Dame Blessing Nwagba, a grassroots politician and woman leader represented Aba North Constituency twice in the Abia state House of Assembly on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) before she decamped to contest the governorship position of the state on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 2019.
The astute politician in this chat with Sunday Sun spoke on the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem with women in politics and Ndigbo and 2023 presidency, among other national issues. Excerpt:
Let’s get your view on the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic and government response so far. What is your assessment?
Well, I will say that the thing hit us like it hit the rest of the world like a thunderbolt, but be that as it may, the state governments, as well as the national; the Federal Government have done their bits to see how they can contain it. Of course, the NCDC which is the organ that is directly responsible for this at the national level and it has been very efficient in giving us up to date account of the situation and their efforts at containment of the disease and the advisory that we must keep to, to enable us contain it. They have also made efforts as in having various test centres all over the nation because as we speak the number has increased tremendously from what it was when we started and they have also done a lot to impact on Kano situation which was the latest of the high occurrence we have had. For Lagos State, the Federal Government has done her bit, but I must also extend my appreciation to the Lagos State governor, Sanwo-Olu because I see him as one of those on top of this issue, tackling and responding to the impact of the pandemic, ensuring test centres are put in place, also centres for isolation, caring for the persons isolated, doing tracing and all of that. We hear him every day attending to these matters and I think he deserves commendation. Some other state governments have also done their bits, but I must say that the Federal Government has been trying, having had this shutdown in three areas (Abuja, Lagos and Ogun) and now, including Kano. For me, that shutdown was very appropriate. The ones that the state governments have also done have been very appropriate. We also realised the impact of the lockdown on the economy which led to some protests, which is very understandable anyway, because many people are daily income earners, shutting them down, and not having another means of livelihood becomes another problem. Hunger might kill faster more than the Coronavirus itself, so that led to some people reacting the way they did. But it’s unfortunate that palliative has also not reached the people because if you want people to stay indoors and keep to the rules, you must provide them with means of livelihood, you must provide them with the basic to be able to assuage hunger and take care of their basic responsibilities indoors, but that wasn’t very possible within this short period. I also know that the Federal Government is making more efforts to reach out to more people, both in terms of food items and in terms of the cash given to people. I can say the state governments are doing their bits, but it’s unfortunate that many parts of the country still consider the Coronavirus issue as not real, they still don’t believe that this is real. Some of them still see it as a phony thing that the government is doing for whatever selfish reason. This attitude is simply shocking. I don’t know how to reconcile that with the number of deaths we have had, including the latest in Kano. I don’t know why some people up till now, even with the deaths recorded still feel that way. If you come to Abia State here, I know a lot that the government has done, but many still don’t believe it is real, maybe because Abia has had only two cases and incidentally no death, so when you tell them it’s real, some will tell me, oh, madam leave that thing, you don’t understand what the government is doing. But the government has stepped her feet down to ensure that people keep to the rules. I don’t know how anybody will not understand what happened in Italy, what is happening in the United States, in the UK and different parts of the world, the deaths being recorded within this short period, and still, people are doubting and thinking it’s not real.
What lessons do you think have been learnt during this period?
It has made us come to our knees and realised what we actually need to do as a people, as citizens, as leaders. Holding whatever position in the society and delivering on that position is necessary. We now realised that we don’t have hospitals where we have to run to in the UK or the USA anymore, all the borders are now shut against all of us. So, if you are sick you have to stay here and die if you must die or go to the same hospitals we abandoned over the years. Look at the news today, how much we realised from Abacha’s loot, how many times have the loot returned to Nigeria? Imagine what this could have done for this country in terms of provision of healthcare facilities, provision of good schools, in terms of provision of all kinds of social or infrastructural amenities, provision of good roads, electricity, etc. I weep every day when I think of certain things going on, the massive looting without showing concern to the people. I came into government with great vision, hoping to make a great impact as possible as I can, I have done my bits, I thank God and pray for giving me the opportunity to still do more, but I think we need to realise that as leaders we must do all the necessary things for the benefits of our people, the citizens and not waste our country’s money. We should stop inordinate ambition, stop unnecessary primitive acquisition, stop carting Nigeria’s money away out of our country rather use it to provide for our society for the benefit of all. Look at Abba Kyari having to die in Nigeria, there was nowhere to run to and many others have died too, but if we had put in place good facilities before now, no doubt, many would have survived. So, what has happened is a lesson and challenge of leadership, that those entrusted with the mandate should at all-time be honest to deliver. If they fail to do that and take care of even emergencies when the time comes they will also be victims themselves. We should as leaders look inwards and provide all the necessary things for the development of our society. Again, we now realise what the basics are, all our cars are now parked, airplanes are now parked, no movement, our mansions scattered everywhere are there with nobody staying in them, etc. The issue is that we couldn’t see what was chasing us, no ammunition, but it was a war, even though they say it was bio-ammunition, but we can’t see it, yet we are running, we are dying. It’s time we realised the mystery of God and countenance the things that are important to us as human beings and give them more attention. We should look inwards and try to be happy with what we have, appreciate yourself, appreciate your neighbours, and appreciate your environment, among other things.
