Nigerian government doesn’t have the kind of money i am looking for, but the people do – Yesufu
Her driving depicts her strong Amazonia nature and that of a woman that won’t be intimidated by anyone. But behind that lion heart lies a soft,
compassionate soul that slows down for pedestrians to cross the road. A native of Agbede and married to a man from Auchi, all in Edo State, interacting
with her showed someone, who is eager to do a lot for the poor within her limited space. The mother of two and an entrepreneur by choice, she spoke with ITUNU AJAYI on diverse issues relating to everyday Nigerian. Welcome to the world of Hajia Aisha Yesufu, co-convener of the BBOG movement.
Were you not afraid for your life, when you posted the video asking for President Buhari’s resignation? What did you really have in mind doing that video?
When I was 10 years old, I came to the realisation that the worst thing any human being can do to me is to kill me. I don’t even know how I came about this thought. I am someone who always thinks that anything can happen. But then, I realise that no matter what, I am going to die anyway. So, basically, dying is not really the worst thing. Death is inevitable, and as a Muslim, I believe that my life is in God’s hands. Whatever is destined to happen will occur. While growing up, I didn’t fear human beings. I have respect for people, but not fear because I know at the end of the day, there is one Supreme Being and it is only Him I fear. So, as long as I have the right conscience with my God, I am good.
The video was about the fact that so many things are going wrong and then we had some government officials coming out to make utterances about who will sign the budget and who would not sign it. And I was like, ‘Hey, this country has been held to ransom for too long a time. It is time for us to just for once think about Nigeria and not about regions or sides, let’s just be Nigerians.’ I did that in my capacity as a citizen, it had nothing to do with BBOG. It wasn’t a BBOG’s stand, not a BBOG talk. It was just Aisha Yesufu doing her talk.
But in the north, women are supposed to be seen and not heard. What’s your background in activism?
First of all, I am not from the North. A lot of people always make the mistake of thinking I am from the North, though I was born and brought up in Kano. I am from Agbede in Edo State. I am an Edo woman and married to an Auchi man. Some people say a woman should not be heard, especially a Muslim woman. But over time in history, there have been exceptional women, who stood out in the Muslim world and did a lot of things. We have people like Aisha, one of the prophet’s wives (peace be upon him), who would stand for justice and would not tolerate any form of injustice. She was very outspoken, very intelligent and very knowledgeable. There was a time she went to war against a particular caliphate that was involved in some issues she felt wasn’t right.
Relegating women to the background is not about Islam. It’s about the culture of those involved. The woman has many places in Islam. Yes, there are some things she cannot do, but overall, her right has been given to her and she has a lot she can do. She has a right to property, she can inherit, she can be inherited from and there is child support in case of divorce. But these are things people don’t do again, they forgot and tie things to Islam. Being a Muslim woman doesn’t mean one cannot have one’s voice out there.
My background in activism started in 1992, when I started a matriculation course in medicine at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I can’t really remember what happened, but we had a demonstration and I was part of it. The school was shut down, I went back home and my mother was like, ‘Hope you were not part of the demonstration?’ Of course my answer was ‘No.’
I was involved in other protests, which led to incessant closure of school and I lost years. I got transferred to BUK, but by that time, my mates were in part four, while I was still in part two. So, I ended up a microbiologist. I grew up extremely poor. I would go to school in the morning without breakfast and come back not expecting lunch. I grew up in a ghetto, where education was not valued. All my girlfriends were married by age 11, so I got ridiculed and talked about, because people could not understand why I was struggling to go to school. But I knew early in life that it is only education that can break the shackles of poverty.
By the time I got married at the age of 24, my friends were already grandmothers, so I was in my own world. If one is poor in this country, one is faceless and voiceless. I had a friend who said the greatest sin in Nigeria is to be poor. I have always wanted to be financially independent. I have never worked for anybody in my life. I started my business in 2000, when I was going to Dubai to buy and sell here. Later, I sold chicken feeds, went into real estate. As a teenager, I hated this country. I hated our leaders, because I felt they were not there for me, when I needed them. Some government policies in the 80s crashed my father’s business. I didn’t even have textbooks in secondary school. I was begging people to lend me, it was that bad.
