The Journal Nigeria

Saturday, 20th April 2024
About us | Advertise with us  |  Contributors  |  Contact us
lateefah Okunnu

Lateefah Okunnu Biography

Lateefah Modupe Okunnu is a Nigerian retired civil servant, educationist, and administrator who was one of the first two female Deputy Governors in the Nigeria. She was the Deputy Governor of Lagos State from 1990 to 1992.

Early Robust Years

My mid-position in the family had its many rewards. Being neither the eldest nor the youngest gave me the opportunity to have role models among my older siblings. It also instilled in me, at an early age, a sense of responsibility. I had younger ones to look after. At that time, child training was not only the parents’ responsibility but that of the grandparents as well. It was a close-knit extended family I grew up in. There was much love, affection and respect amongst us all. My father was a civil servant in the Railways. His job made him to travel a lot. He could be in Zaria at one time and then in Enugu at another. At such times, he took the very young ones with him. I remember staying with my grandmother, who had lived in Brazil and subsequently settled in Nigeria. They lived around the Campos area (known as the Brazilian Quarters) in Lagos. They were highly known for etiquette and proper upbringing and were referred to as the ‘Aguda’ people. They were meticulous about their environment and the culinary art. Thus, I spent so much time cleaning cutlery!

The community then was a close one, very conservative, though not homogenous. There were neighbours from different parts of Yorubaland as well as the eastern part of the country. There were no discriminations. Christians and Muslims lived together and it was natural enough to us. One felt safe and free. As young people, we took this setting for granted. We were aware of differences amongst us, but we respected one another more because of this. Then, unity in diversity was very much practised. My parents were very religious. They educated us in the Islamic religion and also in the Western way. One didn’t take precedence over the other. I was the first member of my family to attend a Muslim primary school. My other siblings went to one christian school or another. We all had a chance to go to school and one had no choice because to be literate was in vogue then. If you wanted to make it, you just had to go to school and do well there. You were left with no alternative.

Exhilarating Days of Primary School

I had watched my older siblings with keen interest and curiosity as they went to school. Gradually, I looked forward to going to school too. I wanted to experience the adventure and learning experience of school. I started school at Ansarudeen Oke Popo School at 86, Evans Street. Initially, I enjoyed the learning, teachers, and new friends, until I started expressing unwillingness to continue schooling there. My problem with the primary school was with the cane. In my house, the cane was rarely used because one would have been warned several times before it would be administered. So, one knew it was deserved. But in the primary school, the cane was used all the time, and at the slightest excuse. For instance, we had this Mathematics teacher who would even go to the extent of caning with his key holder if one didn’t do well at what was called ‘mental exercise’, that is, the multiplication table. It was partly because of the cane that I didn’t get on well with Maths. But a good thing about that was that I couldn’t wait to be out of primary school, so I left in standard 5 and not 6, having passed the Common Entrance Examination.

One interesting thing about primary school then was the calibre of dedicated teachers we had. They were just like your second parents. In fact, our headmaster took the school as his own faith or religion in life. He would go to any length to praise any pupil who did well and got admitted to secondary schools like King’s or Queen’s College, thereby stirring the will to excel in other pupils. Cleanliness was important. One couldn’t have worn a single uniform for the week. Our fingernails and shoes were inspected on the assembly and teachers attended judiciously to these things. Of paramount importance were the co-curricular activities, which were as important as the school lessons. Physical Education was taken seriously. There were inter-house sport activities. We would go to the Race Course, all the schools, including the other famous schools, singing and marching. There was the Empire Day celebration. Those were memorable events. The day was full and there was little time for frivolities. We had boys’ and girls’ clubs, regular picnics, at the Ikoyi Park and in Victoria Island. We used to trek to school and back. There was this wooden bridge one had to walk across. One could see the water below and experience anxious moment on the possibility of missing a footing and falling into the water. School was fun! We regarded the issue of education very seriously. There were public libraries where children from different schools met on weekends in a bid to run away from the noise in the neighbourhood caused by gramophone record sellers as well as the activities of the Aladura. The library provided a serene environment for learning and reading. There were many books one could borrow. This way, one developed the habit of reading. Of course, the population was manageable then.

