Amina Titilayo Atiku-Abubakar, is the wife of the former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. She’s an advocate of women and child rights.
Titilayo who turned 70 recently in this interview spoke about her life, why her pet project, Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) is still waxing strong 21 years after.
She disclosed that the foundation has catered for nearly 11,000 victims of human trafficking since inception.
She shared her thoughts on gender based violence, why women are their worst enemies when it comes to getting into elective post among others. Excepts:
How is life at 70?
It is okay. To me 70 is just a number. You know, it was when I turned 65 that my children marked it for me because I am not a birthday person. Why I said 70 is just a number is because, if God has given you grace, you are living well in good health, you don’t even want to know how old you are. But atimes people will remind you how old you are, if not, I am not really the kind of person that celebrates birthday. Life at 70 to me is the same if you are living well, you have sound health and God is taking care of you. So, I think I am okay with that.
You are really looking radiant at 70, what’s the secret?
That’s why I said earlier that I don’t even want to know how old I am, but people around you will remind you of your age. If you are the type that doesn’t fall ill often and the grace of God is upon you, you will radiate all the time. Maybe it’s also because of the humanitarian work I’m involved in.
So let’s talk about the humanitarian work you are involved in?
I started the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) in October 1999. It’s almost getting to 21 years now. It is one of the most established anti-human trafficking organizations in Africa known to have carried out the most powerful advocacy campaign to strengthen the fight against trafficking in persons and child labour in Nigeria. You know, if you do not have passion for something, you cannot do it. There is a story behind my founding WOTCLEF. I was a lecturer in Kaduna Polytechnic for almost 10 years and I noticed in the classroom that some girls will be absent and when I asked them where they were, because as a mother I like to know about my students. They will say they went on pilgrimage to Rome. And as a poor teacher, a mother, a sister, they will make you to go all over again what you have taught others in their absence. Again, I noticed that they look so well spent, but when you ask they will say it’s because of the pilgrimage stress. So in 1986/87, it happened that I went to Rome for training as a lecturer that I am and the first thing I observed was that when we got to the immigration, those with green passports were the last to be checked. I asked what was happening, but it never occurred to me that people were being trafficked for prostitution to Rome. So, the next day, on my way to do registration in the school, I noticed at the train station so many black girls in skimpy clothes. So, I asked what are these girls doing and so improperly dressed, then I was told that it was some Nigerian women that were bringing these girls to Rome to come and do prostitution. I was told the madams were responsible for their tickets, passport, visa under the pretext that since they don’t speak English there, they will be employed as English teacher, some as hairstylists. So, the girls are deceived into going to prostitution because on getting to Rome, they will have no option, but to prostitute because they will seize all their documents from them, give them skimpy clothes and push them to the streets. They will be told that they will spend 10 good years serving her before they would regain their freedom and in those 10 years, all the money they make will go to the madam. I was shocked to hear this, I asked what sort of life is that? I said this is very bad and I said to myself then that should I get to a position of authority one day that I will help these children and put a stop to this. So, when my husband became the vice president on May 29, 1999, you know there is power in the tongue, so I remembered that I had a covenant with God in 1986/87 that I will take care of these girls that have been forced into prostitution. So, in October 1999, I convened a national workshop on human trafficking which held for three days. The workshop was attended by a wide spectrum of Nigerians including wives of governors, local government chairmen, civil society organizations, many representatives of state and Federal Government agencies. I told them what I wanted to do, and I relayed my experience in Rome in 1986/87. The workshop revealed the menacing level of this scourge in Nigeria. Some of the stakeholders have never heard of trafficking in person, but they have heard of arms smuggling and drug trafficking. The Italian government got to hear about what we were doing to halt human trafficking and they got interested in what we were doing and started getting ready to repatriate our girls back to Nigeria. So, the first set of girls that were sent back home were 70 girls accompanied by 144 policemen, because the girls were very resistant, they did not want to come home. They were proving too difficult, so two policemen had to accompany one person. They arrived in Lagos and were received and I asked for a handful of them to be brought to Abuja. At another gathering with stakeholders, I assured the girls that I will give them succour, that I am ready to take care of them.
