Dame Virginia Etiaba
Dame Virginia Etiaba, the former deputy governor of Anambra State, has made her marks as a teacher, politician, and mother. She made history in 2007, when she was inaugurated as governor of Anambra State, as her boss, Mr. Peter Obi, was controversially impeached by the House of Assembly, thus, making her the first female state governor in Nigeria. In this interview conducted in Nnewi by Emeka Osondu, Etiaba speaks on her life, family and politics. The former deputy governor, who marks her 70th birthday with a ceremony today in Abuja, says her position as deputy governor and governor of Anambra State were a privilege and a divine call to service. Excerpts:
You have just published your autobiography. Can you tell us what it contains and why you deemed it necessary to come up with one?
My autobiography is an account of my sojourn in my country Nigeria. I tell my story as I have lived it and it has allowed me say some things and recount some events that my political adversaries previously deliberately misrepresented, for reasons best known to them. There is a message in that book and it is the message of a political revolution. It is a revolution that deserves its name, for whatever contribution I and others may have made in the political landscape of Nigeria.
So, why have you written this book?
I have always believed that the public is entitled to know about the influences, pressures and experiences that combine to form the character and outlook of any leading political figure. In that book, I told the story of my life from its very beginning till date and I hope that My Life, My Story has allowed me to tell the humble story of my modest courage and that it will give understanding and courage to others, especially our girls, and the women of Nigeria.
How did you train your children, who you have proved to be really proud of?
Training the children was a collective responsibility between their father and I. We had the means to engage house helps and farm helps, but we insisted on our children doing some of the house chores and farm work, having been forcefully sent home by the civil war. We made our children understand that the world was not a bed of roses and, believe me, and thanks to God, it has paid off today. It was remarkable that most of the yams and vegetables we consumed came from our farms, cultivated by the family directly. Apart from being a teacher by profession, I was also the seamstress in my family, making clothes for my children and I also tried my hands at barbing my family members’ hair, including my dear husband’s! The advantages derived from these extra activities were the family bonding and the savings, especially during the war, when money was hard to come by.
Can you give us more details on who these children of yours are, hoping that we are not invading your privacy?
You are not invading my privacy. I sincerely believe that children are gifts from God. By the special grace of God, I have six children and all of them represent what every parent would be proud of. My first child, Bennet, is a chartered accountant and a past two-term chairman of ICAN, United Kingdom District. Emeka, my second child, is by profession a lawyer and also a political activist. My third child, Okenwa, is a printer and a publisher in London. Echezona is a very astute lawyer in Port Harcourt. Ezinwanne, my fifth child and first daughter, is a lawyer and works with the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a current posting at the Nigerian Embassy in Paris. Chioma, our last child, is head of Private Banking at Fidelity Bank.
I also have two extra sons whom any mother would be very proud to call their sons-in-laws. Osy and Emeka are both lawyers. So you can see that I am surrounded by lawyers…(laughs). The Lord also blessed me with four superb daughters-in-laws who are like biological daughters to me. Enyi, Bennet’s wife, is a medical doctor. Joy, Emeka’s wife, is an engineer and a lawyer. Chinelo, Okenwa’s wife, is a management consultant. Uche, Echezona’s wife, is an engineer.
How did you train these children?
The answer lies only in God Almighty. I believe that one builds a good family when you allow God to take control of your life as you think positively, sow the seed of love and unity, and try to be a merchant of peace. I never missed any school visiting day, and, as a mother, I used the opportunity to monitor their academics and behaviour during such visits. This doesn’t mean that I have had no problems; of course I have had them! The thing is that I am highly blessed; hence I prefer counting my blessings than meditating on my problems and challenges.
When did you marry your late husband and who was he?
We married on a sunny Saturday, 15 December 1962, in Aba. My husband, Bennet, was a very tall dark and handsome gentleman. He had studied Law at London University, graduating with an LL.B in 1960. He belonged to the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, London, and passed his Bar Finals in 1959. He was called to the English Bar the same year. We lived happily for 24 years before death cruelly snatched him away from me and the kids, but we have since tried to continue to protect the legacy he left behind for us and we continue to miss him immensely. Memories of our times together fill me with so much joy. I learnt a lot from him, not knowing that he was unknowingly preparing me for today. He was my husband, lover, best friend, chief adviser and my oga. I gave him maximum respect and he in turn loved me deeply. But then, God knows best and directs the destiny of every being.
You are known as a cancer survivor. Can you shed some light on this?
Yes, thanks Professor Joseph Ojukwu and Professor Ele, their diagnosis in Nigeria was confirmed at King’s College London Hospital, Denmark Hill, South East London, early in 1998—it was cancer of the colon, indeed! According to the consultant, Mr. John Rennie, a world renowned cancer specialist in the colon area, the ailment had gotten to a serious stage that only immediate operation was the answer. I was admitted into the private wing of King’s College Hospital London the next day where I was operated on by the surgeon, Mr. Rennie, after several months of chemotherapy sessions. I made it, thanks to Almighty God, and so today, I am free from that dreaded illness and I use this opportunity to encourage all cancer patients to hang in there as cancer diagnosis does not amount to a death sentence.