Life in the Secondary School

At the Methodist Girls’ High School, I had a better opportunity to build on what I had learnt in primary school. A good number of the teachers were not graduates. They were Grade II certificate holders. We had some expatriate teachers as well and they were equally good. From Methodist Girls, I went to Queens’ College for my HSC. Before then, the few girls who wanted to do HSC used to go to Kings’ College. But the government, for the first time, started looking at the in-take of girls for the programme so we could have more girls going into the University, and we were the first set of those in Queens’ College to be admitted to the universities in the country. At Queens’ College, there were about eleven of us from all over the country, and a certain Pamela Martins from Cameroun. We had good teachers. Expatriate teachers were brought in to teach our subjects as well as look after the first year students. That was the foundation for which Queens’ College is known today. Our principal, Miss Gentle, who later became Mrs. Ogunba, was caring and made a lasting impression on us all. She died a few months ago. One feels it’s a great privilege to have been so selected. Before going to the University, I worked in the Ministry of Justice as a clerk in the old Marina. We finished the HSC in December and we didn’t go to the University until September the following year. I worked under the Late Teslim Elias and other lawyers under him: Mrs. Isikalu and the late Justice Sam Okuribido. There was a good library and the workers there were very hardworking. It was an enriching experience.

As an Undergraduate

I was among the last set of the University College, Ibadan before it became the University of Ibadan. In other words, we took the degree of the University College, London. I read Geography. I had a personal interest in Geography through the efforts of the good teachers we had during the HSC level. These teachers organized practicals and interesting excursions. For example, there was the trip to Idanre, and I recall we climbed hills and met the ancient Oba then, who was quite old. I wouldn’t have minded studying Law because of the privilege I had to work with some lawyers, who really made a lasting impression on me, but I was admitted to the university on scholarship and there was no scholarship to read Law then.

Being an undergraduate was really a wonderful experience. We were, I would say, pampered during our own time at the university. I was in Queens’ Hall for three years and I lived in a room by myself. We had stewards waiting on us while we ate. We had our laundry done if we wanted it, though I didn’t like the idea of people washing other people’s clothes with mine. The cleaners made one’s room and all you had to do was leave the key with the porters. They all went on an industrial strike at a time. We, the students, had to quickly manage the situation by taking turns in cooking and cleaning. The university staff, teachers and administrators alike were highly responsible. One respected them. They used to tell us we should work very hard for our degrees. In the university library, there were current journals which helped in facilitating one’s research and knowledge of global trends.

One was focused, serious about life and wanted to achieve something on one’s own. We worked very hard, striving to fulfil our dreams, one of which was to be able to buy and ride cars. Women were few then, compared to men, and because of this, women were expected to behave well. In the university then, if you didn’t behave well, you were ‘bugged’. There was a campus publication that was like the eye of the community and anybody that behaved in a funny way was bugged, which was a stigma at the time. Therefore, everyone was kept on his or her toes. We had our rag days and political demonstrations. 1961–1964, I remember vividly the period, the Akintola/Awolowo post election crisis. I recall also being part of the demonstration against the Nigerian-British pact. I would not forget, not for a very long time, the pervading confusion, dangerous excitement, and the choking tear gas. It was terrible.

Earliest Stints at the Public Service

As a Federal Government scholar, one had a bond to repay the government’s kind gesture by serving the country at the completion of one’s studies. I was posted to the Advanced Teacher College as an assistant lecturer. It wasn’t my choice; I was just lucky. The institution later became the College of Education, University of Lagos. Many of us women were employed on contract basis and confirmation of one’s appointment depended on one’s performance. It was a UNESCO – Nigeria Partnership Scheme and there were expatriate teachers from America and India. The UNESCO staff helped to set up the Federal Advanced Teacher College. The environment was challenging. It was the beginning of the Nigerian Certificate of Education (NCE). Our students were adults, majority of whom were Grade II teachers. It was a well-organised and well-equipped institution, such that those of us coming in without professional qualifications were taken as student lecturers. There was a system of in-house seminar facilitated by those who were qualified among the staff, so it was in-service training for us from day one. The HOD took one as an apprentice and put one through the job. I was motivated and challenged to do a postgraduate diploma in Education in 1968. That’s how I got stuck to Education.

