Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan, Michelle Obama and Obioma Liyel Imoke
Obioma Liyel Imoke: Friend, Wife and Mother
Obioma Liyel Imoke: Warm, Graceful and Natural
When you meet with a truly amazing person, the impact from that singular meet might resonate with you for years. My encounter with Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke wife of Cross River state governor over three years ago, still holds memories of a most joyful and humorous time with an extraordinary lady who is first a friend, then a wife and also a mother to her husband.
I recently met a friend of the governor who recalls how one day he went home with Governor Imoke and his wife welcomes him home with “darling I just adopted these kids and they all bear your name”. According to him, the governor did not seem surprised; he only said “you did” and planted a kiss on his wife. That is Obioma Liyel Imoke, a lady who has found acceptance from her husband and his people.
Obioma Liyel Imoke: All Natural, All Heart
When you have heard her out, you wonder if she has more than 10 fingers to be able to accomplish everything she’s done in such a short time. One after the other, she reeled out her catalogue of achievements including POWER, Mothers Against Abandonment and ASFFAC.
As if these were not enough, Obioma Liyel Imoke, wife of the Governor of Cross River State has set for herself other targets that commend her big heart to Gabriella Osamor in this engaging chat…
OBIOMA- Good Heart
If there is one person who embodies mirth, it is Mrs Obioma Liyel Imoke, Her Excellency, the first lady of Cross River State. Even before you clamp eyes on her, you hear her booming laughter and you are reassured that this is sure human and the interview would be a blast.
It was! Getting to actually meet Her Excellency, took years and years of patient requests for appointments. Maybe the requests were channeled through the wrong people because; all it took this time around was an impromptu request.
I’d been invited to Calabar to see for myself what plans had been put on ground for the forth coming Cross River Christmas Festival 2008. Calabar is a cool place to be, if you like serene streets, roads without pot holes, beautiful vistas with mountains and valleys doting the surroundings.
Well tended gardens just invite you to stroll along their paths, noiseless neighborhoods, (if you came from Lagos with all its noisiness, Calabar’s noiselessness can be deafening), friendly and welcoming people and short distances to anywhere in town. No traffic holdups, no impatient drivers honking endlessly, well-mannered Policemen who carefully give directions and oh yes! Clean streets, then you’ll love Calabar.
Haven driven around the city site seeing for a while, my host casually says “let’s drive into the government House,” am like, “what?” And she tells the driver “go to the Governor’s house.” We get there and the security men causally open the gates after giving us a cursory look. No questions asked.
Since we could get into the governor’s residence so easily, I also casually asked, “Can I interview the First Lady? Do you think she’ll talk to me?” She goes “Sure” Whoa!
The Government House grounds are totally beautiful. To actually live in such breath taking surroundings daily, to me is a blessing. We drive to the sprawling house and my host alights. She goes into the house for maybe five minutes, comes back and say’s “she’ll see you in one
Stunning. No pretentions, no protocols, no airs, just a causal “See you in an hour.” Cool. An hour after we are back. I was ushered into this long and spacious seating room, more like a mini hall with beautifully carved woods everywhere. Carved chairs, side stools and centre tables with floral arrangements and central cooling units that were going full blast.
Had to stealthily put off two, they were freezing my extremities. The chandeliers, curtains and carvings were gorgeous; a beautiful backdrop in which to keep guests waiting. While waiting, I reviewed my questions and continued waiting. The place was beginning to feel like a waiting room.
Then in walked Her Excellency, all smiles and apologies and hugs and warmth. I was drawn to her toothy smiles, her hearty laughter and her ease of manner which seemed all natural. Introductions over, we settle down to the interview.
The First Lady had a lady somewhere who took notes. You see even in her playfulness, Mrs Imoke is all purpose. She is a lawyer and she is thorough.
Ok, as a young girl you must have had dreams, can you share those with us?
Gales of laughter… “This is very embarrassing”. She goes. “What I really wanted to do was eh…to be a trader! I also wanted to act. I wanted to be in the movies. In those days there were no Nigerian movies. My mother made a lot of fuss about acting, so I went to read Law, as soon as I graduated I went to my father and dashed him my Law degree, then I went to work with an oil company”, she says with a mischievous smile.
