Rt. Hon. Chinwe Nwaebili is the first female Speaker of the Anambra State House of Assembly. Before now, she had served as the chair of four different committees in the House. She speaks about her upbringing and marriage as well as her life as a politician, particularly her leadership of the Assembly.
Hon. Chinwe you trained as an accountant, Why did you abandon your accounting profession for politics?
Like you rightly observed, I trained as an accountant. But I am not just an accountant. I started by studying Food Science and Technology at the OND level from the then Bendel State College of Agriculture before I decided to go further to read Accounting at the Delta State University. Politics, for me, is a passion. I have always had the passion to work for my people, represent them and speak for them. I cannot do that by working in an office as an accountant.
I can’t also do that by sitting in the kitchen as a housewife. I can’t achieve that either by staying at home. I have to do it under a platform. Therefore, I decided to go into politics because I know that when I am in politics and I contest for a position and get that position, I will represent my people very well. That was why I decided to go into politics, so that I can represent my people who are from a very remote area and need people to speak up for them.
Today, Ogbaru is gradually developing, and in no distant time, it would become what we want it to be. Today, we have a good road, unlike before. If you knew Ogbaru about seven or eight years ago, you would not want to go there. That was why I decided to go into politics, so that I could work for my people. I love helping people.
I also learnt that you are aspiring for a seat in the House of Representatives in the next political dispensation. How true is this?
That is very true. I started from being an ordinary member of the House in the last dispensation. This is my second term in the House, and in my second term, I was appointed the Speaker. After my tenure as the Speaker must have ended in June 2015, what will I be doing if I decide to come back to the House of Assembly? There is nothing like the mother of the House or the patron. So, I have decided to go higher to represent my people at the federal level.
Because I have done it in the state, the experience is there. I want to take it step by step. I need to go further to represent them in the House of Representatives. I cannot come back to the House of Assembly because there are other people who are aspiring for this position. Other people should be tested in the position. They should also test the seat and see how it is.
What are the challenges you have faced as the Speaker of the Anambra State House of Assembly?
It is not a position you would be in and sleep with your two eyes closed. You must sleep with only one eye closed because at every minute of the day, there is a rancour from your members, from the general public or from your office. There is always an issue to talk about. Even if it is not in your house, from other house, you could be hearing stories about the impeachment of speakers or governors. And when you hear things like these, you would think of how to work hard, so as not to have the same experience. This would make you to always be on the alert and on top of the system.
So it has been a very big challenge for me. And I am not just the Speaker, I am the coordinator of the South-East Conference Speakers. I am also the convener of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Women Association, West Africa Region. I am also a member of the Steering Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary (CP) International.
So it has not been a very easy position for me to carry on with. But I believe so much in God. And with the support of the people around me my children, my familythey have been supporting me so well. Because if I go the way the job is, I might not even have time for my home. But I have very wonderful children who come around when Mummy is not feeling fine and encourage me to keep riding on because they are matured. So, I thank God.
We will come back to the family issue. How do you cope in a House dominated by men? The Anambra State House of Assembly consists of 23 men and seven women, of which I am one. So, you can see that it is a male-dominated House. It has not been easy for me. Sometimes I don’t really have problems with the men. Sometimes, my problems come mostly from the women who would always see you and say, ‘Is she not a woman like us?’ You know what I mean. Sometimes, the men do not give you much problem. But I thank God because I am still able to manage them. Even my own home is male-dominated. The family where I came from is also male-dominated. We are two females and five males.
So, you can see that even from birth, I have been mingling with males. In my own home, I have three boys and a girl, apart from my late husband. You can see that I have always been working with men, I live with men. Even my aides, I have about 15 men living in my compound, but you would never hear any fighting or shouting. So I am trying my best. At least I give the honourable members their due respect because these are men and women who have their various families who are wives and mothers like me or who have women like me at home as wives. So, sometimes you try as much as possible to make them realise that.
Don’t put yourself at the top. Always put yourself at the bottom. I always make them to know that I am their younger sister and so they should try and cooperate with me. Sometimes I give them the impression that I am their mother, even when I know that I’m not the oldest. You make them feel that you are part and parcel of them. Sometimes, when there is a problem, you see them protecting you without you knowing. Some of them will even come to tell you: you didn’t do this well or you didn’t do that well.