High Point as an Educationist

With the creation of Lagos State, I assumed office as the Chief Inspector of Teacher Training Colleges in the state. We had patrons in the commissioners of Education in the state like the late Adeniran Ogunsanya and Akin Adesola, who tried to upgrade the educational system of the state. As the person in charge of the training of teachers, I was supervising all the Teacher Training Colleges in Lagos State which were run by the Catholic, the Protestant, the Muslim missionaries and the Ministry of Education. We had series of meetings on the budget allocation and expenditure of the development grant for the colleges. That was before the age of contractors. A forum for principals of Teacher Training Colleges was set up to look into standardising the curricula and examinations of the colleges. We also had to design a new programme to employ more teachers and train them in line with the newly introduced Universal Primary Education. We designed five different programmes to be able to get adequate teachers. There was a five-year programme for those who left primary school, a three-year programme for the G4, a year programme for those who had the school certificate, and a two-year programme for those who didn’t pass school certificate. These trainings were thorough and the federal and state ministries collaborated to make the programme a success. There was also the Consultative Committee on the Teacher Training Colleges and of secondary schools where the technocrats of the states, including Federal Government officials met. The decision to close the Teacher Training Colleges, in my opinion, is partly responsible for the low quality of teachers the country is having at the present moment.

With the Udoji Commission which stipulated, among other things, that professionals could be transferred to administration, I was transferred to administration in 1977 in Lagos State. In 1980, I was transferred back to the Federal Service where I was in charge of the Commodity Boards for Cocoa, Rubber, etc. These were very powerful organizations responsible for checking exports and managing grains reserves with headquarters all over the country. One had to attend meetings internationally and I travelled a lot. I had the singular honour of working with people like Ona Soleye in the Ministry of Finance from where I was appointed as a Permanent Secretary. This was a political department. My first posting as a Permanent Sectary was to an unfamiliar terrain. It used to be like a transit post where you could spend about nine months, and then get transferred again. Not knowing so much about this political terrain, I packed myself and my staff for a 2-week training at the Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) to sharpen our skills, and broaden our knowledge. My Department turned out to be the dynamic engine-room of the Transition to Civil Rule Programme of the Military Government. I was in this political terrain for over three years till my appointment as the Deputy Governor of Lagos State.

Being a Deputy Governor

I consider my appointment as the Deputy Governor of Lagos State the highest point of my career because it was a vindication of some sorts. I had left Lagos State to join the Federal Service out of necessity because of the political arrangement. When Jakande became the Governor of Lagos State, my husband was in the opposing camp and he (my husband) had sued him over local government creation palava. So immediately Alhaji Lateef Jakande came in, I was moved from being the Secretary of the School Management Board where I had had the rare privilege of working under Professor Fafunwa, who was then the Chairman of the Board. I was sent on ‘exile’ to the Ministry of Establishment with a ‘clean table’. I became a fugitive in my state. My initial instinct was to resign because of the humiliation. But I declined and decided to move to the Federal Service. Almost ten years after I had left Lagos for the Federal Service, I was posted back to Lagos as Deputy Governor and you can imagine the sense of vindication; it was as if God compensated me for my long years of humiliation and embarrassment. As a Deputy Governor, it was a different ball game because it was a military era. And since it was a political appointment, everything had to be done in the military posture. One could only do what one was asked to do, though I had a standard below which I couldn’t go. With the cooperation of the governor, some of us Lagosians in high positions in the Federal Service came together to see what we could do to boost the morale of Lagos State indigenes who were marginalised in the state, as the service was dominated by non-indigenes. Through the different fora of Lagos indigenes, we ensured that Lagosians occupied key positions, without necessarily pushing out non-Lagosians.

