SHE is a prophetess. And like every prophetess honours always come from abroad. She is an activist. And like every activistÂ she is misunderstood. But unlike many prophetess and activists, Mrs. Maryam Babangida, Nigeriaâ€™s First Lady, is not bitter. Bitterness has no place in her system. No grudges. No ill-feelings. Rather, Mrs. Babangida is at peace with herself, working dedicatedly and selflessly to improve the lot of the Nigerian woman in particular and Nigerians in general.
Considering the magnitude of criticisms heaped on the Better Life Programme the reporter can be excused if he expected to find in the First Lady, an angry woman who seizes every opportunity to give it back to her critics. Considering the import of the recent Africa Prize for Leadership Award, the reporter can be pardoned if he expected to see in the First Lady, a woman engaged in self-congratulation. But instead of anger, Maryam Babangida shows understanding. Instead of self-adulation she exudes modesty. Sheâ€™s candid, purposeful and courageous. As we were ushered into her tastefully furnished office located within the sprawling Dodan Barracks complex, she welcomed us each with a warmth smile. Suddenly, the photographer set to work – click! Click!! Click!!! Perhaps surprised by the photographerâ€™s â€œattack,â€ she numbled a feeble protest which was immediately followed by a hearty laughter. Somehow, everyone of us joined her.
And as the room reverberated with throaty laughter, we inched our way nearer her executive table. She gestured that we take our seats and then followed the usual introduction. As this was going on, one couldnâ€™t help but admire the First Lady. She looked extremely elegant in her hand-woven Kente jacket worn over a yellow top adorned with large gold buttons. With her hair bounded into one and kept in place with a large red bow at the back, she looked so beautiful and much more younger than her several published photographs portray. The First Ladyâ€™s office is a reflection of the mind, taste and dream of its occupant. Neat, posh and orderly with several awards, souvenirs, paraphernalia – most of them connected with the Better Life Programme as well as personal and family photographs – carefully put in place. At the two far corners – facing the entrance wereÂ two big flower plants with lush green leaves. AÂ big screen TV set, from which the First LadyÂ catches on with goings -on in the worldÂ and a plethora of telephones completed the picture of her executive office.
For about one hour, in that office, Mrs. Maryam Babangida fielded questions from a team of Vanguard senior journalists comprising Editor, Frank Aigbogun; Assistant Editor, Niran Malaolu; and State House correspondent, Dapo Olufade. Mrs. Babangida comes across as a woman who genuinely feels for the under-privileged people and is determined to help them in whatever way she can. Hear her: â€œAs a woman who has gone through some stages in life,
I feel for othersâ€ She talks about the Better Life programme, its source of funding contribution to society, the recent international award, life after 1992, the BLP critics, and ofcourse, the big question – is Nigeria ready for a female president? No doubt, Maryam Babangidaâ€™s activities – whether we like it or not – have put the issue of Nigerian woman on national agenda. But after spending about 60 minutes chatting with this gem of a lady, one is irresistibly compelled to see that ours – no matter her human failings – is a First Lady who has done more than Nigerians are prepared to admit. â€“ Niran Malaolu.
Excerpts from the interview which was conducted in September 1991
THE Better Life Programme is for sure, an enduring legacy. But Â Â Â have you ensured that it does not go under with the expiration of this administrationâ€™s term of office?
We have taken care of the continuity of the programme. We have now established the National Commission for Women which is in the Presidency. The commission is to take care of the totality of womenâ€™s development and integration. We shouldnâ€™t have the fear of the programme falling by the wayside after we must have gone. And donâ€™t forget that the people are there. If Maryam is no more there, the beneficiaries of this programme are there. They have been taught how to manage and continue the programme.
The impression one gets is that reasonable efforts have been taken to ensure there is continuity. But as we have seen in this country, there are times that we need more than just….
(Interrupts) That is why I said everything depends on the people and how the people are benefitting from whatever package you have put forward for them. Iâ€™m assuring you that the Better Life Programme has been accepted very well in this country. You might not realize the impact of this programme because you are in Lagos.
You need to go to the rural areas and see how much work, how much impact this programme has had on the rural women inparticular. But donâ€™t forget the size of this country. If within three/four years, we have touched so many homes, you should appreciate our efforts. Iâ€™m telling you that if Nigeria had moved the way we have been moving with this programme, we would have been one of those developed nations. Therefore, since the people have embraced this programme, I cannot have any fear about lack of continuity.
