Lady (Hon) Nkeiruka Onyejeocha is the Chairperson, Committee on Aviation in the House of Representatives and former Chairperson, House Committee on Women. In this interview with ONWUKA NZESHI, she expresses her concern over the depletion of women in the National Assembly and the chances of a woman becoming the president in Nigeria
Recently you won the Female Parliamentarian of the Year award bestowed on you by the New Telegraph Newspapers. What impact does this achievement have on you and your political career?
First of all, I must commend the Board and Management of New Telegraph for considering me worthy of such an award. It was a pleasant surprise when I received the nomination letter. The impact of this award is that it goes to show that whatever we do, we should know that people are watching. You might think that nobody is watching your activities but people are watching. It’s a confirmation that there is no hiding place for any one in public service and whatever you do the people are watching you. I have won similar awards before now and each time I receive them I get surprised that my humble contributions to my society is being recognized. Awards like this help one to keep focused, knowing that people are watching you.
You have a reputation of being a politician in active community service and people say you are very close to your constituents and quite generous to the less privileged among them. What is the motivation for this?
The motivation is that I am fully aware that I am representing a people. If you define the word representation, it means you are representing some people who can’t come to Abuja. So if you are representing them, you have to assist them in any little way you can to alleviate their plight. You need to interact with them regularly and see how you can help them because at the end of the day whether people rig elections or not, it is those your constituents that gave you the mandate and it is they that could help you keep the mandate.
I cherish my people; I feel their pains because I grew up in the village and I know the situation of things there. I attended a local primary school; I attended a local college for my secondary education before proceeding to the university. So I have always been around my people and for me, their welfare and well-being matter a lot. If one of them is not feeling fine, as a member of the House of Representatives, representing them, I should identify with such a constituent. So, their discomfort is also my discomfort and it makes me go back and forth to make sure that I do the little I can to soothe their pains.
As a female parliamentarian, do you see Nigeria having a female president in 2019 or any time soon?
I am an optimist but I don’t see that happening so soon. There are several impediments on the way considering the fact that women are still regarded as just helpmates in Nigerian politics. So, I am not saying it’s not going to happen someday because there is nothing impossible with God, but that is when our men begin to appreciate that a woman has the capacity to do the job. It would have been possible if the women with their numerical strength are voting for women who seek elective offices but you find out that when it comes to election the women have people who are directing them on who to vote for, to the extent that their minds and whatever they believe do not count on the voting day. Some women rely on their husbands to make the choice of who they should vote for; others rely either on the community or the godfathers to make that crucial decision.
Until that culture is erased, it may be impossible for the women to break through that glass ceiling, but like I said earlier, with God all things are possible. But I dare say again, that it is not going to work without the support of the men because even for every position, you will see the men meeting to take the decision on who among them should take it.
Usually, it is the men who do the zoning, they are the people who does the leg work and they are the same people who will share the money when the need arises to deploy financial resources. Most women lack the financial muscle to run elections. If you go to the MDAs, how many women are given contracts? How many women are business people? Politics is about money. How much do women have to vie for this position of the president? So without prejudice to anything that might happen in the future, if you look at what is on ground now, someone would say that it is nearly impossible.
As for me, everything is possible because the Bible says that whatever God says He will do, He will do. God can decide to turn the Kong’s heart in any direction that He wishes. Assuming God decides that a woman will become the President, he may begin by convincing the menfolk to consider a woman for at least the position of the National Chairman of a political party. When God starts speaking to their minds, you will see that at the convention of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), they can elect a woman to be the National Chairman and that is how it starts. Maybe the woman will perform exceedingly well and they will start thinking that if this woman could do so well as party chairman, she could also do well if given the bigger position of a president. So, that’s how it works. If you put the God’s angle and the political calculations of our men agreeing to the aspirations of women, then we can achieve it.
Are you satisfied with the number of women we have in the National Assembly today?
No. How would I be satisfied? I was Chairman, House Committee on Women in Parliament during the 6th Assembly and all that I was doing was advocacy on how to increase the number of women in parliament. That was how the former First Lady spoke with me and we talked about how we can reach out to the state governors and other stakeholders to increase our number. But unfortunately, after the outing our number depreciated rather than increased for some obvious reasons. Some people, who were co-opted to talk about us that were already in Parliament and to bring in more, just went there and rubbished us. They said they don’t want this person; they don’t want that person and they ended up spoiling the ones that were here and prevented fresh ones from joining us. Nobody who is sincere will be happy about the number of women that we have because for most of the issues concerning women, you need to convince a man 300 times plus for him to agree to support it. They have this erroneous notion that women issues are no issues. They believe that we may not be talking about issues that will be beneficial to them. Every time, they forget that we are the mothers and if we took the right decisions in the upbringing of children and we train them to be who they are that there is no how we can be brushed aside as people who don’t know what they are saying. Every time we talk, we are talking about something reasonable at least to the extent that it will be beneficial to everybody in the society
At that time, when I was demanding an increase in the number of women, they were fighting me and asking me who I want replaced among the men. They would ask me: ‘Whose seat do you want?’ I said ‘let us do it this way: For members who want to go to the Senate, let women from their constituencies replace them and for the senators who want to retire, let women replace them,’ but some were asking me who will take care of their children? Why would anybody be asking such a question? Now that I am here, does it mean I am not taking care of my children? Or does it mean that I don’t have children to take care of? The only thing is that as a woman who has a husband and children and who is hard working, it will take you some sleepless nights than someone who does not have, and of course you need to work three times harder than even the men for you to survive in the system. You know that women are multifaceted and our brains can do multi tasks at the same time. So the issue of a woman in politics keeping her home at the same time is not really an issue. I’m sorry to say that the real issue is that some men just feel insecure when they see a woman who is coming up there. But I am telling them that they should not feel insecure because all of us from Christian background know that our husbands are our lords in our homes unless in the case of a husband who doesn’t want to provide for his family and the Bible tells us that such husbands are worse than infidels. Even in the Muslim families, I know that they have their own guides on how to relate with their families to ensure the balance the role of women in politics without neglecting their roles at home.