So, it has not been easy, but I’m managing them. And they are managing me as well because I am not perfect. I have my own problems as well, so we manage one another like husbands and wives.
As a Speaker and a mother, how do you cope with family challenges?
Yes, I am a married woman. I am happily married with children. I am also a widow. I cope very well because I started this marriage business very early. I got married at the age of 18 and today, I am very proud to say that I have a calm and peaceful home. I have children who understand me very well. They are always calling to say, ‘Mummy, how are you? How was work today? I hope you didn’t have any problem in the office?’ At times, when I have a problem and they call, they can read it from my voice that I am not happy and they want to know what the problem is and I tell them.
I relate with them like my younger ones because they are all grown-ups. Even my last son, who just got admission into an aviation school in Florida, can call me just to check up on me. And if I have any problem, he would insist that I share my problems with him. And when I tell him, he would be able to say one or two things that would just make me laugh over the problem. It has not been easy, but I thank God they understand me very well. You can see that the house is empty. I am all alone here because they are all in school. I manage them very well.
Even my late husband was very dear to me. He was very kind and understanding. No matter what you told him about his wife, he would not listen because he knew and trusted his wife. Politically, he was also supportive. Sometimes, I fear if I would be able to cope now that he is not here anymore, but I believe his spirit is still working on because when he was alive, he went to all the campaign rallies with me. Even when I was not in the village, he would go to places I could not go. As politicians, there are times we do some things and people would want to complain. My husband would always step in at such moments and explain things to people. He was always there for me.
And I thank God because he gave me that ‘upbringing’ because somebody who married you at the age of 18 brought you up. He brought me up to be strong. He brought me up to stand on my own. He brought me up not to listen to gossip and to go for what you want and not to let anything pull you down. So I am working with that and it has been good all the way. So, I thank him for that.
How has it been since you lost your husband about two years ago?
It has not been easy, but I am trying to cope. I thank God for my job because sometimes, my job keeps me so busy that I don’t think as much as I was doing at the time it happened. Now I am getting over it because of my job. There is something people don’t know about me: I have a very strong religious life. I can sit at my altar all day just talking to God as if He is there with me. I am getting used to staying at home alone. Even when I have visitors, I feel disturbed. I feel like being left alone.
When my husband was alive, he gave me a lot of orientation, like not having too many friends and seeing him as my best friend. He was somebody I was so fond of. So it is difficult for me to say that I am coping. But with God, I am doing fine. My job, my children, my home, these three things would not give me the chance to be lonely for once. I am pushing on.
Any regrets since he died?
There are no regrets because God knows why it happened when it happened. So, I won’t say I regret God’s opinion. I can never regret God’s opinion because like I said, his spirit lives on. When I remember his words of wisdom and the way he said them, I feel strong as if he is present. I wouldn’t say I regret anything because he brought me up to be strong and independent.
Do you still have enough time to look after the house now that your husband is late?
I have to look after the house. And I love cooking. From the time my husband was alive, I have always been a good cook. People don’t impress me with cooking because I cook very well. My friends are always surprised when they come in and see me cooking or dishing out food. It’s something I have passion for. I can within a few minutes put two or three different soups together and put them in the fridge. Whenever I come back, I just warm them and eat. When my children are around, they also do the same thing. They just go into the kitchen, serve themselves and eat.
How do you relax?
I don’t eat much. I am a very good cook, but I don’t really settle down to eat. I can just take some while I am cooking or walk around the house eating and then drop the plate. I take more of beverages. I am not somebody who settles down or sets food on the table to eat. I was not doing that even when my husband was alive. My husband could be eating on the table, and I would just take a piece of meat from it and take off. You would see him shouting at me to come and sit down and eat. It has always been my habit. Whether it is a good or bad habit, I don’t know. But that is my habit when it comes to eating.
Tell me about your upbringing
I had a very good upbringing. I was born to a family of civil servants. My father was a teacher turned accountant with the then Bendel State Government, while my mother is a nurse. She is still practising nursing, but not with the government. She retired about four years ago, but right now she is practising on her own. She retired as a Director of Nursing at General Hospital, Asaba. You know what it means when somebody is from a civil service home. You don’t squander money. You do things according to what is on ground for you to work with. You are trained and cautioned to do things well.