The only problem, I foresee is lack of funding. By this, Iâ€™m not saying that government should fund this programme as such, but about having access to credit facilities. This is one of the major handicaps in the execution of the programmes. However, we are already looking into the various areas of getting the banks to reason with us that the women should be given special attention.
How have the banks been responding?
What we did in Abuja during our anniversaries is to organize workshops on credit facilities in different areas. We invited various financial institutions to come and enlighten us on the availability of funds, how to apply and the interest rate which we are very much concerned about. We have done that and we now know few places to go to. The banks, ofcourse, were a bit slow in getting loans across to the women, but we are negotiating. And now, they are trying to work out a package for women.
Donâ€™t forget there is credit facility in UBA for women. There is the Peoples Bank. There are the Community Banks. So, all these are a good sign that eventually the women would have the strength or the economic power which is of much concern to me.
Apart from the financial sector, what efforts have you made to attract other sectors of the economy?
Which sectors do you mean?
Like the industrial sector for example.
Before, the manufacturers of equipment never paid attention to equipment that are peculiar to the needs of the women. But now they are coming up with machines to suit the use of women.
For example, FIIRO, PRODA and some other ones have done a lot in this regard. In fact, one of the good things the programme has done is to kind of inject into the manufacturing system the spirit of getting things done locally. The programme has made them realize that they should not all the time go for the biggest equipment while we are here suffering from lack of little equipment (small – scale machines) that everybody in the rural area needs. That is something we have been able to achieve. As we go along, we take so many things into consideration such as the needs of these women and then link them up with the various institutions. You see, we are not just working with them, we are linking them up with the various agencies.
What is the main source of funding for the programme itself?
Itâ€™s through self assistance. The programme was not initiated by the government; it was initiated by my very self. It is my idea that was translated into practical terms. Of course, we have problems with the funding aspect of it. Being a new programme, everybody was just watching. What we did was to tax ourselves. In some cases, we pay for our involvement. In other cases, we ask for donations. So, itâ€™s through self-assistance and through appeals to non-governmental organisations and individuals. That is the sincere source of funding for Better Life. But surprisingly, even if I say this 100 times a day, people will not believe. Some people think government is funding the programme. They think thereâ€™s so much money in it.
Welfare of women
But you should know that money is not everything. In this case, it is the sincerity and the style of operation, the good leadership example, which we offer that makes the programme successful. Look at it sincerely, the wife of the president, the wives of the governors are not bound to suffer, to go out there trekking under rain or sun, going into villages, meeting the underprivileged people. So, our cause is very genuine and therefore, we find people coming to assist. That is how we started and that is how it is still going.
What gave you idea of the programme?
It is the concern for the welfare of women in general and of rural women in particular. I do not want to start telling long story, but as a woman I know where the shoe pinches. As a woman who has gone through some stages in life, I feel for others. If you can trace your roots right down to the rural area, why shouldnâ€™t you give them a voice, a recognition, a sense of belonging? It is my feeling for them that Iâ€™m translating into reality. I want to help in giving them a better standard of life.
Once in a while, DFRRI appoints independent people to inspect its projects on the ground a style which has greatly reduced criticsâ€™ attack on the directorate. How do you monitor your programme, particularly the governorâ€™s wivesâ€™ claims of Better Life achievements in their states?
DFRRI is a government organisation. We are not. But we have our own monitoring system. Our members – national planning members supervise their various states on a continuous basis. And I do go around to see things for myself. The governorâ€™s wives with their committees also go out to see things for themselves. In these committees, are various sub-committees which have monitoring teams. In each state, apart from the national committee, there is state monitoring team. We know what we are doing. We would not want to bring our names into a mess. We have a very good structure, a good sense of direction, Being on our own and with the little resources available to us, I think we are very thorough. We have our books and we ensure accountability because I am a very disciplined and serious person. If you have ten naira to spend, you must account for it and I must see how you have spent it.
You always show concern for children and youth. Why? And what contribution is Better Life making to ensure responsibility and good behaviour in children?
