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People said I was crazy when I went into politics — Ex-Imo governor’s aide Adaora Onyechere

Adaora Onyechere, a broadcast journalist, motivational speaker, poet and author, was famous as a co-anchor of Kakaaki, a daily talk show on African Independent television (AIT) until she left her comfort zone to venture into politics. In this interview with select journalists, including PAUL UKPABIO and FRANK IKPEFAN, the former Senior Special Assistant on Information and Advocacy to former Imo State governor, Emeka Ihedioha, relives her experience in the murky waters of politics, particularly in the short-lived Ihedioha administration, among other issues.

It takes some guts to abandon your passion for something else. Why did you leave broadcasting for politics?

I felt a sense of hopelessness that the engagements and conversations we were having as journalists and broadcasters were creating awareness on issues. But in real time, activation and implementation was a long rope, and I was wondering what could be the problem. Was it that we were not shaping the right narratives or the politicians were willing but were hindered or there was too much bureaucracy hindering activation?

Talking and having conversations on and off air, at a point, I started to engage in community journalism to see what really was happening back home. What I saw was very startling; the obvious case being that of having a conversation gap between the leaders and the led. The leaders are saying things in their own language and the led are saying theirs in their own language; nobody is meeting the other halfway. The people in power think they have it all figured out. They will just speak and after one week, the whole thing will die down. The people are agitating and talking but nobody is hearing them.

So I felt that in cases of bills that are being made, looking at CAMA, the NBC bill, Freedom of Information Act, the review of the NBC Code, and all the other bills that are coming out now, people are asking, ‘Where was the conversation line? How did people get involved?’ So my needs at that time was to take it off the television set and just stop having those conversations just with the people who are supposedly in leadership and have the conversation with those that are led. The only way to do that was to participate, which was what made me to run in an election.

In doing that, there was a conversation and consultation, first with my family and even with my tutors back in school in England. It was a deep self-analytical process for me, because it was a point of no return. And knowing the kind of political environment we have in Nigeria, which is very hostile in terms of even engagement for women, it had to be a decision that was not just as a sense of running but also a sacrifice.

What was the reaction you got from people when you decided to go into politics?

People were saying are you crazy? Are you going to leave your job? Do you know how many years you have put into this? You are a queen of the screen, you are this and that. Don’t you think this is a mistake? But then I realised that if we keep talking and no one is helping to shape the conversations real time, we will keep talking for another 100 years. For me, it was to take the narrative from what I used to think and experience down to the field, which was the reason I ran. Getting into the field was a totally different experience and ball game. And I am like, ‘Ah ha, we have come here now, what do we do? How do we re-engage?’ Trust me, the more you look when you get into politics, the less you see, because the narratives you thought were shaping or were supposed to shape those who are in power was not the case scenario in real time.

What lessons did you learn as a woman in politics?

I joined a not too popular party because there was a lot of struggle for women to get nomination forms in bigger parties. It was very expensive. Secondly, the internal party mechanism was not shaped to accommodate the voices of women without hostile participation. For me, I felt that more women should begin to think about looking at helping to shape smaller parties, creating the structures that they would like to see, becoming participants in policies that help govern the political parties, which was what drove and really gave me the faith in pursuing my mandate under Action Alliance.

The election was looking quite good and there was a lot of popularity not just for myself within the party in the Okigwe Constituency which I was seeking to represent, but also for the brand of the party itself.

How about your family? Did you get their support?

I think that what made me strong was the fact that I had my family support and I also had my mentors strongly behind me. And one thing they really said to me was, ‘Ada, it is not about winning. In fact, you have already won as far as we are concerned for deciding to run, even getting into the field to say you want to change the voices of women, you want to see how women were looked at.’

At that local level, it was strong enough for them. But for me, I wanted to also help people to understand that for a state that had a lot of misogyny, that was very masculinised, it was not just only a struggle for them to see more women coming into the ring.

You challenged the result of the election because you felt that you won?

Yes. I went to the tribunal, and it was a tough case. But I think along the line, the conversation of the traditional rulers came on board. All the Ezes of Okigwe Constituency summoned me for a meeting with the candidate who was in court with me, and there was a conversation like, ‘You know you have done well as a daughter, this is your first time, you have made us proud and we are remarkably behind you. But we are all one and the same, you are from the same place, you are the same tribe and we want you to understand that whatever happens after this, we will definitely be behind you. But in this matter, you people should not be exposing yourselves…’, and all those fatherly and elderly talks. And you know I went in the entourage of some elder statesmen and some elders of the party (AA). Some people said I should not have withdrawn the case; that I should have fought on.

So, you withdrew the case from the tribunal?

There were three demands that came up: one was to see that some of the policy, the issues that concern the Okigwe people would be taken on board, secondly, that the traditional rulers would also see to it that during elections, it will no longer be about the male chromosome but about the capacity of those who are running, even though I know that culturally and stereotypically, traditional rulers will naturally side or be keen to side a male candidate rather than a female. But I would also tell you that being a politician or running for election does not de-feminise a woman.

