Reverend Godswill Agbagwa, is not your regular catholic priest, aside his clerical calling, he is on a mission to eradicate corruption, facilitate development and end poverty in Africa and he is starting with the youths.
Dr. Agbagwa, is a priest of the Catholic Church Diocese of Owerri, he was born into a comfortable home and had it all smooth and was already on his way to fulfilling his grandfather’s prophesy that the third of his father’s children will become a priest, when suddenly the dream was almost halted, howbeit for a while.
The loss of his father at a young age and the sudden change from plenty to lack, fired his passion to ensure no child has to go through what he went through.
In this interview, he talked about his passion of grooming the young people to take over the mantle of leadership.
What is this your youth grooming project all about?
I will start by giving you a brief on my background. My name is Reverend Father Godswill Agbagwa, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri, Nigeria.
With the permission of my Bishop, I moved to the United States a couple of years ago to do my graduate studies. Having completed my studies, my Bishop has allowed me to serve temporarily in the U.S. I am a chaplain at Frostburg State University here in Maryland.
I am also adjunct professor of Catholic Social Ethics at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, while also helping out as weekend priest in nearby parishes.
I’m the Founder and President of the Center for Social Awareness, Advocacy and Ethics, an international non-profit organization registered both in Nigeria and the United States.
The Centre was established to readdress the challenges of leadership, poor entrepreneurial spirit, and misguided social and moral sense, all of which I believe are the causes of poverty and underdevelopment in Nigeria and Africa at large.
The Centre focuses on youths and there are several programmes designed to nurture African leaders and workforce with the capacities, competences and character to help facilitate development, end poverty and make Africa a better place.
Our programmes include: The Emerging African Leaders Program (ELP), designed to nurture a new generation of political and government leaders, imbued with strong morals and skills set necessary for good governance.
ELP responds to the failure of government and political leadership in Africa. We all know the importance of government in development and in building a better nation.
We were frustrated with persistent failure of leadership and corruption in government in Nigeria and Africa and so we decided to start nurturing a new generation of African leaders, who will be different from the current leaders that we have.
It is a three-year leadership programme in which first- and second-year college students, ages 16 – 21, are groomed in the culture of transparency, accountability, good governance, solidarity and commitment to common good, through in-person and online conferences, problem-solving workshops, peer-to-peer networking, one-on-one mentoring, engagement in community development projects, team work and leadership building experiences home and abroad.
Our goal is to raise a critical mass of moral and creative leaders, who will be interested in building a better Nigeria, Africa and not just going there for their personal gains. Our intakes get there purely on merit.
Once selected into the programme, the youths are groomed for three years because we want them to fully imbibe the values and skills of highly effective leaders
ELP was launched in 2013, and it kicks off each year with an annual, three-day Foundation Conference at which time students draft and commit to three statements that address: A Personal Development Goal to which each student focuses on some aspect of personal character the student seeks to strengthen;
A Community Development Project that challenges each student to provide an innovative solution to a chosen community problem; and A Big Dream that asks the student to address what they envision as a long-term goal for their professional future.
At a mid-year summit in the program, students gather to present the progress of their three statements. Mentors, who represent varied professional backgrounds, provide feedback.
Last year, students from across Nigeria worked on projects that covered topics from drop-out prevention to environmental issues to economic reforms.
Throughout the three-year program, students engage in weekly online discussions about books and films on topics that are related directly to topics on good governance, accountability, transparency, commitment to common good and creative leadership.
Upon completion, mentors evaluate progress and promote graduates to the Network of Effective African Leaders (NEAL) to become mentors for a new group of Emerging African Leaders. Network of Effective African Leaders (NEAL) members run for offices or serve in other public offices and champion social impact projects.
We select only 25 youths annually for the ELP programme but after three years about 15 or less make it to NEAL because the training is tough and the standard very high.
