By Davies Iheamnachor
Ms. Victoria Wobo Nyeche, the member representing Port Harcourt State Constituency I at the Rivers State House of Assembly and the Chairman of the House Committee on Women Affairs, speaks on her experience as the only female lawmaker in the 32-member 8th Assembly. Excerpts of interview:
What are the challenges you are facing as the lone female lawmaker in the 8th Assembly in Rivers State?
Being the only female legislator in the 8th Assembly in Rivers State has not really been an easy experience because I would have loved to have other women there with me so that, as women, we can understand ourselves better. But I have learnt to cope with every situation I find myself in. After all, in the legislature, everybody is seen as a gentleman. I have learnt to cope with my colleagues and to ensure that I express my views irrespective of gender and party affiliations. The House is expected to be just one House, and, as a House, we are expected to put the interest of the state first in everything we do.
But the men would want to take advantage
Of course there are perspectives that some men may not handle some issues, being the only female legislator in the house I have always found myself as a lone voice, spearheading some issues. I remember a particular issue when a woman was before the House to be screened as the Chairman of the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission, and there were issues being raised about her candidature. She is a professor and eloquent, in fact she had all she needed to be in that office in my opinion. I was surprised when she came to the House for screening and a motion was moved to step her candidature down. There was no obvious reason she should be disqualified apart from the fact that she was a female. I immediately objected to it and demanded a reason that will make us step her candidature down. She is a professor of chemistry and, in her curriculum vitae, she met all the criteria required for the office. I tried to put it to my colleagues on the need not to step her down, but they insisted that we take a deep breath. I argued that there was no reason for the deep breath on a nominee that meets the required qualification for an office. But on the floor of the House, I was the only voice speaking in her favour. But, later on, the issue was revisited and she was cleared. It was a very challenging moment to argue alone in favour of a woman in the midst of men. If we had had other women in the House, they would have risen in defence of their fellow woman, and the process would not have delayed. We would have stood against that apparent discrimination. I have found out that, in life, women need to work extra hard to get even the basic things that men take for granted. Little is given to women, yet mush is expected of them. The society expects so much from women yet it does not give them (women) much. There is this proverb that says, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’, but in the case of women, reverse is the case; less is given yet much is expected from them.
Much work is expected of women?
Yes, a woman must be twice as smart, twice as committed to get recognition among male folks. Sometimes, when people don’t have a choice, they say a ‘woman is outstanding; we got to do with her because we can’t do without her’. I look forward to a time when women will be judged not based on gender but because she is competent.
What does the confirmation of the women you defended mean to you?
It shows that when we put enough pressure, we will have our way.
Do you think that, as a woman, you worked twice as hard in the House to gain recognition and respect?
Yes, I have had to go the extra-mile to get things done, so many times you even find out you want to express yourself on the floor of the House but you don’t get the opportunity. I have to use the media to talk to my constituents because you don’t have the opportunity you need on the floor of the House to air your views. I have learnt to put in extra efforts in everything I do. Even as I speak, it is difficult to believe that in the constituency that I represent, we do not have one project to show as constituency project up till now. We have complained in the media, we have met the Speaker, the state Commissioner for Works, we have called the governor’s attention to it, we have written letters and nothing has happened. It is disheartening that you put in your best and your constituency is denied of their due. I do not have an official vehicle unlike my male counterparts that have. So, it’s been tough in that House.
So it boils down to discrimination that you don’t have official vehicle
I see it more as a party thing. It is mainly people that belong to the party in power in the state that have official vehicle, while those of us that are from the All Progressives Congress do not have. I think it is more because I am a member of APC.
What has been you major challenge in the House?
My major challenge has been the fact that so many things are done on party basis. Even when issues come up, people debate based on party, this is a matter that we need to overcome. Even when you fly the flag of a party, you represent a people that cut across party lines; you represent a people some do not have party affiliation and of different ages. So, we need to put the interest of the people before that of the party. Interest of the party should come up when we talk party but when we talk of state, the people are important. But, I have found out that there is no clear deference between politics and governance here. When issues come up, they look at person other than looking at the issues, it disturbs me. Even things that would benefit the state, they step them down because they are coming from a particular person.
Were able to make the lawmakers know that what you are doing is purely a state affair?
