‘Despite affirmative action, gender representation in politics remains anti-feminism’

She does not look anything close to her age. At 80, the former Commissioner for Education in the old Anambra State, Chief Dr. Grace Obayi (nee Nwodo), still does most of her assignments personally. In this interview with Southeast Bureau Chief, LAWRENCE NJOKU, the octogenarian, spoke about life, service and other societal issues.

How does she feel at 80? She laughed. “It is only God that has kept me alive till this day. I am most grateful to Him. I cannot thank Him enough. He knows why He has kept me till this moment.”

She continued, “I don’t know whether to use the word unfortunate. I can’t because I do not know why God took them at the time He did but He took my parents before they were 80. None of them lived to be 80. Even though my grandfather lived above 100 years and may be that is why I dislike politics. Politics so stressed my father that he died at 72.”

She continued, “we would have loved to have him much longer. My mother too felt his absence and followed shortly after even at a younger age. But it has pleased the Almighty for me to see 80 years, I hope and pray that I have not disappointed Him and where I have as a human being, because no human being is perfect, I pray He forgives me and for the more years left, that He gives me the grace to continue to grow in faith in Him, in service to Him and to love him more and more every day. It is God; as a human being, I do my little bits, what I learnt from my parents, my educators – you have to watch what you eat, ensure you don’t engage in what will kill you, more vegetables, fruits with little carbohydrates, exercises and what have you. When I was much younger, particularly at the primary school, I used to enjoy my games. I played netballs enough but on getting to secondary school, my Alma Mata, Queen of the Rosary College, Onitsha, I found more pleasure in playing long tennis. In the University, I tried that a bit but because of constraints of time, I did more of table tennis by way of games and of course, walking is indispensable and it has helped me in old age. You know these cars we ride every day, particularly those of you who do a lot of sedentary work, the cars can be disadvantageous. A little bit of walk no matter how short helps. These are the only little things I have done to keep life going.”

Obayi is not interested in politics and she has her reason: Politics stressed her father to death. Her words, “I come from a very strong political background. I think I have a bit of it in me in the sense that, as I was growing up, let’s not talk about the various offices I held in the secondary school, those were not political offices, they were offices based on recognition of students and teachers of my person. I held several positions in the school. In my days, it was five years system. We had a common hall for study and I was elected the study prefect with class five students. By the time, I got into my final year, I was a house captain, I was a senior prefect in school, not to talk about president of religious organizations or social clubs in schools, or debating society. All those exposed me. As I got into the University, that was where I almost got into politics. I was elected to represent student’s union government; that’s the farthest in terms of students politics that I went and I decided that I must call it a stop and face my studies. There were too regular meetings in the nights; there were too many contentious issues and remember that in my days, women hardly get into education and I had a very strict father who would always want you to come tops in your studies. So if I spent my time on too many social activities, I might not have satisfied his yearnings. So I had to be very careful there.

“As I grew older, we already had a full house. My mother was a fantastic woman; it was like feeding the market every day. That I inherited and I didn’t mind it. I love making people happy but I noticed that many politicians, they tell you one thing in the morning; they do another in the afternoon. That inconsistency was what put me off. I couldn’t stand it and I felt for those around me. I love politics to the extent of reading it up, listening to the news and analyzing situations as they come but certainly I did not want to be into active Nigerian politics. National Council of Women Society, I was the Secretary for many years, I was president for many years before the constitution that limited the tenure of presidents. I was national vice president; I was an international consultant on habitat.

“ I fought for women’s right a lot in my life. Mrs Odinamadu, my humble self. We always liaise with Chief (Mrs) Muokelu of blessed memory, Margret Ekpo; these were mothers who were in active politics while we did the rest of the work behind the scene.  I don’t mind that but really, even when I was appointed a Commissioner, it was under a military regime, but my first reaction was to reject it simply because I wanted a career in civil service. That was what I thought I was cut out for but after discussing with my boss, the then governor, Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah, he asked me to tidy up and come on leave of absence and I did.”