Then we have the Career Building and Entrepreneurship Program (CBEP) developed in 2014 to help youths land dream jobs, become successful entrepreneurs or get the education they need home and abroad through expert training and mentoring. The program also grooms aspiring media, religious, judicial and business leaders for as long as it takes them to become success and contribute to African socio-economic development.
We also have the Students Ethics and Anti-Corruption Program (SEACON) which focus on orienting and re-orienting youths to positive moral and social values while working with them to identify, resist and fight corruption hindering development in Nigeria and Africa.
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What do you expect from the young leaders?
Honestly, we have many smart and talented Nigerian leaders but many of them do not have the moral courage to do the right thing.
On the other hand, there are many Nigerian leaders who have the good will but do not have the necessary skills to really navigate Nigeria out of poverty.
To this end, we require each emerging leader to come up with what we call big dream, personal development goals and community development project once accepted into the programme.
Each member will have to work on those goals for three years. The big dream is about what the emerging leader wants to be in future.
Some of them want to be future presidents, governors, ministers, or be in the House of Assembly. Based on their choice, we assign mentors to them, who will continue to guide them from day one until these goals are achieved. We require each of them to get involved in community projects.
Remember what J.F Kennedy said to America: Do not ask what America can do for you but what you can do for America. This is one of the questions we ask them: What can you do for Nigeria? So, right now, we have over 38 community projects, initiated by these young people. Some of them are working on bringing dropouts back to school. Others are grooming kids in IT.
These young people are inspired to do these projects during our Foundational conferences when we bring various people to speak to them about the problems of the country.
I remember one of the girls in Ebonyi (Priscilla) was so shocked that over 10 million Nigerian children dropped out of primary school in 2016, and that information came to us when we invited late Prof. Abubakar Momoh to speak to the young people about the leadership crisis in Nigeria.
Priscilla came up to me and said she wanted to bring back all these children out to the classroom and I asked her how she was going to go about it.
She said she was going to start a project. She started a project called, “No child dropout initiative”, and she brought a few other girls from Ebonyi State University to start working with her on the initiative.
Right now, they have brought a lot of children back to school. They do this by going from family to family talking to their parents, finding out why the children are not in school.
They go to school also to find out information about children who have dropped out of school and track them to their various families and make sure they bring them back to school.
So even when they bring them back to school, they continue to monitor them and mentor them to ensure they don’t drop out of school.
Priscilla wants to be future ambassador and she is studying international relations at Ebonyi State University. But right now, as a student, she uses her time and money to go to the communities in Ebonyi State, to bring kids who are out of school to the classroom.
There is another young lady called Nora Moses, who is a nursing student at Vom nursing school in Jos, Plateau state. She was so touched by what one of our speakers at the fundamental conference said about the health crisis in Nigeria, and she decided to make her own little contribution by working towards healthy nutrition for children.
She has started producing a locally made fortified food that is affordable for infants and children to help nursing mothers be able to feed their family very well. She also organizes monthly nutritional training for mothers in the community.
So, each of them has a community project they are working on, they are going about touching lives even as students, even as youths. Hopefully, when they get into offices, they can continue with same community spirit.
How many of these youths have you trained and how are you getting funding?
First of all, for the emerging leaders programme, we accept 25 students every year out of the hundreds of applications because we do not have enough funds to take all since it is a free programme.
Also, the mentoring process is very rigorous and very intensive, and we are very conservative in choosing mentors to avoid bad influence.
Again, when you have too many people, the quality of the programme will be short-changed. Like I said we have three other programmes at the center but this one is focusing on raising future leaders. Since 2013, we have accepted close to 150 emerging leaders and we support their education.
Over 25 of them are on scholarships, some are on full time scholarship for four years, others are on part time scholarships.
Our scholarships are need based. Through their community projects, these emerging leaders have touched the lives of over 150,000 Nigerians especially youths, women and children.
Our CBEP programme has trained over 9000 youths in Career Building and Entrepreneurship while our SEACON programme has reached thousands of Nigerian youths.
