Posted by Pamela Eboh, Awka | 3 July 2016 | 4,435 times
Prof. Stella Chinyere Okunna means different things to different people: a mother, teacher, mentor, academician, etc. In this interview with PAMELA EBOH, the two-time Commissioner (Information, Budget/Planning) in the Peter Obi administration in Anambra State bares her mind on her return to academics, negative effects of Nigeria’s culture on women and their poor representation in President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, among other issues.
The international women’s day is a well-celebrated event globally. What is your assessment of its effect on women in general?
You know, one thing about this celebration is that once a day is dedicated to a particular segment of people, it has a way of drawing attention to that sector. We have the Women’s Day, Children’s Day, Workers’ Day, and so on. But one good thing is that on that particular day, even if you don’t think about those particular people, you are compelled to think about them because of the so many activities going on. During the women’s day, every focus is placed on them and as policy makers, government, individuals and even as families, you have a way of going along with the celebration and giving a thought about women. You don’t simply think about them casually, you think about them in all ramifications. So, the international women’s day is really a good way of elevating to people’s agenda the real issue being celebrated.
It is a global celebration, but it appears to be given more celebrity tag abroad than in Africa. Why?
Do Nigerians value women as much as they value them abroad? If you go to the United States, United Kingdom or Sweden, they value women there more than Nigerians. So, how will they celebrate us here the way they celebrate them in America? The Nigerian society doesn’t value women at all. Our culture doesn’t think women are important; our religion, whether Christianity or Islam, don’t see women as important. Women are occupying a subordinate position in both culture and religion in Nigeria and the same is going on in governance: so, how will they celebrate us here like they do in the UK? When they are almost achieving equality there, what are we achieving here? Even the Affirmative Action and Gender Equality, have we got it here? So, there is no way you can compare how it is done abroad and here. But I think we are trying also, even if we make only noise. At least, we know March 8 is Women’s Day, and whether all the noise we make will translate to anything in government is another matter. That day has been given to us women and it is left for us to make as much noise as we can. Perhaps, with time, they will listen.
Talking about-noise making, don’t you think it will take women of your calibre to beat the drums and make the day to be celebrated with fanfare as it is done broad?
Well, the government celebrate it and whether they mean it or not, I do know that they are going to the women development centre with the women and same thing will be done in Enugu State, the rest of the South-east zone as well as in every Nigerian state and even in the North where they treat women as practically nothing. I also think there are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) crusading for women. And from the research I have done since I left government on NGOs for women in government, I noticed that the general view is that Nigerian women are so educated and bold hence, they must be taking very active part in politics, but the research data didn’t show it that way. It showed women are very active in politics: they do all the campaigning, sing all the songs, do all the dancing and also vote. But, when it comes to occupying political positions, women are still lagging. And that’s in Anambra State where they think women are so bold. There is a non-governmental organisation, CEDOC, which is run by Oby Ezekwesili. It has done a lot of work and there are so many other NGOs that are crusading, like Joy Ezilo in Enugu State. She has done quite well too. I am sure in Anambra State there are women who are also crusading because it is not really a government thing. I have been in government and I know that no matter how genuine government effort is about women, sometimes some of it may be playing to the gallery, particularly a government that is not doing well; a government that is trying to appropriate every kind of opportunity, make noise to be on public agenda. For that kind of government anywhere in the world, this kind of celebration is just playing into their hands; they simply make noise and women will come out in their uniforms and dance. And that’s where it ends. Whatever you have to offer like symposium, communiqué, they won’t implement them. So, it depends…, I agree with you. But I believe with the effort some women are putting through NGOs the celebration will get better.
You used to be a notable name in academics: being the first female Professor of Mass Communication, before you moved into the corridors of politics, via appointment as commissioner by ex-governor Peter Obi. Between academics and politics, which one would you say you are more comfortable with?
