Ita-Giwa at 75: Events and situations compelled me into politics
Senator Florence Ita-Giwa (OON) is a mixture of simplicity and complexity, which makes her a journalist’s favourite interviewee. On the occasion of her 75th birthday, she tells LEO SOBECHI that the fourth Senate was the most intriguing, noting that the fight to institutionalise separation of powers and colourful Chuba Okadigbo is rich memories to treasure.
At 75 would you say you are still finicky about fashion and do you still find time to dance?
I don’t call it fashion, to you it may be fashion, but for me dressing up and looking good was the backdrop of my childhood. My late mother was a great journalist, but she also happened to be an exceptionally gifted dressmaker and for many years before my younger brother was born, I was her only fashion muse.
My mother would design and make great dresses and use me as a living mannequin. I grew up around the trendy styles of the time and came to absolutely love clothes. Up till today, I have made it a point to always maintain a decent waistline, so I can wear the nicest dresses and jeans for that matter, which I have no intention of ever stop wearing.
My 29 years old daughter is always raiding my wardrobe for my timeless fashion pieces. In fact, I am looking forward to my 75th birthday fashion photoshoot to showcase my timeless fashion pieces.
As for dancing, I believe if I wasn’t a politician, I might have become a professional dancer. Dancing is the joy of my life; it is probably my only ‘vice’ in quotes because I don’t drink or smoke. I have the Calabar Carnival to thank for giving me a chance to express my passion for dancing in my capacity as a carnival bandleader. I love dancing so much that I can dance for an audience at the drop of a hat. I dance as an expression of happiness; I dance for fitness and to entertain and I even dance competitively at the carnival.
Unfortunately, this second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented me from organising an elaborate celebration for my 75th birthday, but to be sure I intend to dance to kingdom come in my living room to celebrate my birthday to the glory of God.
Are there things you cherished during your 25th anniversary that you now feel were not worth it?
At 25 years of age, all I was focused on was reclaiming my career in the nursing profession, which had been disrupted during the nearly three years of the Nigerian Civil War as I was in Biafra with my mother, who was a journalist then. I later left for London after the civil war in 1971 to further my professional training in the medical field.
I was looking forward to a long, fulfilling career as a medical professional. I was not prepared to disappoint my mother with any distractions. Never in my wildest dreams then could I have imagined how the trajectory of my life would take me to where I find myself today.
Between your training as a nurse and vocation as a politician, which would you say impacted more on your life?
You’re quite right in describing being a politician as a vocation and not a profession. However, nursing is both a vocation and a profession. I chose to be a nurse, my mother would have been happy if I had chosen to be a journalist like her, but my natural inclination of compassion made nursing a natural choice for me.
So, it is safe to say that I am a nurse by nature. Politics on the other hand was a child of circumstance. Events and situations compelled me into politics. Left to me, I might have remained a nurse or at best, in an allied medical field.
As a nurse, you are trained to understand, not just human anatomy and physiology, but also human psychology. It is a versatile profession that is more like a gateway to practically all spheres of human life.
I evolved from general nursing into medical administration as a medical secretary, then into pharmaceutical marketing and medical and hospital equipment supply. From being a caregiver, I evolved into being an accomplished marketing executive and ultimately a businesswoman.
I comprehensively equipped seven 30-bed facilities that the military refer to as MRS hospitals across Nigeria. To date, I am able to conceptualise the construction and equipping of a hospital from reception all the way to the morbid anatomy department.
So, I think that my initial training as a nurse is what prepared me for these other roles. In fact, the compassionate nature of nursing and its deep insight into human nature also invariably prepared me for life as a politician.
A genuine politician must truly be compassionate. The truth is that Nigerians have not come to fully appreciate the nursing profession. I am ever so proud of my roots in nursing and can boldly say nursing prepared me for my mantra of “Service to Humanity”.
You found yourself among the pioneers of the fourth Senate, are there some special reminiscences you can share with Nigerians?
I consider it a high privilege to have been in the senate class of 1999. That senate was probably the most intriguing senate in Nigeria’s history with many high and low points.
The epic battle to establish the principle of separation of powers, the frequent leadership rotations ensured there was never a dull moment. I had to pitch a sustained battle to emerge as deputy minority leader. This is after emerging as the only candidate of the All People’s Party to be elected in the entire South-South Zone.
The military hangover attitude of the presidency at the time made for a very heated fight to establish the separation of powers. Most memorable was the colourful Chuba Okadigbo, his high intellect made sessions very robust with senators being on their “A” game on the floor. Indeed, those were the days.
Compared to subsequent Senate plenaries, what could you single out as the positive distinguishing marks of your era?
At the end of the day despite the turbulence of frequent leadership changes occasioned by the military hangover mentality of the presidency at the time, the Senate succeeded in checkmating the presidency and establishing the principle of separation of powers.
From the standpoint of a female Senator, how did you see the intrigues and plots that defined the banana peel metaphor? From the very beginning of my political career, I have refused to play the gender card. In that senate, I saw myself as a person, politician and senator. Recall that I competed against formidable male and female opponents to emerge from the opposition party in my state as a senator.