Because of my promise to them, we had to look for a rehabilitation centre and the first was at Wuse Zone 2, Abuja. The building was donated by an Ijesha man and that was how the journey began. You know, most of the girls go under fictitious names and when they were tested for HIV, most of them tested positive. This is because they not only sleep with men, but with animals – dogs, snakes and what have you. For those who agreed to come to me, I really took care of them. I remember a particular lady called Jennifer, she even stayed with us at the Villa. She went to university on my bill and today she is married and a mother of three. So, we have been running the centre ever since. Some of the girls were sent to school, those who preferred to learn one skill or the other, went for the training, got micro-credits to start their business and some also got married while with me. Today, they are employers of labour. I was invited to Palemo in Italy to give a talk, during the signing of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. I also met a lot of our girls there and in Sicily. After the protocol was signed, the idea of sending a private bill to the National Assembly to see how we can halt this ugly trend came to mind. When we returned to Nigeria, I convened another meeting with all relevant stakeholders like the police, immigration, CSOs in attendance. At the end of the day, a broad based Anti-Trafficking Bill Drafting Committee was inaugurated under the Chairmanship of Hon. Justice Mary Odili. She was then the First Lady of Rivers State. The objective was to draft a private bill harmonizing the various laws on human trafficking in Nigeria, using the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children as a model. I presented the bill to the National Assembly under the chairmanship of Anyim Pius Anyim, who was the then Senate President. I was asked several questions on why I wanted the bill. I told them that our girls were just out there like sheep without shepherd and I wanted this evil act to stop. So, they were very happy with my arguments in favour of the bill. And in 2003, WOTCLEF’s anti-trafficking bill was passed by the National Assembly and signed into law by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The then President Obasanjo on the day he signed the law said, he was always embarrassed any time he travels abroad and sees our black girls on the streets of Rome. He said he was very happy with the bill which he signed into law. It is this law that led to the establishment of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP). The law makes Nigeria the first African country to enact an anti-trafficking law. I didn’t just stop there because as you are aware, there are pockets of NGOs doing similar things. Because, we at WOTCLEF understand and realize the imperative of promoting joint efforts to combat human trafficking, child and abuse. Accordingly, we were able to mobilize other non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations involved in these areas to form a network called Network of Civil Society Organizations Against Child Trafficking, Abuse and Labour (NACTAL). WOTCLEF since inception has catered for and counseled close to 11,000 victims (males and females) of trafficking, who are today doing very well. We still have many in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. We have our records to back up our claims. We started off at Wuse, but we have moved into our own property at Gwarinpa comprising an office space and rehabilitation centre. The parents of the children know where they are and if there is a court case, NAPTIP accompanies them because we all know what is happening now in the country. The funding has been solely borne by myself with the help of our partners. Our work at WOTCLEF got the United Nations to grant us a Special Consultative Status. This status gives WOTCLEF the rare opportunity to maintain in regular presence as an NGO at relevant UN activities.
Almost 21 years after you championed this cause, we are still battling the issue of human trafficking…?
