Ogun State’s first female House of Assembly Speaker, Mrs. Titi Oseni, is a delight to every observer and listener – both in beauty and brain. She exudes the essence of a capable woman and leader in a world usually dominated by men. She’s gorgeous, graceful and gregarious. With a taste for fashion and good living, she smacks of simplicity and humility. In her 50s, she feels life has dealt well with her. As Ogun State House of Assembly Speaker between 2003 and 2008, she said it takes dedication and interpersonal relations skills to deal with all and sundry – especially her all-male co-lawmakers. In this interview with Femi Ogbonnikan, the former Speaker reveals what helped her to succeed. Her challenges in the legislative chamber and how she was recruited into politics. She also talks about her parents’ influence on her life
• I Love to Take Care of My Body – That’s Why I Glow
• It Wasn’t Easy Being Speaker of 25-Man House of Assembly…
• Some Members of the House Were not Willing to Bow Down to Me as Female Speaker
Can you tell us about your background?
I was born in 1964, into the family of Sodunke, from Kenta, Okebode, in Abeokuta, Abeokuta South Local Government Area of Ogun State. I attended Trinity Nursery and Primary School, Abeokuta and I later proceeded to the famous Abeokuta Grammar School, from 1975 to 1980. Subsequently, I went abroad and graduated from Upsala University, in the United States of America. I have a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. I worked with various companies abroad, like Ford Motor Credit, AT&T telecommunications, and later got married in 1991. I have three children. I came back to Nigeria in 1996 and started my business in Nigeria. I was into computer accessories. I also have a fashion store – a clothing store in Nigeria. And in 2002, I joined politics. I joined PDP and later, I contested for the House of Assembly seat. I won and I became the Speaker of the Ogun State House of Assembly in 2003. And in 2007, I contested again, won and I became the Speaker. I have a national honour, MFR. I became the first female Speaker in the South-West, the first in Ogun State and I was the first person to receive the national honour as the State House of Assembly Speaker. I was removed in 2008, and I left when my tenure ended in 2011. Ever since then, I have been into business. I have various interests in different businesses.
Were you from a noble family in Abeokuta?
No; I will not say I am from a famous family, but I am from an average family. My parents were into the medical fields. My mother had a maternity home in Abeokuta that was quite famous. It was just an average family setting. We were comfortable, at least, we could afford, to the glory of God, three square meals, and an average size family.
With your beauty, how were you able to cope with overtures from?
Well, it is normal for every human being, I would say, to be wooed by men. I don’t see anything special, but I believe that once you are good-looking, and you know how to look after yourself very well and take care of yourself, then you will become attractive to everyone, including the opposite sex. And you just have to know how to handle situations when things like that happen or when you are being approached, especially when you already have someone you are dating and there is no point encouraging another relationship, unless you are tired and you want to get out of that relationship. So, it is something you can’t take sway from. But my take is that, you have to know how to handle yourself as a woman.
At 50, you still look radiant; how have you been able to maintain your beauty?
Well, I don’t stress myself, especially after my time in the state House of Assembly. I take things easy. My leadership position in House gave me a leverage to deal with any challenge. I have learnt to be able to more in control of my emotions. People would get upset over things that would not bother me, because I believe, in politics, we have been through all sorts. A small boy would insult you; elders and people on the streets would insult you. Once you have passed through that stage, you have developed a thick skin. You have that skin that is very difficult to penetrate. I won’t say or call it a carefree attitude. Before anybody can hurt your emotions, it would take some time. Once you are somebody like that, your mind is free of stress; you will take life easy, one day, at a time. I believe that if you are going after something and you can’t get it, then, number one, it is either you have the will of God, or the time, purpose and chances, to do it are not right. Or maybe God has not got the time to attend to your case.
In all circumstances, you can only wait and believe that things would come at the right time for you. Once you have that at the back of your mind, it will take away all the worries and stress, because I believe that stress makes you get old. If you worry too much and you stress yourself too much, of course, you will age quickly. To the glory of God, everything falls in the right places for you. My children are doing very, very well and business, even though slow now, but to the glory of God, God has been faithful and being kind to me, there is no way to stress myself. All one needs to do is to take all the right medications, like you are supposed to take your vitamins, shower twice a day, use the right moisturisers for your skin and, then you are free to glow.
When you returned to Nigeria after your sojourn abroad, you started out as a businesswoman, why did you go into partisan politics?
When I came back, I lost my father and I happened to be frequenting Abeokuta for his burial plans and all that. And after that, I also lost my mother, I think about three or four months later, and I happened to be visiting Abeokuta often for the burial preparations. So, there was a day, I was at Gateway Hotel, Abeokuta, and I met some people. They came for the PDP programme and it was quite noisy with a lot of people. And I saw family members that I know and I asked them why there was so much noise at the gathering and all that. It was PDP convention or congress and they used the Gateway Hotel. So, I was approached by the family members to join, and of course, I turned it down, because of the crowd and the noise. Later, they came back to encourage me to participate in politics and after some persuasion I was interested. I now scheduled a meeting and went to meet the chairman of my local government, at that time. I was received gladly with a rousing welcome.
