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2023: Expect All-Women Political Party – Josephine Anenih

These are not the best of times for Nigerian women. Politically, they have been handed the short end of the stick with very poor showing during the 2019 general elections and abysmal representation in appointive positions both at the federal level and in the states. And with the worsening security situation and criminality in the country, they have also become endangered species. In this interview with Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, Josephine Nwogo Akubude-Anenih, a lawyer, politician, and gender activist lamented the diminishing political fortunes of Nigerian women, noting that they have not moved forward politically in the past 12 years. According to Anenih, “Ex-President Jonathan tried to achieve the 35 percent affirmative action in appointive positions; we almost made the 35% if not more. Then after that, it’s like we’ve gone back to ground zero. We didn’t make it in elective; we didn’t make it in appointive”. Anenih, former minister of women affairs, and the pioneer national woman leader of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, hinted that Nigerian women may have to take their destiny in their own hands by floating their own political party. She said “a lot of work is going on underground. Don’t be surprised come 2023 if you see an all-female political party”. The 71-year-old former aide to ex-president, Olusegun Obasanjo also expressed the need for a law to make it mandatory to cede not less than 30 percent of appointive positions to women both at the Federal and state levels for the purpose of gender balance, stressing that “if we don’t make it a law, we can’t achieve much”. Paying glowing tribute to the late Nigeria’s First Lady, Maryam Babangida for “removing the scale from the eyes of Nigerian women”, Anenih, who was June 11 this year one of the 22 women inducted into the prestigious Nigerian Women Hall of Fame instituted by her (Babangida), believed that  “women have not celebrated Mrs. Babangida the way we should celebrate her. We have not given her the due recognition that she deserves because she glamorized the office of the First Lady. We had wives of presidents and wives of heads of state before her but we didn’t know that it could be an office that could be used to impact the lives of women and the poor in the society until she came about”. She also expressed great admiration for incumbent First Lady, Aisha Mohammadu Buhari saying in respect of her style, “I thought that we should have made her our president… She’s a brave woman; she’s an activist First Lady”.

Mrs. Josephine Anenih Photo
Mrs. Josephine Anenih

You were one of the 22 women recently inducted into the Nigerian Women Hall of Fame. How significant is that to you?

Well, it is very significant in the sense that it is recognition of life achievements of women by women and so it’s a great honour to make the list. When I was told that I had been nominated, I felt quite humbled first; then I am very appreciative because the kind of work that I had dedicated my life to for decades now is the type of work that you do not see the reward. Sometimes, you ask yourself what is the import of what you are doing, or why are you like putting yourself out when nobody is appreciative of what you are doing. It’s like a very thankless job; a job that you cannot measure in terms of what people value, which is money – pecuniary reward, tangibles that you can actually put your finger on and say yes, this is what you have achieved. And so, it looks like a lot of people do not seem to notice what you are doing, appreciate what you are doing, or understand the work you are doing.

Even when I was nominated, usually, the nominees are people who are firsts in their professions or firsts in their endeavours like we had Franca Afegbua, the first elected female senator, you have the first woman engineer, the first woman to be Court of Appeal President, the first woman medical doctor, you know that kind of thing. And then you have people like me being nominated and people were asking, why? If you say she was a minister, was she the first female minister? If you say she was this or that, was she the first? So, that’s where I’m coming from; that people don’t even understand what I have done as a contribution to promoting the interest of women until they start explaining to them that no, it’s not mainstreaming women, standing, against all odds, to give a voice to Nigerian women in the public sphere. So, that is what they are appreciating.

Can you let us into some of these contributions that may have earned you the recognition?

There are so many little things that I had done. For instance, the military as a whole would have women who are professionals – architects, doctors, engineers, nurses, etc, but they don’t train women as commissioned officers and those were one of the things I was advocating. And luckily for us, the then president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan agreed and instructed, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and for the first time, they started admitting women as commissioned officers. You saw them at the Democracy Day parade what they did. Then the Nigerian women’s trust fund for instance, had been an issue; how do you empower women to go into political office? A lot of people had been working but the issue of funding still remained a problem, and it is still a problem. So, the thought of having a trust fund for women had been on for years, but nobody could take it off the track, you know, give it that traction to really establish something until I came on board and made sure that it was established at a very high cost to myself. Very high cost; I guess that’s why when people see what it will cost them, they sort of turn and go back; but I’ll always chest out and see it to the end. It doesn’t matter what it will cost me.  So, I didn’t realize that people were taking note of that and I guess that was one of the reasons they said this is one of the women that we must honour.

