Amb. Dr. Mrs Kema Chikwe is a former Nigerian Federal Minister of Aviation, former Minister for Transportation, and a former Ambassador To Ireland.
Until recently when she announced her retirement from partisan politics, she held the position of National Women Leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
An astute promoter of women’s emancipation and contribution to national development, she recently unveiled her plans to focus more on her pet project “Women Leadership Institute Network” in a bid to raise the next generation of women leaders.
In this interview on Arise TV monitored by MMS Plus, Kema Chikwe spoke on several issues ranging from the need for a Women’s Development Bank, why women don’t make too much impact in politics, and the strategies she deployed to get to leadership positions in the country. Excerpts
Well, you’ve been in politics for decades, NPN, NRC, UNCP, PDP, all through the years, The Same Problem About The Gender Gap, About Women Being Almost Restricted To The Women’s Wing Of Various Political Parties, What Exactly Is The Problem? Because It Has To Be More Than Patriarchy. And How Do We, Going Forward, Deepen Women’s Representation In Politics?
I think the problem is the mindset of our society, the mindset about women. As you said, I’ve been in politics all these years, and it’s always been about giving women a chance, mainstreaming them in leadership, and giving them the opportunity to participate in policymaking.
But in every political dispensation, and every election, we still have the same problems. And in my place, as they say, where a child is crying and pointing at a place, it is either the mother is there or the father is there.
So for us, there is a big problem, and that’s why we keep crying because society itself has not been moving well. It has not been moving well, because you leave out half the population from decision-making. Or those who make decisions are making decisions for people that they do not appreciate their problems.
So the problem also is that the women themselves, by our culture, are not forthcoming. And each time they try to do something, something negative happens, or something neutralizes their efforts and dampens their enthusiasm.
This year’s election is a case in study. I mean, it’s a total disaster. So, where the problem is, is that society has to begin to appreciate women, and women themselves cannot recline and wait for that recognition, for that power. The women really have to come out and do something about it.
It’s not about rhetoric. It’s not about talking about our culture. Culture is dynamic. Things change. This is a technological age, for instance, and things keep changing. So it is in our own attitude, because I’m beginning to feel that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. I think women should come out and do something about it. So the fault is on one hand, our society, our culture, and also, we, the women, have to determine to take the bull by the horn.
But In Saying That The Women Ought To Take The Bull By The Horn, You Are Absolutely Correct. But You Would Also Agree That There Are Some Institutional Barriers To Women Taking The Bull By The Horns. The Proverbial Glass Ceiling That Has Been Put There For Women In Politics In Nigeria. We’ve Talked About The Fees, The Fee Structure, The Party Structure, Political PartiesThe Way They Are Run, How It Can Pose A Barrier To Women. We’ve Looked At Even Policies That Exist In Some States That Prevent Women’s Participation In Government And Governance. Now, You Yourself Has Led In Different Aspects In Government. What Did You Do Differently? How Did You Break Those Barriers In Terms Of Emerging As Minister Of Transportation, Then Minister Of Aviation, And Then Moving On To Become An Ambassador? You Even Wanted To, You Ran As Governor Of Imo State. What Did You Do To Break That Mental Barrier You’re Talking About?
Mental barrier! Now, I came back after my studies in America in 1977 and 78. And I got inspired by my group of friends, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, and the rest. We had a group, a political group, and we decided that instead of being armchair critics, you know, coming from a new culture, you begin to think you can change Nigeria overnight. We believed so. So, we said, okay, let’s get into politics. And we did. Luckily, Chief Ekwueme provided us with the platform to be active in politics.
I can tell you that many a time, I was the only woman in the group. But my husband, who was also in the group, was in the background and giving me that support. Whether we like it or not, we need, basically, you need the support of your husband or the men, because this is a man’s world. You need some kind of support. And I started from there.
And, you know, sometimes you stumble. But because you have a focus, you have a goal, you come up again to pursue that goal. Now, how did I get to where I am? Before getting into politics, you realize that you are in a man’s environment. And you have to be able to overcome. You have to have your own strategies.
You have to have the courage. You have to have the courage. And you have to also create a situation where you are respected because you are contributing to not only the intellectual aspects of development but the practical aspect of it. I went on the campaign and did everything. When PDP was formed, I was a founding member of the PDP, and I decided I will not miss any meetings. Because one thing we identified was that meetings are usually held at night when it’s not convenient for women. But if you have to do it, you have to do it successfully. And you have to be ready to attend those meetings.
Secondly, I also learned through different mentors that when you attend a political meeting and the meeting ends, you don’t go immediately. If you go immediately, there’s meeting after meeting. Another meeting will start. But we were in a hurry to go back home and take care of the home and so on. But you have to make sacrifices.
So I made sacrifices. And if you are contending with a colleague, you have to be prepared. You have to know what efforts are these colleagues making to have victory over me.
I have to weigh the powers of my colleague, whether it’s a man or a woman. You don’t give up. So you try and do the same thing that he or she does. You don’t get subdued because they are men.
And then you know women don’t really have money for politics as such. But, it’s not only about money. Then you look for what you contribute. If you are contributing ideas if you are contributing strategies for victory, then, you’ll be respected and you’ll be accommodated.
But a lot of times, some women give up. You don’t give up. So, what did I do differently? What I did differently was that I had the courage. I was consistent. I didn’t believe that if I failed, that it was the end. No, you fail and you rise. Because I had a vision.
