Dame Julie Okah-Donli is a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and former Bayelsa Central senatorial aspirant. In this interview, the former Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) speaks on the predicament of women in politics and how the ruling party has been encouraging them to achieve their dreams. She spoke with GRACE OBIKE

Women have been accused of not supporting one another in politics. What is your assessment of the situation in the APC?

The situation in the All Progressives Congress (APC) is one of support and encouragement. My party has a very vibrant, hard-working and passionate Woman Leader who is not sleeping. She is always making a case for women’s representation in all spheres of life. The political space, corporate space, appointed positions and all of that; I know her voice is being heard and she is encouraging women to come out and not be discouraged. She is always encouraging the womenfolk to keep running, to come out and run for offices and not get discouraged. When you don’t get it the first time, she will encourage you to go back and not say you are giving up, or no longer interested. Indeed, every woman should continue to try and impact lives in their various communities and I’m sure that with time, even the women in the villages will begin to understand that it’s very important for them to support their fellow women.

What happened with your political quest?

I’m a politician, so I decided to go back home and contest to represent my constituency at the Senate; the good people of the Bayelsa Central Senatorial zone. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. We were about eight women who came out to run for offices ranging from state House of Assembly and Senate, but funny enough not even one of us got the ticket. I can’t say what happened if you ask me. I don’t know what happened but it still tells you that when it comes to politics in Nigeria, women are still relegated to the background. The men kind of think that they are the ones that should be there and that they should be the ones representing the people. They believe women have no place; no role to play in the National Assembly or even in the state Houses of Assembly. Then, when you go down to the local government you hardly find a woman as chairman of local government.

Why is this so?

Women have a lot of work to do. It’s quite discouraging and it’s very unfortunate that in 2022 this is where women have found themselves. But, we must take the bull by the horn; the narratives must change. It cannot be said that we don’t have an equal amount of experience as our male counterparts. I was the executive assistant to the governor at a time for five years; no one can say I came from nowhere. I came from somewhere; I started at the grassroots. I set up a group called the Credible Silver Movement in 2007. So, I’m part of grassroots support-based groups. I’ve been doing things right from the grassroots; right from my village and all of that. I have been doing a lot of humanitarian work, so no one can say she came from nowhere; everyone comes from somewhere. It is not even an excuse because even if you look at it, some people just returned home from their sojourn abroad and became governors, House of Representatives members or senators.

I mean, there’s nothing like just came from nowhere, as long as you are an indigene of that state; the important thing is capacity. Do I have the capacity? Yes. I have the capacity; I was an executive assistant for five years in the same Bayelsa State. I served the Federal Government as the Director-General of a federal agency for four years. We know that not everyone can live in the village or within the state, so you do not have to be living in your village or living in your state for you to be recognised or accepted as someone who wants to run for the state House of Assembly, the House of Reps or the Senate.

Do you believe that women are ready to take over?

For a very long time, women have taken the back seat; we’ve been the ones clapping for the men, singing and dancing for them; the ones standing under the sun, in the rain to vote for them. But, now women have woken up and realised that the men do not have regard for them. Initially, women were never really interested in politics, just a few did but now a lot of women have begun to understand that for anything to change, they must be part of it. They can no longer sit on the bench or sit on the fence and watch things go wrong. So, women have decided to come out to challenge the men and run for offices and represent their people; that’s what is going on. Women are beginning to speak with one voice and they have now realised from experience that the men never meant well for them and that’s just the sad truth.

Now, women are beginning to understand how their minds have been manipulated; women know that men have been using them with words like “women are their own greatest enemies” and so forth, to pit them against one another; so that they will not make progress in the political space. But, now, women understand that they can work with one another and they don’t have to listen to those negative vibes or voices coming to discourage or manipulate their minds. Women are ready to work with women notwithstanding what the men or other people think or say.

What was your experience like?

Something happened when I was running for Senate. I went to my village and all the women came out, including very old women and they said they were going to vote for a woman because they were tired of voting for men. We the women have decided that we are voting for you because you are our daughter; you’re a woman like us. They came out en-masse to vote for me massively. I was so impressed and happy that shortly after I was given a chieftaincy title, which has never happened before in the history of my community. I was given the chieftaincy title as the leader of the women; a powerful position, which made me see that I was accepted by my community and not just by the women but the men too. They said this is the woman we want; she can do the job; she has the capacity; she’s bringing value to the table. But, unfortunately, I can’t say I don’t know what happened and then here I am. But I’m not giving up because I know that the next place will be bigger than the Senate by the special grace of God. So, I will say that women should not be discouraged; they should continue to go for elective and appointive positions and not allow themselves to be relegated to the background. Women are very important; they understand politics. Women are natural politicians; even as housewives, they know how to balance the home and work, how to balance between their husbands and children; they are peacemakers in their homes, which is a critical role in politics. They must never be left behind; this is the time to take the bull by the horns; come out and participate.