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Hajia Sani

If a former Minister of Women Affairs, Hajia Hajo Sani, is to be believed, then former First Lady, the late Mrs Maryam Babangida, must have gone through two excruciating pains before her death late last year: The cancer which eventually took her life and the agony allegedly caused her by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The former president had closed the accounts of her pet project, Better Life For Rural Women. Maryam was said to have taken the issues up with Obasanjo for forcefully appropriating the fund she assiduously worked for and kept in an account with Oceanic Bank for the Women Development Centre, Abuja.

In an interview she once granted the SHE WORLD magazine, Mrs Babangiga had said: 'Yes, we had an account from day one when we launched the National Women Development Centre. We had some money, after commissioning the Women Centre. Those who made pledges started fulfilling them later, and the money started coming into the account. Then suddenly we had to leave, and the money was still in the account.

'We were thinking of how to use the money to run the centre. But during the Obasanjo administration when Aisha Isma'il was the Minister of Women Affairs, she needed money to run one health programme, and government said go and look for money anywhere you can find and use it (I heard so).

'She was said to have gone to Obasanjo and explained (the situation), and then Obasanjo said: 'Go and use it, after all Better Life money is government money.'

'She went and froze the account. There was even no courtesy of informing me or Mrs. Aikhomu. The next thing I heard was that they had used the money. I was really, really embarrassed. It was not government, so they would carry the sins on their heads.

'What I did? I left everything to God. If we went about it legally, it would have been a question of embarrassing Obasanjo who was then President and that lady (A'isha Ismail). It would be seen like we were fighting the government and they would start harassing my husband. I left it at that.

'And the Ceccillia Ibru woman of the Oceanic Bank was aware because she was in-charge of the bank and she allowed such thing to happen without consulting me first. This is the same woman who benefited from Better Life Programme.

'She had started her Oceanic Bank at the Women Centre (because) we gave her the space to start the bank. She was even calling us to be part of the bank but I said I was not interested. Go and ask her, she is alive. The signatories of the account Mrs. Aikhomu and two others are also alive. I never signed the cheque, I was not a signatory.'

When Daily Sun contacted Aishat Ismail on telephone, she was not keen on 'talking about dead people on controversial matters of this nature,' even as she expressed shock at the annoyance exhibited by Maryam: 'Madam should have known that Better Life was initiated by her only when she was in the State House and it was never registered as a Non-Governmental Organisation.

'I never for once came across an account in the name of any member of the BLP, an account maintained by her (Maryam) or any other individual, but the account whose money was raised and controlled by government, through the office of the Accountant General of the Federation. So the money in that account was government money.'

Ismail insisted that she had to use the money for relevant official programme in her ministry, only after Presidential approval and subsequent release by the office Accountant-General of the Federation.

Hajo Sani who concurred that Better Life was not registered as an NGO during Maryam Babangida's leadership, however, disagreed that the organisation was governmental: 'Being Mrs Babangida's brain-child, Better Life was run through her influence and connection to influence individuals and organisations to contribute towards funding it, which we did successfully and opened the account she talked about. If this account was funded the way it was funded and never budgeted for like now, how could the money belong to the government?

'If anybody says the BLP was registered and funded by government later after her name was removed from it for whatever reason then, that is a different thing altogether. But not during her reign as First Lady when she mobilized money and opened the account with the Oceanic Bank.'

She noted with regret that the various projects initiated by subsequent first ladies could not equal nor outshine those of Babangida, even though government has become the controller of their programmes, including funding. She spoke more:

Maryam Babangida's focus
'She was a woman of focus she was able to do what several other first ladies were unable to do up to this day. The Women Development Centre is her brainchild and most of the activities affecting the ministry are revolving around the centre.

'She set an enduring standard for the Office of the First Lady in this country. I also believe that it would be a curse on Nigerian women if we allow that standard to derail. It should be sustained to even greater height. It must be preserved for posterity. This was a lady that dedicated her life and time to the care, love and emancipation of the Nigerian women and national development.

When she came up with her programme in 1987, her focus was to look at that aspect of women, particularly the rural women as an area that really needed to be given attention, not only by her but also by the government of the day.

'Maryam Babangida tried to ensure it got government attention to succeed in ensuring deep involvement of women, especially in politics, agriculture and women in rural area and national integration.

She nurtured the concept of coming up with the National Women Development Centre since the early stage of her becoming the First Lady, in the mid-80s when the United Nations itself was pursuing the issue of women development.

'The United Nations held a meeting on women development in 1990 here in Nigeria. The conference focused on the Arusha Declaration on the regional conferences of women in Africa. The National Development Centre came up with the Abuja Declaration on the participation of women in development, which was for the integration of women development in Nigeria. Right from the declaration for the Decade of Women from 1975-1985, every subsequent declaration was made by the United Nations.

'The National Women Development Centre was commissioned by General Ibrahim Babangida in September1990. It was then called the Better Life Centre for Women Development. It had a training centre with the needed facilities, hostels for the trainees, library, conference hall, cafeteria. It was so organised and comprehensive to make the training conducive and easy.'

Why the name was changed?
'I really don't know and can't see any good reason why the name was changed. Moreso, when the place was actually founded and commissioned as an NGO headed by Mrs. Maryam Babangida whose name was rightfully attached to it. It is a centre that pursues issues affecting women at the local, national and international levels. May be that is why they changed the name.

'With her demise, it will be not only commendable but also creditable to name the centre after her as a mark of respect and honour for Mrs. Babangida. It is like immortalizing her and maintaining her legacy.'