There is still much to be done which saddens my heart especially with this lockdown, the number of rape cases that have been reported, even incest, fathers sleeping with their own children. I read one on the social media, the father started sleeping with her when she was five, another one a father sleeping with two of his own children, one is 20 and the other 21 years old. Stories like this sadden me that these kind of things are still going on in the society. A lot needs to be done. Even a girl in hijab, you saw what happened. In her own house she was raped and killed. The girl in Benin, she thought the church will be a safe haven for her, we saw that this girl was bastardized and raped very badly because the mother said she was even a virgin, we could even see the blood flowing on the floor. We saw so many cases of rape, I mean I saw one in Jigawa, where the man was giving them chocolate and sleeping with them. Mothers are meant to protect their children. We had a case in WOTCLEF one time where a girl was repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father. The mother connived with the father to beat the girl continuously, denying that he was responsible and eventually sent her away. Her aunt was the one that rescued her and brought her to WOTCLEF. We took care of her until she was close to delivery and we asked the aunt to come take her away. Because, WOTCLEF doesn’t nurse babies. It is sad that mothers, because they don’t want to be stigmatized that their husbands are responsible in raping, impregnating their daughters, keep quiet. It is sad that we are always discouraging our children to speak out against such things because this is their future we are talking about, but mothers are the ones hiding. I am saying, you don’t have to hide, speak out so that elders will come to your aid. Because, most of our children do not know their rights and do not know who to talk to, they don’t know where to go. Some of those under our care who were being raped, were brought from the villages as house maids and were turned into sex machines by their Madam’s husbands. There was a case of a child raped by someone said to be a Prince, the case was brought to our attention. The mother lives in the same house with the Prince. When she was invited to come and talk about the case, she denied that it was Prince that raped her child, because he gave her some money. I think its high time mothers refused to cover abominable things like this. I am happy that the National Assembly members have also expressed their displeasure with the current happenings and are considering promulgating a law on this. Someone was suggesting castration, others say death sentence will be better. We don’t know which one will be better.
What’s your reaction to the stance by the First Ladies to lead this fight against gender based violence?
You know the Child’s Right Act is not domesticated in states, especially in the northern states. Some state governors put men as commissioners for women affairs, so they don’t take that law serious. Is the women that wear the shoes and they know where it pinches. And in this part of our country, they marry off their children early and as a result they are not really in support of the Child Rights Act domesticated in their states, which is very bad. We have to protect our girls because this is the future of our country. Some mothers don’t educate their children the way they are supposed to, so as a result what they don’t learn from inside, they will go and learn from outside. In our days, our mothers will tell you that even if a man touches you, you will become pregnant, so we run away from such things. So, it’s good the First Ladies have decided to lead this campaign because what some of these our daughters do in higher institutions, they do like what is called cross pollination, move from one state to the other, where they assumed nobody will know them. They have sugar daddies who buy them things that their parents did not buy for them and when the school closes, you see them selling those things off because they are afraid of their parents and what they will do, should they see them with things that they did not buy for them. So, we need to educate our girls and let them know that they are our treasures and leaders of tomorrow and should not allow anybody to deflower or destroy them. Our lawmakers should make that law that they are going to promulgate to be very stiff to serve as deterrent to randy men.
Many pet projects of former First Ladies and wives of political office holders fizzle out once they leave office. What has been the secret of WOTCLEF being relevant for close to 21 years now?
I will tell you my secret. We all have something that God has destined that we are going to be in life. For me it’s about humanity and passion. You know, I have never had any threat. As you are aware, trafficking in persons is a multi-billion dollar business, a very lucrative business. In Europe, there is organ transplantation, forced marriages etc. So, they will traffic these girls and then go and harvest their organs and sell them. We saw the video that went viral in Tripoli in Libya, many of the girls organs were harvested, some of them thoroughly beaten. The video was a heartbreak to watch. But sadly, no matter how you talk to our girls about the danger out there, they still want to go out there, cross the Mediterranean Sea to go and see the other part of the world. In Benin, WOTCLEF was invited to a programme and one of the boys that were repatriated from Libya, had the guts to come out and say, he is back in the country and there is no job, that he was going back. What has kept WOTCLEF running all these years is the passion. I told you I started in the classroom and that was where I made the vow after my experience in Italy. I didn’t suddenly get to the Villa and started thinking of what to use the position to do or get busy. When I was in the Villa, I never used or relied on government money for this work. The only thing of government I used for the victims was the food. I never used government money to pay the workers or to train the children in school. It was the board members and myself that were footing the bills. You know, because it is a God ordained programme, nobody has ever written to me to stop this programme. Because, it’s a lucrative business, all these mafias can write to you to threaten you to stop, but I have never received any of such letters. Again, when we were in the Villa, I never used government money and we have been out of the Villa for 13 years and yet, WOTCLEF is still going strong, so it is clear that its God’s project, God’s hand is on the programme.