What exactly is the story behind this Nigerian Women Hall of Fame for the benefit of those who do not know what it is all about?

Yes, it was the then first lady, Her Excellency, late Mariam Babangida who established it when she was the First Lady. And you know that the National Centre for Women Development edifice opposite the Central Bank in Abuja was built by her, and she built that centre for women’s development. The mandate of the centre is to be a resource centre for women; collate the data of women in Nigeria wherever they are, whatever they are doing, whoever they are. If you want information about them, it is at that centre. So, it was then that she started the hall of fame and she also built the hall of fame for women. And if you go to the hall of fame, you will see, like I said, all the women that are firsts in all the things that they had done or they are doing. Then, of course, you have other women – activists, other achievers either in business, in industry, in the arts, anywhere. So, you will find legendary women like Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Hajia Gambo Sawaba, Dora Akunyili and so on. When you get there too, you will see the photographs of former first ladies, and so on.

The late Maryam Babangida really did a lot for Nigerian women with her Better Life for Rural Women programme. Have Nigerian women had it so good since her husband left office?

As far as I am concerned, that woman has not been given her pride of place. Women have not celebrated Mrs. Babangida the way we should celebrate her. We have not given her the due recognition that she deserves because she glamorized the office of the First Lady. We had wives of presidents and wives of heads of state before but we didn’t know that it could be an office that could be used to impact the lives of women and the poor in the society until she came about. And she is one woman; I keep referring to her in the present, because for me, she’s just there as if she’s still living. She was the one, with her Better Life for Women programme, I don’t care what anybody thinks about it, but I know that that programme actually removed the scale from our eyes – Nigerian women – and we could now see possibilities that if we stand, and we push, we can get what we want. I think she inspired courage in Nigerian women.

Before Mrs. Babangida, Nigerian women had been doing wonders but in their little closets, unknown, unsung, unrecognized, unappreciated, uncelebrated; but they were doing marvelous works in their various communities. Women have been the bulwark of the society. This society, as far as I am concerned, is standing on the shoulders of Nigerian women but they are unsung. But from Maryam Babangida’s era, women started standing up to be counted, so to speak. And when Mrs. Maryam Abacha came, she also followed the same track with her Family Support Programme, FSP. First, during the time of Mrs. Abacha when it was zero-party, we would have gotten one or two women governors if the process had gone through. At least I know two women she sponsored in their states. She gave support to women politicians during that period. Since then, Nigerian women have not looked back.  But the resistance that we are now experiencing, I think it’s getting much stronger so that is why it looks as if we are not making headway, or the progress is very minimal. But we are still making some progress. We’ve had our ups, we’ve had our downs; we’ve had periods of accelerated growth so to speak, and we’ve also had periods of regression. Like in the past 12 years, we have actually not moved forward.

What do you think is responsible for this? Is it that the women are not coming out or not aggressive enough?

Women are getting bolder; more women are coming out. But like I said, the resistance is getting stronger. And I think also that women have to realize that it’s not one-size-fits-all. A strategy that worked yesterday may not be the strategy for today so, we must also be able to adjust and adapt our strategies so that we will be able to get to where we are going. In the past 12 years, from the last election of 2011, talking about elective offices now, we started doing very badly and we have not improved since then.  Between 2011 and 2015 when Jonathan was president, he tried to ameliorate it by increasing the number of appointive positions for women but many politicians value elective positions more than an appointive position.  Ex-President Jonathan tried to achieve the 35 percent affirmative action in appointive positions; we almost made the 35% if not more. Then after that, it’s like we’ve gone back to ground zero. We didn’t make it in elective; we didn’t make it in appointive. Then come again in this election cycle, it’s even worse. We’re still hopeful and hoping and praying and asking that President Mohammadu Buhari should make it up when he’s making appointments by appointing 50% women. You see this 35% I don’t know what it has become in Nigeria because when we went to Beijing, what countries committed to was 30% in elective and appointive positions and every country signed. Then in 2006 in Nigeria when we drew up the national gender policy, we now asked for 35%. So, it is just a policy on paper; no legislative backing. It’s not a law; so, it’s still dependent on the whims of whoever is in charge of appointing. You cannot sue them and there is no amount of shouting 35% that can do it. It’s not a magic wand the way Nigerian women use it.  What we are trying, or we’ve been trying to do was to see whether we can get it into our law. Like all the other countries that we mouth, oh, they’ve done 40, they’ve done 50 and even more, they got it into their law books; it was passed as law.