How did you get into politics?
It was purely a divine call to service after surviving cancer, as I was into anti-partisan politics before then. By 30 December 2002, the general election and the governorship election for Anambra State were around the corner. Campaigns for these elections, which were to hold on 14 April 2003, were just starting. My well attended 60th birthday and thanksgiving party afforded me the opportunity to meet, for the first time, the APGA governorship candidate, Mr. Peter Obi. A few days later, APGA came calling and the rest, as is often said, is now history.
My entry into partisan politics in Nigeria was fortuitous. I have always been a teacher and in all my adult life. I have been involved in education. After I retired from the civil service as a teacher, I founded Bennet Etiaba Memorial Schools. As a school proprietress in Anambra State, I was involved in several activities aimed at entrenching a society we will be very proud of. As you know very well, life is about politics. We practice some degree of politics in most of our endeavours, particularly, when you are in situations where you have to consider the views and opinions of others.
As a woman serving in a political terrain saturated by men, how were you able to keep your head high above the waters?
First of all, it has been by the grace of God. If God is with you, in any endeavour, you will not go wrong. Secondly, I strive to be myself at all times; no pretences, no acting, no airs. All my beliefs, principles and character traits come into play. That way, my natural abilities and attributes flow effortlessly. Thirdly, I strive to exhibit competence for the office I am elected into. Of course, I always maintain a listening ear for sound advice and opinion. I respect the other person and I see my position as a privilege, and a call to service. With the foregoing, I win the respect of the men in the system. It was tough, challenging and also rewarding. With the general impression that politics is a man’s endeavour, women have had to work harder at achieving the same results as men. The beauty of it all is that once you prove your mettle and show that God has put something special in you, you will receive all the respect and accolade you deserve. That has been the lot of women in all professions and fields of endeavour and not just mine only.
As your 70th birthday party takes place on November 11 in Abuja, what do you remember about your 60th birthday reception?
It seems only a few years ago that my children handed over the keys to a brand new building they had constructed for me. It was a three-bedroom bungalow tastefully furnished for my comfort as their birthday gift to their mother. It is also remarkable that 10 years on, after having been governor of my state and a deputy governor, this bungalow remains the only building I own. I am very proud of it but I also told my children that I did not want another building as my 70th birthday present; rather, that they should all construct their individual country homes. I am happy that, thanks to God, they listened and are all completing their respective country homes as I speak. I also remember the public presentation of my book, Education—The Way Forward to Development. That book was presented to guests at my 60th birthday reception.
What was your relationship with the late Igbo leader, Dim Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu?
He was my husband’s cousin and my political mentor. He remained a recurring decimal in my political life and all through my participation in APGA; all I did was guided by my vision and his foresight for our people. While I was a member of APGA, he gave the party a most desired fatherly leadership and while I was governor and deputy governor, he never made any personal requests from me but always asked for the good of our people. Ikemba never relented in encouraging me both in and out of office and each time important honours came my way, he was always exceedingly proud of me. My family and I will always miss him but in all, I thank God Almighty for his widow, Iyom Bianca, who fought tirelessly like a lioness to give him all he desired in a wife.
You have received several honours for your contributions in the service of Nigeria. How do you react to this?
I am very delighted and thankful to God that people are honouring me in my life time. In my private and official capacities, I have always contributed my quota in ensuring development in human capital and physical infrastructure. I believe that Nigerians are appreciative of my humble and modest contributions to the development of my state; hence their decision to honour me in several ways they see fit. I have always tried to show good example. Situations have come up that tested my character and integrity. I thank God that I passed through them successfully. By virtue of the offices I held, I did a lot of advocacy on gender equality, too. Added to this is my charity work, which involves, among other things, the economic empowerment of women in all strata of the society.
What are you looking forward to as you celebrate your 70th birthday?
I am not actually planning anything. My children and their friends are doing all that but I feel extremely joyous over every achievement and with great anticipation, I rejoice at what lies ahead. I know that God would not have allowed me to see this day if my testimony has expired. I learnt early in life that when your goal is to render quality service, your greatness will be inevitable. I have been inspired by many positive stories but most of all, my job in serving humanity brings me the most fulfilment as it affords me the opportunity to better my society. Also, to mark my birthday this year, a public building in Nnewi, to be known as Dame Virgy Etiaba Centre, will be commissioned to God’s glory. This has been made possible through the effort of my children and their ever supportive friends.
What legacy do you want to pass on to the younger generation?
I have always held the belief that if you are kind to history, history will be kind to you. I would want to be remembered as a public officer who served responsibly, compassionately and competently. My training and background as a teacher mandates me to show good examples at all times. So I would want to pass on, directly or indirectly, a legacy of principled leadership, hard work, commitment to the needs of the people, respect for the feelings of the people, as well as the fear of God.