By Jemi Ekunkunbor
We arrived the Odumakins’ home hoping to be able to convince her to wear a skirt and blouse or a dress for this photo shoot but the 2013 winner of the International Women of Courage Award would have none of it. We met a woman totally consumed by a passion to fight for the oppressed and the voiceless in the society. Having been beaten and her skirt torn by security operatives while leading a protest in 1993, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin has vowed never to wear a dress until “we have a Nigeria that works”.
Born in Zaria on July 4th, 1966, the native of Delta State grew up in Ilorin, Kwara State where she had almost all her formal education. A product of Queen Elizabeth Secondary School, Ilorin, Joe obtained her first degree in English Education from the University of Ilorin in 1987. After her national youth service in the eastern part of the country, she returned to the University of Ilorin for her Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling in 1990.
Thirsty for more knowledge, she crowned her studies by completing her doctorate in History and Policy of Education in 1996. For her convictions and often speaking out against acts of injustice especially by people in authority, she has been in and out of detention several times.
She is currently the President, Women Arise for Change Initiative and Campaign for Democracy, two platforms on which she leads activism for change. Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin is the recipient of several awards. In 2007 alone, she bagged ‘’Hero of Democracy and good governance’’ award by United Nations of Youth Nigeria, and “The Defender of Women’’ award by Human Rights Now.
Was there something in your background that sparked off your interest in activism?
Well, as a young girl, all I wanted to be was a nun. One day when I was 14, my mother saw me filling the form to become a nun of Sacred Seminary. My father was in the UK then. I felt that when I am married to Jesus, in church I’ll see a lot of people I can counsel. So she called my father and said, “Your darling daughter wants to be a nun”. My father said, “Does she not want to marry? Apart from disowning her, when I come back, I’ll put her obituary in the paper and that will be the end”.
Well, after some days, I changed my mind and told my mum I was ready to go to school. That was how I went to Kwara State for my A’Levels. While there, I saw a poster – ‘Left Wing Movement’. I went for their meeting and observed that the agenda had no opening or closing prayer. The people were angry with me and asked that they should throw me out. After about three weeks, I saw a member who invited me to come again and said to me: “Rev. Sister, this time, we would put opening and closing prayer.” I went but this time, they were so violent with me and I vowed never to go back.
Then, I got to the University of Ilorin and people who knew me then used to call me ‘Rev Sister’. One day, one of our very difficult Linguistic lecturers came to the class and called out a few matriculation numbers and asked us to see him. When we got to his office, again, he heard my friend calling me ‘Rev. Sister’ and asked me why I wanted to be a nun. I told him I wanted to be married to Jesus and fight for those cheated. He asked me if I have heard of Martin Luther King. I said I had a faint idea and I saw on his shelf, several books by Martin Luther King. He asked if I had heard about Malcom X or Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at that time.
At the end, he gave me two books on Martin Luther King to go and read. One quotation that struck me is: “Our lives begin to end the day we keep silent about things that matter”. This bothered me a bit. Two days after, the position of secretary for Women In Nigeria (WIN) was vacant. We had ‘Manifesto Night’ which then, was a very big event. We were three candidates that applied.
The first person was given about 10 minutes to speak. When it got to my turn, I started quoting Martin Luther King. Students were shouting. The third person never bothered and the first person stepped down. I became the secretary. That was how activism began for me in March 1985. After that, I became born again in the struggle and like everything that I do, I commit myself to do it and do it with all my life.
When you embark on these struggles, don’t you fear for your life or consider family because you get arrested some times?
When I became secretary of WIN, it occurred to me that I may die in the struggle. So, I got a lawyer to prepare my will. She asked me what things I have. I said I have a mattress, two pillows, bed sheets and some books. I told her that if anything happened to me, the mattress and pillows should be given to motherless babies and the books to the University of Ilorin. When we go out, I usually like the fiercest part of the battle. The truth is, there is no fear that can deter me. I remember in August 1998, I was going for a press conference in Apapa when I started feeling funny because I was pregnant then. I went to the doctor who told me that I was having labour signs. I said to him: “Stop this sign. I have a press conference in Apapa.”
The doctor told me that there was no way he could stop the sign; that I was going to have the baby within an hour. This was around 8a.m. Thankfully, my mother was around then. By 9.05a.m., the baby arrived. I asked them to clean me up; that I needed to go for the press conference. They cleaned me up and I left for Apapa. I got there, sat down with Pa Abraham Adesanya, answered a few questions and left. I came back to Omole. A lot of people did not know that I just had a baby because I have flat stomach.
You said you made a vow not to marry until democracy, so how did you meet your husband?
I said I was not going to marry because I didn’t want any distractions. But then, in 1994, I was arrested and beaten to stupor. I sustained several injuries and was detained for two weeks. I was sick and at the point of death because I was stooling and vomiting. Doctors said I had typhoid. My father came with my mum to sign an undertaking that I will be of good behaviour.
By now, I had spent three weeks. I told him not to sign. After he left, they violently removed the drip and my vein popped up and they brought a big plaster to press it down. They handcuffed me to take me to Alagbon in Lagos. While I was being led in, I saw late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and he said, “Joe, what is wrong with you?” The security people would not allow him talk to me so he said he would not cooperate with them if this girl is not treated. Then, I saw one young man staring at me and chief said, “Yinka, don’t you know her? This is Joe Okei from Ilorin.” Yinka, the comrade, then said, “Is this the Joe Okei I read about. Is she not a man?”
Chief said, “No. She is a woman.” I was still there when both of them were released so, he came to look for me. After some time, I was released and we continued with our activism. About a year after, we were somewhere drafting a state of the nation communique when suddenly Comrade Yinka told the other five comrades present that he wanted to discuss the state of his heart with this girl because ‘I am in love with this girl’.
So he said: “Please give us five minutes. Let me tell you why I want to marry her and let her tell you why she is not interested in marriage. If she defeats me, I’ll hands-off.” They felt it was a comic angle. Well, at the end, they said he defeated me and he then said he was proposing to me. I didn’t take him serious and we continued the struggle. A year and a half after that, in November 1997, ‘The Punch’ carried a story, “What Abacha has joined together, let no man put asunder.” That was our wedding!
You and your husband are both activists. How do you keep the home front?
We met in the trenches so, we understand each other well. As a child growing up, I used to see my mum look after her home, shop and cook. I used to do all that but going to the market, people will stop me to tell me their problems: ‘My landlord harassed me. What can I do…’ So, I’ll be in the market from 9a.m. resolving issues. By the time I look at the time, it will be 2p.m. – my whole day is gone! So, I started sending someone to shop for me. Then on Saturdays, I cook like seven different types of soups. I have chicken stocked in different forms – boiled, fried, smoked, grilled etc.
Do your children worry about you as activists?
They are old enough to know what is going on. They see me on TV. They have passion too for this and they see it as part of contribution to society.
Is this all you do for a living?
Not at all. I do a lot of other things. I teach on contract in some private universities. I do rapporteur work – locally and internationally. I help to edit. I package events. At the end of the month, I earn something so that the issue of compromise does not arise. It’s because people see me at rallies that they think this is all that I do.
Would you say women have achieved much since 1995 when this agitation actually started?
Women generally speak the same language – silence, and breaking this culture is what a few women have tried to do. A lot of women are not empowered and they allow themselves to be used by politicians as cheer leaders. They bring them to clap at political rallies.
In terms of elective positions, we have tried but we need more. Many women don’t support their fellow women because they feel they are too strict. We need women because they are the ones that can bring our issues to the front burner. We’ve had great women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Obi Ezekwesili, Dora Akunyili etc. When they do well, we praise them but if they ere, we march against them. When the minister of the federal capital territory allocated N4billion to the First Lady’s office, Women Arise arose and said the office of the first lady is not recognized by the constitution.
It seems you are always fighting one cause or the other. Do you find time for romance?
The truth is I am not a romantic person and comrade has accepted me the way I am.
What is it like being a tom-boy?
I grew up with three older brothers and a junior one. We lived close to a recreation centre so, we always went there to play. I played football a lot and later became a coach. I liked issuing red cards and yellow cards. I was also a hockey goalkeeper. I was also into martial arts.
When my father shopped for us, I always insisted I wanted what my brothers got – boxers, shirts etc. I’d cry if mine was different. I had low cut hair then. So, it wasn’t easy stopping me. The time I really cried was when my father took my brothers to an all-male school in Ilorin and then took me to Queen Elizabeth School. I cried and cried thinking that my father hated me or else why would he want to separate us? It was his own way of trying to get me to be with other girls and do feminine things. Those hard things were the things I liked and my seniors in school called me basket of trouble.
Let’s talk about your recent award and what you think it will do for you?
This award started in 2007 and the US Department of State has honoured 67 women from 45 different countries. It is for women that that have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women’s rights and empowerment at great personal risk. I am the first Nigerian to get it.
Nine of us were honoured on March 8th and it was hosted and presented by Secretary Kerry and Mrs. Obama. It was an awesome experience and a wonderful day on global stage. I shared experiences with American women of international understanding who are engaged in similar struggles. I met with policy makers and those working behind-the-scene in the American establishment. It was a great pleasure to see the inner workings of a system that has given hope to the world.
What would this do for you?
This will further strengthen me to remain focused, not minding the distractions.
This agitation, is it like a calling for you?
This is total conviction. When I listen to the news, I don’t sleep. I get worried that this country is not working. At times, I develop serious headache. How can an Alamieseigha be pardoned? I was in the USA when I heard that news. I developed serious headache immediately. Things like that are the things that bother me. When I see how some people are stupendously rich and you juxtapose that with the level of poverty, I get worried. When people bring cases to my office -a two or five-year old raped.
All those things weigh me down. So, the time one speaks out is my happiest moment. When I go for rallies and I have my kerosene handkerchief in my pocket and speak against injustice, those things give me joy. I am optimistic that Nigeria will be great again.
Activists have been severally accused of collecting money from foreign donors and come home fighting their government. Is money the bottom line for this struggle?
This is about conviction. In the 17 times I have been detained, people have come to me with money begging me to give up the struggle. When they make such overtures, I always tell them not to assault my collective integrity. Yes, there may be a few leprous segments of civil society, just like in other fields. You have people who have betrayed the cause. But for me, this struggle is my life. All the money in this world cannot buy my conscience. I want to see justice, fairness and equity reign. You cannot talk of peace without asking for justice. This country is like a volcano that will soon erupt.
So, when will this struggle come to an end?
When there is justice, fairness and equity. When human rights are guaranteed and when the system works.
When are we going to see Joe Odumakin wear a dress?
I used to wear dresses until 1993, when I led a protest. I was so beaten, my skirt was torn. It was a protester’s scarf that fell off her that I used in covering myself. For four days, I was in detention and sat in one position .I couldn’t recover from the pain. I swore that I will never wear dress or skirt until we have a Nigeria that works.