I’m a woman and I participated in the conference. The conference was trying to address those issues that have been set as goals or targets for the Millennium Development Goals. It was all about assessing the MDGs, knowing whether we have achieved them or not and if we have not, try to find out why we haven’t achieved them, see how we can achieve them and then improve on the existing MDGs. Since the existing ones may be ending by next year, there’s need to see where we go forward from there; what have we been able to achieve as some countries have done very well like The Gambia in the area of gender equality. But we still discovered that we’re still lagging behind. How many women have contested elections if we talk about gender equality in political affairs? So we are still encouraging women not just to sit back and expect men to give them jobs but to move on and work with the men in order to get that equality.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for women in The Gambia in particular and Africa in general?
Generally, I will say we have financial challenges especially capital to start a business. If you want to go into a business, capital is essential and if we’re going to borrow money from the bank, they need collateral and women have less collateral to give to the banks. And so you discover that the men have more money to receive from the banks than the women and therefore finance is a major challenge. We also have challenges in the areas of culture and traditions as well as religious beliefs. Religious beliefs we know are personal beliefs but a lot of people try to put them into place as if they are general issues. Religion is in the heart and it has to do with you and your God. In the area of culture, we discovered that there are still areas where women cannot talk; women are supposed not to be seen, or even to be heard. So we are still having such challenges but we are calling for people to know that culture is dynamic and bad cultures that affect women negatively can be abolished. There and then, we can come up with cultures that can encourage women to come up with their potentials. We have discovered that most of the best pilots today are women. There are more careful women pilots than men. This is what has been discovered and some countries have been really encouraging women. Recently during the centenary period in Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan gave an award to the first female pilot and first female vice chancellor of a university in Nigeria. This is to encourage other women to show that other women have achieved something and that they also need to do the same. Education is also a major area because we discovered that if a woman is educated, then the entire family is educated because she brings up the children and has more time with them than the father. At the end of the day, she is the main manager of the family and if she’s educated then automatically, she transfers her education to the children and even her husband and so the country will be educated.
President Jammeh always emphasises the need to see more women assume leadership positions and The Gambia has a lot of female ministers. In fact we even have a female vice president. With these gains do you see The Gambia electing a female president in future?
Well from the grooming that President Jammeh is doing, I think he’s putting women through so that one day a woman can be president in The Gambia. From my own perspective, that’s what I have seen and that is making it clear that everyone has a right to go to the farm, women have also moved into farming and they are the biggest farmers that I have seen since I came to The Gambia. I have supported in my capacity one or two groups including women rice farmers in Sitanunku. I gave some assistance to another group of women who produce vegetables. We were able to have a borehole because of this seasonal rainfall so that they can have some form of irrigation. I have seen The Gambia encouraging and educating women, and automatically I have seen the country educating everybody.
But when you talk about women stepping up to the challenge of leadership, some people argue that women have inherent weaknesses that militate against their ability to do well in such a capacity. Do you agree with this?
I don’t agree with that because I’m a woman and I have led in different ways. I have stood for elections and won two elections. So I’m not waiting for anybody to come and give me a job or to come and fix me up before I can be up there. I contested my first election and won to be a people’s representative in the National Assembly of Nigeria representing Abuja Municipal Area Council and Abuja Federal Constituency. I contested and served as mayor of Abuja, executive chairman of the Abuja Area Council. I thought I was going to rest after my tenure in office then I was appointed ambassador and this was based on merit. So for women who are in positions through elections or by appointment I have discovered that they have stood the test of time and have stood out. And so the different presidents make sure that they appoint them even though they have not contested elections. Our present minister of finance was with the World Bank and because of her capability, the president sent for her to come and serve as minister of finance. Today, Okonjo-Iweala is the finance minister in charge of the entire Nigerian economy and since she came to office, Nigeria has progressed and we are now the emerging economy in Africa.
When you talk about President Jonathan awarding women for their achievement, there was an attempt to name a hospital after Abacha’s wife, an action which drew a lot of criticism from Nigerians because Abacha was a dictator. What do you make of this?
