From West Midlands to West Africa: Wolverhampton councillor aiming to be 'force for change' in Nigeria

Recent news bulletins emanating from Nigeria's Imo state tell of kidnappings, gun attacks on police stations, alleged corruption and political feuds.

Councillor Hibbert has been honoured with a chieftancy
Councillor Hibbert has been honoured with a chieftancy

In one week, according to reports, a police headquarters was left riddled with bullet holes and cars outside were set ablaze, while in a separate incident, investigators are said to have hauled in a former state governor for questioning over allegations of fraud.

It's a far cry from the quiet Wolverhampton suburb of Penn, where the biggest story in recent times has been the local Waitrose closing down.

Yet over the past 12 months the two areas, some 3,300 miles apart, have become politically linked through Wolverhampton Labour councillor Celia Hibbert.

Last year she returned to Imo, where she is originally from, and was appointed special adviser to state governor Hope Uzodinma.

She says it's effectively a cabinet position with a remit to offer policy guidance to top officials in the southeast state, which has a population of around five million and is facing numerous challenges including poverty and mass unemployment.

"It's a very tough role involving a lot of hard work," she tells me, explaining that she is the first woman to hold the "highly contested" position in a culture where men usually rule the roost.

"I am a diasporan, and you have to live abroad to have the position so you can give a view of how things are done in other countries.

"There are a lot of challenges. I'm fighting for so many things... more transparency in elections, to improve education for young people, for more rights for women and people with disabilities, and to bring in investment and employment to make people's lives better.

"The good news is we have a governor who wants to listen."

One of the big changes Mrs Hibbert is pushing for is media regulation and a new code of conduct so that journalists who print slanderous stories face prison.

She says she has fallen foul of the Nigerian media herself in recent weeks, after articles claimed she had solicited funds to aid the region's Covid fight without the approval of governors.

Councillor Hibbert at the commissioning of a water project for a rural community, donated by Imo diasporan Festus Mbisiogu (right)

"If something like this had really happened then obviously I wouldn't be the special advisor anymore," she says.

"The Nigerian press have different rules to over here and it is a very big problem. They can write anything and there is no penalty.

"That's why I'm trying to push a rule through the House, that anyone who writes anything that isn't correct has to go to jail. That bill is going through now."

She said she is committed to being a force for change, with one of her main tasks being to woo investors to a largely agricultural state which is "trying to become industrial".

"I'm coming with a different vision to a place where people are very territorial," Mrs Hibbert said.

"I'm saying, you can't attack people online, you can't do misogyny. They are things we take for granted here but it's different over there.

"I've done a lot of things about the treatment of women. Things like that affects the investment, which is one of the big challenges we have.

"I was once a young person growing up there. I know if there are investments coming in, then young people can get jobs. The negative stories affect the whole economy. It's a do or die effect.

"Once money starts coming in, crime will reduce and women and young people will get more jobs.

"People here think politicians are all about getting money. It has nothing to do with that. It's about getting investment."

Councillor Hibbert with State Governor Hope Uzodinma on the day she was appointed as special advisor

Mrs Hibbert says she believes she has made "a lot of impact in a little time" in Imo, with achievements including helping to bring in funding for fresh water projects and working with a commissioner to push for improved rights for women and people with disabilities.

She says the coronavirus pandemic hit the state hard, as although case rates and recorded deaths were low, food shortages and poverty took a toll on communities.

"There are still problems of course, but things are gradually coming back," she said.

In recognition of her work she has been conferred the title of 'Chieftain', becoming she says, one of very few women in the state to wear the traditional red cap – a symbol of authority in Nigeria.

Mrs Hibbert, who is in her late 30s, was elected to represent Penn in 2018 and made a failed bid to become an MP in Market Harborough in 2019.

Despite missing almost half of her city council meetings over the past year, she insists she is still committed to her role, although the mother-of-two admits her long-term ambitions may lie back in Imo.

"I have kids here in Wolverhampton and I don't have any intention of moving them at the moment," she says.

"But I've had people [in Imo] saying to me they want me to come out for federal house representative. People have said they will fundraise for me.

"People from the diaspora, from America, from here, saying please come out. That offer is on the on the table so there is a high possibility something will happen.

"We have a high potential to develop, so we need some sort of leadership."

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