversation really started when the senate president went to the Aba trade fair with Senator Ben Bruce etc, We have politicians who have been championing the “Made in Aba” produce like Senator Aribe and especially the governor of Abia state who is trying to improve the leather and industrial cluster to improve efficiency in manufacturing sandals. The truth is that we can make a lot of these things here and create jobs in a more in an effective manner so I certainly agree that it can improve Aba as we are trying to create an industrial city and have power issues resolved. One of the things this current government was instrumental in was the settling the disco issues between Enugu and Aba, and when we have done all of this, more people would see Aba for what it really is and hopefully we can become a regionally power player. I also think that once we increase these materials and resources, more trade increases and we have things like less visa restrictions and we get to know our neighbours more and get to interact with them more because we are wearing the same products and this reduces things like security etc. A lot of these SDGs are interconnected so it’s a matter of how we plug these things and plan on achieving them.
You are very big on partnerships and collaborations … how willing are other international organisations and stakeholders in helping you and your state achieve the SDGs?
This is absolutely critical and maybe I’m biased towards civil society because I feel like there is an organised voice there and we want to hear what they have to say especially when they have a specific interest in what we do, so I have been having meetings with a lot of them as I have been here. For instance, when we did the Abia Development Summit in support of goal 11- we had civil society organisations there and there is a premium now on the private sectors’ role in sustainable development so I have been in contact with a lot of organisations to see what kind of partnerships we can have.
We applied as a state to be a resilient city; a programme sponsored by Rockefella foundation and as part of the application process, we actually had to interview some CSOs and NGOs, we had the office of Aba Urban renewal discussing and trying to move the ball forward.
I would like to give a tip for young people: partnerships help amplify your efforts, a lot of times, young people think they are weak and do not have the girth or the money but that is why we partner with others. So if you’re a young person who is frustrated, make sure you find these partnership and collaborators that are helping to push your agenda with you.
Tell us something cool about you.
I’m the Azonto champion of my village 😉
Are there any exciting projects you are currently working on?
The SDGs Youth Action Mapper, a mobile application that young people can use to learn about the SDGs right now and get involved and Abia is one of the first people to launch it, we learnt about it because of our role in the Global Partnership For Sustainable Development Data so I think it’s a great activity that people can look online and check.
What advice would you have for young people genuinely seeking to work in government on sustainable development?
Talk to me, I’m available. I’m on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Ask me questions as a lot of people do. I think that the best advice is from someone who is living the experience right now. The second thing is what I said earlier about partnerships which are very critical for furthering your efforts; you are a small fish in a big pond so you want a big fish to help you move the ball forward. Third is to inspire yourself, wake up every day and be your own motivation because there are a lot of challenges that you will face – you are your own best friend. Fourth thing is to make sure that your principles and vision align, at the end of the day, you are what matters. The last thing is to have data, data data!!!, because it is so key, to make something sustainable, you need to know what it was before and that is why I keep saying that the SDGs are results oriented and not activity oriented. So it’s not about building things e.g you build water borehole to decrease malaria or buy a refrigerator so drugs have a longer shelf life or so people have access to better blood transfusions and the likes or you get bed nets so you reduce communicable diseases, the MDGs are about results and not activities, so think about impact and how you can measure that impact. I have this saying that “Politicians think about trainings but technocrats think about sustainability” so it’s not a one –off training which can be over, make sure you are getting results and achieving them.
How can people reach you and get to know about your work?