Well, youâ€™re a young man, so, I will forgive you for saying why. (Laugh), you see, I was a child, Iâ€™m now a mother and a wife. I should as a mother feel for the child. It is a natural thing for a mother to show concern for her childâ€™s upbringing. I love children. The Better Life Programme is trying to integrate the children into the programme by way of letting them participate. While their mothers are working, they come to learn one or two things. My personal concern is to see that the children of this nation enjoy the best of facilities and amenities and are brought up in good environment. I have been able to work for the success of the establishment of the Childrenâ€™s Trust Fund.
Also, there is a yearly First Ladyâ€™s concert. I interact with them through the children assembly where we gather and have a session during which they ask so many questions and all that. For the disabled children, Iâ€™ve been able to assist them financially, I pay attention a lot to these people because they are the leaders of tomorrow.
How much success has the BLP recorded in the area of small-scale industries?
We have a lot of cottage industries here and there. I can give you statistics to back up our claims. Because agriculture is the core of our programme, we have been able to set up a lot of cottage industries and moreso, formed cooperative societies. In states where it is difficult for a woman to own a piece of land, we have been able to break through by acquiring farmland. Also, we have been able to establish some shops, marketsÂ etc.
What is the degree of success of the Adult Literacy Programme and EPI you embarked upon?
We collaborate with the Ministries of Health, Education as well as NDE, DFRRI, and other relevant departments. We work closely with them to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from these programmes. Ours is to coordinate, assist, energize and mobilise everybody involved to provide what is required. On adult literacy, we work with the Ministry of Education, we have joined the adult education campaign. We have established a lot of multi-purpose centres where adult education classes are going on. Also, we helped tremendously in the immunization exercise. In fact, through the BLP, a very high rate of success was achieved in the immunization exercise. The minister has even acknowledged our efforts in this regard.
The recent international award is an acknowledgment of your ideas and good work in Nigeria. Now, how much of this idea have you managed to extend to people outside Nigeria, especially in Africa? Secondly, what has been your greatest moment of satisfaction?
Iâ€™m a silent worker. Iâ€™ve done a lot for this country but not so much recognised because of the complexity of this society and moreso, because I am not loud. Now, in terms of mobilization in Africa, I think Iâ€™ve been able to put things through in some areas and places. Our BLP is on in some African countries. Our ambassadorsâ€™ wives are championing the course of this programme. Their problem, I understand, is lack of fund. But for mobilizing the people and creating the awareness in them in something great. We have been able to interact with some of the presidents in Africa, they are aware of this programme and are very happy about it.
We were able to exhibit our products in Abuja during the OAU and ECOWAS summits and that attracted a lot of attention. The ambition is to sell Nigeria, especially the works of Nigerian women and to promote the good image of our country. And also to show that women can be very hardworking if we are not suppressed or harassed. As to the second question, my greatest moment of satisfaction may be this award. Because I never thought of it. I was just sincerely working, trying to use my position to assist those who are the less-privileged people in the society. For me to be honoured – although I would have appreciated it more if it was done in Nigeria first – the announcement was a moment of satisfaction.
One vice that has attracted attention under the BLP is drug-trafficking. What achievements would you ascribe to BLP in this crusade?
We are trying to create more enlightenment awareness in this area. We organised workshop, weâ€™ve gone to schools to enlighten the children. I have established drug free clubs which the ministry of education has taken up. Weâ€™re able to make some progress in that respect. But donâ€™t forget that this exercise requires a lot of money. At the same time, we are being cautious as sometimes the strategy backfires because children being what they are, are very curious. if you tell them donâ€™t do this, they will want to do it in your absence. However, we are trying to map out a better approach. It is a very delicate issue.
Donâ€™t you think parents have a lot of responsibility in this crusade?
Not only parents. Neighbours, relations, teachers, everybody has a responsibility in this regard. Everybody should be enlightened. When you donâ€™t know, you wouldnâ€™t recognise on time that your child is involved. It is an issue for which the whole community must pay attention.
It seems the African tradition whereby the women are usually at home is gradually breaking down. Today, by the time the parents are off to work, the children are left on their own and hence subjected to bad influences. Does that not contribute to the high incidence of drug abuse among the youths?
Thatâ€™s why every parent should be concerned about the issue. Because even if you try to keep your own children disciplined, some friends could come in and influence them. As to the question of both parents working, it is you people who say man must survive, man must wack, abi? However, I think they (the parents) should always try to get home on time to see to the welfare of these children. One thing that has made it more pronounced is the lack of care by the father. A home is being kept by the man and the wife. They have joint responsibility. If one is out, the other – which happens to be the woman – cannot totally cope.