I think this was part of the recommendations by the EU Observer team that the National Assembly should pass into law active participation of women in elective offices.

Yes, we should. If we don’t make it as law, we can’t achieve much. It’s very annoying to me o when people mouth 35%, 35%. I say to people, what does that mean? It is meaningless. That we did a gender policy that we should have 35% affirmative action is just a recommendation. So, if the legislature can help us pass it into law, and it is very easy; there is a clause in the constitution that says every state should have one minister. Then, you will now go on to say that in doing that, the president should make sure that no gender is less than 30%, 40%, or 50%. Then it becomes law. If he now makes appointments and it doesn’t meet that provision, then we can drag him to court; but now, we cannot.

In present day Nigeria, it is like women have become endangered species given the increasing cases of rape such that not even toddlers are spared. If they are not kidnapped and gang-raped by suspected Fulani herdsmen, they are raped and even impregnated by their fathers, close relations, teachers, or neighbours.  How concerned are you about the plight of women in these very challenging times?

It is not a new phenomenon. It is thanks to the awareness of women; thanks to the activism of women that these things are now being spoken about. It has always been. It’s possible that if we have data, it was worse in the past than now; but because nobody talked about it. We had cases in the past that armed robbers would come into a house and rape every woman there but nobody would hear it because they would not talk about it beyond saying they were robbed. But now, they will say it. Women are now talking. So, it now looks as if it’s on the increase. So, we should give kudos to women who have found their voices; we should give kudos to women activists who are talking about it. The child rape has also always been there; fathers have always been abusing their daughters, step-daughters and their maids and the woman of the house would say don’t talk about it. But now, they are coming out to talk. Mothers are now speaking out that their husbands or fathers are sleeping with their daughters. And then we have a lot of women groups, women activists who are fighting it, bringing it out and following it through; going to court. You know the case of Ochanya. They are following it; even when they want to quench it, they are saying no. The case of the girl that was raped in Lagos by the son of a rich hotelier; again, they are reverting to what they used to do before. Isn’t it the same girl’s family saying that they don’t want to go to court? But the women are saying no, you must go to court.

So, we should give kudos to Nigerian women that they are alert and they are fighting because of women unlike before when women would say because of shame, because of fear of stigmatization, don’t talk; even the churches would say don’t talk about it; let’s handle it in-house. And again, thanks to social media. As it’s happening, the whole world is hearing about it. So, that’s why it looks as if it’s on the increase. But with what is happening now, we should be seeing it go down; and it’s all over the world. Now that they know that there is no hiding place, hopefully, it will act as a deterrent.

How do you feel that we still have the Chibok and Dapchi girls still in captivity of Boko Haram, as well as some aide workers?

Yeah, that is very, very sad. And again for me, it’s not just those ones that we know of. I see them as representatives of many more that we don’t know of. So, if you are talking about the Dapchi girl, Chibok girls, it’s just a tip of the ice berg. But I like the way everybody is using them to bring attention to the magnitude of what happened. But at a point, it’s like they are covering the greater picture. It’s not only those ones. And it had been happening – women, wives, daughters abducted; nobody spoke of it. It was this Chibok saga that opened the cankerworm. We should be thinking now about how to end the insurgency. For me, I no longer see it as insurgency but as a war; and as long as there is war, the people who bear the brunt are women and children. Every day, women are missing, every day, women are raped, every day, women are killed; ripped open – but no account, no record, and nobody is talking about it.

We saw during the last general election, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, amongst other women coming out to contest the presidency. How do you see her effort?

I give her 100% for having the guts to come out to contest. And she wasn’t the only one that contested. I admire her courage. The thing is that our political system needs to be looked at again. You saw how even her party wanted to mess her up. And being a woman of integrity, a woman of focus, and a woman of vision who knows where she is going to, a global woman; she just quietly stepped aside because they can just rubbish her.

But many people were disappointed that she gave up too prematurely.

What could she have done if she didn’t withdraw with your own party fighting you? And she knew that they would just mess her up. I think that for a clever person when you are fighting, you step back so that you can live to fight another day. Election is coming in 2023, who says she won’t come out again? That she won at the debate would not have given her the votes. So, she’s a strategist.

Oftentimes, you hear people accuse women of not coming out to support each other otherwise with the population of women, a candidate Ezekwesili should have stood a chance of winning the presidency. What is your take on this?

