Fajana-Thomas: Championing People’s Causes Abroad
ALTHOUGH she is presently a councillor of the London Borough on Hackney, Susan Fajana-Thomas doesn’t see herself as a politician, but a socio-political campaigner because she loves to make a difference in the lives of people. She believes she is cut out to impact positively on the lives of others, which indeed, informed her going into politics.
Before leaving Nigeria for the United Kingdom in 1990, Susan, then head of Presentation at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), was a seasoned broadcaster, who had spent all her working years in the electronic media. So, armed with her formidable credentials and experiences, she thought it would be an easy thing to secure a good job in the UK media industry. But this was not to be. It was an entirely different scenario that confronted her.
“The first thing that struck me on getting here was the raw deal Africans and other ethnic minorities get in this country in terms of work,” she says. “For instance, I was an award-winning newscaster at the NTA. I was also a news producer, as well as a news presenter. Though when I came to this country, I did not have the British accent to work on television, but I felt I had enough background to be able to work and secure a job in the television industry. As it turned out, however, it was like I was banging on closed doors.”
This, she attributes to the fact that the media industry in the UK is overcrowded just like any other profession.
“You see professionals in other fields coming to the UK to become taxi drivers and do all manner of odd jobs. Like many other Nigerians, my first job in the UK was cleaning and I remember saying to myself back then that it was not my portion. And that was when I conceived the idea of how we can empower ourselves to let the people out there know we are qualified enough to do the job. Again, there were a lot of issues of asylum seekers back then in Europe. So, I felt I could find a way to stand in for asylum seekers,” she recalls.
Although she never entertained such ideas when leaving Nigeria, Susan had to look in other directions to make a living. So, she compiled a list of the things she is passionate about and campaigned about them and here she is, a politician, so to say. She actually started campaigning on social issues in the United Kingdom about 20 years ago. And because of her tenacity and sincerity of purpose, she was able to establish herself as a force to be reckoned with in that area.
However, it was not smooth sailing initially, as she was confronted with sundry challenges, which she had to overcome to get to the goal. Her being a woman from the minority and desiring to be elected into elective office in the United Kingdom, posed a particularly knotty problem, though there were other issues.
“In my case, I am educated and I represent a predominantly white area. I do not also have the British accent. So, it is a combination of issues. I won’t call it racism, but more of prejudice. People would prefer to relate to those that look like them. They would usually want a white person to represent the white. But with hard work, confidence and determination, we overcame.
“I had to overcome the challenges through hard work and by knowing what exactly I wanted to do. There is no point in wanting to do something, when you know you do not have the capacity to deliver. But I was confident in my capacity and ability; in knowing what I want to do as an advocate of the people and I have been able to do that,” she says.
On the challenges Nigerians face, not just in the UK but the world over, she is of the view that the negative portrayal of their image is the biggest.
“Some other Nigerians like me are raising awareness and educating people. We are not saying all Nigerians are perfect. Sure, there are some bad eggs, but majority of Nigerians are hardworking and intelligent people.
“So, the negative image is one big issue for us because as soon as they know you are a Nigerian, they look at you as someone without integrity. But it is all about proving yourself to people. When you have proven that you are reliable, they will warm up to you,” she explains.
Susan regrets the fact that women generally regard themselves as spectators on the political arena even though they are capable of achieving a lot in this area. To her, this is one of the major impediments militating against their progress and success in this field; whereas it should be a game in which they should actively participate.
“We need to be involved in the political process of our society. It is not appropriate to play the second fiddle just because one is a woman. Some women believe they should be deputies and I think it is a big issue hindering the womenfolk, especially in Nigeria.
“In our society, some men do not believe women should be empowered to take leading roles, which I also think is wrong. Yes, women need to respect the men, but they are not the only ones that should dominate the socio-political scene,” she says.
Although she agrees that the Nigerian society is patriarchal, she believes, however, that the very fact that women have proven to be better than men in specific leadership positions they have occupied, should be an edge.
“I find it disturbing that Nigerian women are happy to display themselves only when they go to parties and such occasions. But when it comes to issues of policy and politics, they take the back seat. We don’t even support ourselves when some of us show interests in the political process.