Anybody who has a vision, you want to fulfil that vision. I want Nigeria to be a better country. I want to be recorded as one of the people that contributed to the development of my country, to the development of my environment, to the development of my society. And above all, I feel that some of us who have had the benefits of education and higher education should also give back, mentor other women, be role models, and inspire them.
Because I keep saying that when women are eclipsed from opportunities to contribute to development, everybody is the worst for it. And you can see what is happening. Now, look at the National Assembly. You also mentioned it. The number of women there, you said three women, fine.
It’s like taking a drop of water and putting it in the ocean. It will be difficult for them to be heard. So how can it work? So what you do differently is to make sure that you have the courage to mainstream yourself, which I try to do.
When People Say, ‘How Can We Mainstream More Women?’ I Also Like To Back It Up With An Argument That We’ve Always Had Women In The Mainstream. We’ve Always Had The Likes Of Gambo Sawaba. We’ve Always Had The Likes Of Margaret Ekpo Shattering All The Ceilings. But Hitherto, The Climate Has Changed. The Level Of Violence Now Is Unprecedented. The Level Of Chaos That Goes On In The Political Terrain, I’m Sure, Keeps Increasing By The Day. It’s More Tribal. So My Question To You Will Be, One Sweet Line In All Of This For Women Will Be Financing, Money, Cash. How Do We Get A Crowd Fund For Cash For Women? Because A Lot Of Those Women That Are Running For Political Positions Actually Need The Financial Arsenal In This Country. It’s Sad, But That’s What Nigeria Has Been Reduced To, And Largely Nigerian Politics. Are There Schemes Where We Can Raise Cash For Women That Are Going Into Political Positions Or Running For Political Office?
Well, thank you very much. Funding is a major aspect of politics, and that’s what women generally lack. And there should be a scheme. You see, we have so many organizations that are advocating for women to be mainstreamed in the policy-making level.
Most of those organizations, NGOs, are not well-funded, because those who should fund them are not forthcoming. They are not taking the gender issue seriously. Now, to cut a long story short, there should be a deliberate funding strategy for women in politics and education, because education is basic for women also.
If you want to be in politics, you want a certain level of education. If you look at the banking system, you have all categories of banks and so on and so forth. I’ve always believed that there should be a bank for women.
And I remember when I was an officer of the National Council of Women’s Societies when Hajia Laila Dongoyaro was the president, we tried to establish one. At the centre, where women could have access to funds, maybe low interest. And I’m aware that international agencies are focused on women’s development.
The World Bank and other international funding agencies. I think through that system, grants can be established for women who are truly and genuinely interested in politics.
Because there has to be an organized system for women to have access to funding. And that is basic for me. But then again, I think we the women have to grow the confidence that if you’re contesting for election, you convince donors that you are competent.
And competency is not built overnight. You don’t just jump into the arena and say, I’m contesting. Maybe over the years, you’ve been observed as somebody who is public-spirited, somebody who society will support, or who society will take seriously in politics. That is very, very important. So, when there’s fundraising, they raise funds for you.
But again, I tell women, men use all sorts of strategies. If you’re going to raise funds, you also have to commit yourself. Because the men will say, look, if I win this election, I’ll make you Secretary to Government, I’ll make you Commissioner or Minister, or this and so on. We make the same promises. The thing is that women believe that they must fulfil their promises. Men may have some maneuvers, and how, even if they don’t achieve it, they will try to, you know, bulldoze their way through.
But, okay, I think the women should also, you know, do the same thing they are doing. You know, believe in yourself. Attract the funds. And promise the donors, so that the donors will come. It doesn’t matter. I know men don’t take women too seriously, you know when it comes to politics because they think they’re not going to play the game or do what they want and so on.
But give them the impression until you get it. So that’s what I tell the women until you get it in your hands. Then you can negotiate. And again, you know, women have that fear that if I get this money and it doesn’t work, then I’m in trouble. No, you look at, there are so many people who have been funded and it didn’t work. And they’re still moving on.
So, I think there should be a system where there’s structured funding. There should be a women’s bank in this country, really. There should be women’s institution because these institutions will now lay the emphasis on the importance of women contributing to development.
Is it True That You Are Retiring From Active Politics? And Then Could You Tell Us What The National Women, The Women Leadership Institute Is All About?
Last night I actually announced my disengagement from partisan politics. And this is for real. I founded the Women Leadership Institute six years ago. And it’s been growing. We run master classes for women. We do training programs on different pathways. For me, it’s a way of giving back.
As I said earlier, mentoring is very important for women and role modelling. And this institute, we have programs to grow the confidence of women. We have programs to expose women to technology, to align with the contemporary world. We want to raise a critical mass of women that will be conscious of mainstreaming in leadership, policy-making level, and leadership at all levels.
Now, last year we started the Women Leadership Institute Network because we wanted to spread a bit more. So, we have chapters in the States. And they go into secondary schools, establishing Clubs in Girls’ Secondary Schools because we want to catch them early and inculcate the values of leadership in these young girls.
So precisely, that is what we do. And now that I’m disengaging from active politics, I think I will now have enough time to focus and accelerate the pace at which we are going.
I’m eager to make an impact on that note. In what I have founded, in my vision. At my age, I also consider that these younger women, the younger women in politics, you have to play role models and play advisory roles to them. I’m very conscious of it.