The two activists talk about their marriage and passion for Nigeria.
Joe and Yinka Odumakin are the only married couple in the 492-member National Conference currently holding in Abuja. Both of them are activists, but represent different groups at the Conference. While Yinka, a Yoruba, represents the Afenifere, which he speaks for, Joe, a Deltan, came on the platform of Civil Society Organisations. She is representing the Campaign for Democracy and Women Arise, both of which she heads. They spoke to PREMIUM TIMES on their current assignment, the home front, life as activists and other issues.
Joe Okei-Odumakin [wife]
What is your impression about this Conference?
A lot of people have said it is a talk shop and that it is another jamboree, but I firmly believe that with the some of the people I see here – a lot of people that have not even attended conferences before – I think we should insist that whatever resolution this conference will have must be subjected to referendum. It is only referendum that will now tinker with the proceedings of this conference.
We also need to discuss the National Assembly. As I speak today, I think that our people have lost it. Sovereignty belongs to the people, but because of military psyche, because of military dictatorship, a lot of people don’t even know that the existence of military rule had whittled down the power of the people. We, the people have the National Assembly members as our agents and we the principals. The principals can dissolve the National Assembly. The National Assembly remains our agents as long as they have their tenure. So we should utilise our powers. I believe it is going to be a colossal waste of time and resources if, at the end, the outcome of the conference is taken to the National Assembly. They are going to tinker with the outcome if we do that. They are also part of the problems that we are supposed to discuss.
So far so good! There is no way I should go into a bus without knowing my destination. That is why it has become my battle cry that subjecting the outcome to a national referendum is the only way for the proceedings to see the light of the day. It is also good that we are listening to debate. People have bottled-up anger; people are expressing their views. Nigeria that I know of has died, has decayed the former constitution. We need a new Constitution for a new Nigeria. We need a Nigeria that works; that the unitary government we are practicing, but called federalism, is changed to true federalism. Now we need true federalism and devolution of power. We need the vulnerable to be protected. How can a two or six year old be raped? And at the end you see the rapist walking about free. If the rapist is given life imprisonment and those who have corruptly enriched themselves, it will serve as deterrent.
Are these things achievable going by the tone of the debate on the president’s speech?
I think really a lot of people that are making contributions are not sure of the final destination. However, there is going to be a revolution in terms of the decisions that would be taken. I was a bit worried when the two-third was thrown away and now we have 70 per cent. I have never heard of any democracy where minority will have their way. Majority will always have their way and minority their say. But the way it is with this 70 per cent, we have a lot of work to do so that at the end most of the decisions that will be taken will not be frustrated. We are talking about parliamentary system of government, devolution of power, corruption attracting life imprisonment etc. So, we need a lot of homework. I have never attended any conference except this one and at the end I don’t want to cover my face in shame. I want to be part of history. I don’t want to become a relic of historical past. That is why I am going to do all I can. I am going to adopt the approach of Jehovah Witness to convert people, speak with them and do all I can. Very soon the Campaign for Democracy and Women Arise will go to all the regions, see people, listen to them and take memoranda from them. I have never been part of failure. I remain an incurable optimist. I believe that Nigeria will flourish. Talk is very cheap. We need a lot of hard work. Let people take note of everybody we are seeing here. I’m happy that the press is not gagged. Let them be present so that people will know what everyone is doing. People that are elderly are here. We know, historically, the roles every one of them has played. We know those who have been part of failure. We know those who have made their marks. History is my own judge and will be other person’s judge.
How come you and your husband are here?
I have always given my life to the struggle and I met Comrade (husband) in detention. He and Gani Fawehinmi were detained at Panti (Police station, Lagos) and then they were moved to Alagbon. I was detained in Ilorin because I was pasting posters at a barracks (the military headquarters) and I was there for about one month and then I was brought to Lagos. That was where I met him and met Chief Gani Fawehinmi. I have committed all my life to the struggle. So, even if we were not husband and wife, probably he would have been here and I would have been here because we have different causes to pursue. I am the President of Campaign for Democracy and the President of Women Arise. I came on a different platform of Civil Society and they put me under South-South. He is the spokesperson of Afenifere and he represents the socio-cultural organisation from the South West. He is there, I’m here. I have my own constituency and I have my own platform. Sometimes, at the National Conference proceedings, I don’t see him. So I am just here to face my business to ensure success for the constituency that brought me here. We met in the trenches and we have continued like that.
