• Friday, June 14, 2024
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Naomi Emeka-Nwokolo, passionate about corporate sustainability, human rights

Naomi Emeka-Nwokolo, passionate about corporate sustainability, human rights

Naomi Emeka-Nwokolo is the Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact Network Nigeria, a country office of the United Nations Global Compact- The world’s largest corporate citizen sustainability initiative. She is also the Co-founder of AOP Legal practitioners- a commercial law firm located in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the founder of the Women Rights Protection and Rehabilitation Centre, a non-governmental organisation with the mandate of promoting women’s rights through the use of national, regional and international legal instruments.
She has an LLB degree from The Enugu State University and a Bachelor of Law from the Nigerian Law School with a Masters of Law in International Trade Law and Development (in-View) from Emory University School of Law, Atlanta Georgia, United States of America.~ She’s also a certified sustainability expert from the University Of Cambridge Institute Of Sustainability Leadership, United Kingdom.

Take us through your childhood memories and impact till date

I come from a very democratic family and growing up was exciting. My dad is a democrat, so from childhood, he taught me and my siblings that equality and equity is important in our household. He instilled in us the value of having respect for people regardless of their age and status; always talking about how it will take us far in life. I grew up in a very loving home and my parents did boost the confidence that I grew up with to date. My dad taught me to be reasonably fearless and I imbibed it. Till today, I have friends and colleagues who tell me they would like to meet my parents to learn more about confidence just because of how I exude confidence. It is absolutely true what they say “How you grow up eventually shapes who you become in life”. In my early years, my family home was opposite the State Ministry of Justice. Every day, to and fro my journey to school, I would see lawyers smartly dressed in black and white going in and out of the ministry. Oh! The more I saw them, the more I was fascinated by them. Some of them were friends with my mother and they would visit our home regularly. Because of this, I had the opportunity to converse with them and satisfy my curiosity. As I increasingly learned about their role in society, our conversations spanned the imagination of what the state of society would be without the rule of law, without the defence of the defenceless; it would be nothing but a crude state dominated by the brute rule of force. I was quite an inquisitive child and was lucky to have parents who patiently answered my questions too. After I heard about the crucial role of lawyers in society, my fascination developed into a strong interest to study law. I wanted to be a part of such a noble profession and contribute to defending the downtrodden in society. This is what influenced my career decision.

What does the United Nations Global Compact do?

The United Nations Global Compact is what I like to call, Netflix of sustainability in the world. It was launched in 2000 by UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan with the explicit mandate to “advance United Nations values and responsible business practices within the United Nations system and among the global business community.” The UN Global Compact is a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with Ten Principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. Our ambition is to accelerate and scale the global collective impact of business by upholding the Ten Principles and delivering Sustainable Development Goals through accountable companies and ecosystems that enable change.

As a UN special initiative, we believe that the private sector has a crucial role to play in development, so we guide them through their sustainability journey to ensure they are on the right path. The UN Global Compact operates on country levels through local networks and Network Nigeria is one of the 71 local networks present worldwide. Our work is to mobilise the Nigerian business community to help them understand what responsible business means within our local context and guide them in the advancement of their sustainability journey through access to our events, resources, tools, guidance, training, and accelerator programs.

What are your roles as ED and chair, Africa Regional Network Council?

As the ED, I oversee and execute the Network’s mission by enabling business model success, nurturing strong internal and external relationships and ensuring that all activities conducted by the Global Compact Network are aligned with the critical business needs and implementation of Agenda 2030.

As the chair of the Africa Regional Network Council (RNC), I serve to represent the views and perspectives of the African Country offices at the global level. We have 11 UN Global Compact Networks in Africa. I contribute to the development of the RNC Work Plan as well as the priority plans and review progress made for the region.

As the world’s largest corporate citizen sustainability initiative, would you say United Nations Global Compact (Nigeria) is living up to its mission and goals?

Yes, definitely we are. Companies engaged with the UN Global Compact Nigeria have reported great progress in their sustainability journey. They are now making voluntary and positive contributions to support human rights, diverse and inclusive workplaces, and the advancement of labour rights and have joined forces to tackle environmental issues. They are also investing in communities and public policy. Financial institutions engaged with the UN Global Compact Nigeria and all over the world are now increasingly including ESG and sustainability in their reporting process.