“I think women need empowerment and a change of mindset. We need to build confidence in ourselves. Through envy and jealousy, we do not encourage ourselves and I think this must change if we need to see a difference.
“Nigerian women have been left behind a very long time ago and the men have so established themselves for many years. So, they do not even want to give way for the women to assume leadership positions. They feel it is their territory and they see us as invading it.
“I think women should equip themselves with education so that they can deliver. We want women to acquire knowledge and skills to have an edge in elections. We also need to accept the fact that gone are the days when women are solely to look after the children. Yes, we are to look after the children, but that is not the only thing a woman should do.
“We can work 24 hours and do what the men do to achieve this edge. We can take care of our homes and as well participate in politics constructively. Apart from being a good mother, wife and sister, we need to also make ourselves good people that can contribute positively to the society,” she says.
And the fact that the kidnapped Chibok girls are yet to be found many months after is another thing she finds unsettling. “It is a big slap on the campaigns for girl child education in Nigeria. It is a shame that the abduction happened at all. I have personally been involved in the holding of rallies campaigning for the release of the girls on the 14th of every month. However, this incidence should not be a source of discouragement to young girls and women in that part of Nigeria, who want to go to school.
“Another issue I have campaigned against in Nigeria is that of child marriage. It is important for girls to be educated. This empowers them socially, economically and politically. It cannot be ignored, when it comes to how one can make huge contribution in life,” she says.
Susan came from a humble background in Ekiti State. Her parents are from Ekiti State and she grew up in Ekiti and Lagos. She attended Methodist Girls High School in Ifaki-Ekiti and had her ‘A’ levels at Ondo State College of Arts and Science in Ikare-Akoko. From there, she proceeded to the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University to study Dramatic Arts, specialising in film and television production.
“I am one of Wole Soyinka’s products. After Ife, I went into the media industry, where I worked briefly with Radio Nigeria as a duty continuity announcer. I later went to NTA, where I became a presenter and producer and eventually became the head of presentation before leaving Nigeria in 1990,” she says.
Her father, she says, was not into politics, but was a community activist, who taught his children that success should be seen in the context of making an impact in other people’s life.
So, how does she combine family with politics?
“I do not believe that being in politics should prevent women from taking good care of their families. I think it all has to do with knowing how to strike a balance. Even if you were a teacher or a nurse, if you don’t have that balance in your life, you’d still jeopardise one aspect of your life.
“I see politics like any other business or profession, but if a woman does not have a supportive husband, is it worth it then? Usually, I do not talk about my family publicly, but I have two kids and they are both adults now. I am grateful God gave me the opportunity to raise them well,” she says.
Her advice to young Nigerian girls is that they should be focused; know what they are doing and where they are going and then equip themselves to achieve it.
“To be able to deliver, you should know what you are doing. They should aspire for leading roles and look forward to having a voice and becoming somebody. For instance, when the economy of the country is being discussed, they should be able to contribute meaningfully. They should not be caught up with only the painting of faces and such other irrelevant things. No one can get far, if that is all they rely on,” she says.
Susan’s life is not all about politics though. When not undertaking political projects, she is involved in charity.
“I am very committed to charity and community organisations. I sit on the boards of eight different organisations including the London Housing Consortium, Finsbury Park Trust, Islington Refugee Forum, Hackney Homes, and Nigerian Women in Diaspora Leadership Forum among others I would not want to mention for legal reasons.
Her normal day starts about 6:00 am and ends about 2:00 am.
“My normal day is hectic because apart from the other things I do, I also manage projects. In the last couples of months, I have been delivering a project on blacks and blacks and ethnic minority are over represented in the mental health system, because in this country they are the highest in the category of people with mental issues in the UK.
“So, we are making recommendations on how we can mitigate the issue. Prior to that, I was delivering police engagement in inner London. With all I am doing as a politician, I still do some other things on the side because in the UK, we see politics the way it is meant to be. Politics is not a career. Rather, it is about service.
“We are not paid the way Nigerian politicians are being paid. As councillors, we only get allowances and that is why we are allowed to engage in other works. I still work full time, do my council work and also support charitable organisations,” she explains.