Powerful, prominent, prosperous and philanthropic, she exudes a larger than life aura. Gracefully rotund, her gait is endearing. The flickering smile on her face is enchanting. Tastefully decked in luxurious ornaments, her superlative sense of dress and grooming is legendary. Nimble-footed, quick-witted and down-to-earth, she is perhaps one of the most powerful women in Nigeria. A one-time medical professional now politician, she is reputed with the struggle of Bakassi people.
Yes, she is Mama Bakassi; she is a quintessential Nigerian decorated with the honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). An engaging politician – both at the grassroots and the centre stage – wealthy and philanthropic, she wines with the rich and dines with the less privileged. Even at 70, her age-defying beauty and youthfulness are superlative. Senator Florence Ita-Giwa is a robust personality; an Amazon. In this interview with Oge Ezeliora, Ita-Giwa speaks about her desire not to remain single for the rest of her life and why she has not remarried. She also talks about how she has excelled as a woman in politics and the age-old secret to her ageless beauty
How do you feel at 70?
I feel much fulfilled and I give glory to God that I am celebrating 70 and by the grace of God in good health, both physically and mentally; I feel very settled in my mind. The most interesting thing is that I am very certain that I am in the right place that I should be. I feel much fulfilled with my family, with my work, with my charity and the position I rose to in my career as a politician.
You hardly look 70; any secret?
I think the answer I always give first is that probably because the year runs so fast; the number of the years you are carrying or you have attained doesn’t allow your body to adjust to the time. However, naturally in my family, we age gracefully and from where I come from as an Efik woman – from the time you come into this world as a female you are made to appreciate the fact that it is beautiful to be a female. Whatever your aspirations are, whether you aspire to be the president of a country or a medical doctor, the number one thing is, don’t lose your femininity. As a Calabar woman one is taught how to look after oneself; so we age gracefully. The idea is not to look young. I don’t want to be young – the idea is to age gracefully. So for that reason, knowing that my body is very receptive to food, I have a tendency to be fat, all my life, I have battled with weight gain leading me always to watch what I eat and it has turned out well. I made it a routine at the end of every day to find at least one hour where I relax my mind and my body. At the end of the day I enjoy a good dinner, listen to news, watch TV, listen to music and then before I go to bed, I give myself some 30 minutes of pampering.
What would you say are your achievements so far?
I think it will be very immodest to start outlining my achievements but to be very modest, I think my greatest achievement is bringing up the children of Bakassi and turning them to normal human beings and seeing the children grow; putting them in the best schools and giving them as much exposure as possible, nationally, internationally and seeing them develop confidence in themselves; and seeing them speak well and seeing them excel in school. That is my number one achievement – the success story of my children of Bakassi. Besides that, my children have done well and my family is tremendously successful by the grace of God. In politics too, I have been successful, rising to the pinnacle of my career which in a country as big as Nigeria not many women can attain. I was a member of the House of Representatives. I have done two conferences: constitutional and national; I have won election to the senate twice. I have been advisers to two presidents; two very successful presidents. So I feel that I have done well in my chosen field. Even before I went into politics, I did well in my medical profession.
Why did you venture into politics?
I went into politics because I needed a platform to address the issue of Bakassi people and to also use that same platform to help the underprivileged; to speak for those who have been trampled upon. I think I did not go into politics for the purpose of contesting and winning elections. I went to use the platform and today I am celebrating my 10 years of service to humanity. I work round the clock which means that is a wonderful platform for me to address issues of the downtrodden and also take part in the development of my country. So it is a fantastic platform.
What do you think about the current state of the PDP?
It calls for people to learn a lesson. That, first of all, if you have been in power for so many years you should never take power for granted. For the past 25 years that I won election into the House of Representatives, I have not stopped working. You can never take people for granted. We had a very good man and perhaps, if he had been given a second term, he could have completed all his projects. Nobody ever does well in the first term until the second term for you to learn well on the job as the president. But then the party itself didn’t strategise well. We sat down and watched people leave the party in anger without trying to massage their ego to bring them back. It is democracy. You cannot do politics through dictatorship. Some people including governors became terrorists and bullies. Unfortunately, politics is about who is the crowd puller. If you watch the crowd pullers leave the party, how can you win? We thought we could perform magic; politics is spiritual. We don’t take it for granted; if you play with power, God can take that power away from you. Power is spiritual.
Do you sometimes feel intimidated by men?
I look at myself as a human being and I don’t allow myself to be intimidated and I don’t go out of my way to intimidate people. I just know that all of us are in the business of nation building. It is for you to show your political strength.
Some see you as being tough; are you?
It depends on their definition of ‘tough’. But if there is anything as reincarnation, I want to come back as a woman because there is nothing as amazing and as sweet as being a woman. Therefore, whether you have to be a tough woman to survive is what I don’t know. I know that I am a good strategist; I strategise a lot on how to survive in a country like Nigeria. If that is called being tough, so be it.
