Gregory Zell, an American Peace Corps volunteer served in Nigeria in the 1960s and fell in love with the country. He believes that Nigeria has the potentials of becoming one of the best countries in the world if only Nigeria and her people can put their acts together. Mr Zell, the immediate past president of Friends of Nigeria (an NGO) spoke to Uche Nworah on what drives the organisation.
UN: How did the idea of friends of Nigeria come about?
GZ: Two or three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Nigeria and who previously knew each other were having a casual conversation and one of them said, “We should form a Friends of Nigeria group like so many of the other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in other nations have done”, that’s how FON started.
UN: Who really are Friends of Nigeria?
GZ: Membership into our charitable organization is open to anyone who pays the $20 dues, but our members are mostly Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps staff who served in Nigeria and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) returnees, the British counterpart of Peace Corps.
UN: Have you visited Nigeria lately?
GZ: Not recently but I served in Lagos from January 1963 through December 1964. I travelled extensively around the country except for the extreme northern parts.
UN: Cynics may be wondering why your group have decided to adopt Nigeria when you could have focused your efforts in your backyards, considering that America is also battling with so many socio-economic issues such as gun crime, unemployment etc. What would you say to such people?
GZ: Nigeria is a fascinating country. We left a part of ourselves there hence our continuing interests in what goes on in Nigeria.
UN: Would you say that FON have had any positive impact on the way America, and indeed the world perceives Nigeria?
GZ: Our purpose is not to change the way people think of Nigeria. The country is too large and FON too small. But anyone who speaks with any of our members will have a better understanding of the country.
UN: Are there any tangibles FON could point out on the ground in Nigeria as an example of its work aimed at positively impacting on Nigeria’s socio-economic development?
GZ: We donate to major charities operating in Nigeria. They produce tangibles which have been seen and felt. Presently we are sponsoring 3 VSOs (Volunteer Service Officers), the British counterpart of Peace Corps because there has not been a Peace Corps presence in Nigeria for about a dozen years. Their presence is felt every day.
UN: How is FON funded?
GZ: We are funded totally by private contributions mostly from our members.
UN: Does FON have direct contacts and dealings with the Nigerian government and officials?
GZ: We have no contact with Nigerian government officials, but that does not mean that we do not have the knowledge or ability to make such contacts if needed.
UN: Has FON ever made any representation to the American congress concerning any aspect of Nigeria’s political, social and economic policy?
GZ: We have not made any formal presentations to members of Congress about Nigeria. Some of us though may have had informal conversations with members of Congress over the years concerning Nigeria.
UN: Do you also have Nigerian-Americans as members?
GZ: A few members are either Nigerian-Americans or Nigerians living in the States.
UN: What’s the current membership strength of the organisation?
GZ: Our membership at the moment is around 450. Since we draw our members mostly from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and the prospects of a renewed Peace Corps presence in country are not bright, there is little opportunity for growth.
UN: What is FON’s view on the Obasanjo government?
GZ: The organization has no view of the Obasanjo government. Individual members may have a view. Peace Corps people approach their subjects with optimism. I have not heard anything negative about Obasanjo on a personal level from our members.
UN: Does FON plan to send any representatives to monitor the scheduled 2007 general elections?
GZ: We have no plans as an organization to monitor the upcoming election. Our resources are too slim. Our board works hard to make certain all funds donated to the charitable portion of our programs are so spent, and not on operational costs.
UN: As the immediate past president of FON, what would you say was your most notable achievement?
GZ: I particularly enjoyed my contacts with Peace Corps officials, letting them know that we still think voluntary service is workable in Nigeria.
UN: What challenges did you face as President of the organisation?
GZ: Attempting to replace FON’s aging membership. It is important that Peace Corps return to Nigeria. The country needs to improve the living conditions of its huge population
UN: Tell us briefly about yourself, family, business and professional life
GZ: I came to Miami at the age of five and received all my schooling here; I went into Peace Corps after receiving my BS in chemistry; I served as a science teacher at Ansar Ud Deen Muslim Girls High School (now in Surulere). I returned to Miami to go to law school and was in private practice until 1994. I have worked as a corporate real estate attorney since then; I have travelled extensively throughout the world for pleasure maintaining a high level of participation in Peace Corps related local, state, and national activities.
UN: Does FON share in the American intelligence committee’s prognosis that Nigeria would disintegrate in the next 15 years?
GZ: The organization does not take stands on such matters, but I have not heard any of our members suggest an expectation of a fragmentation of Nigeria.
UN: What would you say to Nigerians reading this on the best way to sustain Nigeria-American relations which many in Nigeria have always believed is one sided, bothering on paternalism from America?
GZ: Paternalism describes a relationship of unequals. The way around it is to restyle and build up the entity in the relationship feeling looked down upon.
UN: What has your experience of interacting and dealing with Nigerians been like, any stories to share?
GZ: The world is small. Not long ago, I met a Nigerian working as a cashier. In our conversation, he mentioned that his father is the Alake of Abeokuta. I said I went to the public part of a coronation of an Alake, Gbadebo II. He said, “That is my father.” When I visit London, I keep an eye on Africans in national dress walking together to see if I can spot one that might be Nigerian. I walk alongside them for a moment or two to see if I can detect what language they are speaking. If I recognise Yoruba, I walk past them and say, “Ekabo. Se alafia ni?” I continue walking while they start yelling, “Stop. Stop. Wait.” Then we have a little conversation.
Greg Zell is the immediate past president of Friends of Nigeria (FON), an association of ex-Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria. Contact FON through www.friendsofnigeria.org.
January 2007. firstname.lastname@example.org