I FEEL NO NEED TO APOLOGISE FOR MY LIFE
Encountering Senator Florence Ita Giwa is not at all what you expect it to be. Her media image goes before her and depending on who you are, you've probably put her in your own little descriptive box; Mama Bakassi, Obasanjo loyalist, Dele Giwa's wife, political juggernaut and if you're one of those millions whose only prism of viewing her is through the pages of the soft-sell media, as a mama calabar-style party lover. But none of these descriptions fully captures the essence of this woman.
Meeting her and listening to her talk makes you realise that Florence Ita-Giwa is probably one of those rare and complex characters who, rather than exist by the definition of others, live their lives exactly the way they themselves want to live.
“Why do you have to apologise for your life? I don't feel the need to do that,” she says, as the cameras paused at the recording of a recent New Dawn with Funmi Iyanda's appearance.
“Why do you have to let the judgment of other people determine how you live your life? Some people, especially women, because of the kind of relationship they are in, they can't be successful or they are afraid to be successful because there are some men who are afraid of successful women. So you feel you have to apologize for wanting to achieve success. This person will rather than support you, make you feel that you should not have that success. You should not allow anyone judge you or make you apologize for your life. You need to leave such a relationship and find someone who'll support you rather than want to bring you down.”
Her self-confidence is evident in every thing she does; from the fact that she seems to have faith in her own ideas and is more than ready to share them with you.
“I think it is important for everyone to have that self confidence, other wise you can't move in life. My late journalist mother, who was the first female journalist from the south, imbibed this in me. To have that self-confidence has a lot to do with your upbringing and what you do. I'm a politician and address people to win elections.
Naturally, I'm a very shy person. I enjoy being on my own a lot. But when I have to perform, I don't hold myself back. But I like my privacy, I like my quiet. For instance, I don't keep guests in my house because I want to be able to come back home from all that hype and show and acting to be on my own.”
As you listen to her, you struggle to situate the person she's turning out to be next to the image you've carried around in your head. But don't worry that she might be surprised to hear you're doing this; she's used to it.
“I've faced a lot of misconceptions about me, especially with how people expect you to talk or dress, or how they expect a virtuous woman to be. You can still be a virtuous woman and pursue whatever career you want to. It all depends on who you are as a person. I'm a politician, I'm in public life. The good thing is I come from one of the most civilized areas in this country. I've contested four elections and I've won four elections. There's this wrong notion of what a woman should be like, they expect you to be an Iro and Buba, and cover yourself up. I've brought out that as a woman at any age or stage, you can come out in your jeans or trousers and your shirts and come out and campaign. The most important thing is what you have in your head and what programs you have for your people and how serious you are as a woman. I have a home, and I believe my home is almost pathologically clean and holy. I've also brought what I believe are some of the most brilliant and well-behaved children. So it's only for people to be able to separate what you really are from what they expect you to be.”
“I've always worked hard. I used to run two pharmacies in Lagos, one in Ikoyi and one in Apapa. I also ran two hospital equipment supply shops, also in Lagos,” she says. “At the same time, I was supplying wholesale equipment to hospitals, and also selling wholesale pharmaceuticals from Idumota. So I was running at that speed. In fact, because my friends used to erroneously say because of the speed with which I moved and did every thing, that I was crazy. But my mother used to say, if the way you do things well, means that you're crazy, please let the madness continue. They are the ones that are mad because they are not focused.”
Her mother seems to figure a lot in the tenets that have moulded her core. Even her hard work can be traced back to watching her mother at work.
“I preach to the girls growing up around me that no matter how pretty you are, you must strive to succeed as a person. You must set out your goals in life and pursue them. I saw my mum as a working woman, striving hard for success, at one stage with a broken home and it was because of her career. I saw this lady who was running three newspapers for Zik at the time, she was running West African Pilot, Guardian and Morning Post then. Then she was also trading, taking goods from Nigeria to other countries and also bringing goods from there in. I grew up with a woman who was doing so many things at the same time and yet could run her home confidently, and yet could go into the kitchen and cook. She always carried that happy, fulfilled look on her face. So if you grow up in that kind of environment, you have no choice but to succeed.”
“I've very important thing is for a woman to have her own money,” she adds. “It goes back again to the issue of confidence. When you have your own money, you know you don't have to beg anyone for things you need, you can do things for yourself.” But in no ways does this sentiment mean she endorses feminism. “You have to separate that from feminism though, which I'm totally against. I'm a woman, if there's anything like re-incanartion, I want to come back as a woman. I love the fact that you can be a woman and still succeed at anything you want to do in life. I find it fascinating. I don't believe because you want to succeed, you have to turn yourself into a man, or be colourless. I'm a woman, a Calabar woman, with everything intact.”
As one of the most influential politicians of either gender in Nigeria at the moment, it'll do any female politician a world of good to take notes from her. She has some pearls of wisdom to share.
