‘My choice isn’t a favour, I’m bringing something to the table’
Just few weeks after her selection as the running mate to PDP’s Jimi Agbaje in the forthcoming governorship election in Lagos State, a lot has changed in the schedule of Mrs Haleemat Busari, a corporate lawyer and boardroom guru, who has sat on the board of several blue-chip companies in Nigeria.
Unlike when madam used to run her show, the protocol team of the PDP has taken full charge of her itinerary, not forgetting the security apparatus that now surrounds her. That’s politics for you.
For sure, being selected as the running mate in a state like Lagos is indeed a big deal. And for Busari, it’s all about her antecedents.
“I think my work and antecedents spoke for me. Until recently when I was announced as the running mate of Mr. Jimi Agbaje, I was the Group Head, Legal and Regulatory Affairs, Honeywell Group. I held that position for more than 20 years.
Before now, I have been involved in various engagements on how to move Lagos and Nigeria forward, so at a point, I think I was noticed. I’m really grateful for being considered for this role,” she said.
Unlike in some cases where the choice of a female as Deputy Governor candidate is for mere gender balancing, Busari’s case appears different.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve not been done a favour; I’m bringing something to the table,” she said, adding, ‘if I’m confident that I have my own skills and values that I’m bringing stuff to the table, then why should I not be who I am and have a say in whatever it is we are trying to achieve? So, I think it’s a function of individual; if you position yourself in a way that you are not confident and you don’t know what you are doing you will be treated like that. For me, it’s about who are you and how you positioned yourself.”
She continued: “I’ve always been somebody, who doesn’t believe in maintaining status quo, so, I’ve always engaged with people intellectually on how we can bring change. Not as an active politician, but I’ve been part of groups that will hold discussions and all of that. I guess that at some point, you will be identified if you are the right person for something with all sense of humility and due respect. And that was what happened in this situation; I was called and I accepted to serve because it’s something I’ve always been passionate about.”
Already, there seems to be an understanding between Busari and her principal, Jimi Agbaje on her role in government if PDP eventually succeeds in ousting APC from Alausa come 2019.
“I remember that one of the very first things I discussed with my principal at the point of engagement was, what kind of Deputy Governor are you looking for? Are you looking for a spare tyre Deputy Governor or are you looking for a Deputy governor that you will jointly govern and think together and come up with ideas that will lead us to what it is we are trying to achieve? What we agreed was that clearly he’s not looking for a spare tyre Deputy Governor; he’s looking for somebody who will work together with him.”
Before her selection was made public, the PDP screening team had beamed their searchlight on a couple of other strong party members, who were equally being considered for the post. But after series of consultations and scrutiny, Busari’s imposing credentials and experience in the corporate world stood her out.
“When I was first consulted, my initial reaction was to retreat into myself and go back to my maker. I’m a Muslim; we have something that we do when we want to take decision. It’s a process whereby you go into yourself and talk to God and you ask Him, ‘is this from you? Is this what you want for me.’ That was exactly what I did, that’s how I run my life; I take decisions based on what God have in stock for me.
“Sometimes, I’m passionate about some things, but sometimes, some things are not good for you at a particular time because God hasn’t destined it. So, that was my initial reaction. So, it was a case of, ‘God, is this from you? Is this what you want me to do? Is this how you want me to impact?’ I prayed about it for a couple of days and I felt at peace; when you feel at peace with something then you know it’s the right thing to do.”
In accepting to be Agbaje’s running mate, the consent of Busari’s husband became a factor.
“My husband played a very great role because I’m a woman, a workingwoman, but I’m also a very traditional woman and there are some values I hold on to. One of those values is that if you don’t have your husband on your side, there’s very little that you can do. It’s only a foolish woman that will take a decision without carrying her husband along. Even though on a lighter note, we know we take all the decisions,” she said jokingly.
“He had to play a big role in it because whatever comes out of it, both of us are going to have to deal with it. So, if I don’t have him behind me there’s no way I can do it; that’s it. He’s also somebody, who runs his life based on what Allah has destined. So, when I was contacted and I told him, he also said ‘let’s pray, it will be done.”
With the APC Lagos having a man as running mate, Busari sees advantage for the PDP, which came very close to wining the election in 2014.
“I can tell you that it’s an advantage to us. A woman is a mother; you are a natural mother. A woman is so many things rolled into one; a natural diplomat, a natural negotiator, a natural influencer… these are skills that are innate to women and so the sensible woman, in the course of growing up and in her life, would have honed all these skills.”
On how she intends to bring that to bear in government, she explained, “when you are in government, you are constantly negotiating; you are constantly lobbying to get things done. I think that because women have all of these natural innate skills, it’s going to be an advantage. Naturally, when you are at a negotiation table, and it’s something I’ve seen often in the course of my 30 years in the corporate world, when a woman comes onto the negation table, trust me, things change, especially a woman, who knows her onions. Women naturally have the ability to decipher things and we are able to se where things are going sometime, which men can’t do because of the ego that they have.”
She continued: “When you have a room full of men negotiating, sometimes, the ego allows the negotiation to break down because everybody is at each other’s throat. But we women don’t see things like that; we want to achieve. So, we go in there ensuring that we connect with everybody and we get the best deal. Which is why I think in this situation, it’s going to be an advantage because we even have an experienced corporate woman, who has been a boardroom guru in the space and so, all of that is what I will bring to bear in governance in Lagos State,” she assured.