Gender Prejudice

There was one incident I wouldn’t forget. Part of my schedule as Deputy Governor was to oversee local government and chieftaincy title affairs. This fell under my jurisdiction, but my boss didn’t believe that I should be the one to go and present the staff of office to the chief, since I was a woman. He manoeuvered the situation, to the extent of going to the presidency, explaining the dangers of a woman presenting a staff of office to a chief. I was furious when he sent a commissioner to go and carry out my responsibility. So what did I do? Two days after the ceremony, I went there to do my own ceremony by paying an official visit to the palace and sat around the chief as if a formal installation was just being done. I didn’t see the big deal in a woman presenting the staff of office to one local chief. In spite of the military, with all the petty politics of me not outshining the boss, I still overcame all that by doing what I had to do thoroughly.

Educational Matters

I believe it was in the Ministry of Education that I contributed significantly to the Lagos State Civil Service. I had a complete picture of what I wanted and I worked towards that. What we have now in the state is far from the real thing. Education has been removed from the community and has become purely government or private business. Then, the community was involved in the affairs and management of education. The community participated in the Parents’ Teachers Association, and people who were recognised in the community were brought in to discuss and proffer suggestions. Parents were part of it and the inspectorate was good. Whether at the State or Federal Government level, the inspectorate is the heart of the school system. They visit schools and know where pupils don’t have facilities. There was proper allocation of resources; there may never have been enough but what we had, we were able to use well. Primary education was related to teacher training, which was related to secondary education and the whole education policy was related to the needs of the state and country. The allocation to education is still not enough. Many states in this country give less than 20% of their budget to education. Education is the primary responsibility of the government. It is irresponsibility, in my own view, for government not to give priority to education.

The decision by the government to give back some public schools to the Missions is a selfish one. Firstly, it is morally wrong. I was part of the arrangement of the take over of schools by the government. I was on the committee that went round and carried out the inspection for Lagos state. There were certain understanding at that level and a lot of resources had gone into these schools. They may be bad but what they had returned now is far from what they took over. In some cases, seven schools had grown up in place of one school. It’s like giving back government property to certain people. Secondly, privatizing schools only benefits the rich or those who can afford it. I would have preferred a community initiative where every body will be involved and you have a management committee for collaboration between the Government, the Mission and the larger community. In a democratic system, the private schools exist quite all right, but the public schools must be good enough for those who want it. We have not resolved the problem of adult literacy. We’re now creating juvenile illiteracy where people pass through primary six and they cannot communicate. At least, 70% of them will not go beyond that level. We need an imaginative approach to education because education is basic to any form of development.

Coping with Public Life

It is noteworthy that when we came into the Civil Service, we had a Civil Service that was accountable at every stage. Leadership was missionary and they saw it as their responsibility to train those who were coming behind them. That is why whenever one comes across these responsible leaders today, they are given their due respect. One wanted to do everything for such. Persons like the late Adebo, Allison Ayida, Sunday Awoniyi, Francesca Emanuel, and others. Financial transactions were properly monitored and one was always on one’s toes. The Permanent Secretary was in charge. The Minister was busy at his work. Everybody had to fit into the system. Establishment circulars and the gazette were published regularly, so ignorance was no excuse. It was imperative to be educated.

There were several meetings of the heads, from one level to the other, so one was a part of the system and one would go to any extent to defend the ministry. Things were done properly. One worked according to the rules. For example, if one had to attend an international meeting, one needed to get a memo to the council for approval, after having explained the reason for the travel. When one comes back, one had to tender a report and send another memo to council.

Those of us women who graduated in the early 60s are pioneer role models. I never entertained doubts in my ability to do the job or feel inadequate for the challenges. I saw my position as a privileged opportunity to serve the country. It was a privilege because, out of the so many thousands, one was considered appropriate for the position. The feeling that you’re entrusted with the secret of the government made you carry yourself with pride. But these days the basics have been eroded. There was exposure through in-service training and there were short induction and refresher courses, some even outside the country. All the government seems to be concerned about now is computer literacy, as if that is everything there is to administration. Attention should be focused on staff welfare, salaries, and training.

