Senator Ita Giwa, popularly known as Mama Bakassi, tells ‘Nonye Ben-Nwankwo about life in politics and her struggle for the people of Bakassi
At over 60, you still look radiant, how do you do it?
Looking good is a function of good gene which one has no control over and deliberate actions to sustain and enhance whatever nature has endowed one with. I am fortunate to have good genes. However, I make it a point of duty to nourish my skin with the best quality products. I try to be health conscious by watching what I eat and I also work out as much as my schedule permits.
A lot of your contemporaries have become irrelevant, nothing much is heard of them again. But you have been in the forefront both politically and socially, what is the driving force?
That I am still considered relevant is by the grace of God and the goodwill of Nigerians. Having said that though, I believe that when one respects him/herself then one is respected in return. I have all through my life operated on the principle of self-respect and I guess Nigerians have rewarded me by also respecting me. I don’t look down on anybody and at the same time, I refuse to be intimidated by anybody. This kind of outlook is what I believe has stood me in good stead with people.
Do we see you retiring one day and taking the back seat?
My motto in life is, “service to humanity.” For as long as I live and my health permits, I will always serve the people, especially my very disadvantaged people of Bakassi. Maybe when the Bakassi issue is finally resolved, I will rest a little, but until then, I must soldier on.
Are there times you wished you were just an ordinary Nigerian whose voice is not heard?
Those times are few and far between. Though I cherish my privacy and wish that the situation around me were better, I am configured to be people’s person. I can’t stay silent when there is a problem to be solved.
Going down memory lane a bit, did you even imagine, as a young girl, that you would one day be this prominent?
With all sense of modesty, I think I was destined to be prominent. I am the daughter of a pioneer female journalist and an activist of some sort and was exposed and interacted with prominent people when I was growing up.
How were you able to rise to this height given the fact that during your time, few women were given the chance to get to the top?
I can never deny the hand of God in shaping my progress in life. However, my attitude has always been ‘if you want it, then go out and get it yourself.” I have never let my gender be a handicap. I see myself as equal to any other person male or female, so I attribute all I have achieved to God’s Grace and hard work.
A lot of women, who managed to get to the top, are often accused of sleeping with men on their way to the top, did you experience such accusation and did it deter you in any way?
I always advise up and coming female politicians to use their skills and intellect and not their pretty faces. For some reason, no one has ever dared approached me. It is called strength of character. I really do not play gender politics as I believe that this always places women in very weak and compromising position. I believe that there are eminently qualified women in this country that can hold the highest position so long as we believe in ourselves and develop the confidence and strength to fight for our right.
Do you mind that you are called Mama Bakassi; can you even remember how the name came about?
Mama Bakassi is a name that I am honoured to bear. I have been in the vanguard of the struggle for the people of Bakassi all my life. Every time I am referred to as Mama Bakassi, people invariably remember our plight, so it is a good thing in a way.
Even as you are called ‘Mama Bakassi’, some people are of the view that you played no part in the creation of Bakassi.
I would advise them to go and read up more about Bakassi. Whatever I have done and continue to do for my people remains a duty I owe them by the circumstance of my birth and as the political leader of Bakassi.
What motivated you to set up Red Ball concert?
My passion and compassion for the people of Bakassi is genetic. It is in my DNA. I have no choice in the matter. So the question of motivation is a moot point. I must say that the support that the foundation for the children of Bakassi has received from Nigerians over the years has been very encouraging. Because of the support of Nigerians through the foundation, quite a good number of Bakassi children now have hope and are receiving first class education in the best schools around.
You spent the greater part of last year dealing with the Bakassi issue, what is the status of the Bakassi resettlement issue now?
Last year was particularly tough for my people because the handing over of the territory to Cameroon was finalised in 2013. The result of it was that thousands of my people who refused to take up Cameroonian citizenship were forced out of their ancestral homes. The promise of relocating them to a place of their choice within Nigerian territory was not forthcoming and they were languishing in refugee camps in Akpabuyo Local Government in Cross River State. So I spent most of last year engaging the Federal Government in the struggle to relocate and resettle them in a more conducive place. The situation has not changed much. The only progress I can point to is that President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated a presidential committee on the plight of Bakassi people which has since finished its work and submitted a report which is yet to be implemented.
So what’s the outcome of the committee’s deliberations?
The committee did a good job. We settled the issue of the settlers versus indigenes as it pertains to political wards delineation. It was also agreed that the returnees were to make their homes in the Day Spring and Kwa Islands which are sparsely inhabited. However, while it appears that the government has bought the recommendations, little has been done by way of implementation.
We saw reports of your visit to one of the Bakassi camps last Christmas, how are the people faring?
Christmas is not the only time that I visit the camps to distribute relief materials, but this last Christmas I was moved to not only visit them and distribute relief materials, but as you know in Calabar there was a Christmas festival, so I brought a little cheer to the children in the camp by organising a party for them so that they too could partake in the Christmas spirit. As to how the people in the camp are faring, I can only pray that God should keep away any epidemic from breaking out there. The conditions are very dire.
Would we ever see you resting from the Bakassi struggle?
Nothing is too much to give for the struggle to resettle my people. What is the use of resources when one does not have a place to call home? I even wish I had more resources to channel into the struggle. I shall not rest until my people are properly resettled.
Do you feel cheated that your Seagull Band didn’t win the overall prize at the last carnival?
I do not feel cheated. Although my immediate reaction was to challenge the result in court, after giving it much deep thought, I decided to let it go, knowing that the world has seen and appreciated my band’s performance. The important thing is that the carnival has placed my state in the calendar of tourism centres in the world. But I pray and hope that the spirit of carnival which is borne out of passion and enthusiasm is not dampened by certain people. The good news is that government is making efforts to hand over the carnival to the people. It is only through this effort that the carnival can be sustained.
Since you are a staunch member of the PDP, what do you think is the real problem?
I will counsel all parties involved in the PDP family issue to be circumspect and avoid utterances that will be counterproductive to the sustenance of democracy.
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