What are your regrets in life?
Absolutely, no regrets. I thank God for every good thing and every bad thing that has happened to me. But I am very grateful because God has compensated me with good things for the bad things that happened to me. If I come back, I will still do it the same way. I have enjoyed everything that came along with what I chose to be in life. From my career as a nurse to venturing into politics, I have enjoyed everything. I have enjoyed it up to the point of still dancing in the street at age 70. It’s all part of it because politics is liberating and so I can dance in front of a crowd of one million people because it is my work. I am totally liberated.
How was your growing up like?
I was born in Calabar Maternity Hospital. You know Calabar is very civilised and the whole of that area – and from what I was told, my mother was actually in an evening dress at some annual ballroom dance when she went into labour and was taken to a hospital at Ikot- Ekpene and from there to Calabar Maternity Hospital as a result of complications arising from blood loss during delivery where she had me. My arrival into the world was very eventful. When I grew up and started my medical equipment business, the first thing I did was to visit that hospital and donated blood bank. I am from a very hardworking family. My mother was a journalist; she was a trader; she was also a dressmaker in order to make ends meet. My father was a civil servant; he used to be a policeman, then a traditional ruler. My younger brother is Yoruba so even in the family we have Yoruba grandchildren. The family is very Nigerian. It’s a family where you have Calabar, Rivers, Igbo, and Yoruba: every tribe is in the family. My brother is an extremely quiet person. I am trying my best to see to it that my brother’s children do not grow up to be as quiet as he is. My daughter, Koko, is very hardworking, very aggressive and well-driven though quiet by nature. She is Efik and her husband is Igbo. He too is also a very serious young man; well brought up from a decent family.
Why have you remained single since the demise of your husband?
I remained single because I live by example. I have brought up children that as soon as they graduated from school, they got married and have their own children. If your environment is rough, when you change partners then your children are likely to grow up rough and to change partners and as such I didn’t want to take a risk of changing partners. However, I am a human being, there is need for me to have a relationship but I decided that at one point I have to be sure. I don’t want to say that I didn’t see anybody that was worth it but I am still sifting through so that I don’t ever change partners. At this stage of my life, if ever there will be a partner, that partner would be my partner for life. Secondly, I live a very busy life and for most part of my life in the last 10 years, I have done some very serious things that I didn’t need that distraction. I had to take care of my business and my service to humanity. I did a lot of things that I was not sure that I could have found a man that will buy into that vision and again there is issue of men feeling intimidated by successful career women and there is no way I would have negotiated my career because I have children. Though I do not intend to ever change my name which has become a brand I am not guaranteeing that I would remain single.
I have amazing friends; I am socially very busy as well but I have friends that respect me and will not take advantage of that friendship. I have very civilised male friends who do not want to take advantage. So if I want to go for dinner I have friends both Nigerian and non-Nigerians that will take me out. I have friends that will travel with me; we have very excellent and decent relationship. However, I cannot guarantee that I would remain single for the rest of my life.
You had a successful working relationship with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and perhaps, ex-President Umaru Yar’Adua. What did you learn from them?
I think with Obasanjo, initially, we didn’t take off well. While I was at the Senate and he was the President, I think in the course of my struggle for separation of powers I joined the Okadigbo group to fight for separation of powers. To be candid, Obasanjo was a straightforward military man and his desire to get things done at the appropriate time is not negotiable. Eventually, we became very good friends with due respect; because today he is my friend, my father and my mentor. I like him tremendously. I still do not know any human being who is more committed to the success of this democracy and development of this country than Obasanjo. For the four years I worked with him, he refused to go to sleep and I saw that. It was pleasantly and excitingly tiring, because he worked round the clock, and I got to know my country; so that is what he did to my life. I got to know my country and got to know Nigerians. I could make a good president because of what I learnt from him. Obasanjo believes in speed, efficiency and superior arguments and I think till today I am very impatient with anybody that does not apply speed to the things they do.
What’s your advice for women in managing life as they age?
One of the great facts of life is that age is inevitable. I don’t see the big thing about aging. That is basically why you have what is called the evolution of life. The young must grow and the old must continue to grow as well. First of all, try and imbibe the culture of looking after yourself and eating healthy as early as possible in life. One does not have to be very rich to live in a healthy environment and most important, it is necessary to always have a clear mind. Do not keep malice. If anybody offends you, you take the person on. Have your arguments and get things sorted out and maybe at the end of the day, a superior argument will win. Also know that in life as long as one believes in God, there is no problem without a solution. Whatever problems one might face, always know that there is a solution to that problem. Don’t just live your life worrying about what you shouldn’t worry about because I don’t. I try to simplify life. Women must not be scared of age. Whatever you aspire to be, just plan it, put it in prayers and get rid of fear. Go out and get it done.