A typical example was when I presented Rivers State Thanksgiving Day Bill aimed at celebrating the fact that we are Rivers people and not necessarily looking at ourselves as from different ethnic groups. As we speak, that bill has not gone beyond first reading, which is just the presentation stage. To even get it in the calendar of the House took a lot of pressure and effort to even get it presented on the floor herculean. I presented two bills; the other one has not even seen the light of day. And the tenure is coming to an end. You say Rivers State is a Christian state, yet thanksgiving, which should be the heartbeat of Christianity, is not given priority. We need to pray for the state that changes should come and those changes should impact our lives for good. The second bill I presented, Senior Citizens Enhancement Bill, seeks to enhance the welfare of our elderly ones, gives opportunity for the state to give them due attention after they have used their strength and wisdom to serve the state in different capacities. The bill also proposes that we can have free medical care for the elderly, not through government policies so that one government will not abandon it. Under Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi as governor, we had such a welfare policy for old persons, and those things are not being done by this present administration, because it was just a policy of government, but if it is legislated upon, we believe that it will have force of law and every government will give attention to is. But, as we speak, that bill is abandoned.
For how long has the Senior Citizens Enhancement Bill been there?
It is over two years now. Both bills have been there since 2017. And several bills have come and have been passed. It is obvious that it is not the priority of the House to look into my bills. A lot of things are not being looked at on merit, it is a pity.
Don’t you think that even if we have more women in the House, if they are not members of your party, you wouldn’t have their support?
I believe that if we have more women in the House, especially on the Thanksgiving Bill, when you talk about things that affect the family and things of spiritual growth, women are more inclined. A lot of women would have keyed into the bill and support me. Absence of more women has affected the passage of those bills because the support I would have received was not there.
What were your best moments in the House?
My best time in that House was the day I was sworn-in. My swearing -n was such a contentious issue so to speak. It was a major achievement. I was voted in by my people to represent them for four years, but I have barely done two years in that House because I spent the other time in court and tribunal trying to get my mandate back. Apart from that, making contributions at the floor of the House based on my conscience and without being tied down with majority opinion makes me feel good. I remember the time we were voting for the 4th Alteration on the Amendment to the 1999 Constitution when the issue of the autonomy for local governments was on the floor, I was the only one that voted in favour of autonomy for local governments. I am happy to do that because I believe that power should devolve from the centre to states and local governments. I felt good that I was doing what I believed in whether I got support from anybody or not. Being the only woman there has toughened me. It has made me to stand on my feet. It is not about going with the crowd. Violence Against Persons, VAP, Bill was brought by a man but it was not making sense. I tried to resuscitate that bill to ensure that it sees the light of the day. Unfortunately, we could not make progress with it because of bureaucracy.
Do you think that this 8th Assembly in Rivers State has respect for female folk, talking from your two years’ experience?
I will not see it from the angle of respect, because an Assembly made up of men who have wives at home and mothers, I would not want to judge them based on their disposition on one or two issues. But I would want to say that the issues of women have not fared very well. For example, very recently, on International Women’s Day, we applied and we could not get any support from the Assembly. But as a committee we are supposed to get support from the Assembly. On issues that concern women, we have not got the support we expect from the Assembly. We have not got the kind of support that we expect both as a committee and as an individual. We expect to get support so that we can attend conferences and do other things but it has been difficult. Even to the point to getting basic things for our office as a committee, computers, television, it has not worked. Other offices have these things, but they claim there is no money. The Committee for Women Affairs, if we request for support we don’t get. There was a committee meeting in Abuja on the domestication of the VAP Act, and the committee secretary was to attend but could not go because there was no support. But we are committed to touching the lives of our people. As a committee, we have to task ourselves to ensure that we touch the lives of our people and we have been able to do it.
How do these people whose lives you have touched feel that you are not going back to the House?
We have really touched many lives and we get testimonies of it. A lot of women came out to cry that I was not on the ballot. They had looked forward to casting their votes for me. I had to go round to encourage them that all hope is not lost. I was touched seeing old women and men and women crying for me. Many of them refused to vote in my constituency because of the impact I have made. They said they had no choice except me and they refused to vote.
Being a very beautiful and eloquent woman, do your male counterparts get attracted and move to befriend you?
I don’t want to talk about that. It is expected that men will be attracted to women. For me that is not an issue. I am used to people getting attracted to me and asking me out and it will be my right to accept or reject. The same way in the streets and in the Church people get attracted to you and ask you out. What drives me is the fact that as Christian, I always use such opportunity to preach Christ. Men must be interested in every fine woman. What it is important is that there is no case of harassment and intimidation as a result of it. They did not say if you don’t accept we will not support your bills or support you.
Despite the perceived intimidation you still attended sittings. Why?
I attend sittings. And anytime I will not attend, I usual inform the Speaker in writing. I have a sense of duty. My people freely gave me their mandate to represent them and I owe it to them to ensure I represent them. It is my commitment in God that makes me attend. I have faith in God, so I don’t need to be afraid. I know that some persons are afraid of being different and raising their voices. I see myself as a woman of faith and courage. My courage comes from my faith in God. I try to use the opportunity I have to represent my people to represent them well. I know we will give account of our stewardship to our people and to God. What will I tell them, that I am the only woman there and I refused to go?