Hamzat Lawal: The dilemma of trading places

by Hamzat Lawal

“Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” – M. Scott Peck


The potential of human beings to evolve within a short period never ceases to amaze. It has the same effect of watching a hard skinned, ugly pupa suddenly unravel to the astounding beauty of a full grown insect. I, for one, saw myself go through many revolutions at once after my Bagega trip. I came back restless, and filled with so much rumbling emotions. I was assailed by new feelings; and I could almost hear my inner being crack open to a brand new me with potentials that I never really knew I possessed.

The most amazing thing, then, was that the new humanitarian zeal that welled up inside me made me start an unconscious quest for co-travelers. But most importantly, it made me experience a sudden desire: I wished that I was a full-time activist!

Without doubt, the networks and platforms I had established since I joined climate activism was the springboard that helped me establish the needed transition. I was a founding member of the Nigeria Youth Climate Action Network (NYCAN); I was also part of the African Youth Initiative for Climate Change (AYICC). But then, there was no word to describe the sense of urgency that overwhelmed me, and prodded me to do something more.

That was my state of mind when I met the future co-founder of CODE. The very first moment I set my eyes on Oludotun Babayemi I knew we were kindred spirits. Even from afar, any perceptive eye could see his passion and resourceful capacity engraved and packed in his dark features and gangly physique. And at close range, one realizes that just like me, he had the vision to mobilize and organize young people to contribute their quota to national development.


But before I met Dotun, I had reached out to family and friends. I told them, as vividly as I could, the Bagega story. I approached a journalist, Ugochi Anyaka, who was then on a short intern programme with ICEED.  She saw the pictures, watched the videos and heard my first hand testimony, which ignited the same humanitarian fire in her.

Ugochi was so fired up that she would have joined the project and visited Zamfara, if not that she was at that time heavy with a baby. Of course, considering that fetuses are at higher risk of lead poisoning, it would be foolhardy to advise a pregnant woman to touch the soil of Bagega!

However, she contributed her quota by sharing the story and helping me to speak to Nigerians through her medium, Aso Radio (FM). The importance of my exposure to the media can never be overemphasized. Not only did it give me the first taste of public opinion concerning the lead poisoning incident, it also helped me concretize my message and then learn how to connect with people who were as empathetic as I was. In fact, it made me realize at that early stage the power of the media in galvanizing the people to action.


Perhaps, this was the dynamic behind the bond between me and Dotun. Our first meeting was when he attended a campaign I organized in Abuja called MyCity+20. MyCity+20 was a global campaign created prior to Rio+20 whereby in every city, young people were mobilized to talk about what their government was doing about the environment. So, in 2012, I was able to organize hundreds of youths at Millennium Park, Abuja. Being very proficient with the social media, Dotun began to stream the event live, making it possible for other young people around the world to view what we were doing as it happened. It was a historic moment.

Watching Dotun work and experiencing the impact of our synergy, made me realize how blessed Nigeria was as a country. Here were hundreds of youths gathered together for the sake of the environment without anybody paying them to do so. Here was the message that could transform Nigeria, and the lives of the ordinary citizens. What was needed was just a little action from those who are in the positions of authority. And, somebody has to supply that missing link.

I decided that I would do everything possible to make a change, starting from Zamfara, in spite of my 9-5 job at ICEED. Indeed, at that time, my greatest wish was to trade places with a full time activist.

Hamzat Lawal

After the Millennium Park event, Dotun and I became friends and grew quite close. There was an unspoken agreement between us to leverage on each other’s contacts and networks for our individual campaigns. He subsequently invited me to a planning meeting for Earth Hour, a global climate-action drive that he championed in Nigeria.

During the course of the meeting I contributed both intellectually and financially because I earned a good salary and I also believed in putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. That was when the dilemma became more defined. Unlike most other youth activists, I had a good job that could help fund my activism. But then, because of the job, I did not have the liberty to drive at full throttle.

Nevertheless, I had Dotun to do the driving. Because he was available, I invited him to join the Zamfara lead poisoning monthly stakeholders meeting that brought together traditional rulers and miners in the state. He represented me at the meeting, and when he came back to Abuja, things took a quick turn to the fast lane. Dotun’s report was in-depth, clear and resonated with my innermost yearning for action. So, I figured, now that I had a partner, I could continue exploring the “Bagega situation” to the maximum limits.

I had another meeting with MSF (Doctors without Borders) where we agreed to advocate and track public sector funds budgeted for interventions like the one in Zamfara lead poisoning; and then make the government aware there were young activists who were using the social and the mainstream media to track those monies. That was how we came up with the idea of Follow The Money. We then outlined what we wanted to achieve. Created the hash-tag #SaveBagega and launched the website www.followthemoneyng.org

Hamzat Lawal

It would be interesting to note that at that time my original platform, NYCAN had only a Facebook page and did not enjoy massive online traffic. On the other hand, Follow The Money became a movement overnight, and evolved to become the campaign that united Nigeria. We built a platform around the website, twitter handle, and Facebook page. We owned the message, and we tweeted it, shared it, and broadcast it, until it began to trend internationally, catching the attention of global entities like the Human Rights Watch. Even Al Jazeera put a call across to us!

A wise man once said that there are two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants; and the other is getting it.

Now that I got what I was looking for, I wanted to go full time as an activist. But the question was how to go about it. If I resigned from my day job, who was going to pay my bills? That was the exact question my parents asked when I broached the idea to them.

But, to me, it was not only about paying the bills; it was also about the support to go out on a limb. I could clearly see that where Follow The Money was headed, I needed much more than money to remain standing against the natural blowback that would soon find its way through the floodgates our activism had thrown wide open.

Next: Love and the Temperament of an Activist.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Hamzy! is an Activist and currently the Co-Founder / Chief Executive of Connected Development [CODE]. He is working to build a growing grassroots movement of citizen-led actions through Follow The Money for better service delivery in rural communities. He Tweets via @HamzyCODE

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