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.
Yinka Odumakin (husband)
What is your impression so far about the National Conference?
I think so far, so fair; though there are challenges. For instance, we spent a long time on the process of the voting pattern. We set up a 50-wiseman committee. They have brought some proposal which was adopted yesterday and everybody clapped and we moved on. But I have my worries that if we fail to address that issue it will come back to address us. You know we have always pretended in this country. When we have a problem to confront, we paper it over and it becomes a bigger monster. What we have done is like you have a wound and you just put cello tape on that wound without treating it and you think it will heal; it will not. That thing is coming back. That is number one
What is the issue?
The question of the benchmark for majority! By agreeing to 70 per cent, we have shifted from two-third and from 75 per cent. We are meeting middle point. It is a recipe for taking no decision at this conference. And when we get to substantive issues, when the interests are surfacing, we will realise that we had merely postponed the evil’s day. Secondly, I’m beginning to entertain some fears about Nigerians’ attitude to rules, which is beginning to surface at this conference. For instance, when we were having that motion on the two-third majority, I submitted a motion to the leadership and I was told that day that I could not move the motion until I have circulated it to all the delegates. Yet, we have seen people move motions on this floor without circulating it to delegates. When we came yesterday somebody moved a lengthy motion to change a decision that we had taken before without circulating it to the floor. And today, I raised a valid point of order. The conference rule says that anybody speaking should speak in English. The deputy chairman (Bolaji Akinyemi) overruled immediately. When (former) Governor Adamu Aliero moved a point of order, which clearly was out of order, they found it difficult to overrule him. The deputy chairman consulted the chairman. By the time he came back he did not say ‘I overrule you.’ He said ‘I find it difficult to sustain your point of order.’ I am beginning to see a kind of pandering to certain interests. We are now being told that some people are above the rules. If that permeates the conference then we are going to have some problems.
Do you mean the expectations of Nigerians from this conference might be dashed?
Yes. We need to tell the leadership of this conference and to let them know that the very reason why we are here is because of primitive, selective application of rules. Nigeria has so many laws. Our problem is that we don’t enforce the rules or we vary the rules when it comes to (certain) persons and if that attitude is what they are bringing here, we must kill that attitude. Our laws are meant to be obeyed no matter whose ox is gored.
You represent the South West geo-political zone. What is the zone’s agenda for this conference?
The key agenda of the South West is true federalism. Nigeria should be run along true federal lines. So all the issues of corruption, education…. The fundamental issues to be addressed are in the three Committees that were set up – Structure of Country, Devolution of Power and Form of Government. This is the hardware. Every other thing is software. But you cannot say you are going to get software without hardware. If you spend all the money to buy the software and you don’t have the hardware, there is nowhere to use the software. All the things you are talking about – killing, education etc – are linked to the structure of the country. So, we must restructure the country and that is the key agenda of the South West.
Do you see your colleagues moving along that line in the discussion of the President’s speech?
You have seen that most of the voices from that part of the country have talked about the need for us to go back to true federalism and that Nigeria cannot continue running along the unitary line. That has been the general tone. A delegate, Senator Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele, put it succinctly when she said that “If you don’t know the way to your destination, at least you should return to where you are coming from.” We had something that worked for us in the past when we had autonomous regions who were doing things, developing at their pace and competing. That has been the tone and that is what we want at this conference.
In clear terms, are you also asking for regionalism?
Definitely! Regionalism is part of our agenda. The regions should be the federating units. The regions should now be free to create states in their regions. The local government should be taken away from the exclusive list, it should be residual. It should be a state affair. The regionalism we are asking for does not mean we should abolish the existing states. The present states should be under the regions and the region will be coordinating units and the units will be liaising with the centre and not the 36 states which are just salary earners from the centre.
Wouldn’t that be too clumsy?
There is nothing clumsy about it. All we are saying is that Nigeria shall be a federation consisting of two federating units: the federal government and the regional government.
Do you see the conference completing this assignment in three months?
The way we are going, I’m afraid we may not. We are in the third week now. We have nine weeks more after this week. I have my fears that we will able to finish within these 90 days and given the issues that I see.
You and your wife are here. You are about the only couple in this conference. How come both of you are here?
We are both here because we have in our different ways, without being immodest, distinguished ourselves in what we are doing. Before we got married, she had established herself and I had established myself; so iron sharpens iron. She is not here because she is my wife and I’m not here because I’m her husband. I came from the South West geo-political zone. She came on the platform of Civil Society from the South-South. I would say that, if we were not married, we would still have met at this conference. It is a coincidence that we are husband and wife. My region recognised my input and they put me on their list. The Civil Society recognised her inputs and they put her in their list. Don’t forget the US Government conferred her with the Woman of Courage Award. So, our being here has nothing to do with being husband and wife. It has more to do with what we have contributed to the development of this country.
Were you surprised that she was announced as a delegate?
I wasn’t surprised a bit.
But was there any consultation between the two of you when she was being considered by her group and you were being considered by your group?
When my group made my nomination I was informed and she was also informed by her group that they put down her name. But it is something that just came naturally. I have seen a lot of people that tend to make negative comments about that. “There is a couple here,” (they say.) Why don’t such people give their wives the latitude to do what they (the wives) are doing? I know a lady who is as vibrant as she is. We were in the student movement in the 80s and she thought she will continue to do what she used to do. She got married to a husband who did not allow her to do it. Eventually, that marriage collapsed. By the time she got into the second marriage she switched off completely. How many men would miss their dinner because their wives are supposedly outside doing her work? Many of them can’t. There is a price to pay in terms of allowing her to do what she is doing to get to this conference. There is a price that has been paid in terms of allowing her to do what she is doing. But little minds will not see where we are both coming from. They say, “Oh, husband and wife;” as if the reason we are here is because we are husband and wife.
So, who is taking care of the home front?
We have an arrangement for that.
So you get in touch with home?
When you finish you assignment here, do both of you sometimes discuss as husband and wife about the Conference; maybe issues that cropped up on the floor of this conference?
Of course! We always have time to discuss (and) to seek views on developments in the country. We do that all the time. It is not only about this Conference.
But do you stay together?
So you pay just for one accommodation space?
There are people who are living or resident in Abuja here. In this conference everybody is receiving the same allowance. They don’t pay for anything, they don’t fly to anywhere.
How long have you been married?
We got married in 1997.
When you hear her making contributions on the floor and maybe she is going astray, do you feel like going to correct her. We are married men and sometimes we feel like correcting our wives when they are going astray?
Well, I have not seen her go astray since we started this Conference. And of course, like I said, she has come a long way and I have come a long way.
Are any of your children showing a tendency towards activism?
There is a saying that “an apple does not fall far from the tree.” There is no child that carries that DNA that does not have the streak.