I hope to be busy with exciting things, even when I’m 80 — Senator Ita-Giwa
Popularly referred to as Nma Bakassi due to the active role she played in bringing succour to her Bakassi people during the troubled times of Nigeria-Cameroun struggle over the ownership of the Bakassi peninsula. Senator Florence Ita-Giwa was recently conferred with a chieftaincy title by the Obong of Calabar. The 64- year old speaks to NKARENYI UKONU about the significance of the title and sundry issues
What's the significance of your new title?
All through my growing up years, I haven't heard that such a position has been held by anybody and I was reliably informed that, for many years, such a ceremony has not been held for any woman. So, it is like being the number woman in the kingdom, the mother of the kingdom, the mother of women, the mother that takes care of the kingdom. It is generally taking charge of the welfare of the kingdom, making sure that the kingdom runs well, the palace is okay. It is also an advisory role. Even at my age, I am considered to be young for that position because there are other older women in the kingdom who are qualified for this position, but it is in view of all what I have done, the decisions I have taken as a daughter of the soil, and for being a descendant of the Efik royalty. The title would allow me the opportunity to do other things for the Efik kingdom. It also means that I have to comply with all the kingdom rules while I continue to serve the people.
How does it feel, considering the preference you enjoy?
The process has actually been on for a year. I thought that the older women in the society would not feel so comfortable, so I spent the last years rallying round the other women just to let them know they aren't being trampled upon. I had to be sure that accepting it would not interfere with my political activities. Once I was assured about that, I accepted it.
The Calabar carnival is coming soon. What is it about and why are you so passionately involved?
It is a way of mobilising people, making them happy and encouraging them to utilise the opportunity to do things. My camp has since open, in preparation for the carnival. Last year, my band, Seagull, won the band of the year. As we speak, I have 17 young tailors in my camp that will make the costumes that will be worn on that day. These are Yoruba boys who have never been to Calabar before. So, the carnival is an avenue to unite the country. I am dressing up a thousand adults and 385 children. There are four sculptors in my camp who are training the local boys on art work-making. So, we are indirectly encouraging skills acquisition. Most of the things for the carnivals are done locally, except for the few complicated things that can only be gotten outside. The carnival is my own way of supporting the cause of my state government.
How do you hope to replicate last year's success?
We have been rehearsing everyday for the past one month. People have an erroneous impression that the carnival is just a street party when it is, in fact, a very serious intellectual exercise. Last year, I told the story of the Efik kingdom, the sojourn of the Efiks, which won us the prize and even reduced some people to tears. It was a drama presentation through dance and costume. The state usually gives us the theme for the carnival. This year's theme is a bit complicated; it is Strength and resilience: the bedrock of our future. Each band is expected to get their own sub theme. Now, resilience is the ability to survive despite all odds and Nigeria has gone through some tough times. Cross River State has also been surviving without the oil wells that were taken from us; and that is resilience for us. So, it depends on what aspect of the story we may want to interpret and it is something that necessitates us to go round to talk to professors, brainstorm in order to come up with our script. This takes about two months.
Who is responsible for your band's financial upkeep, considering the challenges you've just stated?
It is tough. Getting sponsorship has been difficult; we don't have the time, as I'm too busy to go round looking for sponsorship. Besides, Nigerians are very slow in sponsoring anything; they probably prefer to deal with government because they want to get patronage from government. We get some kind of subvention from government, which is nothing compared to what you need to present a good street party. I bring in people from outside this country and I invite people in the entertainment industry. It is very capital-intensive; but to God be the glory, I sponsor my band.
Since you returned from the National Assembly, what have you been doing?
I didn't want to go back to the National Assembly because there was nothing exciting there for me to do any more. I got tired of sitting in the chambers to chant a yes or a no. In my conscience, I felt I was wasting time; I just felt I needed more challenges in life and more political excitement. For some reason, Obasanjo asked me to be a special adviser to the president on National Assembly matters which, to me, was more challenging and made me gain more experience and a better understanding of this country more than all my 12 political years put together. After serving President Umaru Yar'Ádua for two years, I left to go and handle the Bakassi issue, which was a major issue that needed my presence in Calabar. It was a very dark period for the country, my state and my political life. It was a very sensitive issue that needed proper handling. I am happy that today, all my efforts have paid off; because I have put a new LG chairman and councillors in place, we have been relocated, we aren't going through resettlement. A lot has happened since I left the National Assembly. When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I am a politician; but it is more interesting if you are now in a political position where you are not doing it for money. I am now the caucus leader in my state, the political leader of the Bakassi people and presently on the presidential campaign council for President Goodluck Jonathan. I am also a member of the South-South council for the Jonathan/Sambo ticket. So, I have been very busy but you know, people have this very wrong impression that you either have to be in the chambers, be a minister or be an adviser to be politically relevant. I intend to be involved with exciting things even when I am 80 because I will be delving into so many things. I have become very versatile.
Why are you passionate about the cause of the Bakassi people?
May be it is a habit. I have 10 Bakassi children I adopted who are doing amazingly well and I feel so fulfilled. A couple of years ago, they didn't know anything about electricity and all that, they were very timid; but today, they attend the most expensive school in Calabar. Two of them just did Cambridge and excelled in flying colours. They will go to the university outside this country for exposure. By the time I am through with these 10, I will take in more because I am trying to develop a new set of Bakassi children. It is very fulfilling when you are able to touch the lives of others who need help. These are kids that didn't know each other from Adam, but I have been able to bring them together and they are convinced that they are of the same parents because they all answer the same name, Ita-Giwa; and they have lived together for over seven years. With all these, I don't know how else anyone should find fulfillment in something else.