Dr JOE ODUMAKIN – AN EPITOME OF COURAGE AND HONOUR, CREATING SAFE SPACES FOR NIGERIAN WOMEN AT LARGE.

  1. Tell us a bit about your

 I was born on 4 July, 1966 in Zaria, Kaduna State. I have three elder brothers and lost a younger one while growing up. I grew up as a tom boy because I was born in the midst of boys, I play football a lot. I love defending people’s rights and it started during my kindergarten level. I attended a missionary school because my parents were staunch Catholics; I had wanted to be a nun. That was what I wanted all my life. I attended St Barnabas Primary School. After that, I attended Queen Elizabeth Secondary School, Ilorin because my parents were based in Ilorin. I did my A Levels in Kwara State Polytechnic where I was at the School of Basic Studies in 1984. Like I said, I wanted to be a nun at the age of 14 but my father threatened to disown me. I was too young to be disowned. Not only did my father threaten to disown me, he also was to print my obituary because he said I did not want to procreate. After that I cried all through the day and night, I then told my mum to tell my father that I was willing to continue my education.

When my father returned from his trip to the United Kingdom, he then took me to one Dr Acho, who was the Director of Basic Studies, and told him that that I would be living in his house. I lived there for a week and promised my father I would stay on campus. My father then opened a hard cover note book for me to clock in and out. After a year, I saw a poster which read, ‘Rethink Nigeria’, which was a left wing movement, and seeing it, I felt I should go for the meeting. On getting there, I went through the agenda, but there was no opening or closing prayer and I made an observation but people shouted at the same time ‘who brought this thing here? Throw her out, they are talking about serious national issues and this thing is talking about prayers’. So, I had to leave. But three weeks after, I was called upon again. I was addressed as ‘reverend sister, and told, ‘we won’t include opening or closing prayers, but you can come for our meeting’. I went there and still observed the same thing. They were so violent with me, held me by neck and led me out and, since then, I vowed never to be part of the meeting. That was how after my A Levels, I got admission into ABU Zaria but the institution was too far for me and my second choice was the University of Ilorin where I read English Education and graduated in 1987.

I did my Youth Service at the 35th Amphibious Battalion with soldiers. I interacted with the soldiers intensely. I came back to the University of Ilorin in 1990 to do my master’s in guidance and counseling. While I was at the University of Ilorin in 1985, I had a lecturer who saw that I was brilliant and asked what I wanted to become in life and I told her that I wanted to become a nun. She was the one who motivated me to read about Martin Luther King and other people like Karl Max, Malcom X. That was how the thing started in January 10, 1985 and, by March 1985, the position of secretary for Women in Nigeria, Kwara State branch was vacant. When it was time for us to reel out our manifesto, first person to speak; I started quoting from Martin Luther King’s book, people started hailing me and the third person did not bother to come up. That was how I became the secretary of Women in Nigeria, Kwara State branch in 1985. That was how I became born again into the struggle.

  1. As a child, what were your dreams, did you ever dream of becoming an activist?

 Not really, have I ever thought of that. In fact, while growing up, I had wanted to become a Catholic Nun, before one thing led to the other, including my Dad’s vehement resistance to that particular ambition of mine, at the said time.

  1. When exactly did you get involved in activism?

 One quotation stuck me when I read Martin Luther King where he said ‘our lives begin to end when we keep silent about things that matter’. I felt my life was ending because I was silent about things that matter. I called my lawyer- friend and told him to prepare my will and, then, I had mattress and books. I told him that ‘if anything happens, give my mattress to motherless babies, give my books to the University of Ilorin library’. What motivated me really were those books that I read and I wondered how people were giving their lives to the struggle. I wondered how Rosa Parks refused to get up in the bus and so I found out that a lot of people had given their lives to struggles. I situated that within the Nigerian context and I pondered on military dictatorship in Nigeria. I also had to fathom the fact that we got independence in 1960 and, by 1985, if a child was born at that time, that child would have become a man or woman; and if that man is still on diapers, there is cause for one to worry.