But beyond that, I think for me as a first timer as well, and understanding the political environment in Okigwe where I come from, which is not a place you overwhelmingly stomp into with a show of bravado but must be emotionally intelligent to be able to also look at the modus operandi of those who are your supporters and those who are following you, what their body language also says. So it was not a decision that was mandatorily left to me; it was a collection of voices to say, ‘You see, election is not a do or die affair. Winning is not about winning at the polls alone but about the people who come out, standing tall for the sake of those who cast the votes for you.’

What can you say about Ihedioha?

I had followed him for quite a while and had seen several of his leadership indices even at the National Assembly level and at the national space level, and I felt that that was the man that could go very far if he was consistent in his vision. I joined him and the journey of service began. So, before you knew it, the government took off. We looked at several of the agenda of his Excellency from agriculture to sports, to youth empowerment, women engagement, infrastructure and road network. We began to look at the visions and mandate of his Excellency under the Rebuild Imo conversation platform, and it began to take shape with the people slowly but surely.

After three to four months, it became a vibrant conversation. There was a re-ignition of hope. You could see the enchantment had left people of what used to be – an abuse of public office space. People were beginning to become bold enough to say this system works, and I think for me, that was what I could take away in the seven months. Because beyond the effectiveness and being part of the beneficiaries of good governance from within the Rebuild Imo system, to even being part of the Imo citizen, I think one of the key things was the modeling of the leadership style of His Excellency by other state governments, by other platforms, and by other leadership status quo, because it was working and you could imagine that seven months of engagements and make it into four years what we would have achieved in that space. I am saying that for what the administration was able to achieve in seven months, some people take two to three years to achieve it. That, for me, is significant. And as per my role as the SSA, it was not about the title or about the office; it was about the activation for service for those who my principal called to serve and my admiration for his wife, Ebere Ihedioha, who was very visible and also very passionate about the plight of women in Imo State.

During the rebuild Imo project, was there a time the governor felt his administration was standing on one leg considering that the election that brought him to power was before the Supreme Court and that the case could go either way?

I doubt it. We had the voice of the people in Imo. The citizenry were with us. There was a body language of this is going to continue, so there wasn’t any inkling of whether there was going to be a right or wrong judgment.

In other words, the Supreme Court judgment came as a rude shock to the administration?

It was a bounce of an edge for the whole world; not just to him or the people in the state or myself. It was like, what the hell is going on? The question on how it happened, the conversations that happened in-between the line was there for you to see. I mean it wasn’t just an Imo state dilemma, it wasn’t a conversation about us or about him (Ihedioha), it was about the system (judiciary), it was about the government of Nigeria, it was about our beliefs as a people, it was about our faith in the judiciary.

It has been several months after the judgment. Has the Rebuild Imo team abandoned the former governor?

The Rebuild Imo team is an exceptional team. You can’t take that away from His Excellency. I think he deliberately chose the team significantly to meet the needs of his vision, and that, for me, wherever you are or whoever you are, you must applaud him for that. Beyond the state, the team has continued to work collectively and individually to be able to continue to speak and possibly to bring to bear the capacity that he (Ihedioha) saw in them in the larger space as they have begun to do several things that they also have strength in. But beyond that, as a team, we also have conversations.

So what have you been doing since you left government?

It has been a bouquet. First of all, Covid-19 came and slammed us with that, so we had to spend five months indoors. Now post-Covid, there are a lot of activities. Things are getting re-engaged. My programme, Talk to Adaora, took off in the heat of Covid-19 because I saw a gap and a need.

Going by your experience in 2019, do you think women are getting enough support to challenge men in this political space?

Women need more support. There needs to be enough funding. But how do you do that? That is why I said mainstreaming women across all sectors, ensuring that they are empowered gives voice, gives bite to women who would support other women during elections. Whether we like it or not, the money that you save in the bank as a woman to go into an election can never be enough against a male counterpart. Even if it is, you also need to understand that consultation and a range of support stages happen during politics, during your campaign. When you think you have done and achieved your final conversation, another one comes up!

So you are saying if the level of violence during elections reduces more women will embrace the political space?

Absolutely! If they are prepared financially, if there is preparation to support women financially by the women themselves, knowing that elections are unfortunately not cheap in Nigeria, there would also be a need for that. But just like someone said to me a few days ago, men have godfathers. What is the definition of godfatherism in Nigeria? How is it positive in terms of connotation for a female counterpart? I believe there should be, like I said, an awakening of mentors for mentees.

Will you be trying again in 2023?

I am already running. What do I mean by that? Every woman who is in service one way or the other in the public space, defining and redefining the citizens’ voice, helping to shape the ideals of citizens’ participation is already running. I feel that politics and running for elections from my experience is no longer about picking up a nomination form or going to meet yourselves at the ballot. You are already a participant in the public space politically. If you become deliberate about helping to shape the ideas of the citizens, about helping to bring service that is missing in a particular gap, about meeting the gap and the interest line of a particular sector or gender, for me, that is how to look at it.

If in the process of my service there is a definition of that capacity of fitting into a platform, then I would oblige if it is to the privilege of the people. I also believe that if one just sits down and hopes that come 2023 or 2022 they begin to rally around and pick up the form to go and run in an election, I think that is where we miss the link. The link should be that you are serving and prepared to even do more if called into a responsible position to activate those capacities for the benefits of the people.

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