Dame Blessing Nwagba
By Vincent Obinna
Dame Blessing Nwagba, ran a strong campaign for the Senate on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2023 elections, slugging it out with the state governor, Okezie Ikpeazu (PDP) and Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe (APGA) former Senate leader minority for the Abia South Senatorial seat.
A consummate and courageous grassroots politician, she had earlier represented Aba North Constituency twice in the Abia State House of Assembly on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
She had also run as the governorship candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 2019 elections.
In this interaction with a select droup of journalists, the former lawmaker speaks on the challenges women are confronted with in politics, gender-rlateted violence, and assessment of the 2023 election, among other critical matters.
Most women lost their bid to go to the National Assembly. Are you worried about the low number of women that will be in both chambers?
The number of women who won the National Assembly election is very discouraging. As a female politician I am worried because the figures keep dwindling. It will shock you to know that out of eight female Senators in the 9th Senate none of them will be returning to the 10th Senate. And out of 92 female Senatorial candidates who contested in the last elections only three won their election. They are Dr. Ipalibo Harry of the PDP – Rivers West District, Ireti Kingibe of the LP -Abuja FCT, and Mrs Idiat Adebule of the APC – Lagos West. Only 15 women out of 286 women who contested in the last House of Representatives election won their election. This is an improvement to the number of female legislators in the 9th House of Representatives which was 13. In the 8th National Assembly there were seven female Senators and 22 female House of Representatives members. The number of female Senatorial candidates in 2019 election was 235 as against 92 in the last election. In the House of Representatives election in 2019, 533 females won their parties ticket as against 286 in the last election. Recall that in the 6th House of Representatives a female in the person of Rt. Hon. Patricia Etteh was elected the Speaker; though her tenure was short-lived, it is on record that she was once a Speaker of the House of Representatives. We have had the likes of Senator Biodun Olujimi from Ekiti State as the Minority Leader of the 8th Senate when Senator Godswill Akpabio resigned from that position having joined the ruling party. More shocking in all these is that no female lawmaker was elected in Abia State both at the state and the national level. In fact, I was the last female lawmaker in the state House of Assembly and my tenure ended in June, 2019. At this rate, can you say that, women have achieved the 35 per cent affirmative action in elective and appointive positions? The 35 per cent affirmative action is a National Gender Policy, which was formulated in Nigeria in 2006. The policy demands 35 per cent involvement of women in all governance process. Despite the fact that in 2020 about nine Civil Society Organizations approached a federal high court to sought the implementation of the 35 per cent appointment of women into public office, Justice Donatus Okorowo of the Federal High Court, Abuja in his judgment ordered the Federal Government to enforce National Gender Policy by allotting 35 per cent of appointments in the public sector to women. So, as an answer to your question, one can rightly say that the 35 per cent affirmative action is perhaps seen as a mere policy statement. President Muhammadu Buhari has 44 cabinet ministers only seven of them are women; 35 per cent of 44 should be approximately 15. The situation is even worse in elective positions, in my state (Abia State) there is no woman elected in any office in the last election, it was only APC amongst the three major political parties that gave a woman its governorship ticket (Adamawa State). Women are not allowed to hold certain positions in party hierarchy which ought not to be so. At present there are many women who are chief executives of banks and some other multinationals in Nigeria and they are performing excellently well, standing tall on competence, but when it comes to elective and appointive positions, the issue of gender will come into play. The joke is on our men, go to Rwanda where the majority of their parliamentarians are women and see for yourself how developed that country is despite the fact that they came out from a civil war in 1995. The achievement of the 35 per cent affirmative action will enable the country perform better in so many areas. The President-elect, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, in the past entrusted women with some sensitive positions, I have the belief that he will correct this anomaly when he announces his cabinet ministers and other key appointments.
What do you think it will take to have women on the decision-making table?
There are many women in position of authority both in the private and public sectors. What women are demanding for, is that they shouldn’t be denied of positions they are eminently qualified to occupy because of their gender. In school, there is no simpler examinations meant for the women and harder ones for the men. In fact, God created women specially; they are created with the ability to multi-task. Most women who are in position of authority have less acquisitive tendencies unlike their male counterparts. When Justice Aloma Mukhtar became the Chief Justice of Nigeria, she distinguished herself in that office. The women have all it takes to occupy any office. Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is currently the Director General of World Trade Organisation (WTO) and there are many Nigerian women occupying high offices in international organisations, if the opportunity to be the governor or president comes Nigerian women will perform excellently. The education, exposure and experience are there for the Nigerian woman to occupy any office and perform excellently. We have the capacity, competence and credibility to lead on our merit. We do not need to be discriminated against, but we need to be seen as partners in nation building.