By the time I turned 40, I concluded that I was part of the problems in this country, because I have been keeping quiet all this while. There are people who are currently where I used to be and no one is speaking for them, just as no one spoke for me then. So, I told my husband I needed to do something. This was in December 12, 2013. I am passionate about financial independence and girl child education. As we were contemplating how to go about my passion, the Chibok girls’ case happened. First it was Buni Yadi, where boys were killed in their hostels. I saw the protest on the television and I was like, ‘Oh, if I had known, I would have been there.’ I did not know, because I wasn’t very present on social media then. So, Chibok happened and the march started, I was there. For me, that was how we began the advocacy. My activism started a long time ago, but there was a time I needed a break to raise my children, because I was a stay-at-home mum at a point. I was with my children 24/7.
I wanted a platform, where I can say the truth without minding anything. We live in a country where you can be threatened in any way for saying the truth. So, you can imagine if your life is dependent on something. I have never depended on government for anything and I never will. I have never done contract with government, I have never worked in anybody’s office. I think I have only written one application all my life. Back then, I loved to lecture and I wrote to the University and they replied that I could only get the job on a contract basis because I am not from that state. That infuriated me and I was like, ‘I am a Nigerian and I have lived in the North all my life, I was born there.’ You can see the predicament I face every day; people would abuse me, as if I am a Northerner and the North people themselves would not give me job because am a South-South woman.
So, I needed a neutral platform. The only thing remaining is to threaten me that my life is in danger, and in any case, all lives in Nigeria are in danger. How many people are dying daily on our roads, through insurgency and in our hospitals? Do we have any cancer hospital in this country? People are dying of the disease on a daily basis, but when the big men are sick, they run abroad for treatment. It’s annoying; we all must be equal. No Nigerian should be more equal than the other. So, in a way, we are all in danger. A young man just died of liver cancer. His friends were trying to raise money for his treatment and before they could get enough money, he was dead. That was what prompted the video I posted.
The greatest disservice we are doing to our children in this country now is lack of education; only the rich can give education to their children. So, what happens to the poor? It was better in our days. At least the children of the rich and the poor could still meet in primary and secondary schools and at most universities. And so back then, the children of the rich had the consciousness that some people are poor, hence they could relate with them and understand what they were going through.
But now, the children of the rich are in their own schools up till the university, while the poor are in theirs. So, there is no meeting point. We are raising children who will only meet as adults and no one is thinking about the consequences. My daughter was shocked to know that some Nigerians don’t have international passport. I don’t blame her, she couldn’t relate to people not having international passports. So, I had to tell her, ‘look, majority of Nigerians don’t have because not everyone travels like you do.’ And she said, ‘but everybody I know has one.’ She could not comprehend how real it is for someone not to travel out. She is privileged to be my daughter. But how about her mates, whose parents cannot afford two meals a day?
So, my fear now is that we are going to have a generation of citizens, who never met as children. They are only going to meet as adults on different sides of the divide, and who knows on which platform they would meet? Maybe one as a highway robber and the other cruising in his SUV. You can imagine that scenario, so I am scared.
You said it is about Nigeria and not about Buhari. But only very few people consider what the country suffers at times like this, especially the northern establishment. They say it is their turn at all costs…
I think there are so many conspiracies in Nigeria. But personally, I hate conspiracies, I prefer to deal with the fact on ground. I cannot say this is what the Northern agenda is because I cannot point to anyone who had come out to say that. There may be, but I don’t know of any. But of course we have all those diverse views, even when it was South/South, we had the same thing. But what I would say to people is, ‘how has your brother in position of power helped your life? How is he ensuring that jobs are available for you, that roads are okay, that drugs are in the hospitals? Eight hundred people died in Zamfara State due to meningitis and we concluded it is because they are sinners. How it is that it is only poor people that sin? How about the leaders, don’t they fornicate? Is it only the poor that do so?
