She is soft spoken, bright and breezy, and yet a strong-willed woman who speaks her mind and defends her values. That’s the simplest way to describe the wife of Ondo State governor, Mrs. Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu who was completely swept off her feet by the charm of her husband, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu. In this exclusive interview with Mary Ekah, she speaks on her journey to Ondo Government House, how she met her husband, her unequivocal affection for him, and her plan to hatch many programmes for Ondo women and many more

With the recent swearing-in of your husband as the executive governor of Ondo State, you should envisage new responsibilities and more burdens. How would you tackle that?
I won’t say that I’m totally ignorant of the responsibility that would be bestowed on me. Democracy has been around for some years now and as an onlooker, I have that sense that a lot will be expected of a First Lady of any state given the mirage of problems confronting the society.

The Executive Governor of Ondo himself might be concerned with what I will call direct governance, making sure that the wheel of the government rolls properly in whatever direction he may deem fit but there are fringes – other problems that might not catch his fancy or his attention; and if you look at these problems properly, you would find out that they do influence the society in a profound way. I’m talking about problems that affect families and it is usually the women that bear the brunt. So as women, we have inclination for nurturing and caring. So it is not out of place to expect a First Lady to look at that direction more than the husband.

That is why I’m saying that the First Lady is expected to look into that direction because that could in a very profound way ease the burden on her husband and also the burden of governance because if you are able to tackle all those little problems with families, in a way you are creating the path for a better society.

I can tell you that men will look at governance only as building of roads, providing electricity and all those things but they don’t seem to look at governance from the point of view of the people that would benefit from all those things they think are the bigger things. If we can look at the family and ask what are the basic things a family needs, we would realize that they have to eat, the children have to go to school, and they should have visible income and a roof over their heads. Forget about having a car; I think that should be the least of the problems. If a family feeds well, the children develop properly; if they fall sick, they can easily recover from the sickness and they won’t miss school.

The same thing happens to the father and mother, if they are strong enough, even if they fall sick, they would recover quicker and there would be less chances that they are out of work or whatever activities they are engaged in. So from that angle alone, you can ensure that your state is self-sufficient in food. You can’t rule out that people will not fall sick, people will always fall sick but how quick can they recover? And that is determined by how well fed they are. If your children are well fed, their brains will develop better and they will do well in school and pass their exams and get admission into universities, after which they would gain employment, because they would have done well in the universities. I’m just looking at the whole thing from the woman perspective, which my husband may likely not look at it from that angle.

So how do you intend to draw the governor’s attention to these seemingly trivial issues but so serious in the real sense?
I have to do my best because even if he eventually sees it through my own prism, it may not be so easy to convince his cabinet or the policy makers. But this is a government of change and we intend to reengineer the Ministry of Women Affairs. I have interest in making the Ondo State Ministry of Women Affairs become more responsive to issues that concern women. Unfortunately, looking at years gone by, the Ministries of Women Affairs in Nigeria have not lived up to our expectations because they have not been able to attend to issues that concern women to my satisfaction. So as the First Lady, I’m going to work towards making the Ondo State Ministry of Women Affairs more responsive to the needs of women in Ondo State so that it attends to their concerns and other needs properly.

That means there are better days for Ondo women during your husband’s tenure as the governor, right?
Yes, because one thing my husband will never fail to mention is that when he talks with women he would tell them that they already have an advocate in the house. If you look at my antecedent, you would not doubt the fact that better days await Ondo State women because I have always been at the forefront of anything that has to do with women. It comes to me as something natural. It is not something that I am just beginning to show interest in. The interest has always been there. And given this opportunity you don’t expect me to do less. I will even do more.

I have the leverage now to even do more. And I think that Nigerian women, without doubt, have come a long way and I think we have gotten to a level where we should be at the forefront and champion the cause of women because many of us have the educational background and what education does to you is that it emboldens you, broadens your horizon and it makes you objective. You would be able to ask tough questions. You don’t just swallow hook, line, and sinker what any one tells you. You would be able to ask questions because you have got the language, you have got the boldness and you are not timid. If there are causes so dear to us, you go out there and fight for it because the men aren’t going to fight for us.

Let’s not pretend that we do not have war between genders, yes there is, and we cannot run away from it. No matter how open minded a man is, they will always protect their own. And I think that women too should also protect their own. Both sexes have their peculiarities. There are needs that are very dear to us, as women and these may not be the concern of men, so if you sit down there and say the men will do it, they won’t do it. You have to do it and that is why I am saying that nothing should hold us from going all out and fight for the cause of the women. We want our women to be more advanced in all endeavours. We can no longer say it’s a man’s world. No, it is no longer a man’s world. It is a man and woman’s world now.

