By Josephine Agbonkhese
A seasoned economist, researcher, banker and leading women’s rights activist, Dr Keziah Awosika was one of the notable women who laid the foundation for women’s rights activism in Nigeria.
Among other feats, she was one of the few instrumental to the mobilization of women for participation in the democratic process in 1993—an effort which culminated in the election of 15 women at the national assembly for the first time in the nation’s history.
She also played a major role in the formulation and eventual ratification of the National Policy on Women (1999) by then President Olusegun Obasanjo; an instrument which later became the National Gender Policy in 2005.
The Coordinator/Director, Women, Law and Development Centre, WLDCN, an organisation founded by late Professor Jadesola Akande, Awosika has to her credit several books and articles published in local and international journals on issues bordering on macro-economics, money/banking, and women’s development.
She has served on the research committee of the Chartered Institute of Bankers Nigeria, CIBN, and is a foundation member and charter president of the Association of African Women in Research and Development, AAWORD.
Also, the septuagenarian who is almost hitting 80, has consulted in various capacities for the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS; United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM; Federal Ministry of Education; Heinrich Boll Foundation (Germany) and the National Planning Commission among others. The Oxford University alumna also took part in the development of the State Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies, SEEDS, and the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies,NEEDS 2.
As Nigeria clocks 59 in a couple of days, Awosika assesses progress made in the areas of women’s development, national unity, the economy, and much more.
Why was it necessary to have a National Policy on Women?
After a baseline study, we realised that women were almost absent from everything. Where they were present at all, they were relegated; including in education, health, environment, agriculture, etc. Fortunately, I’ve been a member of the Education of Girls Review Committee since 1985.
In agriculture where we have more women, men are assumed to be the dominant ones. As a result of this, promoters of agriculture would go to men instead of women. Also, the colonial period didn’t encourage women to be anything else but housewives.
It’s not their fault though because that was what obtained in Victorian England; women were housewives. Majority of smallholder farmers are women. Also, where men owned lands, women were largely the labourers.
Then we realised that unless we have a policy which will help government plan women’s development just like you have the national policies on education and population, the situation would worsen. We had to be focused on how women could be helped.
Mariam Babangida opened our eyes, I must say, when she pushed for the establishment of a National Commission on Women; although people do not want to hear this because they felt the commission which had Professor Bolanle Awe as Chairman was basically carrying out the policies of Better Life, which was her non-profit initiative and pet project. That commission metamorphosed into the Ministry for Women Affairs thereafter.
In your assessment, how effective has the policy been?
It may not have been as effective as we want it to, depending on which angle you choose to look at it. Let us consider it in the context of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, which started in 2000. In the area of political participation, the women’s curve first of all went up. In 2007, there were about 8 women in the State Houses of Assembly and 27 in the National Assembly. Then in 2011, it went down again because, I think, the men were becoming affected by the political set-up and were no longer fielding women as party candidates.
In 2015, it went down again drastically. In 2019, we got seven women in the Senate and 22 in the House of Representatives. In the area of politics therefore, I will say we have not achieved much. In the area of health, we have achieved a lot because we now have a lot of primary health care centres. On a national scale though, it is still not enough.
In the area of agriculture too, we have moved because at one point, women were encouraged to form cooperatives through which they were supported. However, this suddenly went down; perhaps the men fought back. In education, the progress is also evident.
Nigeria will be 59 in a couple of days. Looking back, would you say we have made progress as a nation?
In those days, things were different; life was simpler and more sedate. We didn’t have population explosion like we see now. We had good public primary and secondary schools. Even our parliamentarians, at that time, were having only sitting allowance. We respected them so much. Tribalism was not part of politics. I remember my eldest brother was a die-hard Zikist without bothering whether Nnamdi Azikiwe was Yoruba or Ibo. People were committed to Nigeria as a nation and tribalism was rare. Suddenly, with military intervention, it became a case of “To your tent oh, Israel.” People became conscious of their tribes and also became very corrupt. Somehow we tried to rectify this with the introduction of the National Youth Service Corp, NYSC, Scheme and also quota system. But unfortunately, the quota system has only worsened the situation.
Things have become worse. I went to CMS Girls School in Lagos for my primary education and concluded my secondary education at St Anne’s because my father wanted me to attend a boarding school, and then I took a job at P&T, thereafter.
It was so easy to get jobs at that time. I was living in YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) while working at P&T because my sister had gone to England. I am stating all these because, at that time, there were so many uniting institutions. St Anne’s was a cauldron of many nations; we are even planning her 150th anniversary currently.
Even YWCA where I lived had people from all over the country. What I’m trying to say is that in those days, the northerners were coming to St Anne’s; there were Muslims and Christians in the school and nobody discriminated against anybody. Life was simpler and the children of both the high and low were there. All the three Awolowo girls went to St Anne’s. Girls from neighbouring countries came to school there too. And then we had children who had never been out of their villages before; but we all mixed very nicely. But suddenly, with military incursion, we all became aware of our religions, tribes and even nationalities. The moment government took over mission schools and introduced Unity Schools, the unity we enjoyed was no longer truly enjoyed. Education went down. Things fell apart and the democratic interregnum we had in Shagari’s government in 1984, didn’t help. Values changed drastically.
What really went wrong and why do you fault the quota system?
When you are creating states and creating quota, if 10 people from your state are not in Queens College, you will protest. So, they had to have 10 from Ondo, Adamawa, etc. And in a quota system like ours, the ones that are very dull are mixed with the intelligent ones and at the end of the day, the dull ones get better placements because they come from a preferred state. Let me give you a little example.