Do you stay together in Abuja?
Yes, but not always because sometimes I come, travel and when I come back very, very late I stay in a hotel and pay. While staying together, we will get a suite, which is double the amount of the room. It is just the cause and route that both of us have taken.
With the absence of the two of you, who takes care of the home front?
It is a thing that has already taken shape. In 1998, when I had my first child, I was going for a press conference and then I felt uneasy and then I went to the hospital. The doctor said it was labour time. And I asked, “Can’t this labour be delayed because I have a press conference at 11 am?” The doctor said it had advanced. And then 30 minutes after that, I put to bed and I left the baby and went to the press conference. That was the press conference that took place in Pa Abraham Adesanya’s office in 1998. He was so gracious to me and understanding. Two weeks later, my mother took the baby and she is taking care of the baby. So out of the two of them, we have one that is staying with us that is 10 years old.
Are any of your children taking after you?
I think it is the gene. I go to their schools once in a while and I hear stories like “Somebody collected biro from somebody and he (her child) went and collected it back.” There are things that I see them exhibit and I give them freedom. I wanted to be a Reverend Sister until my father said he was going to disown me and after disowning me he will write my obituary. That was how that ended. I went for my Advanced Levels, but after that I still wanted to be a nun. Nobody knew… I fight and defend people. I was doing that on my own. For my two kids, probably if they choose to… But there are tendencies I see in them, like protecting the weak, even giving to people. It is just like me. I can give whatever I have to anybody.
Where are you from?
I am from Delta State.
Are you aware of any negative comments by fellow delegates about you and your husband attending this Conference together?
I am not aware. A lot of people who know Joe know my antecedents. When Senator Okurounmu Committee (on National Dialogue) came to Lagos I was there. I made the presentation of Campaign for Democracy, CD, and Women Arise. I told them that right from the inception of CD and Women Arise I was there. And I know all what one has done in terms of struggle. So a lot of people know Comrade when he was a student union activist, when he stoned Babangida with tomatoes. Except for people who do not know our antecedents, it won’t come as a surprise. When we were in the trenches together, I had been sprayed with teargas; I have been hit by gun; I have been harassed; our place ransacked; we had suffered it together. We were in Occupy Nigeria. We have shared teargas together. Some people who really know our antecedents know that this is not a situation whereby I will be deprived. It is going to be very unfair. I came here because I have played my part. I have risked my life. I have been shot. I have been with dead bodies. There was a time I escaped with bullet wounds in my leg during the June 12 annulment.
Are you prepared to die for Nigeria?
I wrote my will since 1985 when I only had a mattress and books as an undergraduate. I said if I die, they should give my mattress to a motherless baby home and my books to the university library. So, there is no risk too much for one to face for a country. I am ready, if need be, to lay my life down for this country.
Do both of you sometimes compare notes after the conference sessions?
Our best moments have been when we debate the state of the nation, heated debate on the state of the nation. In terms of comparing notes, really, most of the time I have three meetings – South-South, CSO, Women Group. This happens almost daily. When we stay together, by the time I come back, maybe it is 12 midnight and sometimes he comes back by 2 a.m. But, we discuss issues – developments in the country, capital punishment etc. Even in proposing to me, it was where people were sitting around. We were supposed to write on the state of the nation. There were seven of us. Before we started he said, “I want us to debate the state of my heart. I asked this girl to marry me, but she said until democracy comes.” He said some other things. At the end, the comrades there said, “Yinka has won.” That was how it began. There was no honeymoon. The honeymoon was sharing teargas, running around, hiding etc. That is how life has been.
Are your children enjoying all this?
They are coping. There are some of my younger ones and his younger ones living with us. Things have been working. There are sometimes when my plane will be landing and his plane will be taking off. This conference is somewhat odd for me because I am not used to staying in one place, but I am trying to cope.