If you look at Nigeria you will observe this deepening widening gap between the rich and the poor. What do you think should be done to bridge it?
There was this research I did many years ago, the topic was “Monkey de work Baboon de chop”, you discover that many people keep working yet there is this small, very insignificant population that you may call the “rich” always getting richer and these days it happens to be more in the political sphere. I am a politician, that perception may be wrong, it is not only politicians that are rich, the only thing is that the politicians are always on the spot, in the eyes of everybody and whatever they acquire is seen as something from stealing. If you have a small house people will say, oh she wouldn’t have had it if not that she was in politics, meanwhile there are many others who have mansions and mansions everywhere who pinch from government and yet they are not politicians. I think the government needs to invest in areas, particularly in small and medium scale enterprises, make provisions for the small and medium enterprises to get loans; get facilities to enable us to develop that area so that wealth will be created and circulated, the gap will actually begin to reduce. The leaders must have a re-think and have the interest of the masses at heart because when you get the people frustrated and impoverished you (the rich) will not have the peace to enjoy your wealth, you will become a target when the people begin to revolt.
As a politician do you support regional security outfit like the Amotekun security network established in the Southwestern part of the country?
I think it is necessary when you consider the ugly developments being witnessed in recent times. It is very embarrassing that I will stay in my village, you now see somebody from somewhere in drones coming here to take over my land, destroying my farms. I know we have always had this issue of farmer/herder problem in the Middle Belt over the years, it has always been there, but it is far beyond that now, it has penetrated to the West (Yoruba land) many states in the West are no longer safe. Look at how the daughter of Pa Fasoranti, Afenifere leader, was murdered near Ore. It made me shed tears. Can you imagine such an embarrassment? It’s like dipping your fingers into somebody’s eye and say, what can you do? It’s an insult to a nation, so I am glad the Westerners came up with that Amotekun when they did. It was right for them to sit back, plan on how to protect themselves. You don’t sit down and fold your arms for the enemy to come and kill you. I know my people here in the Southeast, the governors have met sometime and it was one of the issues for discussion and I think I was happy about that. One of our former commissioners, Eze Chikamnayo, on his way to Enugu almost lost his life. His story was dreadful, horrible and he missed death by whiskers.
Will you be worried if the presidency does not go to the Southeast in 2023?
(Laughs) Everybody or region will want to have the presidency, the West (Yoruba) will want to have it. Of course, we know those that are already jostling for it there. The North has it for this long and if you leave them they will still want to keep it, but we have been denied it in the East. Naturally, we will want it to come to the East, but I have come to know power is never given, power is fought for, and you fight for it. Nobody will dash you power, you struggle, strategise and fight for it. If we in the Southeast are serious to have presidency come to us in 2023 we need to begin to come together, it should not be a partisan thing, we should build bridges and start on time, we are almost late. We should reach out to other zones, and begin serious talks, present our arguments, have alignments. The Middle Belt has always cried of marginalization, are we really with them? The South-south had always cried except that we had President Jonathan the way we had him, are we really with the South-south? We are marginalized along with all of them; are we reaching out to Edo and Delta? So, we need to wake up and build serious bridges as a project, carry everybody along and men should also carry the women along. Women have natural ways of handling matters governing our society. We have capable women in the Southeast who can reach out to other areas and put up our strong argument along with the men.
What are some of the issues militating against women from active political participation?
We are suffering patriarchy, and it has not been easy to break it. It is in the head of our men that this is a man’s world. Look at my sister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, look at Oby Ezekwesili, Aruma Oteh, name them, what will you say about them? Women with character, good education, confidence etc, but will the men allow them win elections? By the time I started doing councillorship I was already a Master degree holder, most of the people that were there with me in the cabinet were with school certificate and not even all of them even had the school certificate, but they still felt, oh, she is just a woman. It is the psychology I am talking about, it’s a bad mentality that men should remove. Also you need economic power, of course, you know what is involved, politics is money gulping, you need social power and, of course, the violence in politics are also discouraging many women from participating.