MY MUM'S DEATH CHANGED MY LIFE â€“ ITA GIWA
Senator Florence Ita-Giwa is one A-List socialite who shows compassion to the less privileged. A very colourful politician, Ita-Giwa has consistently championed the cause of her people, and effectively put the plight of the Bakassi people on the front burner of public discourse.
In a show of affection, the media gave her the sobriquet, Mama Bakassi. In appreciation of her dogged fight to uplift her people, Ita-Giwa was recently honoured with a special traditional title as the queen mother of the Efik kingdom at an elaborate event attended by her close friends, political associates and Nigeria's glitterati. In this interview, she talks about the new responsibility imposed on her by the title. Excerpts…
What is the coronation all about?
The title is called Eka Iban Ke Esien Efik Duopeba. All through my years while growing up, I never heard that the title had been held by anybody in the past. I have also learnt that for many years, a ceremony like this had not been done for any woman. The Eka Iban Ke Esien Efik Duopeba is like the mother that takes care of the kingdom, and in that capacity she is like the number one woman in the kingdom. Over the years I have been deeply involved in the activities of the Royal kingdom.
My mother believed so much in the kingdom and inculcated this into me. By giving me this title, my people are telling me that they appreciate all the work I have done both in the community and for the kingdom. Even at my age, I'm considered to be young for that position. Because there are other older women in the society that would have been given this position. But it is in view of all that I have done that they thought I should be given the position. I am a daughter of the soil, and a descendant of Efik Royalty. This position will allow me the opportunity to do more things for the Efik kingdom. I'm really humbled by it and at the same challenged to keep to all the rules, and continue to serve my people.
Would it entail your spending more time in Calabar?
If I have the time, I would be spending more time in Calabar because I have to finish my new house, which is quite nice and big. I have a hall for meetings. Already, I am a PDP caucus leader in Calabar. In essence, I have to spend more time in Calabar, both for political and traditional reasons.
Does it come with special duties?
Generally, it entails taking charge of the welfare of the kingdom, making sure that the kingdom runs well, and that the palace is okay. It is also my responsibility to ensure that the Obong is taken care of like a mother would, but then they have to let me know what they are doing.
How did you feel when you heard about the plan to confer the title on you?
It's actually been on for one year. I thought there were older women in the community that could have been given the title. Initially, I was not sure I could do it. Besides I needed to be sure that it would not interfere with my political activities. Once I was assured that I could still engage in politics, I welcomed it. Over the past one year, I have been going round to get the other women involved. I have also had to massage some egos, just to let them know that they are not being trampled upon.
How do you get the energy to do different things at the same time, without being over-stretched?
Everything I do is out of desperation. Think about it, what do I really do for a living? Politics! You know the Americans say what's going to be done, is going to be done. Every time it feels like I am getting tired, I remind myself that I have to do what needs to be done. Naturally, I'm not even sure I have that much energy but if you want to do something, you have to do it.
For you to be relevant politically or otherwise in this country, you need to keep pushing. I keep telling people that I have colleagues who were with me in the Senate, but am sure Nigerians don't even remember their names today. I'm obliged by my position, by my antecedents, by the people I represent, by my history to keep up in this country and let them know that there is somebody called Ita-Giwa. I learnt that this country belongs to all of us. As far as I am alive I owe it to my people and myself to work hard, so that I can remain politically relevant in Nigeria.
The truth is that if you don't push, the little people that come will destroy the country and we will keep going backwards. So those who have the ability to work, those who appreciate and understand the country and those who have come out not because they want to line up their pockets but they are genuinely interested in the development of this country should be very active. Unfortunately, people don't have the opportunity; once you step down they just push you aside and forget about you. And we worked hard for this democracy. I'm obliged to work hard all through for the sustenance of this democracy.
You don't seem involved in mainstream partisan politics, and people are wondering whether you have retired from politics. What is the true position?
A senator is a senator for life. I did not want to go back to the National Assembly because all my political life, for almost 12 years, I was in the legislature. There was nothing exciting there for me to do anymore. I don't want to go and sit in the chambers to say yes or no. In my conscience I feel I was wasting time. There was nothing there for me anymore. I have been in the House of Representatives, I was part of the constitutional conference; I won senatorial election twice, I did my four years, I went to the international parliamentary union, I became a regional leader.
At the end of all that I found out I needed more challenges in life. There was no political excitement for me anymore. Obasanjo now called me that I should be the Presidential Adviser on National Assembly Matters, which to me was more challenging. The four years I spent with Obasanjo as president, I believe that I gained more experience in understanding the country more than all my political years. After that I served Yar'Adua for about two years before I left to handle the Bakassi issue. The Bakassi issue was also a very major issue that needed my absolute presence to be able to manage my people.
That was a very damp period for this country, in my political life and in my state. And also very sensitive because if it wasn't properly handled, maybe it would have escalated to something worse than the Niger Delta militancy issue and I had to go and manage that. Today, I thank God that I took time off to go and manage the problem. It paid off and I have been able to put a new local government chairman and councilors in place; we have been relocated, and we are not going through resettlement. People tell me that I look good, yes, because I'm achieving positively and very satisfied with what I'm doing.
It's very interesting if you are doing politics and people now know that you are not doing it for money, because I'm very busy politically. In my state, I became a PDP caucus leader, and now the political leader of the Bakassi people. Currently, I'm a member of the Presidential Campaign Council for Jonathan; I'm also a member of the South-South Council for Jonathan. I have been very busy. People have this impression that you have to either be in the chambers to serve or be an adviser to be politically relevant. No, that is not the case.
What would you say have been your costliest mistakes?
I don't allow mistakes to survive. I became very active after my mother died and Dele also died. I knew my mother was developing me for public life, but I didn't know would be in the area of politics. She used to write things and sit me down to show me how to read. After she left, I became my own advisor. In the course of doing that over the years, you condition yourself so much that you can see mistakes coming and avoid them. Because of the fact that you have to fall into that mistake you quickly regain yourself from that mistake and try to correct it.
I have never allowed any mistake to stay around me for too long. There are lots of people I have known; luckily I have known very good people. I also became very spiritual and my hobby is thinking. People don't know this; I also enjoy solitude, which people don't know about. I am almost a shy person. No matter how tired I am I always think back before I go to bed. I ask myself where I went wrong, what I did right or wrong that day.
As a successful woman, have you experienced the pains of success?
Achieving success has come with some pains. For instance, there is loss of privacy. It also gets very lonely because it's very difficult to know who is your true friend, though I'm luckier to have wonderful friends. Actually, it's not about luck. I have tried to hold on to my childhood friends, who grew up with me and know me well; when we didn't know I would be councilor, even become Senator Ita-Giwa.
I do have good friends that know the other entities because there are two entities here. There is Florence and there is the brand called Ita-Giwa. But then, you cannot complain about people loving. It was painful in the beginning. Today, I cannot walk down the street like other people, even on Oxford Street in London. How can complain about being celebrated when God has made it so?
The other day, I came back from London and the entire airport from Customs to Immigration came forward to touch and interact with me. It is the price one pays for being a celebrity. I don't own myself anymore. Ita-Giwa belongs to the people, Florence finds time to go and be Florence somewhere. But I don't mind it anymore.