Violence against women seems to have increased with innocent women sent to early graves. Are you worried?
Gender based violence (GBV), is one phenomenon that has refused to go away in Nigeria despite the increasing advocacy and protection of human rights all over the world. Violence against women in Nigeria includes, intimate partner violence, domestic violence and physical violence. On daily basis women suffer one form of violence or the other. Most of these cases are not reported by the same women who are at the receiving end. The under reportage of some of these cases are caused by illiteracy, lack of enlightenment and in some cases, fear of being mocked, stigmatised or excommunicated if their husbands get convicted. The case of the popular female Nigerian artiste, Osinachi Nwachukwu, is still fresh in our memories. Up to 40 per cent of married women have suffered either sexual or physical violence which has led to early death of some of the victims. Men’s violence against women is the hallmark of a patriarchal society. The society gives men enormous control over women that many times the latter is seen as a mere property to be acquired by the former. It is that feeling of control that men believe that they have over women that fuels some of their acts of violence. Every reasonable person needs to be worried about the increase of Gender-Based Violence cases. More worrisome is the increase in work place violence. Recently, a university lecturer of the Imo State University slapped a female student for not wearing a specified uniform to lecture. If an academic could use violence to discipline his student in the open, you can imagine what the wife is going through in his hands. Though, the university management has suspended him, steps should be taken to forestall future occurrence. There’s need to increase the advocacy/campaign against this ugly trend as this will enable the victims report cases of violence against them without thinking of being stigmatised.
Do you think our laws are strong enough to stem the tide of violence against women?
I think one of the factors affecting the campaign/advocacy against gender-based violence in Nigeria is religious and cultural differences. There are some cultures that see it as a taboo for women to be heard and some religions condone child marriage. Coming to the question whether our laws are strong enough to stem the tide of violence against women. I will say yes. What we are lacking in the country are strong institutions. We have the laws, but in most cases, because we don’t have strong institutions the laws tend to respect certain people based on the position they occupy. As at December 2021, 30 out of 36 states had enacted laws prohibiting gender-based violence just like in other areas there are adequate laws, but the compliance level is what matters. What we need is for our institutions to be strong enough to the point that we don’t want the president or governors to determine the commensurate punishment for an offender who is highly placed in the society.
What informed your decision to contest for the Senate after being in the House of Assembly?
The legislature is like an old wine, the older it gets, the better it becomes. Having served in the House for eight years with a great record of performance by way of effective representation, lawmaking, oversight, and provision of “stomach infrastructure” for my people, I .felt I would do better by a representation at the national level and in a national party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). There, with my legislative experience and contact I would draw greater dividends of democracy to my people of Abia South Senatorial District and Abia State and address the underdevelopment that had bedeviled us. I also knew that as a woman I would do better because we show more commitment when given opportunities. I was the only woman in the Senatorial contest where we had the sitting governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, running for PDP, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe who has been there for 16 years running on the platform of All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) and another running for Labour Party. Having seen the level of underdevelopment, unemployment, infrastructural decay in Abia South and dividends attracted by APC members in other constituencies, I was sure I would do even better if given the opportunity under the platform, APC. The election was, however, marred by corruption and was initially declared inconclusive having had over 30,000 votes from Obingwa , Aba South and North not cast. How the returning officer came back after less than three hours to announce APGA as the winner surprised all. Many are at the tribunal challenging this pronouncement, but I chose to have my peace and not bruise myself further having gone through turbulent primaries and so much stress of the election. Going to the tribunal would have still been a burden I would be left to bear. He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day, according to an adage.
Who do you blame for what went wrong considering the outcome of the election?