Of course, it has to be academics. I am for academics through and through. If you remember, when Obi appointed me, I almost didn’t accept the appointment for a number of reasons. I was never in politics. Apart from voting for late (MKO) Abiola (in 1993), I don’t ever remember taking active part in politics. So, when I was appointed, I didn’t know how to react. I almost said no; and that’s for another reason, because I was in communication and I knew that with the appointment, he was going to put me in information. All of us in Nigeria know that if you are a Commissioner for Information or Minister for Information, if your principal doesn’t do well, you are finished. You become a propagandist, a liar. So, my fear was that he was going to put me in information, and if he doesn’t do well, where will I find the mouth to talk to my students about doing propaganda or lying. Luckily for me, I say it everywhere, he did well enough for me not to tell lies for him or do propaganda. That was the situation. I was typical academics then when he appointed me and now I have bounced back to where I was before the appointment. If you remember, the EXCO of Peter Obi’s administration was dissolved on the 11th of April 2014. That was a Friday. By Monday 14th I was back at work in the university. As soon as the Executive Council was dissolved, I called my Vice-Chancellor and told him we had finished the work and I want to return. People were saying I should go and rest for a while. But, because of the way we worked in Obi’s government, I think he was a slave-driver in a positive way. He worked so hard himself and, he in that manner also, worked us hard that my body was tuned to work round-the-clock. If I had taken even one month leave when I left government immediately, I would have fallen sick because my body was at that hyper-level of working all the time. If I had gone into rest, I would have crashed. Fortunately, when I got back, my HOD was doing very well, so I began to support her and they felt my impact immediately, because that’s what I’m born to do. Unlike some of my colleagues who went to rest, those ones are core politicians and some other people, once they leave government there is an interim because they have nothing to do. It is that kind of people who will hang around government waiting to see if there is any corn that will drop from the governor’s table to pick or looking for what to do. I had a job before the appointment. I was on leave of absence. So my job was there for that eight years. I kept renewing my leave of absence yearly, and they felt I was doing well so they kept renewing it. I didn’t have to agonise over not having a job, having lonely period or wondering what I have to do next. I didn’t even have time to think about what I did in government, because I left it behind me that Friday night, and on Monday I was donning my academic regalia again. I don’t want to sound immodest, but I am one of the senior professors in UNIZIK now; and that means we are the crop of people who should really support what is going on here. Our VC is working hard. My job as a senior professor is to support him and make sure that the university is elevated to the greatest height. Since my return here, a number of things have happened. I was actually thinking that when I return I was going to take things easy. But soon after I came back, I was appointed the head of department. I didn’t want that, but after much explanation on why I should be there, I accepted.
I used to think Peter Obi’s work was the hardest. But now academic work is quite tough because the children come in younger now, hence you have to double as a mentor, a parent, a teacher. Students come into the university now at 16, 17 years and, I am sure, if you look hard enough, you may even see a 15-year-old. It’s a tough assignment but, honestly, I am very happy to be back here. I am enjoying myself; I’m highly regarded, I’m visible here; and I’m working hard. I did also enjoy working in government, no doubt about that. Working with Obi was challenging and quite a good experience. The positions he gave me to occupy were quite crucial and they were core positions and I gave my best there. So, what I did in government was good experience for me. What I’m doing now is equally good. Professors now retire at the age of 70 years and I knew that when I leave government I will still have time to work in the field of academics, and I thank God for that opportunity.
Women are naturally seen as the weaker sex and always relegated to the background, but despite the suppression they have made a huge mark in politics. Do you think it is a good development for the women folk?
Oh, sure. I say it all the time: if you keep ignoring women in any particular area, whether family or the nation, that establishment will never do well. Whenever women are given the chance to contribute, no matter how minutely they are contributing, their contributions always make a difference. So, what the Nigerian women are doing now is indeed impressive. I say it all the time. Women are marginalised so much everywhere in our culture, be it in the family or the society; but it is more felt in governance. We know that and it’s even getting worse in President Buhari’s government. I don’t know what is going on there. I keep telling women, even if there are hundred positions and they give you one or two, go in there and do those one or two so well. It is then their shame that they haven’t given you more because, when they see how well you have done, they will have to rethink and say: Oh! they have done very well. We should give them more. That kind of rethinking will elevate women, but if they give you the one-chance opportunity and you go there and mess it up, they will mock you and say look at the one given to them, they couldn’t even perform well. I keep saying it: Nigerian men don’t value women. Those of them in the developing areas of the world and those of the areas I call backward areas, when they give a woman an assignment they expect you to fail; so that when you go in there and fail, they will say: ‘we knew she wouldn’t do it well.’ But when you do a good job, they are surprised. I always tell women: go there and surprise them and make sure you do it well, because they are expecting you to fail. The surprise will challenge them to see you from a different perspective. If you fail, they put you in the same pigeon-hole and say: I told you, we knew she won’t do anything, she is just an empty head but a pretty face. So, you will remain in that pigeon-hole. It’s important to extricate yourself from that pigeon-hole and soar above their expectations. For every woman that soars above their expectation, that’s a plus for women. Women, particularly those of you who are still young, must have it at the back of your mind that whatever opportunity you have, you do well. It is the men who are given the opportunities: it is them who are governors, they are the presidents, they are mainly the ministers, and they are the ones who appoint people. So, when they become governors or presidents and begin to appoint, they appoint very few women. When they appoint you and you accept, ensure you go there and perform creditably. That way they will take notice of you and they can’t ignore you.