We have had a lot of challenges with funding. I give over 50 percent of my salary to the Centre, but I also have good Nigerians at home and in diaspora that have also keyed into the programme and are contributing towards the various programmes especially the projects the kids are working on.
We have people like Engr. Chike Nwosu of Addax Petroleum giving us half a million Naira annually and we have had support from some organizations in Nigeria including banks such as Fidelity Bank, insurance companies such as African Alliance Insurance Company, etc. These have been our sources of funding. We have many volunteers who work for us for free. For instance, our IT personnel, Ms. Donna (a white lady) and Mr. Austin, a Nigerian living in New Jersey, function pretty much like full-time employees but without pay. Our mentors give a lot of free hours and we have over 20 of them including a priest, Fr. Vincent Arisukwu. Our video and graphic artists are youths in the programme and they work for free for us. Our board members go beyond policy making to give their own money and even roll up their sleeves to help in training the kids. One of them, Dr. Camellus Ezeugwu, a cardiologist here in Maryland has given us over $5000 this year alone and you know what that means in Naira.
The kids themselves have also made commitments to fund their projects. On their own they reach out to individuals and organizations to get support. The expectation is that having received support from us, when they graduate and start working in the society, they too will reach out and support others that are brought into the programme. That way, they will be contributing to good governance and building the country.
What motivated you to go into this especially as a priest?
Well, the story of my getting into this programme is very long and complicated but it goes back to when I was little. I was born into an average Nigerian family.
My father had a school and we had enough to eat. When there was no light in my community, my father was among the few people that ran generator every day. I did not lack.
In fact by the standard of my community, I was born with a silver spoon and I had a very good upbringing and my father was able to send me to seminary high school which was one of the most expensive schools in my state as at that time.
But when I was in SS1 going to SS2, my father died. Following his death, things turned bad for my family and we became very poor. We had a lot of challenges so much so that even feeding and getting medical care were problems.
My mother became a widow and she was not as educated as my father. She was a petty trader and she was left with seven children to cater for including herself. It was then that I realized the need for the government to be there for the vulnerable in the society.
To pay school fees was a problem. When I was about to register for my Senior WAEC my mother could not afford the money for the exams. She had to use her wrappers to go borrow money.
I almost dropped out of school because of that. But by God’s Grace and with the help of my mother, I was able to pull through. I also became a little bit industrious myself by typing projects for students in the Major Seminary.
My father had what was then called a commercial school, so I was able to learn how to type very fast. I just took one typewriter to school and was typing projects for students.
This literally contributed 70 percent of the funds I needed to be in school until I became a priest. Of course, there were little helps here and there from friends especially from the people of God I served on various apostolic works during summer.
When I became a priest, the Archbishop sent me to the United States for further studies. When I came to the US and realized how developed, how good things are in this country, I really felt bad.
I felt that our country should do better than we are doing right now. Honestly, at first, I was very angry at my country, our leaders and my parents. I asked myself, where were my parents and grandparents when these people were building their country and that was what led me to start seeking for solution.
I went to conferences, seminars, read so many books, trying to find out why America was so developed, and Nigeria is so underdeveloped.
Why are the roads paved in America while we are still driving on bad roads in Nigeria? Why is the tap running non-stop, why do we have steady electricity supply and we don’t have this back home? Were these people created differently? Do they have different heads? Why are they happy and doing well? It was that shock, that experience that made me to start seeking for what the problem is.
My search led me to the conclusions that it is not that the Americans have two heads, more brilliant and more intelligent than our people.
It is because of the failure of leadership, because of the lack of the entrepreneurial spirit, lack of moral sense by our people that led us to underdevelopment and poverty. So, I started asking myself, how can we solve this problem.
I was frustrated with the current leaders, so I just didn’t want to think about them because I concluded they cannot change. So, I decided to start looking into the young ones, to work with them and start grooming them to build a better nation.
