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‘Assisting humanity is something I don’t need a foundation to achieve’

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Honourable Patricia Etteh


The dwindling number of women in political offices has been of great concern among Nigerians, including the first female Speaker, Federal House of Representatives, Honourable Patricia Etteh. In a chat with Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Honourable Etteh, who is currently the Chairman, Board of National Hospital, shared her view towards increasing women’s participation in politics. She also talked about her philosophy, principles of life.

What is your take on the declining number of women in elective positions? That has to do with policies of each political party, and also, the person at the helm of affairs at a particular time. I remember vividly when I entered the House of Representatives in 1990; we were 12 females in the House. Each of the political parties including the ruling Peoples Democracy Party then, All Nigerian People’s Party and the Alliance for Democracy had four women each. With this number, I felt that it would be difficult for us to pass any women-related bill.

That meant there would be a lot of problems if allowed to continue. So, I took it upon myself to ensure the quota was increased. So, I started soliciting support through governors’ offices and to do that successfully, you must be grounded politically because you must know the time to visit them, what to tell them and be prepared to carry their wives along. We knew that where the wives could go, we might not be able to reach there, and where ever we reached with any programme, we needed people to follow up for us, and that was the reason the issue of governor’s wives was very important to us. And to the glory of God, I went round with my colleagues; we had lots of interviews, conferences and seminars which brought Nigerian women together. At the end of that programme, we were able to increase the number of women in the House from 12 to 28. But you can never rule out the pull-down syndrome in life- everybody believing he can do it.

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Unfortunately, immediately I left the House, the number nose-dived. I am not saying I am the best or that those I left behind could not do better but the problem is that they must love themselves and foster good relationship, not only among women but also with the men. I remember when I started my campaign, even the men in the parliament felt jittery. They felt they were all my friends and that by calling for more women, I was wishing that some of them should not return to the parliament. But I explained to them the need to look at women as wives, mothers and sisters, whom they must support rather than shortchange. If women are not many in parliament, there is no how they can go places. Most of the countries that are not up to Nigeria in size are talking about parity and no longer 35 per cent affirmative action. If countries such as Sudan and The Gambia are talking about parity, and Nigeria, which is called giant of Africa is still lagging behind, it is not good enough.

It is often beautiful when we attend conferences abroad and see woman leading, such countries are often given more respect and the women enjoy lots of benefits. So, if one has not gone out to see what is happening, it might be difficult for such a person to understand the role of women in politics. So, that was my ultimate goal – to increase the number of women in the parliament. And immediately I was sworn in as the Speaker, I set up a 15-man committee, comprising men and women. They were kept away from distractions and were charged to work on the issue of women and children. Unfortunately, we did not know that my Speakership was going to be for a short period, and that whosoever was coming in might not be interested in that project. That was how it died a natural death.

With only few women, how would you advice female lawmakers to package gender-based bills for easy passage?
I just mentioned it that to achieve women-related goals, we must bring the men on board. You must look at men that are gender sensitive and co-opt them. Remember that we have men as members of Committee on Women Affairs in the House of Reps then. We had some men who volunteered to belong so they could contribute their quotas to women development. There is no how we can get there without liaising with the men. However, on the issue of gender equality, I wonder why the emphasis on equality because we all had the same education, attended same school, and whatever a man can do, a woman can always do better.

So, like I said earlier, I went all out then to discuss with some governors to give me at least, one or two slots from their states. They were all happy and some of them did. That was how we increased that quota. So, if we have not reached a particular point, there is no how we will not need the support of men. We need them to assist us but I keep wondering why people continue to lay emphasis on gender equality because we all passed through same educational system. We all have the same background and the same upbringing, and I can prove to you that a woman will do better in any position. Men are always very jittery when we mention women because they know woman always go extra mile to achieve a goal, and are born to be more detailed and thorough. Men don’t take it lightly that women do things thoroughly, which gives them edge over their male counterparts. Hence, they try to fence or block them to ensure that they don’t go beyond a point, but if God says otherwise, there is nothing anybody can do. If Nigeria fails to realize that women should be at the helm of affairs, they are just postponing the evil day. We are not saying that we want to take it by force or rush to become the President, what we are saying is that we should be given key positions and they will see the result. By the time they see the result, women would voluntarily be pushed to become the President of this country. Most women who emerged Presidents in other countries were not as knowledgeable as women in this country.

There was an occasion I was discussing with the national chairman of a party and while we were making reference, he started eulogizing a particular woman; I had to cut him short because the woman he was singing her praises cannot withstand me in legislative matters even at the international level. Until we have women who are vocal and who will not trade their integrity, we may not get to where we want to be. Nigerian women and children are highly populated and by the time we begin to appreciate our strength, you will see that the country will go places. I believe and pray that this should happen during our life time so that Nigerians will know that you can go to sleep with women occupying strategic political positions.

