“People tell me I have a high tolerance of risk,” Mohamed Yahya tells me as we sit to have a discussion about the expectations for his tenure as the country representative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nigeria.
As the youngest country representative from the UNDP to work with Nigeria, Mr. Yahya is convinced he has a unique opportunity to challenge the stereotypes that have plagued the United Nations and its aid organizations. At 41, he is young enough to understand the aspirations of the millennial generation and old enough to understand the concerns of the generation before them. He maintains such a close enough relationship with millennials that save for a salt and pepper beard, he blends in with the actresses, filmmakers and creative giants that join him for an introductory brunch to pitch the Create To Develop campaign the UNDP is introducing to the country as part of its Decade of Action strategy.
Facilitated by Ngele Ali, the UNDP Nigeria’s Head of Partnerships and Statecraft Inc. a foremost governance and policy consulting firm based in Lagos, the Create To Develop brunch which is the UNDP’s first foray into private partnerships with creatives in the country, and the lineup of guests at the table suggests a genuine desire to understand the creative landscape in the country and use its network and resources to further the United Nations’ development initiatives.
Film veterans like Joke Silva, Dakore Akande and Omotola Jalade Ekeinde have a cumulative 45 years of working closely with aid organisations to create media narratives for African audiences. Others like Don Jazzy and Joel Kachi Benson who are only beginning to explore such collaborative opportunities but have outsize influence in their fields were also in attendance.
As the conversation at brunch progressed into creatives’ role in what Mr Yahya calls “the psychology of progress” (and Timi Dakolo has now coined as the art of creating “to create belief in people”), Stephanie Busari, head of CNN’s Africa bureau dispels myths about how African stories are consumed by a global audience and highlights the importance of opening up spaces for younger storytellers. Moh, as he is called by his team seems delighted by the enthusiasm around the table.
“We haven’t been very good at this,” Moh explains, when I ask about the UNDP’s decision to engage creators directly and partner with them on development projects. He explains that the UNDP has explored the option of directly influencing the stories that were told by their partner organizations in the past and has recorded less than stellar responses. This is why the Create To Develop initiative is being handled differently, and the creators being invited to participate are engaged as field experts, their perspectives respected and their consent sought.
“The audience we intend to reach are very smart. You force a story, they see through it. Our focus is to help the creators who tell these stories see the impact of their storytelling and ensure they remain conscious of the consequences of the stories they amplify.”
As new media reveals the connections between donor nations and aid organizations, it has become harder to convince governments who have been the victims of propaganda that international aid organizations, often perceived with skepticism, can help to promote genuine change. Benefactor countries and the aid organizations they support are learning the difficult lesson of approaching the countries they intend to partner with as equals. Mohamed Yahya cites the ascension of Nigerians like Amina J. Mohammed and Ahunna Eziakonwa into key positions in the United Nations as important in championing this shift of perspective from the inside out.
“Perspective is important and the resources of the UNDP allows us show creators, storytellers and executors the true scale of their reach. Nigerians are fostering change abroad, but we need to bring that change home.”
For him, a touchstone is Joel Kachi Benson’s Daughters of Chibok, the little film released in 2018 that went on to beat established studios for the prestigious Venice Award for Best Virtual Reality. He cites the revolutionary power of narratives told in unconventional ways. Benson’s film which is currently travelling the festival circuit has been lauded for centering families still dealing with the fallout of the Nigerian Boko Haram crisis.
Those kinds of perspective are what Mohamed Yahya intends to amplify with his four years as country representative, and he intends to do it by leveraging the experience of seasoned creatives and the disruptive power of Gen-Z influencers. And Ground Zero for those ideas to take flight is Nigeria.
“Nigeria is important for several reasons;” he tells me, as the other guests clump into small groups, discussing the UNDP’s offer to see first hand the work the organization is doing in Nigeria’s North East. Adebola Williams, StateCraft Inc. CEO, facilitates this process while the Country Rep answers my questions.
“It has the largest economy on the continent by GDP. With 200 million citizens, it is also the largest concentration of black Africans. Nigeria also has the most creative people who will pilot Africa’s take off towards progressive development.”
It makes sense that Moh would speak of Nigeria in this way. During his opening address, he speaks highly of a number of Nigerian authors he read growing up as a Somalian refugee, displaced from his home country as an infant. He highlights the fact that even when other countries were finding their place post-colonial disruption, Literature and media from Nigeria was largely defiant of colonial pressures. The stories from Nigeria centered African lives and traditions in such a powerful way that those early encounters inform his worldview to this day. He believes that power persists and can be harnessed by the UNDP towards developmental change. He also believes that the window of opportunity is small, and must be embraced emphatically.
“I expect most of the things I will do to not succeed,” he says with utmost confidence, “but I just need one thing to succeed to have the kind of impact that I want to see. I am always asking ‘what can we do, and what can we start to make real change?”
Moh admits that while the atmosphere at this introductory brunch gives him hope, he is not naive to the fact that creators are faced with the threat of censorship and the need to retain financial independence. There is a lot the UNDP still has to learn and can only learn by listening to the creators who will drive its projects. But he alludes to the historically cordial relationship between the UNDP and successive Nigerian governments for the 59 years it has operated in the country, a wealth of knowledge on navigating bureaucracy that he can offer Nigerian creatives.
The machinery of government bureaucracy must be acknowledged, and the UNDP’s Create To Develop initiative will embrace the Sustainable Development Goals recommended ‘Whole Society’ approach to sustainability. But preserving that relationship allows the UNDP a unique opportunity to use its goodwill to influence government policy and advise the leadership on how best to model its democracy to empower its citizens and especially its creators to do their parts to further development.
Like many of the millennials he grew up with, Moh has learnt to start with what he has while the establishment catches up. His interview series #1On1WithMo has featured reggae megastar Patorankin and other celebrities on issues of development, conservation, migration and climate change and his hashtag campaign #ScalingFences used the collective access of African influencers to promote a more balanced view of legal and illegal migration for African migrants. He believes that these experiments are only small drops in the sea of possibilities that can come from his time in Nigeria, and the Create To Develop initiative is dowsing rod to find the best ways to convert those possibilities to tangible development projects.
“I listen to Afrobeats non-stop and I still get invited to many of the cultural spaces where young people are proposing radical ideas.” he says, “I see the disruptive things they are doing and I want to invest my influence with the UNDP in those disruptive ideas.”
Despite the foreseeable risks for Mohamed Yahya during his tenure as country rep, he sees only opportunities.