Before I deal with this, I must thank the party for the opportunity to fly their flag. It is a great honour to fly the flag of a ruling party of the biggest country in Africa, Nigeria. I thank all who were instrumental in this. Individuals like High Chief Ikechi Emenike, the APC gubernatorial candidate in Abia State, who stood by me to ensure my nomination, deserves a big thank you. I am also thankful to Sir F. N. Nwosu, the APC National Welfare Secretary, who died in the course of the election. May his soul rest in perfect peace. It is, however, unfortunate that the internal crises in the party, sabotage and anti-party activities of some members and many leaders dwindled, if not marred, the fortunes of our party and candidates. Many party leaders and holders of big national appointments rather used the resources of the party and the nation to work against their own party, the APC. Many others, in spite of consultations and pleadings, refused to identify with our contestants. It was really a terrible experience, as I recall all that transpired. I worked so hard as I am known to do, making the best of the mandate, campaigning in all nooks and crannies , with bill boards and banners of myself , the president-elect Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu and other candidates everywhere. I attended my personal rallies, those of the gubernatorial candidate and presidential candidate at Owerri, Abia and Abuja. Though, we had the Obidient wave in the South-East, I stood firm promoting APC and all its candidates. If those leaders with great means and heavy national wealth had supported us, our situation would definitely have been different in Abia. But in all, I can still beat my chest on what we were able to do and how we raised the APC stakes in the South-East.
Given the complaints from your quarters that your election was rigged, can it be said it’s a reflection of the 2023 election?
Every election has its peculiarities hence it will be wrong for me to generalise the conduct of the 2023 election. Members of my campaign council and I did conduct a post-election examination or analysis of my election. We observed there were intimidations of our LGA collation agents in some LGAs and the people who did that, did it for a purpose; however, I wouldn’t want to go into further details of the conduct of 2023 election and the election results. I didn’t go to the tribunal to challenge the outcome of the election; therefore, it is of no use for me to cry over spilt milk. Beyond that there are candidates in the same election who are at the tribunal, it will be subjudice discussing a matter that’s already in court. The second part of your question is an indictment on the integrity of the electoral body. INEC has done its bit, the election has some flaws even the bigger democracies have their own challenges. If you can remember, former USA President, Donald Trump, questioned the election that he lost to President Joe Biden. Therefore, it will be totally wrong to assume that all the candidates that emerged winners in the 2023 election won through rigging. For me, there was great improvement in the conduct of 2023 general elections due to deployment of Bimodal Voters Accreditation System machine (BVAS).This is evident in the number of influential and powerful politicians who lost their elections, including governors and national and state assembly members. The choice of the people prevailed in most cases, not all.
Most Nigerians seem to be dissatisfied with the governance of your party, APC, under President Buhari. Do you think the President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, can salvage the country?
In 2015, when President Buhari was elected into office the expectations of Nigerians were very high and based on that many people are judging his performance based on the target they set for him and some of the promises made. President Buhari may not have gotten it right in all indices, but in the area of infrastructure he did very well. It is on record that Buhari’s administration has invested more resources on infrastructure than any other administration since 1999 with visible projects in all the geopolitical zones. Just two weeks ago, the Special Adviser to the President on Media, Mr Femi Adesina, said that some of the promises that people claimed that President Buhari made were not from him rather from some pro-groups. According to him, the president heard some of those promises while he was already in office. Late appointment of the cabinet ministers and health challenges slowed down President Buhari’s performance. His Excellency, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, has a record of working with the best of hands in his cabinet. As a governor in 1999 to 2007 some of his cabinet members then are occupying one position or the other in President Buhari’s administration. The Bola Tinubu I know is going to hit the ground running immediately and as usual I trust he is going to select the best hands across the country into his cabinet. He is also known to run gender inclusive governance. His deputy governor was a woman. We are quite optimistic and strongly request that he brings in capable women, especially those who contested various elective positions and strongly supported his campaign into his government. He should employ an affirmative action as a way of encouraging women in politics. Government is a continuum. It is expected that he builds on the achievements of President Buhari and where the current administration didn’t perform as expected; he is expected to improve on them. My wish is that God will strengthen him and give him the enablement to carry on with the arduous task ahead.
There are moves to zone the Senate President away from the South-East. Are you worried about it?
The NWC of our party after meeting with the President-elect resolved that the best option for choosing the principal officers who will pilot the affairs at the National Assembly is by consensus arrangement. I know that a lot of factors were considered before they arrived at the decision they took. While the South-East is yet to produce the President, the South-South geopolitical zone is desirous too to produce a Senate President. As an Igbo person, I may have some level of sentiments for my geopolitical zone to get the number three position of the country, but as it stands now it is beyond an individual’s position and about the party taking a decision. But, another important question is: will the Senators-elect heed to this zoning arrangement of the APC? I know there are some aggrieved APC Senators-elect. They need to be pacified before the inaugural sitting of the 10th National Assembly in the second week of June, because the party wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened in 2015 that some aggrieved Senators-elect joined forces with the opposition to produce His Excellency Senator Bukola Saraki as the Senate President and PDP’s Senator Ike Ekweremadu as his Deputy against the preferred candidate of the party.