In Nigerian politics, when the powers that be take a decision to remove you all sorts of booby traps are set before you and where that fails, former best friends transform into lying traitors overnight. I had a dose of it, but thank God, I’m still standing tall. What contrasts did you find among the three leaderships of the fourth Senate, from Evan Enwerem, through Chuba Okadigbo to Anyim Pius Anyim?
The three gentlemen you mentioned were and are all good men. They each brought unique qualities to the table, but I need to single out Chuba Okadigbo, with who I worked closest, for special mention. His knowledge and understanding of legislative procedure were second to none.
He possessed both a charming and intimidating personality and he knew when and how to switch them on, he was also a very colourful politician, his intellectual capacity was quite broad and, because he was rather opinionated, I can see why many people found him intimidating.
All told though Chuba Okadigbo made the senate of that day exciting with elevated discourse and debate.
Not many people remember that you had a brief stint in the House of Representatives at a time some observers hinted at a possible diarchy, how did you see the legislature under a military President Ibrahim Babangida?
That had to be the most bizarre political experiment ever, what I’d like to label a very funny cocktail. That parliament was neither military nor democratic in the true sense of the word.
To this day, I still don’t get it and can only describe it as a very frustrating experience. The parliament was inaugurated but given very strict instructions about no-go areas. We were then left to debate mundane rice and beans issues. It is no wonder; the entire experiment collapsed not quite 10 months after the inauguration.
In a way, it was a very creative and innovative idea, but in a most negative sense.
As an advocate of the girl child, would you say sex slavery or rape has more damaging psychological consequences on the attainment of her full potentials?
My views on the punishment for rape are very radical and have not changed. I insist that rapists should not just be jailed or even castrated, but have their penises cut off. That way they will never be able to rape another person ever again.
If they are just jailed, when they get out, they may continue to rape, even in jail they may even rape fellow inmates. So, cutting off their male organ will guarantee that their menace to society is terminated.
As for sex slavery, I have a slightly different view. While I concede that a small number of young ladies are deceived into the sex trade, many of them go into it with their eyes wide open. They may not be able to fully comprehend the measure of peril involved, but they are conscious of the level of risk involved.
Even with that said, I believe the organisers of the trade are evil and deserve to face the full wrath of the law. I have campaigned vigorously against the sex slavery trade; my carnival band did a very elaborate presentation against the trade at the Calabar Carnival.
In preparing for the carnival presentation I even secretly travelled to Italy to investigate and research the subject and I can tell you that it is pure evil. All hands should be on deck to sensitize our young girls to resist the lure of traffickers.
How do you think the increase in drug abuse and teenage pregnancy could be reduced?
When children are routinely exposed to negative influences, values and persons through unhindered access to traditional and social media this is what you get: A generation of uninhibited youth indulging in every available vice.
Children must be monitored at every point; parents need to wake up to the responsibility of nurturing and training children and not just providing for their academics and creature comforts. Parents should lead by personal example; a drunkard parent should not expect his or her child would not indulge in excess alcoholic consumption. Values and morality must be introduced to children at an early age and sustained till post-puberty and beyond.
Your noble initiatives in fighting for the welfare of Bakassi people were threatened by the allegation of missing Bakassi Resettlement funds, how did you feel about the development?
I think it’s about time we clear the air on this nonsensical myth associating me with so-called missing Bakassi resettlement funds. I have instructed my lawyers to take up anyone who toes this line henceforth.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have never had access to any Bakassi funds either as a signatory or beneficiary. I have never been awarded a contract to do or build anything in or for Bakassi. I have twice been involved as the chair of the Bakassi Resettlement Allocation Committee, where a limited number of already constructed homes by the Imoke administration and the Ayade administrations were handed over to some Bakassi indigenes by the allocation committee I headed.
In that role, the Secretary to the State Government served as my vice-chair and credibly we identified the ‘neediest’ of the returnees to allocate homes.
It has to be said that I was never involved in the construction of the homes neither have I ever been privy to who was awarded nor the value of the construction contracts.
I have never in my life been invited by the EFCC (economic and Financial Crimes Commission). If anything, I have self-funded the construction of schools, clinics and town halls, as well as, the sinking of boreholes in the old Bakassi and even now at our new home in Dayspring Island. How can you tamper with funds you had no access to?
Are there useful success tips you could give younger women aspiring to go into politics?
Number one advice to aspiring female politicians is forgotten your gender and see yourself as a person desirous of serving all the people and not just your gender. Number two you must understand that political power doesn’t come cheap, it bears a heavy cost, it is not free.
So you must prepare yourself in every respect for the challenge.
A good education is important as this will ground you and it is a constitutional requirement. Also, and probably most importantly, you must have an independent source of personal income. You cannot go into politics expecting to be funded by others; you must and should be financially stable and comfortable.
You should also have a mind of your own and resolve never to be taken advantage of for whatever reason. You must also be close to your people so much so that you know the rhythm of their heartbeat. Whatever happens, the needs of the people should always come first with you. Do this and your successful political career is assured.