Even with their numerical strength, how can women achieve desired unity to push for more space in politics?
There are lots of issues affecting voting system in Nigeria. They may have to insist on voting across party line but it would be difficult for most women to jettison their party candidates and vote for women that are contesting under other political parties. If women in Nigeria are well empowered economically and they can come together to form a political party, and also allow people to fall in line and believe in their capability, then, we can actually get something done. But in as much as each of us decides to vote according to party line, there is nothing a female candidate can do.

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The first female Speaker, Fed House of Reps, now first female chair, Board of National Hospital, is it a coincident?
You are missing out something when you say ‘first there and first here’. The history will not be complete if we omit one particular first, because people believed that I just woke up one day to become the Speaker, House of Representatives. No. I was the first female principal officer of the National Assembly in 1999, and from there, I knew that God is with me and that he is taking me to places. This doubled me as the chairperson, Female Parliamentary caucus in Nigeria, both at the national, state and even the local government levels because we used the same constitution to rule the country as legislators.

As a mother, what would you be bringing on board to ensure commitment towards saving lives?
Honestly, I was away in the United States when I first heard of the appointment and my moral was low because I wondered about the rationale or my connection with hospitals. But I prayed over it and God told me it was achievable. Immediately God gave me that go ahead, everything became simpler. So, when we came down and were sworn in, I took it from that very day that I have a responsibility. Like I said earlier, I have never been in the medical field all my entire life but I realized that being in medical line is a humanitarian service, and that whatever one intends to do here must be with passion. So, I quickly developed that passion and I found that the caliber of people I am paired with as members of the governing board as well as the management and staffers of the hospital were ready to cooperate with me. And so far, we have seen the changes in the hospital in the sense that people are beginning to talk positively about the place. The reason is that a lot of things are changing. If you ask me, National Hospital as at today is like the number one hospital in Nigeria. But rather than take it as such and accord it its due respect, people prefer to run abroad for medical attention, but that has changed. People now believe that there is no need to travel abroad any longer. The services have improved tremendously, although the job there is enormous.

At the initial stage, I was doing virtually everything despite the fact that it was a part time appointment. Well, all appointments could be part time but when you get to some, you discover that it is not so easy except you just want to pass through without any serious impact. I believe that I have a lot of things to put right and with due respect to those that were there before me, it is not to say that they did not do their job effectively but coming from a different background, I need to put in one or two ideas I came with, and we are all working together. The synergy is there and the people are cooperating to ensure that we bring up the hospital to a standard that people will have confidence in. This orientation that once something belongs to the government, it must be treated with complacency must stop. But if you compare national hospital with other hospitals, I think we are the best. This is not because I am the chairperson, the fact remains that the hospital is properly equipped beyond any other hospital in the country. There are also experienced personnel from the doctors even down to the cleaners. In fact, national hospital is better than most hospitals abroad.

Can you share some of your philosophies with us?
Well, I believe that one’s achievements in life should be anchored on God. I also do not hide my feelings on issue because one who is led by God differs from someone led by the world. If one anchors all he or she has achieved in life on God, that person cannot go astray. My philosophy in life is just to continue praising the almighty God and give him glory for all he has done in my life.

Only God grants wishes, and as such, I believe that I need God more than anything and so far, he has not let me down. I follow his command anywhere, anytime. I became the speaker by his grace. So, our politicians should learn from that, and know that anything they achieve in life comes from God.

Those that have come across you call you a silent philanthropist, can yu enlighten us on some of your contributions to humanity?
Contributing to humanity is a daily thing to me. One does not have to get to a certain age or be a politician before you realize that you are supposed to be your brother’s keeper. God will not come down from heaven and help you to do the right thing. People talk about legacy and they asked me to form an association or foundation but they fail to realize that it is not by doing that. I render help to people every day without a foundation. However, practically, I believe in developing people because one can never tell what will happen in future. The person you develop today might become the president tomorrow. I was also helped to be where I am today. My principle therefore is ‘if I push you, you must also be ready to push another person’. I don’t like selfish people. That is why I tell anyone I help that he or she must also support another person, and I must know that person. That is the only way you will have a multiplier effect, which is more than establishing a foundation. I don’t need a foundation to visit the motherless babies home or the less privileged home.

N/Assembly Leadership: Women shouldn’t be intimidated, says Hon Etteh
The tussle for the leadership seats in the 9th National Assembly has long begun. Although the leading All Progressives Congress has endorsed some candidates for the top leadership positions, other interested candidates have indicated interest, thereby heating up the politics at that level. But in all this, the voice of women appeared drown in the domineering echo of men. In a chat with the first Nigerian female Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Honourable Patricia Etteh, she listed some of the criteria for leadership. She however urged ranking women to undermine their gender and slog it out with the men.

What are chances of women emerging leaders of the 9th Assembly?
For them to become leaders at the National Assembly, they must be ranking members. That gives them edge over new comers. Secondly, they must be seen to be faithful to the party that produced them. They must have been law abiding and willing to do according to the biddings of their parties.