The most challenging part of my career was being the Chairman of the National Care-taker Committee of the NRC. I found myself in a setting where I could not relax. I was constantly on my toes. Suspicions and dislike trailed me wherever I went. It was a narrow escape for me. The political arrangement was artificial. You were not welcome as a caretaker because the people who constituted the party, who put their resources together, were thrown away and they didn’t take kindly to that. Moreover, the people you were working with had goals that were totally different from yours. Some saw it as an opportunity to embezzle funds. With basic background in the civil service, I knew about accountability so I wasn’t ready to flaunt the rules and face the Public Accounts Commission. So while you were trying to do things properly, you were becoming an obstacle to some people. I had no experience in political arrangement, I never even carried a party card so it was tough being in charge of the state and having to work with a lot of ill feelings. For example, some of the members of staff were those who had worked for these political parties. So, it was hard to have their loyalty. I had to put my foot down and some of them I sent packing, especially those who were advisers. You could not be an adviser to someone who was sent away and an adviser to me at the same time. Those that stayed had to stay on my own conditions and the whole experience was unwholesome. But with some of my old staff, we managed to get things done properly and thank God, it went well. But you needed to have seen how the politicians got mad at me for returning the money that wasn’t used and utilized into the treasury at the end of my tenure in office. I didn’t mind them; I just did what I thought was right.

Nigerian-Coloured Politics

I assure you that if I were interested in politics before I became the chairman of NRC, I definitely wasn’t afterwards. Nigerian politics as it is now is dangerous; though, I don’t think godliness and politics are two parallel lines. In fact, godly people are those who can help us turn things around. Politics is not to be seen as a business venture. We need people who won’t turn into devils because of their political aspirations, who belong to parties that have credible and realistic ideologies and manifestos.

There must also be some form of tutelage where one graduates from one level to the next: from the local government experience, to state experience before going on to the federal government. Not just waking up one day and wanting to become the president. One could take it as one’s mission in life that by going into politics, one is rendering service to God, though the fear is that if one goes into politics with this attitude s/he would either be killed or s/he would not be godly anymore. I would rather say that with less emphasis on money and a demystification of politics through greater participation of the general citizenry in politics, there could be an influence on those who occupy these positions. Take for instance, the system in Britain where there is a forum for questions between the parliament and the Prime Minister. This could reduce the level of corruption on the latter’s part. There are checks and balances in the Nigerian political set-up. But poverty is a major obstacle to be addressed because if people do not have to wait for bread before going to vote, then even when they’re offered money or other forms of bribe, they can say, ‘Yes, we’ll take your money but we’ll not vote for you’, or ‘We’ll not take your money because it’s dirty money and we’re not for sale’. Religious organizations must encourage citizens’ participation in politics, and in the affairs of the state. We had those values before; we’ll just have to work our way back to them.

Marriage between Families

My husband and I met shortly before I went to the university as an undergraduate. We were family friends and so weren’t complete strangers. He had just returned from England, but we didn’t marry until after my university education because I was determined to finish my undergraduate studies before marriage. It’s funny we ended up marrying because he answered so many things I said I would never accept. He was a lawyer, and I had said I would never marry a lawyer. He was an old boy of King’s College, and I had said I would never marry a King’s College boy because they were so proud! Incidentally, my father as well as two of my brothers were old boys. We’ve been married for over four decades now and the journey hasn’t been without its bumps. We are generally compatible and he has more or less encouraged me in my career. It’s true that no two marriages are the same and maybe there is an element of luck in marriage, but there certainly should be that of trust. I believe one has to be very careful in the choice of a marriage partner by reducing the incompatibilities to the barest minimum.

Of course, there are still challenges to be faced even when you have similar backgrounds and similar religious affinities, but at least you still have a common ground. I was lucky that my in-laws were very understanding, and the type of job I was doing when I just got married gave me time for my family.

There were good domestic servants as well, and one’s parents and in-laws were there to help, so even if one had a nanny, the house wasn’t completely left in the hands of a stranger. For example, I lived with my mother-in-law in the same compound till she died in 1981. She was very motherly. It wasn’t as if she did all the domestic chores but I had that rest of mind while at work that the house was with someone I could trust. Then, one’s family and the society were there to support one. It wasn’t an uncommon thing to have one’s mother close down her shop to be able to stay with one a few months after child delivery. The neighbourhood was safe as well. I recall a fire incident we had in the neighbourhood while we were at Yaba. The man who lived there, probably a smoker, had thrown a lighted cigarette on the carpet which later caught fire. Before he returned, those of us around had called the firemen and put it out. I’m worried about the breakdown of this culture of caring and neighbourliness.

