Hajia Maryam Inna Ciroma was the former Minister of Women Affairs from 2005-2007 and the wife of former Central Bank Governor, the late Adamu Ciroma. In this interview with Helen Okon, Publisher of Business Review Afrika Magazine, she recounts her unstoppable experience in the Nigerian political sphere dominated by men and emphasizes the need for Nigerian women to rise against the challenges of discrimination against women in politics.
Can you tell us more about yourself as a hard-working mother?
Thank you very much for the accolade. My name is Maryam Inna Ciroma. I am from Borno State. I started my education in Borno State Girls’ Secondary School, Maiduguri. Then I proceeded to Abdullahi Bayaro College for my A-Level and to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I also did my postgraduate studies in Lagos. I worked in the Civil Service commission from 1979 to 1983. After that, I went into business and then into politics.
How were you able to study and graduate in 1978 with a degree in Political Science and Postgraduate Diploma in Public Administration despite the challenges of girl child education in northern Nigeria then?
I was one of the very lucky girls. My father was highly educated, he was a lecturer in the Faculty of Law Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and he was very passionate about education. I remember in those days my grandmother use to cry to him when I was in the University that my age mates were getting married, why would he not allow me to go and marry? So, he would tell my grandmother that ‘let’s allow her to go to school, that you will be happy when she finishes her education’ and believe me, God spared her life to witness my success in the Civil Service. So, she was always thankful to him and thankful to God. So, I was lucky because my father was very passionate about education and he insisted that I would not get married until I was able to complete my education and he told me that that was what would make me very happy. It also serve as a lesson to my junior girls, the one that came after me. I can say that I was a very lucky one from a background where my mother also went to school. My mother retired as a Custom Officer coming from the North as a that time. So, my parents were both educated that was why I think i was lucky to have the Education.
The Child Right Act if it had been adopted in Nigeria it would have solved a lot of our problems because the act says that if you see a child of school age roaming the street either hawking or selling something, the parents should be punished because it is the right of that child to be in school at that age. But you know our people, they decided to make it a religious issue and some scattered everything. A lot of states in the North adopted the Child Rights Act and others don’t. We are now concerned about almajiri school system. If we had done that, it would have solved that problem and a child can be in both western and Quoranic education and there will be no problem.
As a former minister who has been in the system and is being passionate about the Child Right Act, what is your advice concerning some of these fantastic policies that government has in place and how they can be implemented?
Honestly, I believe that the elites in Nigeria have not done Justice to our system, people do things without looking at the future of beneficiaries of the actions. We have the National Assembly members that are supposed to pass laws to improve the system but that is not happening now. Someone will come up with a law and place it before them and they will throw it out certainly because somebody feels that he or she will not benefit from it but we are not talking of personal benefits, we are talking of the future of this country so if we have been able to do things that have future, if will look at it futuristically, things would have been better for us. That is my concern.
The Child Act Right of 2003 is there but we still have children suffering, do you recommend that state government should enact their laws or they should follow federal government’s law on the Child Right Act?
No, the Child Rights Act is supposed to be adopted at the national level and then the states will also look at it and maybe have some changes to suit their environments, but it is the same Act. If the state has issues with one or two things in the Act, it should take it to State Assembly and they will look at it and implement it in such a way that everybody is happy. I remember I attended a conference in Egypt where Ministers of Women Affairs all over the world attended and I met one lady from a country in Southern Asia, a Muslim Country. I was complaining to her about the Child Right Act in Nigeria and she told me that they had similar issues but what they did was to call all their Mallams and scholars to look at it and they looked at it and came out with something that suit them and it was the same act. They did not offend anybody, the child is happy, everybody is happy, so why can’t we do that in Nigeria? These are things that we can look at and change them to suit our environments.
Looking back to your time as a minister, you were very productive. As a former Minister of Women Affairs, what were the things you can look back and be excited that you were able to achieve?
I think we achieved a lot, to be modest, like the passage of the Women’s Right. We were happy that the President then Olusegun Obasanjo agreed and it became something for women. Also, we were able to establish some structures. I don’t know whether they are still working. Then, we said that women who wanted to enter into politics and are very passionate about politics but don’t know how to go about it, so we said why don’t we organize training centres in every zone so that women who are interested in politics can go there and get some sorts of ideas on how to start what to do. We were able to set up the training centres in six geo-political zones with the support of the president.
Apart from that, we were also able to establish in every ministry, a department that would be able to take care of women issues so that when they are preparing their budget they should also factor in things that will support women and that was also adopted and is still in practice, so there are many things we achieved that I can’t remember now.
Talking about Unstoppable Women in Nigeria, as a former Minister of Women Affairs, how were you able to overcome some of the challenges you had especially being in the presence of men?
It is not easy for women in Nigeria to be in politics and succeed. You must really work hard. If you see these women that are succeeding in politics today you must give them thumbs up for what they might have gone through to reach the level they have reached because the men don’t want to give space to women. I had a very bitter experience just three days ago in our party meeting. I was there to talk about women issues and I was shut down. Just three days ago. At this age they don’t want to see women as if you have a view you can contribute but this country belongs to all of us and the Nigerian constitution did not discriminate. Apart from that, all the political parties have 35 percent of affirmative actions in the constitution of political parties but the political parties will not implement it. They will set up a committee of 20 people and you will find only 2 women representing. Do 2 woman represent the 35 percent? So, the thing is that Nigerian women will have to rise up, nobody will do it for us, we have to rise up and challenge this discrimination. God created us and God knows what He is doing with the women He created. This unjust discrimination has to stop. This country can develop but all of us must contribute to the development and when you look at the percentage of women and men in Nigeria, we are more than men and if you look at the voting capacity the women came out and vote without complaining despite the fact that they have children they still go and queue for hours to cast their votes but when it comes to decision-making, they will say who she is a woman, what does that mean, is she not a human being? Doesn’t she have a brain? We went to school with them, write the same exams with them but when it comes to political appointment that is where the issue of women come to play. I think Nigerian women should not sit back and accept it as if it is a norm. Women all over the world are now complaining and I think we should have something like “Women Voice Matter”. We must talk, we must protest, we must insist that it is our country, that we can only claim Nigeria to be our country and if you have brilliant and women very hard-working women and they are sideline because they are women, is that justice to our country? Look at what Okonjo Iweala is doing outside Nigeria; is she not a woman, is she not in Nigerian? So, we have a lot of women of that capacity that can make Nigeria proud but they are not giving the chance.
There is a saying that when you empower a woman, you empower a nation, when a woman has the skills and knowledge and has achieved a lot but not given the opportunity to showcase these, what can you do as an Unstoppable Woman?
As I said we should not sit back; we should insist, it is our right, it is not a favour because it’s our right we must insist. The women must come together and work together irrespective of political parties because what is happening in A is also happening in B. So, if you are a woman and you have the same challenge all over the place so why don’t we Nigerian women come together and insist because what you are saying is true. You have the capability; you have the knowledge but you need the support of the men. The men make the laws and when you have committee of 20 person, only two women will be there and the committee will decide the future so what input do we have as a women to participate in the politics? Nigerian women must come together, we must unite and insist for our rights because we are not looking at the past, we are looking at the future of our children, the future of our grandchildren and the future of the women that are coming up. What future do they have? All the women who have been there before and have gone through all these challenges they must come out and mentor a lot of Nigerian women on what they would become, what they are going to go through. Things must change, we must appeal to our National Assembly. The constitution does not discriminate but when they stand alone and say we must do this one for women, they will just decide to scatter and not pass it. Why? They are born of women and they have wives and daughters. So, why do you want to destroy your daughter’s future? My own plea is that Nigerian women should come together and look at this issue that are facing the future of our country and the future of Nigerian women.
What is your advice for the upcoming women?
Honestly, we have to change a lot of our ways of doing things. Men contributes to these ways. Look at the issue of rape all over the place, that is very sad and all women must rise to this challenge and do something about it and education is very important. We must look at the quality of education we are given and the moral training we are given to our youth because that will determine their future. Nigeria I know is a religious country. We seriously believe in our religions and I wish to call our religious leaders to rise up to this challenge because it is really sad to find the degeneration in the attitude and behaviour of the young people these days. My plea is to also look at our education and economic system because economic problems can also push somebody to do things that otherwise they couldn’t have done. So holistically, we have to look at the issue and see how we can tackle it.
What should the government and parents do to ensure that these indecent and harmful cases of rape is stopped?
I think we have to revisit the law of rape and see what punishment is there for people who rape, what does the law say? if the law is not strict enough, we have to look at it and see how we can improve it and also do a lot of education and advocacy on issue of rape but my own concern is the issue of law, what punishment is there for someone who go and rape a two year old? do you want to kill that child or what? The other day I read were a five years old child died because of rape and what happen? So we have to look at our laws, what it says and do a lot of education and advocacy on this issue because it is really becoming very scary and serious and can happen to anybody.
What do you have to say about unstoppable women in Nigeria?
I like to raise my thumbs for Unstoppable Women because they are making Nigeria proud. Nobody should intimidate us, nobody should blackmail us. People like Gambo Sawaba and Ransome-Kuti stood up. Gambo Sawaba went to prison severally and they refuse to be silenced. I don’t think our generation should be silent. The women should be encouraged always and fight for the cause of women in Nigeria.
Thank you, Hajia Maryam Ciroma for the time given to BRA to share in your world of achievements
Thank you, Helen.