“I knew I didn’t want to practice law for sure. So I went into cooperate law. Did that quite well too. Did my youth service. By the time my service year was over, I had already attained the post of assistant manager. I worked closely with my boss. Within a year I was put in charge of the ECOWAS region.
I disliked going to offices to ask people for jobs, so that was out of the way, that was not how I wanted to make money. “And then, I discovered Walmart in the USA. I just wanted something like that, so after a while I resigned my job and started off Value Mart. That’s what it has been from then till now.”
‘Would you say it has been fulfilling?’ “It has been, but then we had to move from Lagos to Abuja and now to Calabar.” She smiles, and offers ‘drinks anyone’? No takes “Basically I am a trader” she says with relish. “I sell a lot of things. When I left General Oil, I moved to Beneficial Standard, it was a finance company, but after a while I just resigned from there and started selling. I’d go to Epe in Lagos and I would buy bush meat and fresh fish.
The trick being, my live fresh fish came in drums. You pointed at the one you wanted and my guy would hammer its head and deliver to you. Gales of laughter… “People began to wait for me to deliver fish fast to them.”
‘So are you living your dream now?’ “Let me see, am a people’s person. I like people. I did a lot of politics living with my uncle- Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu. So when my husband said to me he was going into politics, I was like – politics? Well no problems. He thought I was going to be like one of those women who would say ‘God forbid and so on’ No, no, no, I said no problem.
When I was growing up, there was this thing that always bothered me, I guess it was because I grew up in a Catholic background. A few young girls that I knew of had bad experiences with unwanted pregnancies.
I wished someone would just start up a home where these young girls could give birth in peace. This home was so real in my imagination, that I could have sworn I had seen it somewhere other than in my head.
These girls had already made a mistake, so instead of whispering and sneering at them, they could be housed and while there get God into them. Hopefully they’ll live a better life after that”.
“So when my husband won his gubernatorial election, he said to me, ‘do you know what you want to do?’ I said no, but all I would love to do is build a home for teenage girls with unplanned pregnancy where we could give them succor, nurture them and help them through their trying period.”
‘Didn’t you think at that time it could be daunting?’ “Yes well …but to God be the glory, we have been able to provide such a home here in Cross River State and it is getting bigger by the day. I did not realise unwanted teenage pregnancy was such a big problem. Here in Calabar, we have young girls actually give birth and just abandon their babies on the streets. We take in these babies and this has given rise to a programme tagged ‘Mothers against Abandonment.’ It is one of the programmes created to make this State fit for a child”.
Fiddling with her phone, Mrs Imoke gives the impression she wants to get up and go. She doesn’t, she reclines more comfortably into her couch. Before she could go on about her pet project, I quickly take her back down memory lane and she was quite voluble about her past.
“I was born in Lagos on 3rd January 1963.
My father Dr. T.I. Eze-Ashi was a medical doctor. He was actually the first anesthesiologist in Nigeria and my mother, Mrs Grace Ifem Ezi-Ashi a nurse are both from Illah in Oshimili Local Government Area of Delta State.
Mrs Imoke was quite the tomboy and a late bloomer. According to her “I was late becoming girlish. I was able to hold my own with my three brothers. It was fun growing up in Enugu, we had an easy life, very easy life! You didn’t have to please anybody; you just did what you wanted to do.
We didn’t have a lot of money, but we never noticed what we didn’t have. I don’t remember going abroad every summer, this was not within our parents’ budget but we had a lot of fun. I had my primary education at Girls High School, Nsukka, and then moved to Federal Government College Enugu, studied up to ‘A’ Levels. I got into the University of Nigeria Nsukka where I studied Law.
Interestingly, it was in secondary school that I met my husband.” Piqued, I became all ears, since this was coming unsolicited. “I was in Federal Government College when I met my husband and we started dating. That’s my life. Pretty regular.” ‘Indeed! I said under my breath.’