These days, you can hardly trust one’s domestic help, not to talk of the neighbours. When I see a married woman working in the bank with the rigours attached to that sector, I wonder if I could have coped with such a thing. There are strains on marriages now and part of the problem is that we fail to take cognizance of our culture on marital issues. We are different from the whites. With the Europeans, by the time a child is eighteen, s/he is on his or her own. Here, until a child is married, the parents are still in charge. So the idea of a child just coming home one day and saying, ‘Mum, meet my …’ doesn’t go down well with me. I don’t believe in forced marriages but rather in arranged marriages where parents are involved in the selection of their in-laws. It gives them the opportunity of finding out the other person’s medical history, whether there is a case of mental illness or ill health. Then, one didn’t know sickle cell existed. There was marriage counselling as well. I think northern Muslims still carry this out and it is working for them because in case of a problem, there is feed back. Marriage is a union between families, and not just individuals. The immediate and extended family members should all be involved.

The Beauty of Motherhood

Motherhood is fulfilling, if one believes that in looking after the children one is serving God. An Arabic adage says that the mother is a school. If she is a good school, very good children would be turned out, but if she is a bad school, …! So, the mission of motherhood has to be taken seriously and not relegated to the background. I doff my hat for those women who are so focused that they aren’t ready to keep a career at the expense of their home. I listened to a woman on T.V who said if she couldn’t leave her jewelry in the hands of her housekeeper then her child was even more important. It may sound unrealistic, but I know many women are working not because of a need but because of greed. I recall when we were growing up, we got really upset if we returned from school and didn’t see our mothers because they would usually be there to serve our food, to ask about our day and whatever our teachers asked us to bring the following day. They were full-time house makers/housewives with private businesses which they attended to in the evenings. I believe the government has to create a relaxed environment and by that, I mean part time jobs where women can put in three hours of work at their own convenience and be paid, as well as daycare centres where their kids would be. I cannot explain why a nursing mother should be working from 6:00am to 6:00pm. Women in the bank or in politics should be those who are relatively free or independent. Things have to be balanced in view of the damages being done to our families. It pays to have a smaller purse and a healthier, good family. Yes, we need women in the development of the country but it must not be at the expense of their homes.

Being a mother requires patience, particularly with the girl child. What I try to do when talking to a teenager is to look back and ask, ‘What was my attitude at this age?’ in order to be fair. We all have elements of rebellion, so recalling what one did to one’s own mother should put one in a position to relate to one’s own daughter. I believe that a child that is given a good dose of religion will not find it difficult to imbibe high moral values. Then we must get our priorities right, and not encumber our young ones with too many activities. These days, kids go to ‘lessons’ from school and afterwards arrive home to meet another home teacher. Our children are so full of care and have no time ‘to stand and stare.’ Our children need to be given the freedom to express themselves. Mothers must go out of their way to be enlightened. The world is becoming a global village, and so the mother must get acquainted with events around her. An educated mother is twenty times better than an illiterate one. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have major problems raising my daughter because I had the support of a large and close-knit family.

Islam and Family Life

Polygamy in Islam is permitted, not compulsory. It is permitted only on a high moral ground where the family remains intact whether the wives are two, three or more. The head of the family being the common factor, he is to a large extent responsible for the success of the home. It isn’t something that is easy to manage, but I believe it is better than infidelity. I think it is a leeway for those who feel they cannot contain their sexual urge with a single woman. Though there are ways to go about it, you don’t go into polygamy without informing the woman in the house. You don’t need her consent of course, because marriage is a contract. If the contract signed was for monogamy, you, the woman, are free to leave in the event of him bringing in another woman. Polygamy is allowed in Islam and it is something that should be accommodated for the security of the family. I remember my paternal grandfather had many wives and the compound was very large. The wives were busy doing their own things, the children were free and he was the ‘big man’ in charge. I also know of polygamous families having a lot of acrimony and suspicion. It all depends on the family head. There are some who practise polygamy but do not put the women under the same roof and that might well be a way out because it removes the possibility of stepping on the other’s toe, but it isn’t everyone who can afford a separate apartment for each wife. And where the heads are irresponsible, some of them take advantage of having the wives in separate apartments to cheat on their wives.