When I was in England as an undergraduate, my friends and I were having a nice time-out one day. One of them was Aloma Mukhtar, the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria. Olu Adekeye was also with us; she’s the number two after Aloma, to be in the Supreme Court. About two or three other friends of ours were with us. They were studying law.
Aloma was on scholarship because she came from the north and the rest of us had to work during summer to sustain ourselves. So, jokingly, we said “After all these, we are sure Aloma will be the first to become a Magistrate.”
We said this, not because we were envious of Aloma, but it turned out to be true at the end of the day. Aloma was looking up to Olu and others to teach her more of the law in those days in London. What are we talking about? The quota system destroyed, in my own opinion, the idea of Unity Schools.
Maybe they shouldn’t have introduced quota system?
If you must introduce a quota system, you should make sure every child works hard to earn his or her slot into any unity school or institution. The system is just a mess. The least of the northerners became the most favoured. You were asking me why things fell apart. The constitution we had before the 1999 constitution, did not ask us to be one Nigeria. It encouraged us to be a confederation. If we read what Olu Falae wrote recently, you will understand what I’m saying. So, by the time the military came back and gave us a constitution, they made us all together. At the time I was growing up, the regions were developing at their own pace.
Even when they decided to create states, the states were also developing at their own pace. The centre was not that strong. But, by the time the military came in, they made the centre very strong so that the states were going to it for pittance. The constitution that we inherited from the military gave us setbacks instead of progress. And the situation became even worse for women. I am however not faulting the quota system itself; the problem was the way the country was structured constitutionally. Even now, how many of the states are really viable?
As one who has been in the forefront of agitations for affirmative action for women, don’t you think affirmative action is in same category with quota system and should therefore also be faulted?
Yes, I was and am still one of those advocating for affirmative action for women and that is to create a level-playing field for women in politics because they are not as economically strong as men. Accepting the system of price-cut for collection of forms for female political aspirants was a major mistake because that does not work in any way.
So, even with affirmative action, women are still struggling. We are not asking for too much. There are three senatorial districts per state. For each state, let us have one woman. That was my advocacy in 2010 and 2011. I was supported by the UN (United Nations) Women and I went to all the political parties. I believe it was as a result of that, that Mrs Remi Tinubu managed to get through even though her husband was also influential.
Back to my question, why can’t women be left to struggle for themselves on merit like you argued against quota system?
Nigeria is not operating the quota system properly. Ideally, quota system should have a bit of merit in it and should be made to operate for only a period of time for which gaps need to be bridged. Ideally, quota system is time-bound. But the Nigerian quota system does not see it that way. When we were going to begin canvassing for affirmative action, I did a lot of research and gave recommendations.
My problem is with the structure of our quota-system; it is very bad and almost punitive. There is nothing wrong with quota system but in Nigeria, it has been turned to almost a punitive system. Three people come out of university with first, second and third classes but because one comes from Kano, she gets a slot in public service employment even with her third class, at the detriment of those who did better.
Merit is not considered at all and that’s what is happening with everything we do in Nigeria today; even with the formula for distribution.
Why do you think they are agitation in the Niger-Delta? You give them 13 percent extra as derivation and you give 13 percent to Lagos as derivation as well. 13 percent given to the Niger-Delta is nothing; we should be talking about 50 percent derivation instead. I remember I once recommended this in a pamphlet I wrote with Professor Teriba on Revenue Allocation in Nigeria. The point is, the Niger-Delta is getting almost nothing whereas people from Adamawa are getting more even though they don’t have the oil.
All the northern states are, in fact, getting more simply because we have not worked our revenue formula right. Instead, we are busy creating more states; very soon, it will be one man one state. We should also be thinking of ways of developing each state so they can be economically viable on their own. That is why I advise that even if we must restructure, we should restructure with caution and get away from the military constitution. Let us have a referendum. My argument is that there must be a way of planning the quota formula to promote merit and equity.
What’s your take on the state of the Nigerian economy vis-à-vis the newly constituted Economic Advisory Council?
I’m very happy that President Buhari has created this Economic Advisory Council. I happen to know at least three of them; including Rewane and Shehu Yahaya. I’m sorry there is only one woman on the team but I must say that she is very good. I know her well. If they are allowed to work, they will do very well. I say this because it is one thing to set up this committee and it is another thing to accept their recommendations.
Nigerian economy at the moment has been hampered a lot by corruption. All the good factories have been taken up by churches. There is no factory that is actually functioning; they’ve all gone to Ghana. We used to have good assembly plants for Peugeot and Volkwagon but where are they? Peugeot still manages to maintain one in Abuja but our National Assembly members will rather import cars than patronize them.
Tell me, how can an economy develop that way? You take two steps forward and ten steps backward. And then you are introducing tax increase on people who are not employed? For me, VAT (Value Added Tax) is a tax on the unemployed. And then, at the same time, our legislators are the highest paid in the world. We used to have a Nigerian Airways that was functional but where is it today?.
Now, we can’t use the roads because they’ve become death-traps. But instead of making sure they are repaired, our leaders will buy private jets and fly over them while others suffer. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have jets but it is immoral to enjoy such luxury in the current plight of the majority of Nigerians. Something is fundamentally wrong which we are not addressing. It is not that our government is bereft of ideas; something is just fundamentally wrong. I just hope this new economic team will be allowed to work.