Yes, as a child losing his father, being raised by a widow, going through challenges and then going to America helped changed my focus. Maybe if I didn’t go to America nothing would have changed and I would not have been working with the youths to ensure we change Nigeria.
Have you always wanted to become a priest, or your father made you go into priesthood?
Well, the story of my priesthood is also a complicated one. I heard stories from people that my grandfather was one of the first Catholics in my community and that was why the white priest named him Peter being the head of the apostles.
He was also the catchiest and supported the church building in my community and donated land. I heard that he also prophesied that I was going to be a priest. He actually wanted my father to be a priest, but my father was an only son, so he changed his mind and said that his third son will become a priest.
I had interest in being a priest since I was little, and that interest was encouraged by my mother who also was a devout catholic.
She was in so many associations including St. Jude Association and she use to take me to the Sunday meetings. That was when I started having interest in the church and then I joined the altar servers. From there I went to the seminary and later became a priest.
So, I have always wanted to be a priest but there was also a side of the story that I didn’t know about: that my grandfather prophesied that I will become a priest. My mother’s piety also contributed. My father initially wanted me to be a lawyer but when he saw that I was interested in becoming a priest, he let me continue with the seminary.
Although he did not live to see me become a priest, but I had fulfilled the prophecy by becoming one.
Your work with World Bank and IMF closely, what is it that you do there?
So I got involved with World Bank because every year there is the spring meetings and there is what we call the civil society policy Forum, which is a platform created by the World Bank to bring civil society organizations together to discuss issues of importance to the World Bank and also to the civil societies.
It is also to network and to bring the attention of the civil societies to issues of development. My organization, Center for Social Awareness, Advocacy and Ethics, is a civil society organization by Nigerian standard and by American standard.
So, I started attending the programme and last year the civil society organizations held an election for permanent working group members to help the civil society teams at the World Bank/IMF to organize this policy forum and I was elected to represent Africa. So, that brought me to be a little bit closer to the processes involved in the civil society policy Forum.
My eyes were opened a little bit to what is going on. One of the things I want to bring to your attention is the issue of forging of certificates by Nigerians who want to attend this programme. There is a website that is creating fake certificates from CAC for Nigerians.
That was a shame because the team also brought it to my attention. I was asked to look at some of the certificates and to confirm if the certificates were coming from CAC. I was very depressed hearing about that because that does not portray a good thing for us.
And we are calling on the Nigerian government to look into it and crack down on those who are doing these things. We do not know exactly why they are doing these but this programme is meant for civil societies who are legally registered in Nigeria.
But then people are going to forge certificates and to submit to them the World Bank so that they can attend this civil society policy Forum.
I do not find it very funny because it continues to question the integrity of other genuine civil society organizations who are Nigerians.
What’s the rationale of bringing some of your mentees to the World Bank?
One of the things we do at the center is what we call leadership building experience. It is an activity that brings our members to reputable organizations or companies or individuals that they can learn good leadership from. We do that locally and internationally.
Since 2017, we started bringing one person to United States to come and have some experience. We brought Pantaleon Uwaleme who was a recent graduate from FUTO to the World Bank Youth Forum to have experience. While he was here, he was also able to work at our head office here and to see how things are done differently in other countries. He was also able to address about 300 physicians from Nigeria and to talk to them about the need to continue to promote good health in Nigeria.
He was able to meet our friends, black and white and be able to assess things and see how things happen. After that he returned to Nigeria and we are happy to announce that through his experience, he has gotten a scholarship now from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to do a two-year fully funded Masters programme in public policy and peace building. After which he will return to Nigeria and continue to contribute to our nation building.
This year, we sponsored another emerging leader, Michelle Nwagha to come and have experience at the World Bank and to engage with other sectors in the United States, to learn how things are done differently.
She has a dream to become Nigeria’s finance minister in the future having studied accounting in Nigeria. So, we thought that coming to the World Bank and to engage with other financial institutions will provide her opportunity to learn how things are done at this early stage in life. She has since returned to Nigeria to continue working at an international accounting firm in Lagos.