Tell us about being a founding partner of AOP Legal practitioners

AOP LP is a law firm I co-founded with a colleague in 2017. The Law Firm specialises in corporate compliance law, taxation, debt recovery, real estate and litigation. When I was actively engaged with AOP LP, I oversaw the compliance department of the firm. In an emerging economy like Nigeria, the role of a law firm keeps evolving. It is crucial that any organisation retains competent law firms which do play an extremely integral part in navigating through several regulatory and transactional bottlenecks.

Why was the Women Rights Protection and Rehabilitation Centre (WRPRC) founded? What has the centre been able to achieve so far?

WRPRC was founded out of my passion for protecting women’s rights. As a criminal attorney, I witnessed a lot of injustices that women face in Nigeria. From sexual and gender-based violence to sexual harassment in the workplace, to discrimination on property rights. This injustice happens to all women regardless of their status in the society in one form or the other. I decided to set up an organisation that offers free legal assistance to vulnerable and indigent women and it gives me utmost joy to offer firsthand representation to women and ensure that they get the justice they deserve.

To you, around the world and especially in Nigeria, are the rights of women being protected?

No! Absolutely no! Protection of women’s rights should be part of the National Anthem in every country. Women still suffer the brunt of weak institutions that do not afford them the protection they should have, especially in the global south. The issues of gender-based violence, gender pay gap, gender discrimination in labour, inadequate sexual and reproductive health laws to mention but few, are still prevalent. The gender snapshot 2022 Report of the UN Women states that it may take up to 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws and up to 140 years to achieve parity in women’s representation in managerial positions in the workplace.

That’s not a façade, it is based on actual statistics. For Nigeria in particular, the laws do not cater sufficiently to the needs of women. For example, the Nigeria Police Act Section 124 made it mandatory for women to get the Commissioner’s permission before they can marry the man of their choice and section 127 mandates the dismissal of pregnant unmarried Policewomen. I find this particular provision discriminatory particularly because a male officer is not required to seek permission before getting married. While I am not seeking gender dominance or gender favouritism, I am advocating for equality. What is applicable to men should also be made available to women. Another point to note; in the upcoming 2023 Nigerian elections, the percentage of women candidates is not up to 20%. The ripple effect of the systemic subjugation of women is what has led to the current situation we are facing in this country. In a population of about 200 million people, females represent a whopping 60%, however, this current election cycle has only 18% of women represented on the ballot. These are the things I am looking to change. It doesn’t start from the top, it starts from the bottom.

Amongst several, is there any particular case on women’s rights that you were personally involved with that stood out for you and you would want to share?

I recall a particular matter involving a widow. The widow entered into a build-to-rent contract with another developer which was to last for ten years. The developer passed on during the subsistence of the contract and the successor in title approached the court to terminate the contract, chased the woman out of the property, denied her right to use the property for the remainder of the contractual year, and restrained her from receiving rental payments due. WRPRC came to her aid; I represented her and got judgment in her favour. I have also successfully obtained judgments for women on child custody matters.

Read also: Nigerian women inclusion in renewable energy reached 37% in 2021

What can be done as a nation to better protect the rights of women?

Lawmakers should recognise the barriers that women face and ensure that Nigeria’s laws and policies help dismantle these barriers and pave a way for women to thrive in society. Giving women equal access to education is critical, and also the need to provide necessary checks and balances to forstall systemic discrimination of women. I would like to applaud the judicial sector for ensuring equal and effective representation of women to a larger degree and ensuring their prosperity.

Most times, victims of sexual abuse and other forms of violence are oppressed to silence their truth. Perpetrators often get away with it. What can be done to tackle this menace?

Strengthening the institutions that promote justice for victims of sexual abuse will go a long way in helping victims speak up. There are instances where victims of domestic violence run to the police to report cases of abuse but they are sent back home because the police believe the case is a family matter and they can’t get involved. The Police Force should be enlightened that domestic violence is a crime and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is a family member. I must commend the Lagos State Government for great advancement in this matter, but more states need to join in protecting victims of sexual abuse. Punishing perpetrators of all kinds of Sexual and Gender Based Violence will be instrumental in not only serving as a deterrent to others but also, giving other victims a voice to speak up. The stigmatization of rape victims should be demystified so that more victims can have a voice.

On labour rights of employees, what have you observed from your experience?