People can say whatever they like, but the system must be just, there must be equity. We live in a country, where it is all about state of origin, federal character, catchment area and quota system. These are things that are dividing us as a nation. How do you convince someone who had been denied due to the place he comes from, that Nigeria is one? Is my brain supposed to be wired differently because of where I come from? Am I to be blamed because I am qualified to hold a position?
When BBOB was floated, some saw your group as a wing of APC. Some of you were even given jobs. How real was the group?
The group has been on for over three years, and I think if that is not real, then I don’t know what real is. The BBOG started as a movement. One thing people need to understand is that it not an organisation. It is not an NGO or a civil society. It is not cooperative or a political party. It is just a movement— people coming together and lending their voices to a course. It first started online, the day after the abduction. People were demanding to know what was going on. By April 23,2014, the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls was born. Dr. Oby Ezekwezili had gone to Port Harcourt for an event and there she talked about our girls that had been abducted and she said bring back our daughters. There was a lawyer, who watched on TV and he felt that bring back our daughters might not be appropriate because not everybody has a daughter, but everyone has a girl relating to them in one way or the other. So, he created the hashtag.
On April 30 2014, the first physical march was convened from the Unity Fountain to the National Assembly and people joined. They were angry that girls who had gone to school had been abducted; meanwhile boys were killed in Federal Government College, Buni Yadi. They were slaughtered in their school and nothing was said about it by government, except the House of Representatives under Tambuwal, which spoke about it and that was all. The government of the day never said anything about it. It was a year later that we realised government never sent anyone to the parents of the affected students. Nobody condoled with the parents, wrote any letter to them, nobody did anything.
So, with that anger seeing that our girls had been taken away again and there was silence, after 15 days the government had not officially said anything, people came out and they were Nigerians from diverse backgrounds— APC, PDP and what have you. It cut across all parties and divides, market women like me, artisans, professionals, literates, illiterates, everybody came out and said we are going to do a march to the NASS. It was planned just for that day, but the head of the Chibok community in Abuja went down on his knees and begged that we should not give up on the fight because if we turned our backs, that would be the end of the matter.
It rained heavily and I remember Dr. Ezekwezili saying: “Are you salt? Will you melt, if the water falls on you? Do you know what our daughters are going through?” So, we went on and people overwhelmingly agreed that we would keep coming out and the movement started.
As we moved on, we developed our core values and said we mustn’t be political; BBOG is not about politics. Yes, you have your private life as a politician, go ahead and do politics, but when you come under the umbrella of BBOG, you strip yourself of political affiliations and do what is needed as a BBOG member.
A lot of people will look at Hadizat Bala Usman and say, Oh, she is APC, but she has a right to belong to any political party of her choice, as she is a politician. But when she comes to BBOG, she is not a politician. There was a day they held APC rally or something and from there, they came to Unity Fountain in solidarity. She was enraged and told them to either leave or remove the party shirt they were wearing. It’s unfair to expect her not to do what she loves. I am a market woman and I did not close my warehouse because of that. We all have our private lives and vocations outside of BBOG, and it will be unwise for anyone to leave his/her job because of the movement. The rest of us have not left our jobs and businesses because we are BBOG, so why should Hadizat leave hers? As a movement, we are administration neutral. We don’t care who the president is; all we care about is Nigeria.
Someone said you are digging in because you were not given a job…
You know what I will say to people saying that, please let them organise a seminar, where I will come to talk to people on how to make money outside government. I think the problem we have with a lot of Nigerians is that they think unless you are part of government, you cannot make money; that you have to be employed by someone to survive. So, they queue for contracts, appointments and jobs. Like I said earlier, I have never worked for anybody, I am a market woman. The Nigeria government does not have the kind of money I am looking for; it is the Nigerian people that have the kind of money I am looking for. For instance, if I make a product that just 10 million Nigerians would buy, what do I need government’s job for?
So, people should understand that they could grow wealth by working for themselves. There are lots of opportunities out there; so people can have what they desire without working for government or anybody. So, when I hear such talk about appointment, I’m like, ‘Oh, who is looking for appointment?’ I have a sharp mouth, and if my employer does something not right, I will talk and you know how our society is, they will sack me.