My parents are devout Christians. I went to good Christian schools. I started from Emolan Nursery School in Benin before I attended Adesuwa Primary School also in Benin. As a child of civil servants, my parents were always going on transfer from one place to another. My parents worked mostly in the old Bendel State, at places like Warri, Sapele and Benin. And as the woman of the house, she took her children along with her. So, I attended so many schools around the old Bendel State. I went to school in Sapele, Benin, Abudu and so on.
My father was, however, stationed in Benin. I went to a Catholic secondary school, QRC, Onitsha. From there, I attended Bendel State College of Agriculture where I read Food and Science and Technology. It wasn’t my intention to read that course, but because I finished secondary school at the age of 16, and didn’t have anything to do. I was just sitting idle at home, planting flowers all over the place. My father decided that before the JAMB result would come out, I should be somewhere doing something. They pushed me into Bendel State College of Agriculture. When I got there, I chose Food Science and Technology and got an Upper Credit. But I did only the OND, came out and got married.
After having all my children, I went back to school to study Accounting at the Delta State University. When I finished there, I joined my husband in business. From business, I went into politics and here I am today.
You lost your husband at a very young age. How have you coped with his death?
I said so before that I am coping because once you believe in God, you work with God’s direction. Many things you think would be a problem to you might not actually be a problem. You just see things going the way they should go in your life. It is quite true that I am young, but I have children who keep me busy. I talk to my children on the phone every day. I call them in the morning and also at night. I can spend an hour talking to each of them. By the time I finish talking to them, I am already exhausted and I sleep off.
I share my day-to-day problems with them and they advise me in return and you see yourself working with those little children’s ideas and it works out for you. It has not been easy, but I am coping with it very well, and I am happy.
A beautiful woman of your status will definitely attract men. Don’t they make passes at you?
A lot of passes, I wouldn’t deny that. They are entitled to their own opinion. Even when you are not at the top and you are a woman, men would always make passes at you, but it depends on you. For me as a woman, I wouldn’t say that I am perfect, but I know what I am doing. Men’s issue should not be my priority for now. Where would we start from? What would they even do for you? At my level, what would a man do for me? It is not as if they won’t do anything for me, but I don’t think it is one of the main issues that are bothering me for now. May be later, it would bother me. But for now, it is not the main issue. It doesn’t bother me a lot because I have a lot in my head to think about. There are problems I can come up with and a man would just run away. Some of them are scared of me. Some of them would look at me as a Speaker and begin to wonder how they would get to me, how they would approach me. Many of them don’t even have the guts to come close to me.
Let us go back to the House. There have been squabbles, especially within the female fold. How do you cope with these?
I try as much as possible to cope with them. Even when the squabbles are there, they are not an open thing. When it comes to the womenfolk, the major problem is envy and nothing else. Some of them are really good because we behave like sisters in the house. But there is no way everybody’s character would be the same.
I know that all the female lawmakers in the House are beautiful. There must be some kind of envy from one or two of you?
That is what I am saying. It can never be all because some understand. Some might not understand, but I don’t care. All I know is to do the right thing to them, give them their due respect. Whether they respect me or not, I don’t actually care. All I want is peace in the House. Respecting me is not the problem, but respecting them and carrying them along is my major problem. I try as much as possible to do it, so that nobody would say because she is now a Speaker, she is carrying her shoulders up. I would not know whether I am carrying my shoulders or not, but I try as much as possible to be humble before all of them.
Right now, what are the major challenges you are facing as Speaker?
You know all of us in the House are not from the same parents. We are from different families. Even people from the same parents do not trust each other, not to talk of people from different parents or different constituencies. My major challenge is that most times, they lack trust among themselves. You know when there is a lack of trust among yourselves, you can never trust somebody because the House of Assembly is like a place where everybody is there and sometimes you may assess people based on what you see. Some people might just look at you and see a new thing in you and they start to think maybe she has been eating more than us. But I can tell you that the Anambra State House of Assembly is a place where things are shared equally. But even at that, some of them would not be satisfied with what they get. They would still want to know what others are getting.
Most of the problems in the House surfaced during the early stages of the present group. But now they understand the situation because very soon, they too would be in their second tenure. One of them might be the Speaker in the next dispensation, if they return. They would still go through the same hurdles because it is not something somebody would hold for a life time. I pray for them to come back because I am not coming back to the House. But I pray for the present members to come back because I want that stability to continue, especially for the governor who is working so hard.