Obioma and Liyel Imoke
‘Can you recall exactly when you first met your husband?’ “Oh God, can I remember that! Let me see.” She said with a far way dreamy look in her eyes. “I graduated 1980, so it must have been 1976, ‘no that’s not correct! My brother died in 1976, I met my husband a year before that so it’s 1975. Yes! I met my husband in 1975”
‘So what was the attraction?’ She gives a girlish giggle and says “the physical attraction was that he was tall and dark.” In an aside, she whispers “He was not very nice looking but there were prospects. He looked prospective, like …this one might turn out looking very nice. His selling point was that he was very tall.
He was one person that was taller than me in school. He was very soft spoken and very calm. He reminded me a lot about my dad, because he did not speak much, but listened most of the time and he is still like that. He carried himself very well too! He had this way of looking at me...like this silly little girl, I can expect anything coming from you.
He told me this story of how he was going to marry me when he is 30 and I am 28years, by then he would have become the president of Nigeria. “You know, that was exactly what happened, except that he was in the senate by then, he was one of the youngest senators.”
‘He said this to you …’ “when he was 14 and I was 12 years. I was so annoyed that day, ‘can you imagine him, asking me to wait at 12 years till am 28years to marry him.’ Little did I know.” ‘Don’t stop now madam, how has it been since then?’ I piped up. “Well, em… he went abroad soon after to school, and that was very, very interesting.”
Laughing she says “I’ll tell you, if you are interested in long distance relationship you should talk to me about it. My husband made our relationship interesting; he would record his voice and send it to me in school. My friends and I would listen to it and giggle and I would also do the same thing and send to him. He did the most interesting things.
‘So, was he your first and only boy friend? ’ “Yes he was my first boyfriend. When we have issues, I would break up with him, but then I would always end up going back to him. It was fun! I think we were one of those lucky people who found their soul mates early in life, and just knew it. I always said ‘if I don’t marry him, then I’ll never marry another.”
‘Talk about your family life!’ “My family life is great. We have the weekends. My twin girls are always with me and I have a crèche in my office so they stay there and play.
They come and go at will. If I need to see them I send for them.
For my husband, it’s a bit more difficult. He works longer hours. The little time he has at home, he spends with the girls before they go to bed. Sometimes I have to hijack my husband from the office. If you leave him, he will go to the office, come back home late and go straight to bed. But I create time for us.
‘Has being a governor’s wife curtailed your life in anyway?’
“I don’t go out a lot. I don’t socialise much anymore. Weekends I just want to rest and be with my kids. When I think of what traveling entails I give up. Most of my friends are not here. I keep in touch with them by texting, phoning and emailing.
But I try to live my life my way. I drive myself. I try to be as natural as possible. I need to go to the markets to know how the market women feel. I want to know how people on the streets really feel. I just go with only one security detail and see things for myself.”
‘As an Ibo girl how did you find acceptance in Calabar? Were you treated any different? “I always say that I did not notice any difference. That is how Cross Riverians are basically. They’re not like other tribes that would discriminate, I never got those vibes from them, and this endears them to you and makes you a little more comfortable. When you have anything to do for them, you do it with everything you have.
‘Well when a new person comes in, it is not always easy to break into formed cliques, change held opinions and old loyalties. So has it been very difficult for you.’
“I have not found it difficult, don’t forget that from the time he came back, my husband went into politics and we’ve been in it together, we’ve had to mingle with the people quite a bit, they are nice and easy to deal with. It was because of their good nature that I set up my umbrella
project called POWER.
This stands for Partnership Opportunity for Women Empowerment Realisation. It is an empowerment programme set up for women. The way they supported us during our campaign was incredible. During my husband’s annulment, we had to campaign again. There was the same rowdiness and friendliness, and I said to them ‘I don miss una,’ it felt so natural to be with them.
We also noticed that the women were very poor and I kept racking my brain. ‘Gees’ what are we going to do for them, how do we help them and I thought, definitely empowerment! I know that when a woman has money in her pockets, she’s going to help her husband, her kids and her family. There will be better food in the house and the kids will go to the hospital. That was what made me focus more on the women. POWER runs independent of government though
‘How do you fund POWER then?’ “Basically through donations so far, but POWER is only one year now.” ‘What has POWER done during this one year?’ Adjusting her dress she goes on. We started with four major intervention areas. Firstly, Agriculture- 70% of Cross Riverian women are farmers. Secondly, Arts and Craft.
