She's one woman not known for mincing words. Her Excellency, the First Lady of Lagos State, Dame Emmanuella Abimbola Fashola, was a delight to be with. Her eloquence was charming and I would have had this interview run for hours. These traits are however always bellied by her humble and calm disposition. In this interview, she shares her experiences as a First Lady, her regrets and aspirations, and also points at factors inhibiting women's progress in politics. Enjoy!!
What has been your experience, working with Lagos State women?
It's been eye-opening; coming from where I'm coming from and then seeing what politics is all about. Initially, it was very difficult for me to fit in because I'm not used to the characteristics of the women I met on ground. I'm the kind of person who can't hide myself, so, if anything goes wrong around me, you immediately know because I show my expression. So, wherever necessary, I try to do correction. Some love it; some do not, and you find that some of them call me 'principle'.
How have you been able to blend these qualities with the challenges of being a First Lady?
The strength really has been my upbringing, my husband and God. I'm just myself; I've not changed for one day! Those who know me say they are always able to predict my response or reaction to certain issues.
What's your opinion on the claim by many female politicians that women are the ones pulling down one another?
That's one expression I always warn women against because I believe it is those that are bad that want to promote that kind of statement. Just like Chief(Mrs.)Oluremi Tinubu will always say, if a fellow woman does not do anything for you today, tomorrow, she may be the first to do something good for you! That's why I always tell women to ignore the few bad eggs who might want to spoil whatever their ambitions might be. It's just like our country; it's a few people that are doing the bad things.
Isn't this 'pull-down syndrome' a major factor militating against women in politics?
I don't think it is. I think the only thing is that women have not been able to summon up the courage, and our democracy too is not encouraging. This is aside from the nocturnal meetings held by political parties, which is not favourable to women. Women like the Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Mrs.Adefulire, are however not deterred by such meetings. She would tell you that even when they fix meetings for 2am, she is there! They know married women would always find it difficult, but the fact is that if your husband keys into your passion, he would always allow you attend these nocturnal meetings.
Most female political aspirants claim funding is always a hindrance, but is that true?
Money is not a problem as such; the most important thing is to be relevant within your community. When your community sees that you're relevant, they will always be willing to support your election in every way! In fact, they will be the ones to choose you, and be canvassing for you! We'll get to a stage where the populace will no longer be voting for money but for credibility and for people they can always access!
Like I tell women, the Committee of Wives of Lagos State Officials which I chair, is always ready to support any passionate and credible woman who wants to go into politics. KIND has done such in the past! I talk to women who are CEOs and who are in other top leadership positions, like the WIMBIZ women and all, and I let them know they cannot really make impact unless they go out of the box to discover which of them could do well in politics! They must leave their comfort zones! It is the people in government that make policies which affect businesses!
What about you; don't you have your eyes on politics?
I do not have my eye on politics, but I have them only on good governance. I'm not interested in politics!
I have an eye in asking our elected leaders: "What have you done for us?" I have an eye in questioning you and in you doing the right things in whatever job you're doing. I have an eye in promoting things that would make us forge ahead as one. I have an eye in building our diversities, and not using it to separate us.
I'm one person who likes progress and who likes organizing people to work collectively for progress, instead of doing it all by myself. Also, I'm somebody who doesn't take a lot of risks but would rather sit back, show people the way forward, and then take a step to ensure that something is done.
But have you noticed that's a major problem affecting women, especially in politics? They don't want to take risks!
I as a person would not take a lot of risks because I do not come from that background of taking risks. I however have a sister that could jump from the sky to the earth, but I'm not like that! She does business, anyway, but I like my 9-5, and I want to do it quietly and successfully, sit at home afterwards to enjoy myself with my children!
How would you rate the achievement of your NGO, the Lagos Empowerment and Resource Network-LEARN?
Nobody believed anything good could ever come out of the majority of our beneficiaries, but look at the positive things happening in their lives, especially the children that just finished this year. They were a different breed entirely. Many of them have already started making money with the skills they learnt!
What happens to LEARN after you've left the Office of the First Lady?
It continues! LEARN is my personal project. I'm not just the face of LEARN now, but that's where I'm going into afterwards.
But don't you fear you might lose out on some privileges, and then LEARN would suffer set-back?
There's nothing I would lose, and that's why I don't do things I cannot continue. I go to individuals for funds! LEARN has nothing from government. Only a particular local government supported me two years ago without my asking for it. I do not use my husband's office for anything, except maybe photographers or camera men.
Where should we be expecting to see you in the next few years?
Back to my house of course! My husband and I wish to go back to our house and then enjoy ourselves with our children. You see, in this journey, the children miss out. They cannot be themselves, cannot play the way they want to play, and they always have to be very watchful and careful. They are my number one job, and that's why my husband and I would love to go back home to be with them.
What's that singular thing that you miss doing as a First Lady?
Buying my bolli(roasted plantain) and roasted corn at Alausa, and then walking around with my jeans and shirt; just being myself. Sometimes, I don't comb my hair. I could just tie my scarf or plait four suku or whatever. I really do not care; I'm like a tom-boy. I may not even use powder or earrings. Unfortunately, as a First Lady, I have to dress elegantly with make-up, sit and smile pleasantly, etc. (Laughs). Now, I get my freedom only when I'm outside the country.
People argue that the Office of the First Lady is not relevant, but what do you think?
There's no funded Office of the First Lady! I have an office in Marina, and then I was supposed to go to the new building in Alausa; I furnished the Alausa office, but when I looked critically at myself, I said: "Who's fooling who?" Would I dress up from Marina and be going to Alausa to occupy an office that I'm not paid for? I ordered that all the furniture be brought to Marina! Even at that, I do not go downstairs to the office at Marina! That office only serves when I have to see or meet people in a decent environment!
Aside from this background, when people say they do not like the Office of the First Lady, it's like asking a man to discard his wife because he's got a post. If that's the case, unmarried men should be chosen for such political positions!
This is why we ourselves as First Ladies must understand that our roles are to support our husbands; not for us to be the forerunners. Even though the office is not funded, we spend a lot because people will always come to us for one kind of assistance or another, and we cannot turn them back!