How did these factors worked for you?
In my own case, the party was looking for who would be the Speaker. But before then, I was the leader of the South-West caucus of the House of Representatives and there were laid down rules within the party that guided the actions of all the leaders of the six geo-political zones. So, when the issue of the Speakership came up and they were looking the best candidate, the collective question then was “who is the most ranking member and the one who has been very supportive of the party.” The National Chairman then came up with the fact that there was someone who has been supporting the party in terms of coordinating all the members and ensuring that the party manifesto was being followed to the later. Immediately, they unanimously said the person should automatically be the Speaker. When they demanded for the name of the person, my name came up and I gave them analysis of all the things I have done, how I have supported the party in various ways and how I have related well with the leadership at all levels. All these gave edge over others.

Then the issue of zoning came up. After the President, Vice President, Senate President and the Deputy Senate Present have emerged, the next issue became who should be the Speaker and the Party Chairman. These two slots were served for South-West and the South-East Geo-political zones of the country. But the South East preferred the position of National Chairman and with that, the Speakership slot automatically came to the South-West and when they considered the most ranking member, I fitted into the position. That was what happened.

Do you see these factors working for or against the women in the 9th Assembly?
Don’t we have women who are ranking members in both chambers, those who have been law abiding and have been supporting their parties all round?

So, do you think women are equipped to lead the National Assembly?
Not only National Assembly, it is time Nigerians should be thinking of women leading this nation. I am not criticizing the men but I can tell you categorically that when you put a woman at the helm of affairs, she will go extra mile to achieve desired goals. Therefore, we should not only be talking about the leadership of the National Assembly but the nation and even the world over. There is nowhere a woman is placed in a position of authority that she does not excel if given the opportunity.

With the kind of politics going on presently, do you see the women emerging from their rear?
What gave them the impression that they cannot lead the National Assembly? Are they saying they don’t have capable hands among female parliamentarians? If you talk about ranking, we have both ranking and quality women in both chambers. If you are talking about quality women, we have so many of them. Senator Oluremi Tinubu is not only a ranking Senator, having been there for over 12 years, she has also done well in various committees she chaired over the years. What are the men doing in leadership positions that she cannot do? In the House, we have some four-time members, the likes of Honourable Onyejeocha Nkeiruka. She is coming for the fourth time and as such, she is very qualified for a leadership position. She is not just a ranking member, she has headed Committee on Aviation for three consecutive times and she has done very well. What are the pedigrees of those men seeking the position of the Senate President and the Speaker that they don’t have?
So, it should not be based on gender but someone that is capable of doing the job. Until Nigerians learn to focus on capable hands for the job, we will continue to have leadership problems.

But if they are considering the fact that women don’t have a voice in the National Assembly because of their number, it is another issue entirely. That is no longer the problem of NASS but the constitution which does not favour women and children. There is need for government to look in that direction. In countries that have achieved much, greater space is given to women in governance. In Zambia where mining is a major occupation, women do heavy mining and from that, they make money to sponsor other women who have interest in politics.

This brings us to the issue of mentoring. “I cannot be in leadership position because I am not lettered but I have my money to send my fellow women.” With this kind of mentality and attitude, Zambian women were able to achieve so much. Similar circumstance plays out in Sudan. It is either 50 per cent affirmative or 60 per cent in favour of women. So, there are lots of indices government needs to look into. Beyond that, they should give some quota to farmers, women in politics and women professionals; this will give women some millage. Failure to do that will leave Nigerian diminishing in number in public offices.

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I remember when I was a Speaker and they were submitting names ministerial positions. I was shocked to see that throughout the 36 states of the federation, only two women were nominated. It took my strenuous effort to persuade and convince the caucus to look into the issue of low representation of women. At the end, they believed the Speaker was right and they decided to look inward for more women. They ended up bringing about nine women on board. The same thing happened with ambassadorial positions then. They submitted two names as female career ambassadors and when I asked why it was so, the answer was that women hardly stay when they are sent on missions abroad.

Advice for women parliamentarians
They should come out. The men will not advise them to do so but they have to fight for their rights. They should forget about being women because they were all elected by their constituents. Before the party come up with the zoning issue, they should make themselves known and available for leadership. At times, our women are too shy to come out. You cannot be shy and think that men will come and pick you for leadership position. Nobody will do that but when they see that you are ready to fight for that course, you will see some men that will support you. And you have to lobby them, be friendly with them because with the number of women in parliament, women can go nowhere but we know that there are some men that are gender inclined. They should talk to such male colleagues; come up with their action plans; if they do that, I am very sure that men will support them. There are also lots of positions in NASS that can go to women. If do not get the Senate Presidency, Deputy or Speakership, they should be considered for the positions of majority or minority leader or other principal offices.

Women should generally be considered for key committees or the ministerial slots. If they are not given something that can empower them, it will be difficult for them to mentor or support other women. Summarily, women must come out and identify with this course because if we fail to do so, men cannot give it to us on a platter of gold. Women need to form a bloc. We need to come out and meet with the present government and let them know that Nigerian women are lagging behind in governance.

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In this article:
Patricia Etteh
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