Thirdly, merchandizing, like small canteen, eateries and bukas. Fourthly- Travels and Tourism.
Very few women operate in this area, so we are going to help them start up. We have started with agriculture. We had a workshop during which we taught the women how to take things a step further. No new tricks, but partnering them with banks, industries etc and whoever can help them.
This got them interested, but then they complained they didn’t have enough land, so we applied to the ministry and bought lands. The ministry also had a factory that was being built by IITA in the Northern Senatorial District. When they build these factories they will usually get NGOs to run them.
Now we have a cassava processing plant. Right now, as we speak, there is a workshop going on that is teaching the women how to process their cassava better. Some are doing cassava flour; some are doing garri while others are doing starch.
She proceeded to charm a lady fashion designer into donating some of her designs for the Christmas Carnival Queen Pageant. This is another pet project of Her Excellency that has been included in this year’s Cross River Christmas Festival. . We developed the POWER Trams called ‘KekeNAPEP’.
The women attach their baskets of produce to these three-wheeled bikes. One of the major problems facing this project has been finance. But now we are into bigger transportation that the women could use to lift their produce to other States. We are in the process of negotiating that. A few weeks back, we signed an MOU with the Central Bank, Oceanic Bank and First Bank. What we do is guarantee these loans and micro credits for the women.”
‘Aren’t you scared such loans could end up not being used for agricultural purposes? “Not really, the women themselves put up 25%, we put up another 25% and the banks the rest. We vet the women, inspect their farms and recommend the most viable ones. We formed them into co-operatives and they supervise each other. If you are not successful, you don’t get more money.
The more money they get, the more money they can put into their business. The women have begun to understand this. So far, most of the women have been serious minded. Earlier, we had some who did not use their money for farming, but we were able to locate them, because we inspect each farm to assess their progress.’
‘How do you cope with all of these projects and run your home? You have young children too.’
“I’ll tell you, it is the grace of God, really! You are on the go from morning to night. There are times when you are so really tired but you can’t stop, because there is so much to do. As you see the need, you help. You will not believe the deterioration of our schools.
Of course government is doing something, but government cannot do it alone. We had got together people who could do something about the deplorable state of the schools. We appealed to their consciences and they responded.
In some schools, they had leaky roofs and when the rains came, they moved the students to dry parts of the class. Some students don’t even have chairs and tables. They sit on floors. You ask yourself, if you can’t send your children to such schools, why should someone else’s child should be in such a place? That is how ASFFAC, A State Fit for A Child came about in May.’
Obioma meaning ‘good heart,’ epitomises her name in setting up the following various goodwill projects which include: 1. Advocacy for Child’s Rights Act, 2. Infant mortality rate to be reduced
3. Schools to be better run and their libraries well stocked. 4. ASFFAC is also involved in making sure mother’s eat right, go for antenatal etc. 5. There is also the State Women Against HIV AIDS.
Uppermost in Mrs. Imoke’s heart is the cancer project which would eventually lead to the setting up a cancer research institute. She also had what they call ‘the Cross River State Child meets the Governor’ during which a lot of things came to light.
The governor on his part gave the children carte blanche to write to him directly and promised he’ll take it from there. When asked why they were always playing outside their classrooms, the children answered because their teachers were always busy selling in the classrooms.”
So what is she doing about follow-up?’. “The ministry puts checks in the schools and for now we have not received any more negative reports. Since the governor is now directly involved, everyone is up and doing. Principals are supervising better. Since the first meeting brought about such good changes in our schools, we are going to have another session in January where the kids will give us direct feedback.
Your driving force?
“My driving force is being able to help people, to do right by them and be able to meet some of their expectations, but most importantly, being able to take a little bit of load off my husband to the best of my ability. As much as possible be complimentary to my husband, since he can’t be everywhere at once.”
This just describes Her Excellency, Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke, a woman who is at peace with herself, who seeks always to help, who tries to ease some of her husband’s burdens and who remains true to herself, a bubbly, happy person with the heartiest laugh ever.
Edited by GABRIELLA OSAMOR