Apart from your plan to encourage the governor to focus on women-oriented programmes in the state, what particular project do you have in stock as the First Lady?
Like I said earlier, my antecedent will tell you that I have been there and one area that I can claim to be well known for is women’s health. I have focused on breast cancer, which has taken its toll on Nigerian women. So we have been at the forefront raising awareness about breast cancer through the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN), founded by me, telling everyone that even though cancer is a deadly disease, it is no longer a death sentence.

I have been in it for the past 20 years, encouraging women to check their breasts, go to hospital, so that it can be detected early, so that they can survive and live productive lives. I’m also interested in the economic empowerment of women – women becoming players in the economic landscape of the country. I have already said that many of us are highly educated nowadays which shows that a lot more women are going to the university than during my own time and this is a moment we should be keen on advancing our women, making sure that their educational status is utilised.

There are many unproductive educated women in this country and this is the area that this present administration will focus on, making sure that these young women are given the right guidance so that they would be able to utilise their education and become self-employed because once you have this basic university education, you can think for yourself and you do not have to wait for someone to employ you. We also need a forum, which is one area I am interested in, where we can bring together young graduates that really have the entrepreneurial spirit and help them develop it, thereby creating an enabling environment for those people who are yet to discover themselves because I can see many young graduates wasting away.

You started Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN) 20 years ago. You are still so passionate about it. What is the driving force behind this?
I am a survival of breast cancer. For me, it is an act of thanksgiving. There is no other way to explain it. If I can use my experience to save lives, then why not? I think I have touched lives because I didn’t behave like a typical Nigerian or African woman who shies away from talking about her ailment. Thankfully, I am not that kind of personality. I talk a lot about myself especially when it can help others.

So how have you touched people’s lives through BRECAN?
I have been able to touch people’s lives through information and emotional support, because for you to survive breast cancer, you need to understand what you are dealing with. That is the most important thing because if you don’t, you would miss it all. If you do not encourage women to go early for check up and treatments, the disease keeps progressing with time. The typical sign is a painless lump that you would normally ignore and carry on with your life because it is not painful.

But it is imperative that we educate women that this painless lump is a time bomb waiting to explode. Again, many had thought that breast cancer is a disease of white people, some didn’t even know what it was and so they ascribed it to witchcraft and all sorts. So by talking about it and letting people know about the nature of the disease, you are trying to attack headlong all those deeply entrenched misconceptions that make a woman to go to church to pray rather than go to hospital to examine herself while the cancer cells are multiplying.

These are the things that you need to bring out time and time again, although it is taking us too long to convince Nigerian women that this thing has nothing to do with witchcraft or spiritual attack. But we just have to be consistent because when it comes to human behaviour, for you to make that paradigm shift to something new, it takes a long time. So we need to be patient with our people and continue talking and talking. And that is why awareness creation is really important for us to tackle this disease and not even the monetary aspect because we have plenty of women who have the money but still die of breast cancer because they didn’t believe what they heard about the disease.

Let’s go back memory lane. Tell us about growing up?
I am from Emeabiam in Owerri West Local Government Area of Imo State. My parents were teachers. I lost my father in 1994. He was a renowned headmaster in that part of the country. My father was a very kind person, so is my mother, and she is still alive. She is nearly 90 now. I have two other siblings and mine is a very nuclear family, just the five of us but my parents had many dependants living with us. And you know as a teacher in those olden days, relatives will just dump their children in our house believing that’s where these children would be brought up properly. Initially, I didn’t appreciate it until my father passed on and then stories upon stories of how he helped so many people came up and I said ‘so good name is better than gold and silver’.

We were told of how my father will pay schools fees of kids from poor homes with his salary and my mother became basically the breadwinner as she eventually stopped teaching and went into trading and made so much money than when she was teaching while my father continued with the community service to everyone around him. I remain proud of the life he lived – a very selfless and contented life. I had a good life as daughter of a headmaster in those days and I think that was the reason why there was no impediment as regards to my going to school because my parents knew the role of education in climbing the social ladder. In fact, I want to say that my father, in particular, didn’t raise me as a girl, he raised me as a child and I’m very proud of that. He used to tell me those days that, ‘the sky is your limit and nothing can stop you attaining whatever position you set your eyes on.’

Were you the only girl in the family?
No, I am the first child and the first girl. I have a sister and then a brother.

What schools did you attend?
I started school at a primary school in my village, precisely at Emeabiam Central School in 1958 to 1962 and then finished at Avu Central School, another school within the Owerri Division, from 1963 to 1965. Then I started secondary school at Egbu Girls Secondary School, Egbu, also in Owerri from 1965 to 1966 but the Biafra Civil War from 1967 to 1970 truncated my education and after the civil war, I went back to Egbu Girls Secondary School from 1970 to 1972, I finished and then gained admission into University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to study Zoology.

