• My father did so much for democracy but Nigeria is yet to honour him
Honourable Beni Lar, who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, is unhappy that women have not been fairly treated in the country’s political landscape. She spoke with press men on this and other issues of national importance.
What do you make of women’s participation in governance in the country?
Women have the population, but the men have the resources and men have what it takes and they don’t allow us space. The challenge is the traditional notion and the barriers of financial challenges. Most women are not financially equipped to run and sustain the momentum in the political terrain, which is very tough and rough because you have to fight to get there in terms of earning your own space. You have to spend some resources in mobilising people, and you also have to gain the confidence of the community.
A lot of women are shy to be actively involved in their community affairs and sometimes women are not even allowed in some communities to venture into politics, which seen as strictly for men. Despite that, all these barriers can be overcome and I thank God that we have been able to overcome it with the special grace of God and with the support of the women in my constituency.
I think if we are enlightened and united, we will definitely see a lot of these bills that will protect the interests of women when passed into law. One of such bills is the ‘Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill’ that will give women equal chances. This will go a long way, because if we make it mandatory for political parties to reserve at least 30 per cent slots for women, we will make significant progress.
I was in Egypt years back for the African Arab parliament and I noticed that the Egyptian parliament had over 30 per cent women, and I asked my colleague, who was a man, how come there were so many women in this parliament and he said they liked it. I think they had roughly 35 per cent three years ago and they said they wanted to increase it, because women perform more and do better in their given assignment.
So if we have a bill, if the men allow us to pass that bill, because I recall we have been trying to pass that bill since I came into the House; I chaired the women affairs committee, human rights committee and we have been trying to pass the bill; we changed the name; we changed so many things in the bill, so as to give women at least something. You hear affirmative action 35 per cent, even 30 per cent, we will take. I plead with my colleagues and the Nigerian men to allow us. Journalists should help us lobby and join us in championing this cause for women, so we can see more female representation. Otherwise, it’s going to be difficult.
But if we don’t have the bill, the only alternative is political will, which means a political party will have to mandate that ‘in this party we are going to give women 30 per cent.’ Unfortunately, no party has done that and it’s a shame on both the APC and PDP that no party has given women the deserved quota system. I think both parties should look into that.
We still have another round of constitutional review exercise. I will want us to look at the specific issue of gender representation, the 35 per cent position for women in governance. In the next constitutional amendment, the National Assembly should very seriously make a mark in the history of this nation.
Let us join other women in other parts of Africa and the world, where this matter has been passed into law and how it has empowered women politically, economically and given women a voice. I think if this assembly does that it will go down in history as the most gender-friendly Assembly and government. I want to be part of that history.
How have you been able to survive the politics in your constituency?
I think I have a unique constituency. Our people don’t see me too much based on my gender. And our constituency has produced two female House of Assembly members. We have produced councillors and you can see that from the zone we have Mrs. Paullen Tallen, who is a minister and we have a lady currently running for a Senatorial seat. So in our own zone, we have done pretty well in terms of accepting women into the political space.
So my constituency has been very supportive of me and I thank them so much for their support. In my first attempt for this seat, though I lost because they didn’t really knew who I was and because I hadn’t connected with them, but once I connected with them, it has been a wonderful experience and they have always held on to me and say, ‘no, we don’t care how many men are running, this is who we want.’ It’s the men that have pushed me, far more than the women, and I think women should earn the confidence of the men in society. Sometimes, the men will push you, sometimes even more than the women.
It all depends on how much one touches lives. I touch lives in my constituency through economic empowerment, education, infrastructural development and responding to crises, although we have a long way to go in achieving the goal. Once a member does that it’s is easier to return to the House because your constituents feel your impact as their representative in the National Assembly.
As the daughter of the late Solomon Lar, who was one of the founding fathers of PDP, how has it been filling the shoes he left behind?
I try to live up to my daddy’s vision. My father was a man of the people. I wanted to be like him when I was growing up, but I realised that I could not be up to a quarter of what he was. So, I felt okay within my own small world of being a representative, because he started out too as a councillor, he was in parliament and then of course he went from there. One of the things I admired most about my daddy was the fact that he was a very brave man. He fought for Nigeria’s democracy.
He mobilised politicians at that time to come together to form the G18 to confront (late Gen. Sani) Abacha, asking him to go. He delivered the letter to Abacha and then he gave the name, PDP. He was a governor under the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP). When he was governor, ‘Power to the People’ was the slogan. So he and the late Abubakar Rimi and other people brought back that slogan, together with the old progressives, who fought for Nigeria democracy.
He did a lot during the late MKO Abiola struggle. It was him actually that went to England and told Abiola to come back to Nigeria to claim his mandate. I remember very well that Abiola came to our house. My daddy told Abiola that ‘I want you to come back home; don’t stay in England. Your mandate is in Nigeria. Let’s go and struggle and fight and claim this mandate back together.’ And they did that and, in the process, of course, Abiola didn’t make it. My father was very saddened by what transpired.
The convention for Social Democratic Party (SDP) was held in Jos. Two significant conventions were held in Jos, because of my daddy’s interventions. Honestly, sometimes I feel sad that Nigeria hasn’t honoured my daddy at all. During the valedictory we had for him at the National Assembly, since he was a parliamentarian, the former Senate President and the Speaker at the time Waziri Tambuwal and Senator David Mark, who presided over the proceedings then, and it was resolved that the federal government should have an institution named after him. None of that has happened till date. So sometimes I wonder when they say the ‘labours of our heroes past will not go in vain’ what they mean. Today, we are all enjoying this democracy because some people fought for it. But they are not even mentioned at all. We should try to recognise the labours of all of our heroes past and we shouldn’t discriminate against anyone.
What has been the role of the legislature since the return to democratic rule in 1999?
As a lawmaker, I would say that we have put in a lot. The legislature from 1999 is largely responsible for the stability we see in the democratic experience today. Without the legislature most of the accomplishments of past governments would not have been possible. I will give credit to the legislature for bills passed, for intervening when the nation is about going into any crisis, like we see recently even with the electricity tariff increase, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) strike.
We have done well as a nation. We are a country of 200 million people and it’s not easy for 200 million people from diverse ethnicities, different backgrounds, religious and others to live together, but we have done it successfully. We had only one civil war and I know that we will not experience another war again, by the grace of God. And by the grace of God, we will not experience any coup again in Nigeria.
All that is gone and we have grown and matured as a people. We now know that democratic norms and values are the only ways to survive as a nation, to thrive and excel in the international community. So, we have imbibed the right values and I’m happy and proud of Nigeria at 60. Most importantly, we have been able to set a guide and direction for government and that is why we have been intervening in so many aspects of government.
How far has the journey to Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary been?
The most important issue here is that Nigerians need to have the spirit of nationhood that our forefathers had, whether you are Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Hausa, Fulani, Tiv, Igala, Tarok, Berom, Ijaw or whatever tribe you are. Let us have that equal sense of belonging in the country and let us also have that spirit of nationhood to protect Nigeria. It was John F. Kennedy who once said, ‘Do not ask what the country can do for you but what you can do for your country.’
How do I build and grow this nation? The spirit of nationhood, that is what makes America great. America is great because every American believes in America. Does every Nigerian believe in Nigeria? I hope so, because that is the only thing that will make us great. I think the greatest challenge is getting back our spirit of nationhood and unity and then all the other problems of insecurity, poverty, and infrastructural development, we will resolve them as we go along.
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