That was how I started and then, Karl Max had said that every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor. All those things and several other things and then situating it to our own environment, it was then I saw a leaflet with the name of Dr Beko Ransome Kuti, President, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, and I called him on phone. We spoke and I introduced myself, that I was the secretary for Women in Nigeria. He said he was in Lagos and asked me if I wanted to come over and I said yes. The next day, I took off for Lagos; when   I   saw   him,   he   was packing his books and he said he had an appointment with the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and that he needed to confirm from Gani if he could come with me. He put a call through to Gani and he said I could come. That was how we went to Gani’s chambers. It was the same day that I saw him (Beko), Gani and also Fela. By the time we were through with Gani, Beko was going to see Fela and he asked if I wanted to see Fela and I said I would like to see Fela. Fela, apart from Bob Marley, was another musician I loved listening to. When I saw Fela, he asked in pidgin, ‘wetin be your name? (What is your name?) I said Joe, he said ‘that one no be name; wetin be your native name?’I told him Obiagali. He said what was the meaning and I said my, ‘Mind is not at rest’. Then said a few things about Nigeria. There were a lot of things I picked from Fela’s life and that was how I started. We had Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in 1989, Campaign for Democracy in 1991, Institute for Human Rights and Democratic Studies but my own base was Ilorin. Anything that I am doing, I put 100 percent commitment to it, and so, in terms of the struggle, I was dedicated. We took the Jehovah Witness approach and then, in Kwara State, I started as secretary, then treasurer, deputy and then chairperson.

  1. How did you start?

 I started from being an activist on personal conviction, to becoming member and leader of various civil society organisations, from Ilorin, where it all began, to several other places.

  1. You presently fight for the rights of women. Was that the goal at the beginning or did you simply see a need for

that kind of activism?

 The primary goal is to stand against injustice at all times, irrespective of who is involved. It first about Human Right and defending the right of women and the children has only taken preeminence, based on certain peculiar factors, that are of our s o c i e t a l i m b a l a n c e s a n d tradition approaches, towards dealing with issues of women and the girl. Therefore , it became inevitable, to increase focus and commitment, so that we can ensure that women rights, as same, as Human rights.

  1. So far, you have won quite a number of awards. Do you believe that your work has made a difference in the lives of women in Nigeria?

 Ultimately, the essence of being involved, is not in anticipation of any form of reward and award, yet when they come, they only serve as reminder, that the world is watching my actions and people are showing their appreciation. Making difference is the greatest fulfilment , not only in the lives of our women, but also in the life of any individual, that my activism, can positively affect.

  1. In your opinion, what were the toughest times for women in Nigerian history?

 From time immemorial, Nigerian women have been victims of one form of oppression or the other. These oppression and societal inequalities, have virtually become a way of life, and daily experience, of the average Nigerian woman. Therefore, it may be difficult, to point at a specific moment. One only hopes that these experiences, are utilized, in mobilizing the women folk, towards achieving a society, that protects them and fully guarantee the protection of their rights, as equal stakeholders, in the Nigerian project.

  1. Having achieved all you have so far, how many others have you been able to mentor as successors to the legacy you have built?

 Many as those who are inspired by my actions, struggles and personal way of life have over the times, adopted me directly or indirectly as their mentor. What this means, is that we have a duty to the society, to ensure that we produce more of those minds who are ready to take up the task of liberating the downtrodden, and advancing the cause, for a better society.

  1. How did you meet your husband, was it through activism?

 Our meeting, I will say was divine. There was this time during the military era, that I was in detention in Ilorin for unlawful assembly, incitement, plotting to overthrow the government. That was early 1994. The police invited me and asked me to name those sponsoring me. When I couldn’t name anyone, they said I was not cooperating. I became very sick, as I was throwing up and stooling, the doctor said I had typhoid fever and I was being treated at the police clinic and my legs chained to the bed. While I was there, they sent for my father and my father came with another comrade, Comrade Bisi Fakayode, then NLC chairman. My father was to sign an undertaking that I would be of good behaviour and I told him, ‘Dad you have other children, if anything happens just know it that you once had a daughter that wanted to be a nun, but died an activist’. Comrade Fakayode advised me that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day and I said no, there was no running away. So, when the police felt that I was not cooperating, they told my father to go and I saw him wiped his face and left with the comrade.