Where do you envision the African woman politically in the next five years?
I think we are making progress so far, and more women are becoming courageous. It requires courage to come into politics and it requires courage to run for an elective position. I foresee the African woman finding more and more courage to make her voice heard. If you look at what is happening now, there are many challenges facing young girls nowadays, and there are more atrocities committed against the girl-child. But that scenario is forcing the older women to speak out. There is a limit to what we can bear. They are kidnapping girls, raping them, abducting them, Islamising them, and doing all sorts of things. Any good older woman - by older I mean even at 22 years – because a girl of 22 years is older than a 13-year old being abducted. A time will come when the impunity will ginger every woman into action, and speaking out. Apart from our wanting to take active part or speak-out in governance, politics, and policy-making, what is going on against women will also force us – whether we want it or not - to become more active. A time will come, and I keep praying. I don’t know whether we will become governor or president… It could happen but, sometimes, when I see one hope rising: like in Anambra, I was so sure that Uche Ekwunife was coming up; but from nowhere, it stopped. I had already started seeing her as one that will be coming out to contest the governorship of the state, maybe not now, but I know she will at some point. She is still young and I know if she run for governorship, she will win. That kind of thing that happened to her should not discourage anybody. The men are not about to concede their position. Sometime I really fear for you young people. When I was much younger, I think men were more considerate, but nowadays I have a feeling that they are closing ranks as if to say: ‘Hey, the women are coming; see them, they are coming, and they are closing ranks.’ Even the educated ones, they are looking down so much on women. They think we are becoming a challenge to them and the only way to stop it is to keep knocking you down. Instead of giving you some space or opportunity, they are now saying, look, if we give these women space they are going to drive us out. I really feel sad because there are many challenges which I didn’t foresee as a young person. What I am seeing now and, at times, I despair, but I know the young woman now is also more audacious. There are things that they do not take which we in our time tolerated. Like the marriage institution. People are now beginning to understand that not being married is not a stigma. Even my generation was beginning to think that way. During my mother’s generation or before hers, it was unthinkable for a woman not to be married but nowadays, it doesn’t matter anymore. Times are changing. I believe in marriage, but it is not a compulsory thing. Now many women are finding the courage to leave when the marriage is not working. If you go there and you are married to a monster, who doesn’t value you and is turning you into a slave and punching bag, what are you doing there? You take off. Our mothers couldn’t find that courage…even some of our own generation couldn’t find that courage. But the younger people these days are increasingly finding that courage. So, you see the African woman trying to liberate herself from our culture because like I earlier told you, our culture is anti-women.
Look at the Igbo culture. People think that the Igbo people are enlightened and all that, but the heart of Igbo culture subjugates women. Add that to Christian religion where every time a pastor gets up to preach, all he says is women subjugate yourself to your husband; you must obey him, you must worship him. And the only thing they say to the men is, ‘love your wives.’ In my church, during the Mothering Sunday, they sang a song which says: ‘If your husband calls you, you respond sir, morning, afternoon and night.’ That must be a joke, but they mean it in the context of Igbo culture. I think our women are beginning to assert themselves more now and, in the next five years, there are things my generation tolerated which my daughters will not tolerate. And it’s a good sign both in politics and everywhere. You know during the last election, more women came out. The thing is to keep coming out; if you don’t win this time, next time it might be your turn. Peter Obi will always say: you cannot get a medal unless you compete. At the end of a football match, a spectator cannot be called to take a medal. So, the women should keep coming out, keep working hard, and keep competing. But I don’t believe in confrontation, rather I believe in complementarities between men and women: they cannot wish us away. They cannot do without us and no matter what they do, they cannot wish us away. Women on their part should not also confront the men but rather they should complement them.
What’s your take on the view that when women are in politics the home front suffers, because they are not there to tend to their husbands and children?
What of the people in advanced countries: don’t they have children or husbands? It is our understanding and, moreover, I don’t see why a man should not take interest in his own home. Home-keeping is not meant for any particular gender. This mentality was during yester years. With the present generation, men are beginning to take interest in home-keeping and child-rearing. I remember coming up as a scholar, a UNICEF consultant: they paid me a lot of money to do advocacy. To teach men to take interest in child-care, because you know in our culture it is women who take care of the children. If your husband comes home and is playing with the baby, as soon as the baby urinates, he would say come and take this baby away. They never took care, how much changing the napkin. Also, by the time he comes home at night, maybe the children had all gone to bed, how then will they see you, know you and love you? In that way, they transfer all their love to the woman who cared for them. That way, many children grew up, not hating their dad but fearing him, because they are the bread-winners, paying the school fees. But now, many women are paying school fees. How will a child love a man who was never there for him or her? It’s when you are caring for a baby that you are bonding with the child and forming that kind of togetherness with the baby.
In the modern world now, many men are beginning to take interest in their children; changing napkins; cooking for their children; cleaning them up, taking them to school and all that. It’s not like my own generation. But even in my generation, my husband did some of these things for me, particularly when we were in the UK. It was just two of us: he cooked, cleaned, bathed and put the children to bed because it was just two of us. I was in school too. So, if he had left me to do everything, I would have died. Young men are now doing better in the homes. Why should you tell me that women should not be in politics, but the man should, while the woman stay at home? If the couples love themselves and the woman loves politics, I don’t see how they cannot work it out and make sure it works. I don’t believe a woman who wants to be in politics and has the capacity to do well will be told not to go there, because it is not good for her. There was one stupid demonstrator on the Internet, one wretched looking woman. They said she did that when Victor Umeh returned from Abuja, after the DSS picked him up and they went to Enugu (Airport) to receive him. There, the woman was displaying placard which read: ‘Uche Ekwunife go home to look after your husband; be a mother for once.’ I don’t know how that came up. That statement has gone viral in the Internet with a lot of reactions, people abusing the woman. That is the mentality, welcoming somebody that came back from detention; you are busy abusing somebody else, that kind of stupid mentality. People are abusing the woman for carrying that kind of placard. So, that shows you that things are changing. I don’t believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen, it is not true. If a woman is a career woman, with the understanding of the husband, you can employ a cook. Who says a woman who has been to work like I’m working now; work all day and come home tired or those working in the bank, why shouldn’t the cook pass the food for me to eat? You come home tired and hungry, and then you have to go to the kitchen to cook, while my husband who is also tired and hungry will go and relax? Who says we cannot both agree and hire a cook, if we can afford it? Who says if we can’t afford it, I can be cutting the okra while he cuts the ugu? Why must it be because the culture says you are the woman then when he comes home, he sits down and watch the television while I go to the kitchen and cook? Things are changing. I am already seeing young people doing what I am recommending and its working for them.
What is your opinion of the impression that women mostly sleep their way to the top and not out of merit, especially in the political arena?
Whoever is saying that is a fool! I say, the person is an imbecile. Sleep their way to where?
To the apex? Maybe because of the male chauvinism issue. If a woman knows that she is knowledgeable at what she is doing, why should she sleep with anybody? Any woman who sleeps her way to the top is a fool. That is why they put us down, because they think we are no good. If you as a female achieve anything, it couldn’t have been on merit, that’s a very wicked thing to say. I know I am a woman and I know I have risen through the ranks. I know I have paid my dues every inch of the way, the way my male colleagues did. I did not have to sleep with anybody and I have got to the pinnacle of my career. I was in government too, who did I sleep with to get there? It’s a very wicked thing to say and anybody who said that is a very wicked person. It is a way of subjugating women; a way of trivialising women’s achievements, it’s a way of belittling women because they think women cannot do anything on their own. So, once you achieve, it’s either your father, your boyfriend, husband or son is behind you. I am not saying there are no women who are sleeping around, but a woman on her own can achieve her objectives or goals without having to go to bed with a man. It is doable and many women are doing that. If a few are sleeping around, that is their own choice and, maybe, because they are not good enough.
Then, the big question is why would someone who knows that she is not good enough want to come out for public service where one is rated every step of the way?
It does happen everywhere. Even the men; there are mediocres around coming out, even when they know nothing. Haven’t you seen it among the men? It is not peculiar to women. Many men who are in position do not know anything. But because it’s the culture and because they put a bold face to it, it appears they know it all. Because they are in power and in control, they come in there and balance and then use some women who are there behind the scene to make it work. So, there are men who are not knowledgeable yet they occupy very important positions. They are coming out more and even winning; maybe because they have the money or connections.
After testing the waters in government, are you nursing any political ambition?
No, not at all! I keep saying: I am not a politician or, maybe, I don’t have the courage to go campaigning and all that. Honestly, I have always looked at myself as an academician, not politician. If it is an academic contest, I could run for a position if I want, but politically, no. I know if I run I may win, but it has never crossed my mind. If somebody wins and appoints me and I like what they are doing, I will go there and support whoever it is. But for me, I don’t think I will run for any elective post.
What happens if your people call you up to contest?
They have said so several times: beginning with the Vice Chancellorship position years ago. But Vice Chancellorship is a political position nowadays. They have also approached me to run for Senate. But I said no.
What is your take on women representation in President Buhari’s administration?
Disappointing! I don’t think Buhari has done well in appointing women in his cabinet. Only five women out of all the ministers. It’s not even disappointing, I think it’s hopeless. It’s worse than disappointing. It’s not good enough. You know when the appointment began, people kept justifying his moves, saying that he is just starting and should be given time, but I think the appointments are over now. It’s really a pity because there are a lot of women who are capable; even in the North, there are women who are capable, talk more of the South-south, South-west, South-East. And for us here, you can see what he has done with us here. I don’t know what his intentions are. I was reading what he said some time ago on his reason for appointing more northerners, and he was giving the impression that they are the people that began with him from the scratch; people that were with him through thick and thin, gave him their all and was fanatical about him, how would he leave them and appoint others. Were there no women that gave him their everything?
I think there must have been some women. I don’t want to sound immodest, but I think Buhari is a product of his generation, religion and culture. I keep saying this: religion and culture are anti-women. They don’t believe in women. And, until the Nigerian society values women enough, women will keep lagging in the things Nigeria is doing. He has been there for more than one year, and people are still hoping that he will still do some appointment. I think the women he has appointed should also do well in the job. I don’t know how well they are doing, but I know one of them personally, Amina, she is smart and a hard worker. I worked with her when I was with the MDGs in government. She was adviser to the president then. Why can’t he find some women like that in their party? I’m sure APC is a big party, it doesn’t belong to the North alone; it cuts across the South-west. Can they not find capable women from the South-west and South-south who belong to APC and appoint them? I don’t know but I’m not impressed at all.
Do you think present-day journalists are at par with the pioneers?
Honestly, I don’t believe in comparisons. Every generation has its own challenges and advantages. The journalism profession is more challenging now than it was then. There is so much happening, so much danger, there are so many things to cover and there are so many ways to cover them. There are also so many gadgets to manipulate. So, it will be unfair to compare journalists of today with those of yester years. The Nigerian journalists are not perfect, but they are working hard. They are doing their best in a very difficult situation and age. Look at the challenges of the print media from the online publications. Look at the new media as well. So, the journalist who is working with the print, television or radio has to work extra hard to make sure the new media does not kill off your own profession. The dangers in the profession were not there then; they merely focused their attention on the good newspaper or magazine they were with. Now, see the way news break. In those days, you had the luxury of taking all night to package breaking news, and then publish it the following day. But nowadays, if you delay in your publication, the new media will celebrate it on the Internet and by the time your own comes out, it’s already stale. I will like to say that the Nigerian journalist is working hard, but I am not saying they are perfect; there are still lapses in ethics. The speed at which the news is breaking and the speed at which the new media is moving, that is also the speed at which young people are chasing materialism and with that kind of speed, trying to acquire everything, to belong everywhere, there is danger in the profession. There are people who are willing to do anything. And the bulk of information that journalists try to cover nowadays is in areas of governance and politics. Politicians nowadays are brazen: they can proposition you, manipulate and compromise you; they can tempt you with anything and there are dangers of not abiding by the ethics of the profession. For every age, like I said earlier, it’s different.
Our journalists now are battling with very glaring dangers, unlike before. I don’t remember anybody employing a journalist in those days and not paying them. Media owners, whether government or private, had more compassion then and they were more ethical as owners of media establishments. Nowadays many journalists are not paid. I don’t know what is going on. Proprietors of media houses are callous, self-centred and selfish. I keep recommending that what they should do is the kind of thing that banks did. Before you open a media organisation, you should go and deposit at least N10 billion in the bank; so if you don’t pay salaries, they can, at least, take N500, 000 every month. Before they finish the N10 billion, the journalist will find another job. I think we require a lot of professionalism also. We keep referring ourselves to other professions while those other professions have taken greater care and not facing the challenges we are facing. Some people are answering journalists without actually being a journalist. Anybody who can handle a cell phone is now a journalist. Few days ago when we held a workshop here, people were saying that some of the politicians are desperate for publicity and the desperate journalists in quote will just take a cell phone and say, ‘Oga, I am from bla bla bla, can you tell me….’ And the man will balance well and start speaking, because he wants publicity. He won’t ask for the so-called journalist’s identity card or anything of sort. Then after the interview, because they are so eager for publicity, they pay upfront and they give a lot of money and give you their complimentary card, telling you to inform him when the publication comes out or let him know when it goes on air.
Meanwhile, the radio station as well as the newspaper is non-existent, then he waits and waits and he doesn’t see anything because the journalist is fake. So, these are the temptation that wasn’t there then during the time of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe or (more recently) Ray Ekpu. So, the best thing is not to compare, but to keep encouraging young people who want to come into journalism - either through training, like we are doing here or through interaction - to keep striving for excellence. They may not achieve it but, at least, put in 100 per cent effort, though you may not achieve 100 per cent result. But, at least, you may make 80 or70, which is still an A. So, we keep encouraging young people to do your best, but importantly acquire a good education. It may be hopeless now because there are no jobs. But a good education always matters because if you go to a place to interview someone and you are asked your qualification, and you say: OND, HND, B Ed or degree, you will be well-respected. Internet has also made everything easy.
There is this rumor making the rounds that you were given more juicy positions in the government of Obi because you had not just a platonic relationship with him…
(cuts in) That I was sleeping with him.
Yes. Can you clear the air on that?
Perfect. The person saying that is a fool. I don’t even have to respond to this, but the only thing I can say is that it is so laughable. It’s below my dignity to respond to this, but if you want an answer, it’s categorical no. I didn’t have to and I never did and it was unnecessary. At least, I was among the few people, including Mrs. Nwandu, who could stand up and say this cannot happen because we were much older than he was. And, at the risk of not sounding modest, I’m knowledgeable. I’m intelligent. Not because I don’t make noise. He knew if I had an assignment to do, and I was part of it, I would give my best. If you talk to my VC now, he will tell you I am a very hardworking woman, even at my age. That was really why Obi transferred me from information. He said though I had background in information, I was a planner, meticulous about my job and think through assignments. So, I moved and teamed up with Mrs. Nwandu to work. Maybe, they will also say he slept with Mrs. Nwandu or you have not heard that one. Anybody saying that is a fool.
You are a Board of Trustees member of SABmiller industry. Recently, they unveiled a programme to empower 50 people. For a company as huge as that, is the number not rather too small, judging by the spate of unemployment in the country?
Well, it’s a new project, just like a project. You have to start from somewhere. Even when you are doing a private project, you will start in a small scale and see the reaction. We don’t even know how many people that are going to react. What if we don’t get up to 100 applications? It’s a new project, a new venture that we want to try out. Nothing is cast in the marble. We will see how it goes and then we proceed from there. Before you know it, one year is gone. If we succeed with 50 this year, next year we may double or triple it. We have to start somewhere, that’s the most important thing. What people should comment on is the novelty of it, because there are many entrepreneurs in Anambra State and I foresee a good deal for our people.
•Photo shows Prof. Stella Chinyere Okunna.
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