‘I’m passionate about the girl-child and educating Nigerian children’
Toke Benson is a lawyer, businesswoman and politician. Currently serving as the Assistant Legal Adviser of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Lagos State, she is seeking to represent the Ikeja Federal Constituency in the 2019 General Elections. A longtime mentor to young women and girls on life issues, she is the first female legal adviser in the Party, a role she says helps her in mentoring and protecting vulnerable girls and women. In this interview, she talks about her program, ‘Every Child Of The Street’ that seeks to protect the girl child and educate all children as well as her political ambition
How would you rate women’s participation in Nigerian politics now?
It is abysmally low. Women have been benched from active participation in the world of politics in Nigeria. You can liken them to cheerleaders in a basketball match whose participation is limited to dancing and singing. I come from a world of men where every woman is regarded as a “Gentleman at the Bar.” It is, therefore, alien to me to find women being boxed into a corner where they are regarded not as contemporaries but second-class party members.
What spurred you into deciding to seek political office?
Simply put, passion for my people, state and love of country. The time is now for me to render service for the burden of good governance. The season to put round pegs in round holes is here. We have toyed for too long with the lives and future of our people and nation and this must change.
Women hold top political positions in other countries. Do you see that happening in Nigeria anytime soon?
Believe me, the time is right for our country to join the rest of the world in giving women the appropriate opportunity to lead the process of good governance and service delivery to the people. As much as I’d like to see a Hilary Clinton or Angela Merkel in Nigeria, it looks like a far cry for now, so I suggest we start with the low hanging fruits, warming our ways into the hearts of the people through good and quality representation at the various Houses of Assemblies, making life changing laws for human capital and infrastructural development.
In your opinion, what keeps women away from active politicking?
The fear of the unknown is what keeps women out of active politicking. Once you’re able to conquer that fear, the rest is history. Secondly the problem of finance is also a huge aspect, for instance, my incumbent is a man who has served as a local government chairman for nine years and has also served two terms at the National Assembly for two terms, almost eight years now and most probably has amassed a war chest of taxpayers’ cash and who would see me as a rookie and unable to match his spending capacity. A man who has left Lagos in the last three years to run for Governorship in Kogi State and is taking advantage of the lapse in our constitution regarding voting eligibility to come back to Lagos and is once again seeking to represent us in Ikeja. These and so much more hinder women from showing interest in active political participation.
Several women have declared to run for presidency, do you think Nigerians are ready for a female president?
Sadly, I would say no. We are still struggling to get it right in our democracy. If you join the political process you would understand where I’m coming from. Start from looking at the National Executive Committee of the political parties, you would see on the front row, all men except the one slot kept for the women, which is the Woman Leader position, I bet if possible, that also would be occupied by men. So we still have a long way to go.
Vote buying has become a major problem in the country now. How do you plan to overcome this challenge?
To be honest, this is a huge challenge. There’s so much poverty in the land and how then do you tell a hungry people not to accept temporary cash in place of good governance? The people have lost hope in the government and the electioneering process and have decided to deal on a cash and carry basis.
In your opinion, do you think women aren’t doing enough to support other women considering they make up more than half of the country’s population?
We are at a crossroads when it comes to the issue of women. We must learn to support ourselves. Women need to stand as a block. If we stay together as a block we can do it. On the day of elections, the women are the canvassers, the mobilisers and the voters, yet when the opportunity arises, we are not on the ballot to even get in the race. I pray to see more women organisations stand up for women, mobilise and finance their ambitions.
What are some of the values you hold dear?
The issue of the girl child, the education of all children under a program I call Every Child of the Street. The issue of domestic violence and the rising rate of suicide, spousal abuse and killings is also something I am taking very seriously. Mental health issues are on the rise now due to culture erosion and the isolation of our extended family system in modern day Nigeria. We have negatively embraced the Western culture to the detriment of all we hold dear. These are issues that lay a burden on my heart.
Who and what inspires or motivates you to keep going?
Love of country and service to humanity. Our country is in dire need of men and women of good standing, intellectual capacity and high moral values. The level of moral decadence in the polity is cause for concern and needs all hands on deck. It has become everybody’s responsibility to take this country out of the situation we have found ourselves in. When I look around and see the youths who should be gainfully employed loitering and roaming the streets, fully loaded on illicit drugs, my heart sinks. As a wife and mother, I believe we all have abdicated our duties to society. The future of Nigeria, the youths are engaged in sorts of trade from Internet fraud to money rituals.
The value placed on education has eroded in the last few years. The Southwest, which used to be the pacesetter in education, now boasts of Yahoo plus boys, ritualists and cultists. Our children no longer go to school. Our educational institutions have lost their past glory, our healthcare systems are down and brain drain is killing our nation as medical doctors are leaving in droves as there’s no incentive to stay home to work. Communal clashes have driven our people off their farmlands and there’s an imminent threat to food security. I could go on and on. I’m inspired by Senator Oluremi Tinubu who despite all, is leaving her comfort zone to encourage women of integrity and building young women through her NGO on leadership for girls. I’m also a huge fan of Hilary Clinton; I love strong women who defy all odds to make a difference in the society.
What would you tell women that want to go down this path just like you?
Yes we can! The sky is the limit; enough is enough for us taking the back seat. We need to get in the drivers’ seat. I’m delighted by the amount of women seeking elective posts and yearning to be part of the change program. We are the change Nigeria has been waiting for and I urge every woman out there to brace up and take the bull by the horns to make Nigeria great again.
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