As soon as they left, the police violently pulled off the drip and they said we were going to Lagos. It was around 4pm. Along the way I told them that I wanted to go the toilet, they said no, that I would escape and that whatever I want to do I should do it in the vehicle. The driver was reasonable enough as he told them that if she did that in the vehicle none of them would stand it, that they should allow me use the bush. They allowed me and we stopped about three times. When we got to Lagos, I was first taken to Panti and then moved to Alagbon. While they were taking me there, I still had typhoid and was very weak. I saw Chief Gani Fawehinmi, and he yelled at them, ‘where are you taking this girl to,’ they said for interrogation and he said, ‘you have to treat her first, you can’t pull her like this.’ I saw one young guy beside Gani, and Gani asked him, Yinka, don’t you know Joe? He said the one that always writes in the newspapers from Ilorin. Is he not a man? He said no, she is a woman. That happens to be the person, I’m married today, Yinka Odumakin. I was calling him comrade, which I still call him today. It was when they released them that he came twice to see me while I was still in detention.

After my release, I started noticing him, and we were going for rallies we would be tear-gassed together. Two years after, one day, we were four debating state of the nation. He said, ‘before we start the debate, let me tell you the state of my heart, I’m in love with this girl’ and she said she would not marry until there is democracy. The people there said, let’s debate, let Yinka tell us why he has to marry Joe and let Joe tell us why she would not marry, and anyone who wins would carry the day. Yinka, said that he would be an addition to her that he would not distract her and I gave my reason that I don’t want any distraction. When we got married in Ilorin in November 1997, one newspaper wrote, ‘what Abacha has joined together…’ when after the reception, we went for honeymoon in a hotel, the manager called, and told us that we have to leave the place immediately that he never knew he had troublesome people in his hotel. I was still with my wedding gown when the intercom buzzed to tell, ‘sorry you can’t stay in this hotel, you have to leave.’ We left and headed for Lagos.

For my in-laws, they asked why is she even dressing like a man. The son explained to them and they said, after all, it’s you people’s lives.

In March, 1998, my mother – was around, and I was going for a press conference and she just came in and I was contemplating taking her along and all of sudden I started feeling pains and I told her, she advised that I should go to the hospital. The event was by 11am and it was 8.30am and she said she would not allow me to go to the event. We went to the doctor and Comrade had gone to the media event at Pa Abraham Adesanya’s office in Apapa. The doctor said this is labour sign and I asked if there was something he should do to stop it because I had an event by 11am. Thirty minutes after, I had a baby girl. As soon as the girl sneezed, I looked at her and my mother came, I left all of them and went for the press conference. After the event at Apapa, I came back and told the doctor to discharge us, as there was nothing wrong with me. My in-laws and I have cordial relationship.

  1. In what way has activism influenced or affected your personal life seeing as you are a public figure?

 We have a typical home like most people do. I always strive to strike a balance between my itinerary and the family. I believe that marriage is not a competition but a platform to complement your spouse. Yes, I travel to all parts of the world; even during the days when I suffered constant harassment, I used to pack my bag in case I do not return home as scheduled. But there is this training that I got from my mum and that has stayed with me. We were trained to use one bedspread per night. By the next morning, it must be washed. So I love to stay in a very clean environment. I wash the clothes, clean the house and I love to prepare my food by myself. For many years, what I have been doing is that I prepare like five different types of soups and stock them in the freezer. Those days, I used to go do the shopping by myself, but today, I ask people to do it for me because people

will not let me concentrate when I appear in the market. I end up spending longer time and I will be there counselling and doing enlightenment. When I won’t be around at all, I get a caterer to come and do the dishes for me and stock them in the freezer. But when I am around, I love to get down the list of things I want and prepare them myself. I love fish, so I always have different types of it in the fridge. I hardly eat out, besides I have a personal weakness of not eating well. As I am speaking to you, I have not eaten today, its past 8pm already. Growing up, my mum had to hit me hard to get me to eat a little. Sometime ago, someone came to the house and saw that I had a plaster around one of my fingers and when I told her that it was a knife wound from trying to prepare Edikaikong soup, she shouted when she learnt that I have time for the kitchen. The same thing happens when I attend the Parent Teachers’ Association meetings in my kids’ school; the place eventually becomes a centre for discussing the state of the nation. I try as much as possible to go over their homework, but not often. Their lesson teacher does more in that area. But I must say that the best moments that I cherish with my family is when we are discussing the state of the nation.