When it comes to women in politics, especially as it concerns the perception of the feminine gender in Nigeria, Busari has a different opinion.
“I would like to look at it from the perspective of, are women presenting themselves for offices? Nobody will empower you if you don’t empower yourself. It’s not a case of are you getting a change. It’s actually a case of, are you presenting yourself? And how do you present yourself? You must be focused; you must know what it is you want in life and you must work towards it. You must hold on to that which you believe in strongly. And it is from doing all those things that leads you to wherever it is that you like to get to.
“For instance, you want to be a senator and all your life you’ve done nothing with yourself and you wake up one morning and say you want to be a senator, how does that work? What skills that you have in you that will assist you to achieve that objective? When you get there, what are you going to do? What do you understand they are doing in the chambers? So, it’s actually preparing yourself and identifying what it is you want from life and working towards it. Of course, with God’s help. God is a big factor in my life, so, no matter what you want to do, there’s the God factor; you have to believe and trust Him. But you know what they say; heaven helps those, who help themselves,” she noted.
Giving insight into how women should position themselves for higher offices, she said, “We women also need to get away from this myth that we are weak. For me, I think it’s the starting point; feeling weak and helpless. We need to understand that we are human beings endowed with different abilities, God given abilities. I think we should learn how to harness and build our different abilities. I also think that as women, we need to learn how to plan ourselves and put structure in place.”
As for financial independence for women, Busari is an advocate.
“I’m a great believer in it. In as much as I’m traditional, I also believe that women must work; even the Holy Book says that women must work. The Quran allows me to work; it gives me that mercy to work. So, I think as women, we need to plan better. You have children, you have to run the home, you have to look after your husband, that’s fine, but whatever happens to planning? You have the weekend, cook your food and freeze it. If you have children, you have support. Some of us have mothers, some of us don’t. Those that have mothers, use your family support. If you don’t have mother, pay for it, put infrastructure in place that keeps your home going and allows you work. And most importantly, have your husband behind your back.”
She continued: “You have to have your husband in your corner, if not, it won’t happen and that’s the mistake most of we women make. We don’t know how to have our husbands in our corner. Once you do that and you put infrastructure in place at home, there’s always food at home, the man allows you fly; he allows you do the things you want to do,” she said.
With over 30 years in the corporate world, Busari sees no difference between politics and corporate governance.
“For me, they are similar because, what do you do in the corporate world and what do you do in the political world? You set goals and you deliver the same with the political world and you must deliver.”
With an accomplished businessman as a father and a mother, who was from the Kosoko royal family of Lagos, growing up was indeed great for young Haleemat and her siblings.
“I had a very happy childhood even though there was discipline in the home. My mother was very strict with me even as the last child because she didn’t want me to become a spoilt brat. I got whipped when the need arose and pampered when I behaved well.”
A lover of education, she had already acquired a degree in English from the University of Ilorin before returning to her first love, Law. Though law was what she had always wanted to study, she felt that to be a successful lawyer, she needed to develop her writing and speaking skills.
“The idea of studying English first came to me. It was indeed the need to have a good command of the English Language and be the best at my craft as a lawyer that made me take that route,” she explained.
The last of five children in a family, Busari has always enjoyed talking, which was part of the ways through which she entertained herself.
“My siblings were much older than me, so whenever I got their attention, I would bombard them with endless questions. I think ending up as a lawyer came naturally for me,” she said.
To Busari, being married to a lawyer and a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN) for that matter has been a blessing to her career.
“It benefitted my employers because they got the price of two for one. When I had knotty issues at work, I could pick his brain seeing that he is a SAN. Of course, there is the issue of confidentiality and as a result, there were things that we couldn’t discuss but generally, being married to him improved the quality of my work and this was to the benefit of my employers.”
Recalling how they first met, she said, “we met at a religious gathering; a few persons and I came together in the 1980s to form an Islamic group called Movement for Islamic Culture and Awareness to promote the values of our religion. I was the first Amirah (woman leader) of the group. On one particular day, while we were having our religious meeting, I noticed this particular tall, dark and handsome young man in the crowd continuously starring at me. I felt uncomfortable at some point but carried on with my duty that day. At the end of the programme, he walked up to me and asked if I could take off my hijab because he wanted to see my face well. I was shocked and told him that I was not going to do that. We laughed over it and became friends from that point.”
Now 23 years in marriage, Busari has learned a lot as a wife and mother.
“Marriage has taught me patience. It has taught me tolerance and unconditional love. Trust, perseverance and humility are the other important lessons that marriage has taught me.”
And from the boardroom, “I have really learnt a lot of lessons in the boardroom. One of them is that you must be hard working and always be on top of your game. I have also learnt to always defend what I believe in. Life in the boardroom has taught me never to be afraid of speaking the truth. It taught me to be always prepared before every meeting.”
As a Muslim who is very familiar with Islam’s dress code, Busari sure knows how to look good.
“I think my mind inspires my looks. I don’t dress to impress anybody; I wear what I think I am comfortable in. Being stylish comes naturally for me.”