I always tell people that I am a Calabar woman and we are very civilised people from beginning. There is nothing you can do about age except to manage age and not to allow age control your life. I don’t do young things because I don’t want to be young. I can’t remember the last time I did young things because of my life has been full of very profound responsibilities and I was brought up by my mother to think like an adult, to always take responsibility. I do not dress young because I have grown up children but I do not negotiate and will never negotiate ageing beautifully and gracefully. I will not negotiate aging with my waistline in place so that I can get into my pants, my jeans and my nice dresses. That is non-negotiable. I have always looked up to women like Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and Tina Turner. Those are the women that inspire me because they have always looked very good despite their age. After looking at them, I don’t want to be young; I just need to appreciate myself.
How can a woman position herself for achievements in Nigeria?
Generally, women always have the ability to manage the home and manage work. I believe it is a natural thing with being a woman especially being a good woman. The fact that you are a woman does not mean you shouldn’t have a career and also does not mean that if you have a career that you would not be able to run your home. My mother was a very busy journalist but she was an incredible mother and a fantastic housewife. As a matter of fact, I used to see her do her report while cooking. I think women naturally have that capacity to manage the stress of running the home, the children and their career.
Why do women find it hard to be successful in politics?
I think it is not only in this part of the world but generally everywhere. The rise of women can be very meteoric because it has been so. You know women were seen as the weaker sex, as people that came into the world to have children but that has changed tremendously and it can change a lot more if women conquer fear and develop more confidence in themselves because it is for you to develop the confidence and say yes I can do it. It is very rough especially in the terrain of politics and as long as a woman is in the terrain of politics, there is a lot of antagonism and so a woman will have to put in a hundred times more than her male counterpart to be able to succeed in politics and so it just for a woman to develop that inner strength.
What has kept you going?
I think my inspiration comes from the environment in which I grew up. I grew up in an environment of very strong women. I grew up amongst my mother and even my father’s mother. Also, my terms of responsibility helped me. I grew up knowing that I don’t have a choice than to do what I have to do just like the Americans would always say. That alone gives me a lot of strength and courage. In addition, looking at a lot of people that look up to me really inspires me. There a lot of people that next to God looks up to me. That again is indeed inspiring; that is very energising.
What are your expectations with younger women’s ability to adapt to a just and moral life?
First of all, they have to appreciate the fact that being a role model they have to live by example. You must understand and have to know that whatever you do in life, people are watching you and they are looking up to you and also they want to be like you; which means that you would not want to let them do what is not right. That takes a lot of sacrifice for you to live up to that expectation.
How much more are you planning to dedicate to God and humanity for charity?
For as long as I am alive and for as long as I can walk which is what I pray to God for. If it gets to a point that I cannot walk from my bed I will be involved in charity even though that will not happen because I believe that by the grace of God I will live a healthy life till the day I will go (die).
When would you call your best moments growing into womanhood?
(Laughs) Do you mean growing into womanhood as a baby? My best moment in life was discovering myself as a woman, discovering those things that make a woman and discovering what aspects of career I wanted to pursue at the beginning of my own independence. Also, meeting my husband, falling in love and getting married, having children and most recently would be adopting children who today are doing amazingly well and remaining my source of pride. Anytime I look at them, I feel many inches taller than I am. All these are the things that make growing up get really exciting.
Do you have experts who handle your wardrobe?
It is natural; I do them myself. I grew up in an environment where from birth, apart from being a journalist, my mother was also a dressmaker and she was naturally gifted. I was fortunate to be her only daughter and so she used to dress me up. I grew up dressing well and also know how to take care of my clothes. I grew up knowing how to come out looking good and so I don’t have a need for a wardrobe manager. I know all the thousands of clothes I have because I know the time I take in buying each of them. I don’t just shop off the shelf. No matter how many dresses I have, they all have their various sentimental values I attach to them.
Would it be right to say that you are done with politics?
I am not done with politics. Politics remains my number one platform to continue rendering service to humanity. You don’t need to have a political appointment; you don’t have to be in government or contest elections, but there are other aspects that can keep you busy and I am very busy. I presently do not hold any position in my party and yet I am politically very busy and also I am a leader of my people. Sometimes you ask people what you do when you are not contesting elections and 90 per cent of them don’t have a means of livelihood when they are not in government.
As a foremost champion of the Bakassi people, what is the state of things now in Bakassi?
It is unfortunate that up till now the Bakassi people are still refugees in their country. It is unfortunate that up till now, this country has not settled the Bakassi people. But what is giving me hope today is that the new government is very passionate about the issue of Bakassi. I have seen a lot passion in the new governor and I believe that with such passion and enthusiasm, the Bakassi people will be resettled and all the issues will be resolved. I believe so and I intend to work closely with him.