  1. You have been jailed on several occasions for several reasons, which ones of those experiences stand out in your mind?

 Not that I regretted what I did, it was when I was leading a protest in Ilorin. I went to paste poster against IBB at the police headquarters in Ilorin. I took advantage of some of the dead electricity bulbs, so, the place was dark. My colleagues dropped me and I was putting on black attires and had the posters and starch. I told those colleagues not to go but stay far away and watch incase I was shot dead so that they can explain what happened to me. Unfortunately, while pasting it, one of the police men came out to ease himself in that dark area. He was coming and his voice was coming closer to where I was, I had to lie down and his urine was pouring into my ear, mouth and nose. He was drunk. He stepped on me and asked his colleagues to bring touch that he was standing on a snake, his colleagues asked him to run, he said no, that they would use it for soup. He was stepping on my legs and his colleagues told him not allow snake to bite him. He asked them to bring touch that he was stepping on the snake. His weight was heavy on my leg and when they brought the touch and looked at the poster on the wall and saw IBB’s face defaced with cross and he then beat me up. He first gave me a head butt and one of them said, ‘Oga, don’t waste your energy, let us kill this thing.’ Those my colleagues shouted, ‘Don’t kill her, we have seen you’ they fired some shots in the air. That was a low moment, not that I regretted it, but I have taken some urine. I didn’t know what

happened to me again, it was when I woke up that I saw my self with starch all over my body, blood everywhere and my dress was torn. I was there for about four days before my dad brought some clothes to me.

It was a low moment in that I just thought about it and realized that these are the citizens one is fighting for and look at the way they have treated me. They said I was worst that a hardened armed robber, more so, a criminal. All the people who came even when I regained consciousness felt that it was the height of criminality.

  1. Many currently envy your position in society as a respected voice without understanding what it cost you to get to this How high would you say the price is?
  • There will always be a price to be paid for every action one get him or herself involved in, at one point or the other. But what should be paramount, at all time, is your focus and how your engagements, will either positively or negatively affect, the larger society. Therefore, may perception has always been about what impact I have to make out there, and not necessarily about who envies or being uncomfortable with my actions.
  1. Looking back, do you have any regrets?

 

Nothing as such, especially when I realized that whatever action I embark upon, are well thought out and are results of deep convictions.

  1. Being an icon, you have worked with many passionate people like you, Who would you say impressed you most and would want to work with again? 

Beyond several motivations that I got through the instrumentality of various book that I read, persons like Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Professor Wole Soyinka and others who were the live wire of the human rights movement, and the heart beat of the struggle have severally motivated me and remain those, that if it could ever be possible again, I will always work with.

  1. With what you know today, what would you change from your past? Or if you had access to your younger self, what would you wish to have
  1. When you started activism, did you have any role models? Who are those you look up to now? 

Yes, like I stated earlier, my role models are leader are Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Professor

Wole Soyinka and my leader, Pastor Tunde Bakare.

  1. How do you create balance between you personal life and marriage and your work? 

If one fails in one, one has failed in all. I learnt from my mother when I was growing up. If I am going for the protest or anything, I make sure that I prepare about six different kinds of soup and keep them in the freezer just like I learnt from my mother who always went once a while to the market. I used to go to the market, but I put a stop to it because when anytime I get there by 10 am, people who have problems will come and those who appreciate me. I will be in the market from ten in the morning to two in the afternoon and will end up buying nothing. Now, I send people to the market to help me buy things and, when I am around, I like cooking. The house must be thoroughly cleaned; the bed sheet must be thoroughly cleaned and, then, when I was growing up, I know that my dad still had time to look at my homework. I still find time to look at my children’s homework. Honestly, balancing the home front has not been easy because, in those days during the military dictatorship, I had vowed that I was not going to marry except there was democracy until I met Comrade Yinka Odumakin in prison; one thing led to the other and we got married. Shortly after our marriage, there was no honeymoon. We were in a hotel in Ilorin and the manager called us that we should leave.

  1. What do you do for relaxation? 

I read a lot and I love watching History Channel.

  1. Any hobbies? 

Reading

  1. What is your hope for the Nigerian woman? 

A future that sees our women, being treated as equal to men, with limitless opportunities, particularly access to leadership in governance and other spheres of our society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *