By Gbenga Oke
WHEN President Olusegun Obasanjo administration inÂ 2006 decided to cede the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon, there were criticisms from different parts of the country especially from Cross River State where the displaced Nigerians in Bakassi were to be relocated.
Although both Nigeria and Cameroon had laid claims to the region before the Obasanjo administration finally ceded the area to Cameroon, many Nigerians felt that the Bakassi case was not properly pursued with many feeling that former President Obasanjo did not consult far and wide before the final decision to cede the areaÂ was taken.
For Cross-River State and its indigenes, ceding of Bakassi, is not the issue at the moment, but the refugee crises which have engulfed the state since the handover. Although in some quarters, it is believed all hope is not lost on Bakassi, the fact remains that Cross River State will continue to suffer the alleged injustice done to it over the ceding of the area to Cameroon.
To Senator Florence Ita Giwa, former special adviser on National Assembly matters to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, her role in ensuring that the Bakassi case was properly pursued cannot go unnoticed. Her urge to take up the humanitarian aspect of the displaced Bakassi children is not in doubt as, through her, many of the children who had lost their parents or their parents could not afford to train them now have reason to live again.
Mama Bakassi as she is fondly called who had brought the children to Lagos on holiday sat with some journalists at her residence to share her experience on the journey so far, her challenges and how she has
been able to manage the children since she picked them up.
The journey from the beginning: â€œMy journey to Bakassi started when I used to go there for campaigns and on our way back in the evening, you would find children of two, three, four years by the seashore trying to pick little fishes and you wondered what these little children were doing. But you got answers right because parents in Bakassi teach their children how to fish at an early age. Each time I travelled there, the last thing I see are these little children, some with no clothes on, some no shoes on.
So, one day, I made up myÂ Â mind that I was going to startÂ up something because I had been talking about establishing a home for these children. One day, I decided to put a group together to start with 10 children and so we came up with the first 10 children and we tried to pick them as young as possible and these children you are seeing here today, some of them were picked up as early as three, four years of age, I think the eldest of them was about eight years at the time we picked them.
So, I brought them to Calabar at my house at that time and first I hadÂ to get a doctor to examine them and I hadÂ to engage people to come and clean them for me because some of them didnâ€™t even have shoesÂ onâ€.
Asked how she was able to cope with the children from their tender ages. She was quick to respond: â€œAt that time, I felt it was time to ensure Bakassi children get educated; the proprietor of a popular school called Access Junior International School really encouraged me and said, â€˜hand over these children to me, pay the money and in few months, you will see them as human beingsâ€™. So, luckily, they didnâ€™t need to buy many clothes because once you pay in the school, the school provides uniforms for staying at home or going to eventâ€.
She continued, â€œafter cleaning them up and making contact with the proprietor of Access Junior High School, a very elitist school because of the peaceful environment in Calabar, most of the elites and the rich people around that sub-region, even the south east do bring their children to that school. The school fees are quite high, but I said to myself, â€˜I will face the challengeâ€™ and I told the owner of the school who graciously at that time granted me a very little discount, but he encouraged me.
So, what I was probably doing is to see whether it is possible for me to turn these children to human beings so that I will be producing future Nigerians from Bakassi because the level of education in Bakassi is very low and level of manpower is poor because everybody is a fishermanâ€.
Keeping faith with the children: It is widely believed that in any given society, it is not morally right to write off anybody or doubt the ability of anyone; the level at which the Bakassi children were putting in their best in school came as a surprise to everyone who cared to listen to their story.
According to her, â€œwhat excited me most was how well they were doing because I was initially worried how they will catch up with the other children that comeÂ from the elitist families. But,Â to my surprise, I was in shock at the end of the first year because these children were coming 10th, 11th and 12th in their various classes and, to me, it is like saying it is possible, like yes we can. I now asked whether they could move further in terms of their positions in their classes. They said yes and that particular time, they had started speaking English fluently because they were not speaking English when they came.
The challenges: To Ita Giwa, the challenges she confronted in taking care of these children were not easy especially in the area of raising funds to cater for them. Although, in the past, she said she always organised Red Balls event to raise money to cater for them, because of the Bakassi issue, in the last two or three yearss, she has not been able to put the event together.
â€œIn the first three years when I had time, we organised Red Balls to raiseÂ money, but in the past two or three years, one has been busy with issues of Bakassi and I have not had time to think about fund-raising, so I had to be doing it on my own. Occasionally, very really, I approach my state government to assist me, but now with this movement of the oil wells to Akwa Ibom, the state is more or less penniless, so I dare not even approach them. So what I am planning to do is to go back and organise my RedÂ BallsÂ so that these children canÂ move on and for me to bring in more childrenâ€.
She, however, stated that the urge to give back to the society that brought her to limelight and ensure that Bakassi children excel in life is the major reason behind the humanitarian job sheâ€™s doing.
â€œI believe life is about sharing and about giving back to the society what the society has given to you because when I look at myself, in my lifetime, I have gone for an election from the House of Representatives, from there, I went to the constitutional conference, I contested election twice to the Senate on the platform of the opposition; so who are you out of so many people in this world that people are so nice to you, you just have to give back. If God is blessing you and giving you good health and wherewithal to live a good life, you must learn to give back.
Confronted with the question of whether in the nearest future people might start asking questions on why the children bear her name while some parents might want to lay claim to the children, she argued, â€œthe children bearing my name is not the problem, infact I am asking people to bring documents to show they are the real parents of any of the children and the ones that haveÂ lost their parents, I will adopt as my lawyer is working on the issue.
There is a particular one who lost her mother and then her father struggled, became a councillor in Bakassi and later died and the child is orphaned, that I will have to adopt. My lawyer is already working on who we are going to formally adopt.
There is one very funny case, the child has a mother who is alive, the mother actually sent words to the boy for fear that if I know the boy has a mother, I will send the boy back. So, the mother sent words to him to deny that sheâ€™s the mother because the father had died.
So the boy always claimedÂ that the mother too had died, so I now had to make the boy confess and tell me the truth and I assured him I wasÂ not sending him back. The whole essence of this humanitarian thing is that, if tomorrow,Â these children become successful human beings, I will be very happy because they will surely find their way and develop their siblings if they have or look after their parents and this is the general ideaâ€