On what women issues were then and now, she believes that quite a good number of women have made the marks on their behalf. “There is certainly greater awareness on the part of the women. There is greater participation in governance on the side of the women. To that extent, one is happy, but if I tell you that we’ve made it, we have not made it.”

She added, “look at the percentage of women in the House of Assembly, National Assembly and Ministers. In my own time too, it was tokenism. I was the sole female commissioner in the cabinet. Today, there is improvement but there is still plenty of room for improvement of women. It is not that we do not have women who are intelligent enough and who are capable of discharging their duties creditably.”

According to Obayi, “the problem is that women do not have that kind of monetary power that Nigerian politics seems to demand. After all they are the people who do all the singing, crying and dancing for the man to get into office and as soon as the man wins, he relegates them to the background. They make it possible for many men to win and I sincerely believe that the population of women in the country is higher than men.”

“Look at public gatherings,” she said, “they have more women than men. But I hope and pray the women will continue and not soil themselves in order to get positions in politics. Our government should respect the treaty they have signed. I think for now we are getting to 45 per cent.”
Nodding her head to show disapproval, she said, “what we want is 50 – 50. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, if the women are more capable, give them 60 per cent. If they are not, pray for time, till you think they can make it. But I believe in many of our society, you have up to 40 per cent very intelligent, very hard working women who can help this country to develop and they should be given a chance to contribute.”

Does she think Nigeria still has such women now? “There are very many of them, but many of such women have full time jobs and give less time to public issues. They are among our local populace. Magret Ekpo wasn’t that educated but she was powerful. A powerful speaker, good organizer and mobilize. We have such women right in my village and in your village; we have but please give them the encouragement. I will support them even in this old age,” she said.

Growing up in a family that was politics-centered and in the midst of others. As the first child of the family, how was your growing up like?

“My parents had 10 children but two were dead before we knew them well. The one immediately after me before Joseph was a girl but I didn’t know her because she died in a matter of months. I don’t have very clear picture of her. There is another one after Joe that died too. So, I grew up as part of eight children in the family – four boys, four girls and I thank the almighty God for the parents he gave us. They were most caring, most loving but they were highly very disciplined and enforced discipline in the family and to that extent, I grew up in a very loving family with tremendous respect from my brothers and sisters, respect that had persisted till this very day. I can never appreciate it enough but I commend them to the almighty for a reward. Naturally, we can disagree on an issue but even on doing that, they showed me utmost respect. I have never had cause to have any of those girls or boys insult me. Those who know the family know this and my father insisted on this. It was the kind of training he gave us. Remember that in my days it was not easy to find girls in the higher institution, even to go to secondary school was a problem. I remember that when I passed the common entrance to go to secondary school, my uncle said that it was a waste of money because sooner than later I would be given to one man in marriage,” she noted.

Mama obayi added, “unfortunately, he was limited perhaps by circumstances of his time and my father saw beyond him and thought that it was necessary to train both the boy and the girl. I will not tell you what my father thought of me or wrote even in his will as he died about me. They consult me on all issues in the family and they respect my views. Of course where they have superior argument, we were trained to give in.”

She aaid, “In my first year in the University, I was a pioneer student of the UNN. I had admission into Ibadan and then UNN but my father choose UNN for me because he fought hard to see that University come into being and located in our area. He taught his child should be one of the foundation students of that great institution. So I had to leave Ibadan after going to that college for my A’level and return to Nsukka  for my degree. We were a little above 20 female students against roughly 200 male students. Can you see the gap?”

She continued, “there were not too many qualified girls, even in the Nigerian college, there were very few compared to the population of the boys. Secondly, you have to pass the entrance to go to the Nigerian College of Arts and UNN. In my own case at the UNN, I didn’t write the entrance examination because I got in through direct entry. I had got my A level at the Nigerian College, so I had to go and very few were admitted in that very year through school certificate and they had to write the exam.