I've gone for very tough elections. I've never won elections with the ruling party. I've gone for elections where I face men and they don't find it funny that a woman is running against and defeating them. As a woman politician you have to have the ability to convince people and also have your own money. I don't have a godfather or mentor so I did everything with my own money for every election. When I was in the senate, I was the only senator from the APP from the South-South. I think you have to take away the word fear from your dictionary if you want to be a female politician because politics is all about intimidation.
You have to pray to God to take away fear from you so that you can do whatever needs to be done. I contested with a man and everyday, they would be shooting bullets into my premises and ordinarily, this is something that would make you pick your bags and run. But I went and made a miniature fake coffin, draped his posters around it, and it took it to his doorstep and asked him to come out. They had to run away. There might be shock that a woman can do that but my mother always told me that life is rough. Because if you're weak and easily frightened, you'll not be able to face life.”
You would think as a female politician, she would support any laws that might seem to be in the favour of other women like herself. But there's one bill that Ita Giwa would be glad to see the back of; 35% representation.
“ I personally don't support the 35% representation for women in all positions. Why don't we just go out and fight for it on the same platform as the men? First of all, how are you sure that where you come from, the people there want you to represent them? So now you want to force them. That is weakness, as far as I'm concerned. Why do you want to present yourself as weak? Another problem with some women politicians is that once they hear that there's an election, they want to be heard, even though they've not paid their dues, they say, I want to be governor, I want to be president, maybe they make noise and at the end, maybe they get one or two things and after elections, they disappear.”
The real leaders
Ita Giwa is very proud of the current crop of women leaders which she is part of. She even let you into on an open secret.
“I would say with all modesty that women are virtually running this country right now. In very key positions in government, you'll find women holding the forte. I'm in the national assembly. You can't run this country if you don't have a peaceful National Assembly. Benadi is in Finance, Ngozi was there and she did very well. Oby is in education, he has just gone and brought Joy Ogwu to head the foreign ministry. All the strategic positions in the country are currently held by women, not men. The president is very good at talent hunting.
He goes around looking for women who are successful in whatever field they are in. everyday, he sees my picture on the cover of one fashion magazine or the other. He'll say, look at my special adviser. But he never holds that against me. That is not an issue as far as he is concerned. What he is concerned with is what you have in your head, whether if he wakes you up with a phone call at 5.30 am to discuss important issues that affect the country, are you mentally alert to contribute?”
The Dele Giwa connection
Looking back at her past, it's evident that her gusto has come at a very high price. You wonder if you could have the same outlook if the same things happened to you.
“Some horrible things have happened to me in life. I was once married to a man that was blown up with a letter bomb. I knew a handsome young man, and the next thing I went to the mortuary and half of his body had been mutilated and almost turned to mince meat. These things you take with dignified strength and silence. But you also along the line build your own natural defences and natural shock absorber. For now, there's very little that can shock me, I just take it that it was not meant to be.”
The man in question was of course assassinated journalist, Dele Giwa. It's clear that he still holds a spot in her heart.
I loved Dele Giwa a lot. Then we were going for a party and some journalist friends of mine brought him to my house to pick me up and I was star-struck because I couldn't believe that this person I had been reading was in my house. We started talking and from there went to the party. We sat on the floor at the party and continued talking about journalism, his column and so many other things. We talked all night and we never left each other's side until we got engaged three weeks later and got married six weeks later.”
Since his death, she has not remarried. But she insists this has not affected her adversely.
“People have eventually come to accept the fact that I have a lot of male friends. I don't have any problems, I have a lot of very good male friends, and they are excellent human beings that do not take advantage of women, some people who even came before their time. These are people who think like me, that men and women can have relationships that are not physical because a lot of Africans, Nigerians don't know that. So I'm very pampered and spoiled because I have friends who do things for me. So I haven't missed out on not remarrying because whenever I needed things to be done, there are always people there to do them.”
One facet of her life that is very much in the public domain is her style and love of looking good. In fact, she's rumoured to have done some liposuction on her thighs. She assures you it's no rumour.
“I don't see anything wrong with it, if you have the courage, if there's some part of your body you don't really like, do something to change it if you can. The only part of my body I didn't like were my thighs. I got these very broad hips from my mother. I made my friends laugh when I had my liposuction, I told them I was going to take the fat to my mother's grave and say, “ Ma Beatrice, take your thing.” I just decided to go and take out that part of my hips that were sticking out that I didn't like and since then, it has added to my confidence.
The truth is that African women destroy themselves before time, because it's the same God that created me, an African woman, that created Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Joan Collins and Sophia Loren. So why should I be ugly after 50? As a matter of fact, when you're in the 50s and 60s, you're fulfilled, you've achieved so much in life. You've gone passed that point where you have to worry about what people think. That is when your beauty should come out more then because you're not in competition with anybody.”
“I'm absolutely living the life that I've always wanted to live,” she says when you ask. “If I didn't like the job that I'm doing now, I would leave. But I'm very happy with my life, with what I'm doing, with everything about me. I can live in any part of the world that I choose now because I've worked hard and put the structures in place to make that possible. I like what I'm doing, contributing to democracy. I came to this world to touch people's lives and if I've done that, I'm happy.”