And again, I’m not the type who can sit down in one office from 8am to 5pm. Doing what? Then my boss will request to see me and I will have to go and wait in his office, even if he isn’t ready for me. No way. Or if I get appointment, I will have to be responsible to the people, so all my concern would be to be in the office and sit down there so that am not viewed as someone who is not responsible. I don’t have such patience; I don’t do offices. You don’t get rich or wealthy by working for people. I was into haulage business. I can’t function in a closed place. I am a free spirited person, and so where is the issue of appointment coming from?
I don’t know this mentality of ‘you must want something.’ What I want is for that child whose parents are poor to have an opportunity to function, to be educated, given basic healthcare, live in a decent environment and be able to eat. We are wasting a lot of geniuses in this country. It is either we direct their intelligence positively through education, or it will go negatively and those are the ones disturbing us in this country today.
So, what else do you do aside BBOG? How do you manage your family alongside activism?
I’ll rather prefer to be asked what business have I not done. I am a market woman. I have done buying and selling, haulage business, transport business and right now I am into poultry, I sell poultry feeds. I love money. When GSM first came, I used the first phone I had as a call centre. Remember then that people would come to make calls, buy cards and all that. I have been a distributor to major companies. I’m into properties, as well as a lot of things.
My husband is an amazing human being, who has been very supportive. I fell in love with him the moment I saw him. So, for me, it was love at first sight, though it wasn’t like that for him. It took time for him, and I had to nudge him a little for him to get on. We got married in 1998 and we have two children, a boy and a girl. The first thing he told me early in our relationship is that I have to be financially independent. He is an auditor, and travels a lot. So, he has this consciousness that anything can happen and that I should be able to take care of our children and myself in case of anything.
Growing up, we had this notion that it is the man that would always take care of you, but I met a man who said, ‘Hey no, be financially strong and don’t depend on me, have your own money.’ He allows me to be who I am. I am just a crazy person and he loves me for that. He is very proud of the things I do and he is always in support. He is my mentor and teacher.
Will you go into politics someday, to have more roles to play?
No, never! I am an entrepreneur, the one who puts system in place. So, whether you are there or not, the system runs itself. So, I can’t imagine being a politician. I’m too lazy for that. My businesses are more in Kaduna; my phone is my office here.
Are you satisfied with the state of the girl-child and social situation in the north?
For me, it’s not about girl child. It’s the Nigerian child, I am not satisfied at all and going forward, we need to revolutionise the education system. We need to turn it 360 degrees round. As a nation, we have to sit down and do something. Agreed we would have a lost generation, the ones that nothing can be done about their case. But then, why can’t we have a target, say maybe 10 years downwards or even five, give them good quality free standard education and we begin to expand from there. We employ good and quality teachers, pay them well and let us begin to breed a new generation of Nigerians.
If we need to give incentives to the parents, let’s do it because we have to build human capital, not the oil we are all crazy about. Then let’s work on shelter; cheap affordable houses for the people. Our health system is still about our sins. If you are poor, your sin causes your disease, but if you are rich, sin is not responsible for your disease and in case you are sick, you jet out for proper medical attention. When I see the NLC agitate about salary, I wonder why. It is not about salary. If people have homes they can afford, their children are in schools they can afford or paid for by government, they have food to eat, which is the cheapest commodity abroad, decent transport system and they can go to hospitals and get treated, believe me, even if their salary is not in thousands, they will live well and comfortable. And when all these are in place, it makes people loyal to the government.
But right now, everybody is government to himself— you provide your light, water, security, education and even road. The other time, my tenants came together and wrote to me to do the road to their house, how can I afford that? I told them the letter shouldn’t have been addressed to me, but their government. It is not everybody that wants to be extremely rich, own a car, travel abroad and all that. Look, people just want a decent living, have a place to put their heads and survive each day.
What is your vision for Nigeria?
A Nigeria, where every child will have equal opportunity.