Former first lady of Edo State, Mrs Eki Igbinedion, has given a peep into the Idia Renaissance Center, IRC, which she established during the tenure of her husband, Chief Lucky Igbinedion (1999-2007), at the Dennis Osadebey House, Benin City. As a throwback to what she did with girls trafficked to Italy at the time, Igbinedion has once again risen to the challenge by training and rehabilitating some of the returnees from Libya. This, she does, in partnership with international organizations. In this interview with Sunday Sun, Eki spoke about IRC, her family, growing up days and memorable moments as the first lady of Edo State.
Since 2007, when you left the Edo State Government House, many people have been asking: where is the wife of Chief Lucky Igbinedion? What have you been up to lately?
A lot! A lot! I have been working, doing my business and at the same time, running the non-governmental organization, the Idia Renaissance Centre, which was put in place in 1999. Running it in the sense that we have actually continued to train our young people at the head office in Benin City, where we have five different departments. We just added a new one. We have the cosmetology department, our tailoring department, bead-making department, computer department and the videography department. So, all these departments are there where our young people come to acquire skills. After they acquire these skills and graduate, they become useful to themselves and to the society.
Let me make it clear that the issue of human trafficking has been on for over 20 or 30 years. However, it was Idia Renaissance that pioneered this open fight against human trafficking. People had been doing it secretly because they were afraid of the syndicate involved. And when we were talking about it, in 1999 to be precise, a lot of people thought it was a joke. And today, look at what is happening in Libya.
Who is running the center, is it managed by Nigerians or foreigners?
Nigerians. We have a center director, who serves as a principal. We have a director of projects who goes out to look for projects that IRC can run which we run in collaboration with some international donors, particularly, under the Assisted Voluntary Return and Integration Programme, where they repatriate girls and boys who want to come back voluntarily to be rehabilitated. Idia Renaissance has worked with Micado Migration in Germany from 2009 to 2015; Maatwerk bij Terukeer, Netherlands, from 2010 to 2016; Dutch Council for Refugees from 2016 till date; Caritas Belgium from 2017 till date and Caritas Austria beginning from 2018 till 2020. Idia Renaissance joins efforts with these people. We support them in the area of training and also supervising to ensure that these young folks, who are coming back, are doing what they are supposed to be doing because most of these non-governmental organizations support voluntarily repatriated people, victims who willingly want to come back.
Are you in touch with the International Organization for Migration (IOM)?
Yes, we are. We are in touch with IOM. We have worked in the past in collaboration with IOM, but at present, IOM has established an office in Benin City.
What aroused your interest in this area?
When I became the first lady of Edo state, I looked at our children, our young folks and I found that these young people, who are trafficked, were people who had great potentials and if these potentials were enhanced, these people would be very useful to the society. To us, it was like a case of brain drain, particularly on our state, Edo state, and if you can remember, the problem of trafficking has been there for many, many years, even years before my husband became the governor. But for the first time, we brought to the fore, the true picture of what was going on.
Did you face some challenges at that time?
A lot of challenges! We brought it out to let people know that yes, there was human trafficking, it was real and the government put a law in place to prosecute those who were found wanting. Human traffickers were prosecuted in court.
Was there any attempt on your life?
Of course, there were several attempts.
Spiritual attempts or physical?
All sorts. From what they told me, they wrote threat letters to me.
Different people wrote threat letters, particularly, traffickers.
And you received the letters as Edo first lady?
Oh! Yes. Letters were sent to my office.
Did you draw the attention of the security agencies to it?
We did, but I knew the letters were to frustrate my efforts.
Was any arrest made?
I don’t know if they were able to get the people. You know people like that will not use their actual names and addresses. They were just letters to derail the project.