If it is possible to retain this House, I would want that to happen. I wouldn’t want a situation where you bring in so many new people and you start tackling a fresh problem. But when you have more of the old members around, they would be able to blend the new ones, making them know how the terrain is. That is what I have been working towards. We are only five old members out of 30. But it takes you time to let them know that most of the things you get from the House cannot be got when there is a problem. It is always good to toe the path of dialogue, and I am happy they are beginning to understand.
Tell me the kind of relationship that has existed between the House and the executive since the time of former Governor Peter Obi?
The cordial relationship that has existed between the two arms of government is due to numerous factors. First of all, I thank God for returning some old members to the House, because they have really helped a lot in stabilising the House. That is why it is good not to lay off the whole House. If you lay off the whole House, the new members might not understand what is there. The House of Assembly is not autonomous. We still work under the executive arm. By the time you start to make trouble, there are lots of things the executive does that would not go down well with the House.
Sometimes, people have the notion that the House of Assembly is a rubber stamp. Nobody is a rubber stamp. Everyone knows his/her rights. Most of the people in the House are professionals in their different fields. They all know what to do. It is people like us who are the old members. We will keep on playing advisory roles to be peace because if we start making trouble, the governor might not be the one to suffer. The House might not be the one to suffer. The people who would suffer are the downtrodden because throughout the period of that stress, you would see the state shaking. We do not want it this way. That is why we are trying as much as possible to lay a legacy in this fifth assembly by swallowing so many bitter pills just to make the ship stable.
We cooperate with the executive because we work hand in hand. There would be no executive without a House, and there would also not be a House without the executive because the governor proclaims the House of Assembly, but the governor cannot spend the state’s money without approval from the House. So, you can see that it is a two-way thing. It takes two to tango.
Every politician has his or her own role model. Who is yours?
Throughout the federation, I have a lot of role models. I would start with the wife of the president of this country. I see her as a role model to women. Somebody on that level might not have time for anybody because she has got everything. But you can see the way she is carrying the women along. Women need to be carried along for us to come out. Before we came into this House of Assembly, there was a time she called all the women candidates of various parties, not just the PDP, and gave out stipends to everybody to go and manage whatever thing they were doing. I don’t forget such gestures. Although the money might be small, it went a long way. It shows that she is encouraging more women to come into politics.
A lot of them have potential. A lot of them know what to do. But because they don’t have anybody to encourage them, you see them falling back. They always come out and see the men as intimidating and they run back. But when she did such a thing, women’s hopes were resuscitated. They began to believe that if this woman is behind us, we will go far. So she is one of my role models.
Let me narrow it down to my state. The late Dora Akunyili is no more, but her spirit lives on. She was a very big role model to many women. As a career woman, as a wife, as an administrator, she was a role model. You can see that when she died, everybody cried. Everybody missed her, including the country. May her soul rest in peace.
Also, Senator Joy Emodi, the former senator representing the Anambra North Senatorial Zone, is my role model and mentor. She is one person I always look up to. She is the nearest amongst all the persons I have called. I can always pick up my phone and call her for advice and she would always advise me. From what she has been doing and what she has done when she was at the Senate, I see her as a very big role model. She is one person who is a goal getter. She is always speaking the truth no matter what. She is bold and I have no regrets calling her my mentor and role model. When she contested and lost the election, she was appointed as the Special Adviser on Legislative Matters which she did very well. I still respect her for who she is.
She is also one of the reasons I decided to go further to the federal house. I know that when I get there, she would be able to put me through with her advice over there and I would do very well. I just pray that the Almighty God keeps her to see that day. I know she would be very happy to see me sworn in as the member representing the Ogbaru Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives.
Have you ever been intimidated by any man, including your late husband?
I have been intimidated by different kinds of men, including my husband. But husband and wife intimidation is easy to handle. As for the other men, I am one person who does not fall for intimidation. I love intimidation because when you bring such attitude, it makes me stronger. It makes me feel that with or without you, I will move on. That is the life I have always lived. I have worked with so many men. Some of them would see you working hard and they would intimidate you just to pull you down. Such things do not pull me down. The more you try to pull me down, the more I try to put you right. At the worst, I will go my way. Some people call it radical behaviour but I don’t care. It works for me. I cannot allow anybody whosoever to intimidate me. That is one thing I don’t take. I will always tell you the truth, just like my mentor.
This interview was first published in the Nation Newspaper.