When I started this, many Nigerians thought these young people will not return but we have proven them wrong because the two of them that came have returned because their interest is not in America but to go back to Nigeria and contribute in making the country a better place.
Why fight corruption from bottom up while IMF/World Bank are fighting from top to bottom?
Actually, at the Center, we have a whole programme that is dedicated to fighting corruption bottom up. In all our programmes there is an anti-corruption and ethical components.
The emerging leaders programme is heavy on ethics, so also the other programs devoted to raising entrepreneurs, judicial leaders, media leaders and religious leaders. These are people who have influence in the society because is not everybody that will be in government.
Each programme is very heavy on ethics. We also have student ethics and anti-corruption programme which is meant to reorient youths to positive moral and social values while teaching them how to identify, resist and fight corruption.
We decided on the bottom up because we realized that corruption has become endemic, more or less a cultural thing in Nigeria. We do understand and appreciate the efforts that the government is making to crack down on public officials.
We believe that Nigeria is so corrupt that if we get rid of all public officials today, the younger ones will continue from where they stopped. So, I think there has to be some strategic efforts to start cleaning up from the bottom top.
Many international institutions like the World Bank and other financial institutions are not into bottom up approach to fighting corruption which involves more of education, training and awareness. Usually their fight on corruption is focused on their engagement with particular Nation.
For example, the World Bank looks at corruption as it affects the loan they have given to a country. For example, if the World Bank has given a loan to Nigeria to build electricity or road construction, their fight against corruption will focus on making sure that that money is being used for what it is meant for.
But we are trying to engage them in a conversation that that is not enough. If they are very interested in the overall development of the African countries, corruption is one of those things that is shortchanging the people and frustrating the efforts of development.
Therefore, they have to look at it comprehensively. In one of the sessions we had with the executive directors, it was very clear that arresting and cracking down on corrupt officials are not going to be the ways and sustainable ways to fight corruption. There has to be a way we engage corruption more substantially to avoid it from becoming severe.
Actually, the IMF just came out with a new document on corruption and other things. They are revising their policy on corruption to be a lot more integrated. During the meeting, we suggested to the EDs the need to fighting corruption from bottom up. This has not been the practice, but we are very happy that they are even listening to that.
At the Center, we are planning to develop a paper on how they can do this better because that is one of the reasons that they bring us together, to tell them what they can do better.
We are hoping that the IMF/World Bank will see the need for it, support and probably provide funding to civil society and institutions that are very much involved in some of these things.
One of the things I have been pushing is for IMF/World Bank to make it a condition for giving loans to governments that they have to show in their budget how much they will give to programmes like ours and other institutions that are promoting ethics and fighting corruption from the root.
This is a suggestion, but we are developing a model to show that the method of fighting corruption from bottom up is effective and could be replicated in the nation to help nip corruption in the bud.
That was why at the spring meeting, our Center sponsored a session that was focused on nipping corruption in the bud and we invited the African Union Ambassador and the people from the Partnership for Transparency Fund as well as some bank officials, who have been involved in anti-corruption from the bottom up to speak.
So, we are hoping that with time the IMF/World Bank will look at preventing corruption before it gets to government and then a larger scale.
You seem to do a lot of travels. How do you combine your priesthood and your work at the Center?
Yes, I travel a lot. I use my annual vacation to make my trips. I split it into several shot vacations for my travels. I don’t get vacations anymore.
Each time I am in Nigeria and I come to Nigeria several times in a year, I am there for our programmes. Now that I am in the University setting, I will have more time because students have a lot of breaks and holidays that I can use to make my frequent trips to Nigeria and across the world.
How do you relax with your hands so full?
I have not had a vacation since 2013. But for some reasons, I feel relaxed each time I am with the youths in the programme. I just don’t understand how work can give someone so much pleasure. But yes, that’s how I relax.
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