The issue of decent work and labour rights is an economic issue. Decent work and protection of labour rights is a sine qua non for economic growth. Employees in Nigeria, from the public to the private sector do not have their rights adequately protected. Employees still live below minimum wage. What is the essence of working and one still remains within the poverty range? The right to freedom of association is a constitutional right, therefore, any job that prevents employees to have an association is unconstitutional. Lastly, there should be adequate redress for victims of labour abuse. I once litigated a case where an employee had his hands chopped off by an industrial machine during the course of his employment, and the company did not care about him. After a strong legal battle at the National Industrial Court, the court awarded him 1.5 million naira. Please tell me how that amount will adequately provide for a man who has lost his livelihood over the negligence of his employer. Of course, we went on appeal, but this is a sneak peek of what employees suffer in the workplace in Nigeria. The UN Global Compact through our decent work initiative is training companies on how to take action to promote the rights of their employees.

Tell us about being the queen of strikeouts

I earned the sobriquet of queen of strikeouts during my active days in litigation. I must say that I started my legal career quite early and was very passionate about criminal law. On several occasions, I had clients who had been in prison custody awaiting trials for several years. My approach was to extensively examine the charges against the suspects, especially those that have had several adjournments with no witness and then, make an application to the court to have the matter struck out for lack of diligent prosecution, and the suspect released. I usually relied on section 351 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act of Lagos State. The courts granted my application on several cases that the prosecutors named me the queen of strikeouts. It was my own way of putting prosecutors on their toes. I always said, “Get your witnesses because I am ready for trial, otherwise I am also ready to have your case struck out!” Truly, the number of suspects awaiting trial for often miscellaneous cases is an issue that should be squarely addressed. The deprivation of liberty pending trial is oppressive and very likely to cause economic and psychological hardship.

Tell us about your previous job experience prior to joining the UN Global Compact Nigeria

Before joining the Global Compact, I was an active human rights lawyer working on national and international criminal justice. I litigated human rights cases in Nigeria, monitored and documented human rights concerns to government officials, opinion leaders and inter-governmental agencies. Some of the cases I litigated were public interest cases. Also, I represented convicted criminals on death row in my advocacy against the death penalty and cases bothering on women’s rights. In addition, I advocated for the domestic implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in Nigeria and Africa, working closely with the Coalition for the International Court in New York, USA. During my time working on international criminal justice, I am happy to share that my work on the Rome Statute advocacy contributed to the bill for the Rome Statute passing its second reading in the House of Representatives.

As one who is passionate about nation-building, what do you desire for Nigeria?

I desire a Nigeria where the respect and promotion of human rights is the principal focus of the Nigerian government. I look forward to a Nigeria where the non-justiciable rights in our constitution become actually justiciable. A country where there are adequate job opportunities for youths, and the vulnerable and differently abled persons are truly catered for. I look forward to a Nigeria where its citizens have good, adequate and accessible healthcare. A Nigeria where the national development plan is indeed implemented and achieved and finally, where corruption is deliberately tackled and perpetrators of corrupt practices punished.

Why the passion for human rights, sustainable development, corporate sustainability, inclusive business, gender and nation-building?

Human rights, sustainable development, corporate sustainability, inclusive business are all tenets of development. As an international development attorney and a sustainability executive, I welcome a rights-based approach to development. I believe that the international community, multilateral institutions, the private sector, national government, NGOs and all parts of society have a role to play in creating a better life for humanity. While the government is fixated on strengthening civil and political rights, they can do more in the economy and social too. Multilateral institutions, development partners, private sector and other non-state actors can also work with government in advancing economic and social rights. A combination of advancement of civil, political, economic and social rights will give us a leap both in advancing economic growth and sustainable development.

You just returned from UNGA77, what lessons can you share, and what is your resolution?

The 77the UN General Assembly came at a very precarious moment for international peace and security, especially in reference to the War in Ukraine. UNGA77 called for multilateral cooperation to advance international peace, security and justice. It also called on states and the private sector to accelerate their efforts in achieving Sustainable Development Goals. With Climate change, food shortages, inequalities and insecurity at an all-time high, UNGA77 was an opportunity to reinforce commitments. The United Nations Global Compact also launched the Global Africa Business Initiative which highlighted the opportunities that all sectors of the economy in Africa can harness in the advancement of economic growth and sustainable development in the continent.

In conclusion

As this is a business magazine, I would like to use this opportunity to call on Nigerian businesses to join the United Nations Global Compact in our mission to create a sustainable future and ensure the sustainability of your business. I would also like to call on lawyers to venture into the development space. There is a lot one can do and there is no sustainable development without the rule of law, so please do get involved.