Being the only female, it looks at that time in 2002, there was no female contesting for any office in Ogun State. Being the only female and the name of my family worked for me. If you can’t add value to the name that you are given or your family name, don’t destroy it. I saw that my father’s name and my mother’s name worked well for me, because somebody coming with no political background, of course, a lot of people will want to know who you are and where you are coming from. And my last name is Oseni and of course, people would tell you that Oseni is not a name from Abeokuta and so, I had to use my maiden name to complement it. When you mention my name and my parent’s name, everybody would say my parents had done one thing or another, especially my mother that owned a maternity home. She had done one thing or another for a lot of families in my area.
So, before my name was even mentioned, once they mentioned Sodunke, Omo Mama Rere, everybody is like ‘We can trust this one; we can rely on her. This one would come back home. We know where she is from. She has a tie. She has a bond. We know her family background and we can actually run to her and we would find her.’ The acceptability was very high and I am happy and proud. That is why I always make sure that, on a yearly basis, I remember my parents, because the good name they left, worked well for me in many aspects of life.
When I became the Speaker, I realised that I was also the only female member out of the 26 members of the Ogun State House of Assembly. So, it was zoned, because the governor was from the East and the Deputy Governor was from the West, and, automatically the Speaker would come from the Central. So, we had about eight members from the Central Senatorial Districts, and I happened to be the only female. The Speakership position was zoned to my senatorial district, and it was further zoned to my local government. In my local government, we had two constituencies and we had two members and so, it was keenly contested between the two of us and I won at the end of the day.
What exactly did you do that earned you the position?
Well, before we were sworn in, as members of the House, we were taken through some training programmes. We had a retreat, and we had people from outside. I don’t know how former Ogun State Governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, arranged it. But during the programme, we were asked to speak and discuss why we were at the retreat and where we were coming from, and our plans for our constituencies.
So, we had a panel and the panel scored us, but later, I realised that, I think, I scored first or second in that retreat. I think, the person that scored the highest could not be Speaker, because the zoning formula was applied. And being the second person and since it favoured me, because I am from that (Ogun Central) senatorial district, could have been the only thing that decided it. We all saw the result and I know, I was either in the first or second position, and I became the Speaker. I think the person that scored second became my Deputy.
What was it like being in the saddle?
It was not easy. Back then, it was not easy at all. But to the glory of God, I was able to surmount whatever challenges that came my way. First and foremost, dealing with men, 25 of them, of various shades and colours, coming from different backgrounds, coming from different experiences of life; they are all husbands and heads of households in their own, for them to now succumb to the leadership of a woman, some of them found it very difficult to deal with at that time.
Being the Speaker, once I entered the chambers, they must rise up, they must get up and they must bow. So, it became a problem for one, two, three, four, five people in the House, but they later adjusted. By the time they met me later, by the time I spoke with them, they saw the humility in me. Also, a lot of them had worked for women before. Women had been their bosses in their various fields of life. So, various instances had come to play, but by the time we gathered together and I addressed them, I rubbed their ego, worked on their emotions and the grace of God was also there for me. Everything worked well.
I realised that along the line we became best of friends and they called me their mother, their sister, friend; keeping in mind that we were all the same. We were all elected the same day, but the only common saying that I used for them in Yoruba dialect was that, ‘Aparo kan ko gaju Aparo kan lo, ayafi eyi ti o ba gun ori ebe’ (We were all equal in the hands of God; as honourable members we were all equal). And it was just their votes that gave me an edge over them and without that I would not have been the Speaker. I had an open-door policy; I was never too busy to attend to them. I was never too busy to step into situations for them, defend them or fight for them, if I had to. If they had an event or function and they wanted me to attend or they wanted me to do one thing or another, I was never too busy to be there for them. I had never been found wanting. I was always there. I was always a step ahead of them in debating bills. I made sure that I was the first person to get to the office and I was the last to leave. I made sure that any issue that we had to deliberate on I would have studied it in advance.
When you wanted to join partisan politics, did any of your relatives object?
Nobody in my family objected; everybody supported me. But I used to say that if my mother was alive, she probably would not have allowed me to join politics. She was more of a quiet person. She was so immersed in her professional work. She would buy into anything that would bring publicity her publicity. And, she was very protective of her children. And you know, like everybody says, politics is dirty; she would not have allowed.
What was first day in the legislative chamber like as the Speaker of the House? Were you nervous?
Well, of course, I didn’t know too much about what it entailed, but I had the opportunity of going to the office of Senator Olorunnimbe Mamowora, the then Speaker of Lagos State House of Assembly. When it dawned on me that I would either be the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker, at that time, I sought audience with him and he allowed me to come into the chambers of Lagos House of Assembly to watch the proceedings in a bid to prepare for the tasks ahead. He shared ideas with me on how to be a responsible and successful Speaker. At the end of his several discussions with me, he said, ‘You can do it.’ What he saw in me, I didn’t know, but he encouraged me. When it comes to responsibility and I will do something, there is no turning back.
I will give it a shot. I will put in my best – which I did as the Speaker; there was no point shying away. Once you find yourself in a position of responsibility, the first thing is prayer and the second thing is commitment. I was willing and ready to do that, and the next thing was working with people. Once you have the acceptability of the people, even if you don’t have all of them, gradually by the time they see what you have done, by the time they see your leadership style and I am sure about this, everybody will work together with you and support you. And that was exactly what happened in my case.