By Moses Nosike
Roz Ben-Okagbue is a lawyer, accountant and as well an activist. She is a Nigerian that wants and desires equally treatment for human race. Her educational background in law and work experience in the United Kingdom contributed her being activist.
In this interview with Woman in her prime, she explains how Human Rights activists and other organisations that speak for the less privileged are silenced by those in authority and harsh treatment women receive in politics unlike men. Excerpts:
What is your motive of being a political activist?
My motive is primarily to create awareness about issues of governance that hinder the progress of the country. People are generally dissatisfied without being able to identify the source of their dissatisfaction. The military rulers literally raped the country one after the other and both journalism and activism was limited as it invited rather stringent responses from the military leaders.
Journalists and Human Rights activists were silenced with arrests, torture and death. With the exception of a few brave activists, we (Nigerians) generally developed the culture of remaining silent in the face of oppression and even with the advent of democracy that culture has not really left us.
Many Nigerians would rather say nothing for fear of reprisals regardless of the level of oppression our leaders inflict on us either by stealing public funds and leaving the rest of Nigerians impoverished or taking decisions that benefit the politicians and enable them to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
But if we remain silent, they will continue to take advantage of us and nothing will change. The creation of awareness of the issues that require change is the first step to achieving the change that we seek and that is my motivation. I seek change and I want others to join me in demanding that change.
Are you being driven by passion or is it your area of calling?
I would say it is more of passion really, passion for my country Nigeria. A desire for the oppressed to receive better treatment and accountability from our leaders and for us to generally reap the dividends of democracy as promised which has so far pretty much eluded us. We have situations where ex-governors are arraigned after their tenure and accused of literally emptying the coffers into their personal pockets. But after all the hullaballoo, nothing happens to them. They are allowed to walk free with their loot and nobody holds them accountable or relieves them of their loot. Look at Alamesiegha, Igbinedion, Orji Kalu and several others. After all the fan fare of arresting and trying them, what has happened to them?….nothing!
Those convicted had such light sentences or were asked to pay back paltry sums and with some of them, the trial was not even concluded at all. If it was not for the doggedness of the United Kingdom’s metropolitan police, Ibori would also have walked free. After all he was acquitted by a Nigerian court whilst we looked on helplessly. What could we do when the court says he is not guilty of 170 count corruption charges levelled against him, yet he, his family and even girlfriends were living large on the stolen state funds. These are the things that drive me. These are the things that make me ask questions.
Since being a political activist in Nigeria and considering gender inequality, what has been your propelling factor and the achievement so far?
I am not certain what gender inequality has to do with political activism. People don’t listen to you more or less because you are a woman or a man. Nobody appoints activists, it’s a personal choice. Of course the fact that a democratic environment does not encourage the arrest and torture of activists also helps as that could have been a major deterrent for women.
Activism is further enhanced by the social media which gives everyone a voice hence there are many more activists out there these days. The government cannot shut the internet down as they would for an ‘offending’ newspaper. They cannot arrest people for posting stories about their activities… how many people can you arrest? Once a story hits the internet, several people post it and the awareness increases. Nigerians in Diaspora are kept abreast of all the news as it unfolds. The best that the government can do is to hire people to counter the stories and justify their actions using the same medium as the activists.
The contribution of the social media was highlighted during the period when our president (Yar’Adua at that time) “disappeared” and the entire nation was being held to ransom by a small “cabal” of government officials. The rallies and marches were mostly organised in a short space of time with the help of the social media and the internet in general. I would say that that is one of my achievements as I participated fully in that movement.
Do you think if women are given their rightful position things will change in our leadership and economy as well?
Well to some extent, yes. Women are very focused and feel more of a need to prove themselves by doing the right thing. That is not to say that there are no corrupt women or that all women are better than men. You can’t make such generalisations. However women are very smart, very organised and when the right ones are selected they do make a reasonable impact.
Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is an example at hand. She was very successful as the finance minister during Obassanjo’s era hence she has been given an elevated “prime minister status” in the current government. Women like Hilary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice have also demonstrated the strong contribution that women in powerful positions can make. An increased participation of women in leadership roles will also make the men more competitive and more accountable. They will not want the women to outshine them and record greater achievements.
The women will also set a different pace and standard in terms of corruption and accountability. These are some of the main problems we have with leadership today.
According to Dr Mourtada Deme (Resident Country Director of IRI), women’s participation in politics is a “strong indicator of a country’s democratic development and therefore women should have a greater voice in the governance of the nation”. However, the crucial thing to note is that it is not just about putting a woman in a leadership role but putting a competent woman.
Often times women are selected either because they do not pose too much of a threat to men in their environment or because they enjoy a “special” relationship with the men charged with making appointments. If women are chosen on that basis, then their contribution will not be particularly exceptional and there will be limited impact.What is your advice to women and our leaders in politics?
My advice to women in politics or interested in politics is, don’t wait for power to be given to you by the men…..grab it! For years we have been governed predominantly by men. They have not made a success of the country so now it’s our turn to make a contribution and to determine whether we can make a difference. We must not allow the men to put us off (and they will try), instead we must stand up to be counted. We must raise our voice and keep talking until they are forced to accept us.
Nigeria belongs to all of us, men and women alike and the myth that only men can govern effectively has long been broken. We should insist on the education of our girls as illiteracy is still higher in women than in men and this creates a barrier ab initio. We should also insist on a certain number of roles to be reserved for women and we should form women groups designed to promote women and enhance their political careers.