You see, children being what they are, usually mistake their mothers for their playmates and this is because the mothers are often with them. When daddy comes, therefore, he should be able to enforce some authority. But surprisingly many dads do not stay around enough to do this. However, my appeal is that the men should live up to their responsibility by staying at home and paying more attention to the children.
In a traditional society, man is the head. There is the fear that the modern woman may upset this. Do you think the fear is…?
You are not sincere. Why should you be afraid of a woman coming up?
Not really being afraid of a woman coming up, but what she would do when she comes up.
You can be sure that that woman will not misbehave. But that depends on the attitude of the man. Honestly, I respect the man as the head of the family. Donâ€™t forget, without the neck you cannot move the head. What separates the neck from the head? Why should you now separate the woman from the man or be afraid of the woman. Are you afraid of your neck? However, this programme – BLP- should not be seen as one that disrespects man as the head of the family. And the women are aware of this. On many occasions, Iâ€™ve had to tell them to take permission from their husbands before leaving their homes. I tell them: â€œMake sure his food is ready and the childrenâ€™s food too before going out to any function.â€ You have no cause to be afraid of women coming up if you are sincere enough.
Africa is currently undergoing a new phase in its socio-political life with agitation here and there. What role do you expect the African woman to play in this respect?
We expect the African woman to participate. If thereâ€™s a condusive atmosphere and sheâ€™s given necessary encouragement. The women are now being enlightened. There is a political education programme being organised by the National Commission for Women. But they are handicapped in so many ways, the most serious being lack of fund. We donâ€™t have the economic power as such, you menÂ should assist us and lend us money (laughter).
Would you say that the time is ripe for a female president in Nigeria?
It is coming. We are coming. We are on the move. We are moving in steps.
What message do you have for the Nigerian woman towards projecting our culture?
Already, this woman is trying. This is a woman that is wife to the man, mother to the children… a woman that shoulders tripple roles. Come to think of it, you are saying what should I tell the Nigerian woman to do to promote our culture. I should ask you the reverse, for the culture and everything is man made.
You tell us what you want do and we do it. If it is a question of promoting Nigerian culture, I will praise the woman very well. What you should do now is to remove those obnoxious cultural shackles that are anti-women and set us free. In terms of dressing, Iâ€™ll praise the women. You see, you people are wearing suits now, is that our outfit? But Iâ€™m wearing our woven cloth. And I am promoting our culture.
What kind of Nigeria do you look forward to after 1992?
A Nigeria where everybody is reasonable, sensible and working together, cooperating with one another.
What kind of role do you envisage for yourself after 1992?
Playing the role Iâ€™m playing now in a different setting. We want to set up a centre, a section of it for women, where they would be able to come for research. Definitely, we are not going to settle on the farm. So my work will continue after 1992.
What kind of centre do you have in mind?
A multi-purpose centre. A kind of centre that is academic in nature. We have a lot of materials that can set up an institution. Therefore, it is going to be a centre that would give people the freedom to acquire more knowledge in a decent atmosphere.
You said we. Now, whose idea is the centre? Yours or the presidentâ€™s?
Both of us. Itâ€™s a joint idea (Laughter).
Where will the centre be located?
Minna, of course.
Some people think that you will give the cash prize of the award to BLP. Will you like to comment on this?
I wouldnâ€™t let out the cat out too soon. Do you know we have a centre for women development?
Good (general laughter).
What message to do you have for the woman who will be the First Lady after you?
Why donâ€™t you wait until we have come to the end of our term of office?
We might not have this opportunity then!
Why not? When we are all alive.
The reason why I ask is that we met the president and he said whoever will take up his post would have to be tolerant and have the capacity to keep his head while others are losing theirs.
I know what advice I will like to give the next First Lady. The same thing he said applies. You have to be very understanding, broad-minded. You have to understand that the society is very complex. You have to be very tolerant. You have to be very hardworking. You must know what you are doing. You must have a sense of direction, be kind, helpful and fair. You must know how to take care of yourself and your family because in the process of too much work, there is the tendency to neglect the family. You must learn to be yourself. Be as natural as possible.