After I graduated I got employment with the Federal Department of Fisheries and later I went for my postgraduate course at University of Philippines, Iloilo, where I trained in Fisheries majoring in Aquaculture. I came back again and continued with the Federal Department of Fisheries, I retired voluntarily in 2006. At a point, I had a stint in politics. I contested on the platform of ANPP in my state for the Federal House of Representative for the Owerri Federal constituency in 2007 election but I lost. However, I still have interest in politics because I come from a part of Imo State that is largely marginalised and I felt that if a man was unable to represent my people, a woman should try then.

You seem to have had an eye for politics over time, so it would be very easy to support your husband during his tenure, right?
Yes, it was a lot of fun during his campaign because I had experienced it myself. I liked it all – the excitement, strategies and when things were working according to plan – moving from house to house and campaigning. I felt that we should do the grassroots campaign to demonstrate that when my husband wins, he would become the government of everybody, even though we did not have much to throw around like others did. We were able to device means to reach people and they responded overwhelmingly and we were very pleased about it.

Was your choice for Zoology a deliberate choice or circumstances made you study it?
I actually wanted to study Pharmacy but I had an uncle who studied Zoology and in those days there wasn’t really career guidance and so I was like my uncle read Zoology, okay let me read Zoology too. Given to what I have known now, I doubt if I would have gone in for Zoology. Probably, I would have gone for journalism or something else. But like I said, the good thing is that you have that basic university education and you can then do anything you like with your life.

So how did the Owerri girl then meet the charming Ondo prince?
It’s a long story. Actually my husband was a youth corper then in Enugu. I was also posted to Enugu. So a friend of mine visited me and then she came along with her boyfriend who also came along with my husband. That was how we met and it was love at first sight. I think people frown at love at first sight but it worked for us.

Really? So what was the attraction?
I fell in love with his broad shoulders. Then he was really looking very cute. I can still remember what he was wearing that day. I won’t forget – a red shirt, long sleeves, and jean trousers. He was really looking great and then we were very young and restless. That was like 37 years ago. He couldn’t even take me out because he didn’t have money as a youth corper. It was quite magnetic and that was it. And besides I have always said that whoever that was going to marry me must be able to sweep me off my feet completely and that was exactly what happened.

How old were you then?
There is a three-year age difference between us. I am older than him anyway. I was like 25 then while he was 22. It was love that really endured. I had graduated and in my place when a girl graduates from the university, suitors come from left, right and centre. And your parents would expect you to go for a self-made man with everything. But I have always known that there was no way I could have married a self-made man. I will rather build a home from the scratch with you because I want to have a say in my home.

So what was your parents’ reaction when you eventually introduced him to them as your husband to be?
My parents were educated and so they didn’t see a reason to obstruct us. My father understood what modernity is all about when it comes to relationship and also understood the fact that when a young girl falls in love, it is always difficult to talk her out of it. And knowing that I was strong opinionated right from time, he knew that this one that I have brought was the right man.

How would you describe your husband?
He is very loving, kind and very straightforward. He does not tolerate people who are fraudulent or not straightforward, and that is where he might have some difficulties with people. If you have him as a friend, in your hours of needs he would be there for you. He is a loving father and grandfather. I think the Ondo people are in for a good time because they have a governor that means well and he is coming in with a sincerity of purpose and as a wife, I am here to support him to make sure that Ondo State demonstrates that good governance is possible in Nigeria.

And then he suddenly started growing grey beard. Are you comfortable with that or embarrassed about it?
Did you say embarrassed? I love it! I can say that it is his trademark and signature appearance and I have grown to like it. The grey hair came too early actually but people tell me that they like it and I like it too.

What do you do for a living?
I am a fish farmer. I am the founder of Aquatek Farms Ventures in Ibadan, Oyo State. We have the best brand of fresh and smoked fish in Nigeria. Even as the First Lady, I am still a farmer.

What is your dress sense like?
I’m simple and classic. My makeup is very moderate and I don’t plan to change. I am a jeans wearing person. Ordinarily I will be in my jeans and all that but sometimes I have to tie the iro and buba because I am a Yoruba wife. I am freer in my jeans and T-shirts because I am a field person and a fish farmer too. I don’t like encumbrances. All these ‘geles’ give me headache. But I have to manage.

You are an Imo State woman in Ondo State Government House. Your kinsmen will be expecting certain level of goodwill from you while you must also satisfy your people in Ondo State. So how do you intend to balance up without offending either side?
First and foremost, I am First Lady in Ondo State and our focus is on Ondo State and not Imo State. But then I won’t forget where I am coming from. You can’t disassociate me from Imo State, there is no way you can remove me from Imo state because that is my caucus and I am very proud of where I come from. So definitely you would see a lot of ‘kedi”, “ndewo” and all that around me but that does not mean I am going to transform the Ondo State Government House into Imo State Government House.