We met several oppositions during our outreach and outdoor campaigns because our campaigns took us to all the local government areas in Edo state. The challenges we met were people standing up in the room to verbaly attack us, saying, ‘if you don’t want our children to go abroad, why did you go abroad? Why did you study abroad?’ I said to them, ‘but your children are not going to study abroad, they are going to be enslaved. You have sold your kids to middlemen who are traffickers, who take your children for hard labour and all sorts of illegal activities.’
It was easier funding your pet project while in government. Apart from your partnership with international organizations, how are you able to fund it?
Yes, it was easier. Now, it is very difficult, but we are still trying our very best. We have maintained the same standard that the organization has been since 1999.
Do you also assist in settling them after the training to begin a life of their own?
In the past we had cooperative bodies whereby they all came together to get funding. But at the moment, after training them, on the day of graduation, we invite people who are likely to hire the services of these people to come and pick them up. And on the spot, they get employment from hotels, restaurants, fashion houses and some of them come together to form their own small businesses.
What is the total number you have trained recently, including the returnees from Libya?
A few months ago, we graduated 630 students because the graduation had not held in two years. So, all those who finished last year and the year before, came together. This was on December 14.
Do you have an alumni book for the center?
Yes, we do.
What is the total number? Can we say 5,000, 10,000?
I can give you the figures, but far more than that. If in two years we graduated 630 and it was more than that because we graduated over 1,000 before, you can put the figures together.
Do they return to give back to the center?
All the teachers at the center are graduates of the center. The first teacher that heads the fashion department graduated over 10, 15 years ago and she is one of the tutors.
Who would you say influenced your life?
Is it your dad or your mum?
Both of them, my dad a very strict disciplinarian.
Was he a soldier?
He was not but acted like a soldier.
Was he a teacher?
My mum was a teacher and my dad was a businessman. My dad was an engineer by profession.
Please recall some of the memorable moments of your growing up days?
A lot! A lot! Quality family times spent together.
Did you ever visit the farm?
Yes, once or twice.
What did you do at the farm?
Going to the farm was to experience what it was like. My dad had a large farm. But we used to work because if we were to eat all the sugarcane and mangoes, we plucked them ourselves.
How is it like to be married to Chief Lucky Igbinedion?
It is good. It is a lot of experience. I have been through a school in my marriage. It is fantastic when you are married to a man who is an enigma, who has his tents spread round the world.
How did you meet him?
We met at a wedding 34 years ago.
You have been married for years and now a grand mum?
We have been married for over 30 years and I am now a grandmother to six children.
What is the secret of being together?
A lot of patience. You enjoy every moment, you make the best of every situation.
Were there moments you felt like walking out?
No. I don’t think there has ever been any moment I felt like walking out. Of course, there are very difficult moments, but I am not a quitter by nature.
If you have a second chance, will you still marry him?
Of course! I am having the best moment of my life right now as a grandmother, enjoying my grandchildren.
What is your beauty routine?
I don’t have one. I just want to be simple and comfortable.
You don’t go to the gym?
I do go to the gym.
And you drink plenty of water?
Are there some foods you don’t eat?
I try to eat a lot of vegetables and I try to reduce my carbohydrate just to stay healthy. You know, as you get older, if you want to live long, you have to watch what you eat.
What is your style?
Simple, elegant and comfortable! Very simple, very elegant, but very comfortable.
I think comfort is priority.
Do you go on trousers?
I do. I wear anything, but not silly things.
Do you prefer local or foreign?
How do you unwind?
Rest in my home and play with my grand children.
Do you indulge in any game?
I play a bit of table tennis.
Where is your travel destination?
I go everywhere.
What are your memorable moments as First Lady of Edo State?
My memorable moments were times I was able to give and bring joy to the people, particularly through my non-governmental organizations because I had two organizations. The other one is Edo Underprivileged Children Scholarship Trust Fund. I have many children that I look after till date.
I have children who have lost both parents, but today, they are in school. I have a set of triplets I look after. They are not necessarily from Edo State. I have all these children. To see them grow, look good, live well and healthy, I think it gives me a great deal of joy.