A lot of people talk blindly because they are not well-informed. We are lucky in Nigeria because we have had first ladies both in the past and the present who are very hard-working first ladies. Before the Abacha regime, the late Mrs Mariam Babangida came up with a project to improve the condition of rural women. That was when rural women in Nigeria started coming out because she said we cannot be working in the centre alone. She said there was need to mobilise rural women, develop their skills, stand out and let us see their potentials. Through that she was able to build the National Centre for Women’s Development, a place which is still functioning. Because she initiated that idea, it was named after her initially until it was change to the National Centre for Women Development. After she had left, Mrs Abacha came and the hospital you’re talking about was built by Mrs Abacha. She built the hospital through her own family support programme and today the hospital is not even named after her. It’s still called a national hospital. We wanted it to be named after her because it’s her initiative and it was named after her before it was changed to a national hospital. Today, that hospital is the best hospital in the entire Nigeria and it was a woman who initiated that. She brought equipment, did fundraising, donations were made by other countries and she put that hospital in place and it is the biggest hospital in Nigeria. It’s the best equipped hospital in Nigeria. It was her initiative. Some of the volunteers we had here in The Gambia are people that were working in that hospital and I know a woman who worked in the theatre there who was sent to The Gambia and she also served in the theatre at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital.
But her husband stole and stashed billions of dollars of Nigerian money in foreign banks?
That I don’t know because I think a lot of these things are just said and have not been proved and if there’s anything that was, then maybe that was at their own level. I don’t just believe that you’ll be sitting down and start siphoning billions… Cash is not there like that to siphon but you know when you are not there, at times politically a lot of people say a lot of things when you’re no more there. When you’re there, a lot of people will be singing your praise but if you leave, people will say what they want to say. It’s like when they said some monies were missing in the coffers of Nigeria from the CBN and then blah blah blah… At the end of the day, they discovered that these are revenues that have been collected and not yet remitted and it was not as if the money was missing. Many people said the money was missing and then at the end of the day, it wasn’t in fact missing. The money was on transit but you do make remittance only after collection. When you collect, there are processes that you follow for remittance. There’re techniques involved in the transfer of money.
I would like to ask you about recent developments in Nigerian politics with some senators defecting from the ruling party in preparation for elections while the issue of Boko Haram festers in the face of other regional tensions and Northerners coalescing against other political blocs. How strong do you think President Jonathan is for the rigorous challenge of election that lies ahead?
President Goodluck Jonathan belongs to the People’s Democratic Party and everybody knows that it’s the most organised political party on the ground. Others are merging here and there and up till now they are still trying to put their executive in place. The PDP already has its executive in place from the ward to the national level and if by the grace of God the primaries take place and he [President Jonathan] wins the primaries, he will be the candidate again for the party. It is the duty of other political parties to come up with their own candidates but for the PDP. It’s about the party. Elections like these are not about individuals; they are political party issues.
You have been involved in politics for quite a long time. Do you harbour any ambitions to climb higher on the political ladder?
Of course yes. Like I said, I have contested two elections and won all. I’m still a politician. By the grace of God I will still continue and when I go back home I will look at what is available and ask my people what they want me to do and go in for what they want. We still have the senate and other positions to go in for and so what stops me? I want to finish the assignment I have here first and then when I am finished with my tour of duty successfully, I go back home and continue politicking. .
Against the backdrop of Biafra War and the rising regionalism with northerners clamouring that it is time for them to rule. Many people have expressed the notion that Nigeria as a nation and politically, is an unconvincing construct. What do you say about that?
The issue of North-South, South-North doesn’t come into politics as far as I am concerned. In politics, you go for whom you’re convinced about and so politics is all about conviction. If there’s a Northern candidate that convinces Nigerians that he’s the right man, then they will elect him. Likewise, if there’s a southern candidate who can also do that and the people want to go for him, they do. The issue of North–South is just a division that people try to create but as far as I’m concerned, it’s about knowing what you want and going for it. It is for the people to assess him. When I went for my election, a lot of people were saying that I wouldn’t win because I was a woman, but to everybody’s surprise, people bought me because I became a commodity and selling myself to the people and convincing them to buy me. In my first elections, I had 22 wards and I won in 21, all hands down which was unriggable. They saw me as their best candidate and saw me as someone that they can confide in and they said, yes we entrust this position to her. That was how I won during the Abacha period.
You almost sound like an apologist for Abacha?
Abacha encouraged women during his time as president and he was the one who toured all the 36 states in Nigeria and including the FCT to fish out the women who can stand for election and then encouraged them to go for election. That was exactly how I was fished out. I didn’t go myself but they fished me out and the Abuja city women fished me out by saying that I am the woman that they know and trust to stand for election and win. All those depend on the people’s assessment of you. Abacha was never brutal.
With Sainey Darboe]]>