The group you love more, women and youths, have been made more vulnerable by COVID -19 as the economy has nosedived. How do you think this group can be helped in the post-COVID Nigeria?
Post-COVID is going to be very difficult because, the economy is already badly affected now and this will not go out quickly. It’s not yet post-COVID and we can see that people are very hungry. But how much can you continue to give them? Even you that is giving, it will get to a point you will run out of supplies because everything and everybody is on lockdown. Even if you have money that fills this room, if you continue to take out of it without doing anything to replenish it, it will get finished. The point is people are crying, but the little we can do, let us do for them. Another point is that some people don’t believe that there is COVID-19, they believe government want to use it to make money and I wonder how. But the fact remains that COVID-19 is real because, we have seen the impact it has had in other countries, how people are dying daily. But you see, most of our people are daily workers and if they don’t go out to work, they will not have anything to eat or feed their families. The government is trying its best, but this is the planting season and farmers need to plant so that we will not go hungry, post-COVID-19. You know right now that most of the grains in the grains reserves are being brought out to feed people. And then there is the problem of bandits attacking people in their farmers, in their houses and are not allowing the farmers to farm. If they don’t farm, how will we get food? As we are talking things are very expensive and its not everyone that can afford it.
Still on the vulnerable group, what’s your take on the decision by northern governors on the Almajiri children?
You see the Almajiri system has been in the North for a very long time. Even some of our current lawmakers have confirmed that they were once Almajirai. I think it was the Governor of Kaduna State that took that stand that this Almajiri system should stop. To me, it is very welcoming. When you see these children going about begging, it’s very heartbreaking. Even if these children must attend Koranic schools, they can do so in their states of origin. But this idea of shipping them to another states, all this cross pollination that they are doing with this children…even the Mallams they send these children to cannot afford to take care of them because the children are too many for them. This idea of the children moving about with pans begging doesn’t speak well of Nigeria. There are other African countries that are Islamic countries, but you don’t see their children on the streets begging. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, we should have our dignity, we should have our pride. Nigeria is excessively rich in materials, mineral resources, human resources, we should not see our children on the streets. So, this stand by the northern governors forum is highly commendable, it’s a good move in the right direction. So, let the children go back to their parents, let their parents take care of them whether they want them to go to Koranic school or acquire western education, let them take care of their children. I like it very well.
What’s your position on the call for more women to be voted into office?
You know, women are trying, but we are still are worst enemies. Women are trying to come out of their cocoons, but the men are still having the upper hand. Some of us like to backstab and some of us have turned ourselves into dancers and clappers. Women are good managers and if opportunity can be given to women, we will turn this country around. In Hong Kong, a woman is the president, in Philippines, a woman is also the president, in Brazil at a point their president was a woman. But the point is, even if you win, the men will not just give you that opportunity. Take, for instance, what happened in Kogi, Stephenie Akpoti, she really tried, she had the guts, she measured up to the men, but because she is a woman, she was thrown out of the race. So, gradually we will get there, but women need to come out and support each other and stop this talk about why her, why not me. If we can support each other the more, we will get there.
What do you do to relax?
I like to go to the gym and reading. When we were in the Villa, I was cooking for my husband, but now we have a cook, I hardly do most of the cook, but I do go to the kitchen to give instructions. I also enjoy going to visit my children, but that has stopped with this COVID-19. Right now, I go to my office and check on the children in the rehabilitation centre. The children have a matron and other staff, so I don’t go to the office as often as I used to. But we communicate often on phone.
At 70 you still look radiant, so how many more years do you want God to add to your years?
I have told God that with this humanitarian work I am doing, you know the Bible says 120, but I have told God that I want plus five, that is 125. Our forefathers in the Bible lived for a good number of years, Methuselah lived for 900 years, Abraham and the rest died at well over 500 years. I don’t know why we are dying young these days, but I guess it’s too much stress.