According to Islam, men are in charge of women, they are responsible for their welfare, and you can have them all, provided you meet their needs. It is not natural for them to be loved equally, because you can’t measure that? I would rather say it’s important to be fair to all. You don’t concentrate on one at the expense of the other. If you spend ten naira on A, you must make sure you do so with B and C, even the nights must be shared, no favoritism. If one must go in for polygamy, there must be an added sense of responsibility and not just for the lust of it.

Nigerian Women and the Work Terrain

I believe the Nigerian woman is lucky, and by that I don’t just mean graduates or modern day women. I remember my grandmother, with the free time polygamy afforded her, used to travel abroad for her business. In my maternal grandfather’s house we had Mama Kano, Mama Douala, indicating the country they went to for trade. And maybe because of the part of the Nigeria where I come from, it is wrong to say that our women are not free. We hardly had what you called a full time housewife even in the North, with the woman in purdah. They made ‘ogi’, canvas shoes, right there in their compound. There was a system of structured training in our tradition. You had the apprentice-trader whereby one entrusted one’s teenager to a friend or relation to go with her on a trade journey, so as to get familiar with the trade until she was grown up to set up her own. Initially, Muslim women were not going to school in Lagos because the missionaries tried to convert them, they even went as far as giving them Christian names. The colonialists soon realized this and arrangements were made to rectify this.

Women have always faced and tackled challenges and I think in comparison to other African countries, Nigerian women are lucky. We still have to make our political environment suitable, though. The issue of nocturnal meetings by political parties needs to be addressed. Francesca Emanuel did a lot in improving the disparities in allowances given to a married man and a married woman, or the issue of employing a woman on contract basis in her own country because of gender. The Nigerian woman is free to own her own property and vote and be voted for. We still need, however, to improve the working conditions so it does not infringe on the family welfare.

Pet Projects

Part of my responsibilities as the chairperson of the National Board of Education, of the Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN), is the fulfillment of the right of the child to education. In line with this, we run schools in all the states of the federation. My own organisation, Muslim Ladies Circle, started as a study group where we meet and discussed religion with learned persons. We have prayer meetings, and gradually we wanted to take some steps to practise what the religion teaches, hence in affiliation with the FOMWAN, we run and monitor schools in order to take care of children of working mothers. We are the proprietors of Crescent Nursery and Primary School in 1004 Estate Lagos. I’m very much involved in it. We organise annual lectures. We have a consultative forum with the government on educational matters. There is no religious discrimination in our school and we give scholarships depending on what we have in our purse.

Role Models

I have great respect for women who have made it within or outside Nigeria. Women like Dr. Irene Thomas, Francesca Emanuel, and Margaret Thatcher. I believe the woman is like the moral conscience, so she must always see herself as a role model in whatever she’s doing and be able to make a positive impact wherever she finds herself. Other women like Dora Akunyili, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, who is the Minister of Finance, Dr. Ndidi Okereke who is on top of the Stock Exchange, Mrs. Cecilia Ibru and others in the banking sector are doing wonderful jobs.

A Moderate Character

I love reading. My only regret is that I don’t have much time now. I also enjoy my solitude, that has been with me since childhood. I’m not the party type. I like being in a forum where I can share ideas with others, like our Victoria Island and Ikoyi Residents’ Association. I go out of my way to diet. I don’t eat too much because I don’t want to be told ‘don’t eat this again!’ I exercise regularly by swimming mostly. I like walking. Unfortunately, the environment is not suitable for taking long walks, not with the Okadas’ bad riding. I’m a cook and I cook for myself. I like my food fresh and tasty. I like modesty in dressing and wearing appropriate clothes for occasions. I love jewelry but in moderation as well.

See More Outstanding Nigerian Women