Friends of Anifowose Titilope have dubbed her “Legal Eagle,” a nickname that arises from steadfast devotion to promoting social justice in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. “You don’t have to be a millionaire to think about the less privileged,” says Ms Titilope, who launched Eagles Foundation for Humanity while studying law at the University of Ilorin, in northern Nigeria.
Childhood in Lagos, the country’s largest city, taught Ms Titilope not to back down from challenges. Her mother, a police official, was one of six wives who bore 24 children to her father, a prominent businessman. Ms Titilope was No. 23, birth order that could hide someone less assertive.
What’s more, girls in Muslim families face more barriers than boys. “I grew up in a house where, when a man is talking, you have to keep your mouth shut,” says a defiant Ms Titilope. “One of the biggest things you can get from my dad,” she says, “is a big wedding ceremony.”
Yet she also saw first hand the ample rewards when villagers sought her father’s help. “I grew up realizing that what gives you happiness is not about the number of things in your pocket but about the number of people you make smile,” she told Jimoh Oluwatobi Segun, who interviewed her for NGOpodcast.
Outspoken stands on social justice won her father over. “My dad fell in love with my guts,” she says.
At 19 years old, Legal Eagle penned a controversial article for the Nigerian Tribune in March 2014. She questioned the merits of a union of two political parties dominated by older officials out of synch with Nigeria’s youth and motivated by expediency, not by voters’ best interests. The union aimed to dislodge a sitting president but promised no progress, she warned.
Ms Titilope entered college intending to study history. Her father persuaded her to study law instead, a better platform for her activism. His advice resonated in northern Nigeria, where his daughter saw extreme poverty exposed to high-handed public officials. “I became conscious of happenings around me,” she says. “I wanted to be an agent of positive change.”
At university, she jumped both feet into campus politics. It was a turning point, she told NGOpodcast:
“In 2013, I was elected as the vice president of University of Ilorin students union and then I realized how simple it is for one person to make a decision that would turn around the lives of thousands of people. I realized the power of being a leader. I realized how much one thing, one action can actually make for many people.”
Elected vice president of the students union, Ms Titilope decried the complete lack of electricity in many villages, the terrible roads, useless schools, corrupt governance and the treatment of civil servants who labored for six months without paychecks while the government stalled.
Ignoring warnings to be cautious, her tweets roused partisan university administrators with ties to local authorities. “They were not comfortable with a girl making complaints,” she says. Despite no cause, the state security service picked her up until a civil rights attorney intervened.
Friction revitalized her approach to social challenges. Instead of being a critic, she wanted to become a problem solver, starting with schools. “Education is the key to everything,” says Ms Titilope. “With education you can have a life. You can admit light into the world.”
While mulling how to proceed, Ms Titilope answered a request for an interview with the Nigerian Tribune in August 2015. Asked about her plans, her reply was spontaneous: launch an NGO.
Eagles Foundation for Humanity soon began with enthusiastic volunteers on a bus that visited impoverished villages in northern Nigeria. They saw gigantic challenges — not least aborted fresh water wells that were started during election campaigns but forgotten afterwards.
On the way home, Ms Titilope wondered how she would ever get the money she needed. Meantime, she expressed her faith in youth to find solutions, writing “Youths and roadmap to greater Kwara” for the Nigerian Tribune.
To the delighted surprise of villagers accustomed to do-gooders coming and going without effect, Eagle Foundation for Humanity returned with medications, clothing, books and building materials. “There was dancing in the street,” Ms Titilope recalls with pride. In contrast with politicians who vanish after elections, Eagle Foundation hired an expert to solve at last the problem of unfinished wells. Thanks to the Safe Water For The World Project, new bore holes will soon carry safe fresh water to thousands of Nigerians.
After raising more than $8,000 (3 million Nigerian Naira) in two years, the Foundation rests today on firm ground. “We are able to execute charitable and humanitarian projects,” says Ms Titilope, “because people trust us.”