Remember also that facilities in the University were limited. In our first year, there was only one hostel – M.I Okpara hostel and both the boys and girls lived there. There were three floors, half the ground floor served as dining room for everybody and half the boys lived there. There was a door permanently banning that section from the dining. As you come to the last floor where the female students lived, there was a staircase, only the female students took that staircase and there was another one for the boys and another door with iron bars barred that half of the floor from the rest. In our time, it was not like these days where boys easily stroll to the girls hostel; boys were not allowed into the girls hostel and girls were not allowed into the girls hostel until a year after we were admitted. I can remember seeing the room of any boy till I left.”

Comparing the standard of education then and now, she had this to say: “ I have always said that it is difficult to judge. In our own time for instance, the scope of learning was not as vast as it is today. Really, a serious student today, if you encounter him, you will be happy, because apart from his area of specialization, if you take him on other areas, he will impress you and that is why they said the world has become one little village. He can tell you what is happening in various parts of the world. He can tell you the developments of various aspects of Science and in the Arts but in our time, we were lucky. Nsukka (UNN) also blazed the trail, trying to give broad based education. Like I studied English but I had to do compulsorily Natural Sciences and Music and other subjects not purely related to my discipline.”

She revealed, “Actually when I found myself Commissioner for education, I felt highly challenged and I did my very best to lift the standard of education beginning with primary, secondary and tertiary. At the primary school level, I was the one that started the UBEB or SPEB as some people will call it in the three states of Enugu, Anambra and Ebonyi. It was still the old Anambra State. I made sure that teacher’s education had to be attended to. The standard of attainment of teacher’s education was not good enough. I insisted that for any teacher to teach in the primary school he or she had to have the basic qualification of NCE and I am happy that I enforced it. This is because many of the teachers were not literates and if you don’t have it, what do you impact? So that caught up until today and you can see that many of them are becoming master’s degree holders. At that primary level, we started ending teachers for further studies, they started attending workshops, conferences and updating their knowledge. At secondary school level, we were also up to date by ensuring that facilities were available. Government supplied every school with equipment for the learning of the sciences; gave additional facilities to schools in the area of technical education, and then it was called technical education. It became proper part of secondary education and government went to Czechoslovakia, imported materials. They had made the order before I came but it was during my time that the materials came. But we made sure we trained teachers who could handle these tools and use them to teach the students the subjects and amazingly we found our children very good with their hands and this was when the famous curriculum on education was attended to and what you are using today, so that if you are very good with your hands, after year three, you are channeled to technical education. If you very good in other areas, you are channeled to those areas but you had exposure in the various areas and we had teachers being specialists in those areas. There was improvement in laboratories and workshops and in the teaching staff.”

What was it like in the civil service, “I started in education, got to become the Chief registrar in the Ministry; then the government awarded the special merit and appointed me the same year a Permanent secretary. From Permanent Secretary, after being a commissioner, I went back to the service and then the federal government introduced Director General into the service and I was one at the state level.”

“As DG, my assignment was to go and start SPEB. I really derived a lot of joy from SPEB because I found out why the teachers were lethargic and careless with their work. Some had stagnated on one level for over fifteen years. There was nothing like running cost given to head teachers. When the chalk finished, they asked the children to contribute. That was unacceptable. I had to do a memo to the government and get running cost for teachers so that they can buy basic facilities for teaching and learning. I had to ensure that they got their promotion which encouraged them.

After SPEB, the next posting I had gave me tremendous joy – Public Utilities. Initially I said I was not a Science person. What was I going to do with electricity, Water Corporation and ASESA (Anambra State Environmental Sanitation Agency). Those three bodies were under me but I thoroughly enjoyed it because when we got the African Development Bank loan that enabled us to give water scheme to many communities. Ebonyi up to Ikwo and Ezillo, we did a lot of work and reticulation took place. Same for electricity for various communities for Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi and each community you dropped a borehole in their place or extended electricity for the first time, you really cannot imagine their joy and they were praying for me and I believe perhaps, their prayers have helped me get to this stage,” she said.

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