No. no, that’s another very wrong allegation against women. How many women were n her party? How many women, who have grown, had their lives and everything in APC or PDP for instance, would abandon their own party and go and vote for another party? Remember it is the political parties that are on the ballot, not necessarily the candidates. So, you want your political party to win because you know that if your political party wins, you stand a chance of being given a political appointment, and so, you will vote for your political party to win. So, the fact that you are a woman does not make it; she has to be a woman in the right party. Let’s go back to Sarah Jubril. She was a woman in the right party but she did not work in the party; she had no investment in the party. She had nobody in the party. So, the women in the party would not vote for her because she may not make it, I mean at the primary election. Even if they voted for her at that primary, she would not win so, they didn’t vote for her. I guess if it was somebody like Oby Ezekwesili who had people, not only women, the story may be different. So, it’s not as easy as what people say. Like when you get to party conventions, how many women are there? So, that is why I said our political parties need to be re-jigged because that is where it starts from. And if she did not win, where will the Nigerian women see her to vote for? If Oby Ezekwesili were to be in PDP or APC, men and women would vote for her. But she has made a statement. As far as I am concerned, I call her my president; she is our woman president, if not now, in future. We’ve seen her and what she is, a global voice; we’ve seen how strong she is, we’ve seen her intelligence and everything. Why can’t we have her as our president if she comes out again? Even the frustration is so much that even our present first lady said come, don’t you people think we should go and float an all women’s political party? And we said to her that we had done that before. Professor Jadesola Akande of blessed memory registered a political party, almost an all women political party.  

After our unimpressive outing in 2015, we had a meeting and said let us form an all women’s political party. We can do that. So, it’s still in the works; we are still talking about that, but it’s not a day’s job. A lot of work is going on underground. Don’t be surprised come 2023 if you see an all-female political party. You know that INEC will not register an all-female political party; but when we say all-women political party, we are going to have the chairman as a woman, secretary, woman; man leader (laughter) and youth leader, yes, and we will be calling the shots. We will go to convention, a woman would emerge as our candidate, women would emerge as gubernatorial candidate; we won’t be asking them to collect money from all sorts of people because that’s what they do now. The highest bidder gets the ticket. They don’t even do elections. Don’t you see what happened in Zamfara? You sit down in an office and just write names after collecting money from them. We won’t do that; we would do proper primary. So, it is coming. Don’t let anybody tell you women don’t support women.

The only problem we have is that we don’t have as much money as the men do and it is that money that has killed our political system. So, there is not much of party loyalty anymore. Just go and make money, pay them whatever they demand, and they will just give you ticket to go and run; and then when the party is telling you what to do at the National Assembly, you say don’t tell me that because you didn’t send me here; na my moni send me here. So, nobody is toeing party line; there is no discipline. People are doing whatever they like. You sit at 9 pm or 10 pm in the night even in your pajamas and elect presiding officers; no problem.

How do you view the decision of the president’s wife to be addressed as First Lady whereas during the campaign in 2015, President Buhari had said there would be nothing like the office of the First Lady and Aisha Buhari was comfortable with being addressed simply as the wife of the president? And how do you see her style, particularly her seeming radicalism?

In fact I thought that we should have made her our president. How many first ladies are like that? I don’t know. But let me talk about what I know of her, or how I see her. Straight-forward woman, honest, and speaks her mind – the truth – as she knows it; and that is how it should be. Like I told you that crime and all the bad things that are happening, are happening because people cover it up; they don’t want to talk about it. We talked about violence against women. But when you bring it out and we start talking about it, then we start to cure it. A lot of women would not say anything that is happening in their families; they won’t want to bring it out to the public. This first lady, she told us the truth; we all know the truth, we all saw it that things are not how it’s supposed to be. Thank God that the president is very well now. You know he was not so healthy at the beginning so it was very possible for some people to have hijacked the presidency and she said don’t blame my husband for what is happening because there are some people who are doing these things in the name of my husband. She told us the truth. She even said if the situation did not change she would not come out to campaign for her husband. For me, she was actually exonerating her husband. But luckily for her, her husband recovered fully; he went through his campaign, and she went through the campaign with him. And now she has told you that she is now First Lady. Her husband is now the president. Before it was a cabal; she told us that. You know we like to pretend a lot in this country and some people said why should she be talking like that? She’s a brave woman; she’s an activist First Lady.

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