In other countries around the world there are a lot of women in parliament and other political positions. What magic are they using to achieve this feat?
The only magic like it is in Rwanda is that they fought a war and almost all their men died. They will ask you, ‘do you want your men to die so that you can take over the polity?’ In other cases, it was achieved by negotiation and the men had to agree to concede certain number of seats to the women. They did it in form of legislation. If there is a legislation that prescribes that a certain number of seats in parliament must be reserved for women, it becomes a matter of law. It will no longer be a matter of whether you like me or not, you must come to my constituency and look for a woman to occupy the rest. If it is left open it is a different ball game but not when the law says the seat is reserved for a woman.
In many countries, parliaments have taken the bull by the horns to legislate that certain number of seats should be reserved for women. Even some parliaments have made laws that certain number of seats be allocated to other disadvantaged groups such as the physically challenged in the society. There are some of the things we also need to do to bring more inclusion to our parliament and our political system. The truth of the matter is that the earlier our men accept that we should fill the gaps, the better because women are more focused, more hardworking and they want to measure their successes with clear milestones. No woman wants to have excuses why success cannot be achieved under her watch. You know, most women who have been up there, if you work with them, you will see that they call them either Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady or such names of strong female icons because they always want to achieve their goals. Even when the system does not set a goal for them, they come and set one and work hard to achieve it. The reason simply is because they are women and that is how God created them.
You’ve been a member of parliament for about 12 years. How would you describe the experience?
Well, every endeavour in life comes with its own challenges. It has been very challenging. But one thing I know is that I am a politician by calling and I take it as part of life and not as a past time.
How have you been able to cope with these challenges?
You see, if you are into something and you believe that that is the way God wants it to be, it makes things easier. It means that is the way you want to live your life. It will be a different ball game if you are doing something out of compulsion. I am one of those in politics by my own volition. I was not forced into it by circumstances and I am not being forced to remain a politician. I like what I am doing, I am focused and my eyes are always on the ball because at the end of the day, I know what it means to represent a people.
The job of representation has been keyed into my brain and every time, it keeps ringing a bell in my brain. You are here not because you want to be here; you are here because some people sent you here. You are here because of your constituents whom you represent in parliament. So that consciousness makes it easier for me to face any challenge. Even in committee work, once I know that it is about people, I get focused and do it because I know that at the end of the day it is their people that will be asking questions and one should be able to provide answers. As a representative, you are accountable to the people and above all, you are accountable to your conscience and your creator.
I believe that any place you find yourself, it is not by accident because nobody comes into this world by accident. As a member of the House of Representatives, I am not here by accident. If I am not here by accident, what it simply means is that at the journey, God will ask me ‘how did you fare? What did you do when this matter came to you as member of the parliament? What decision did you take? Did you consider my own angle to it?’ As a Christian, no matter what you do, you should ask, what is God thinking about it? If you don’t, you are on your own and when the tsunami comes, you could easily be swept away.
Earlier, you talked about women and multi-tasking. How have you been able to manage your roles as a wife, mother and politician?
It has not been easy but so far so good. I have taken every of these roles as part of life and living. Even if I find myself in Wuse Market as a trader, I will still have to contend with my family responsibilities. As a mother, I didn’t have children by accident, so I just have to take care of them.
The fact that I am here today doesn’t make any difference. The only important thing is that you set a goal and work hard to achieve them. You are expected to do certain things and you should get focused and do those things. Like I said earlier, as a woman, the only thing is that you are expected to work three times harder than others who are not in your position because you don’t want to be found wanting in your responsibilities. Even if you are just a house wife, your role is also very tasking. If you want to be a good house wife, you must be ready to do things well. You must make sure that food is served on time; you must make sure that your home is kept clean; you must make sure that the children are well catered for and you must make sure that your husband is well looked after. So, whichever way you look at it, every woman’s role is tasking but they are achieving results everywhere you find them. The only difference might be that because you are a parliamentarian, they see you more than they see the other women. Some women have shops in Wuse Market, Abuja. They will have a salon on their street and could also be doing some menial jobs to fend for their families. But it’s all just the same struggle at different categories. The bottom line is that women are multitasking
As Chairman, House Committee on Aviation, what legacy would you like to leave in the aviation sector?
I will like to leave a legacy that during my tenure there was no air crash basically because we are doing the right thing and calling the spade, a spade. So far, we have made sure that the right safety measures have been put in place and there is no cutting of corners in the aviation sector. No matter what anybody does, once it’s against the laws, we apply the sanctions. Remember that in aviation there are no rooms for mistakes and excuses. Anything that is against the law will affect safety of lives and property. The number one priority of aviation is safety. Number two down to hundred priorities is safety because any small compromise will affect safety on the long run. Even when you see some airlines that owe their workers’ salaries and you look the other way because you think it doesn’t really matter, you are making a mistake. It matters because one pilot that is not paid could be a time bomb flying an aircraft conveying hundreds of people. For me, what it simply means is that you must be able to do the right thing all the time without exception.
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