At 70, Virgy Etiaba opens up on
From GEOFFREY ANYANWU, Awka
Sitting comfortably in one of the sofas in her sitting room at her Nnewi country home and beaming with smiles was Nigeria’s first woman governor, Dame Virgy Etiaba. Mama Anambra, as she is fondly called will on Sunday, November 11, 2012, clock 70.
Mama Anambra who stood firm and rescued Anambra State when his then boss, Governor Peter Obi, was impeached, and who calls herself a Child of Destiny, will tell you that she feels like a 50, 55 year-old woman. In this encounter, she took Daily Sun through the journey of her life, revealing things she had tried so had to cover and her days in government.
How do you feel coming to this age of 70?
I am really very happy. It is a thing of glory, a thing of joy and I owe all to God Almighty. It’s not easy attaining the age of 70 even though people interpret it in the Bible that 70 is the highest and terminal but I do not feel like that. I just feel as if I am 50. It is of the Lord’s making and I am really very happy about it. He should take all glory.
How did life begin with Virgy Etiaba?
The life began on November 11, 1942. At that particular period, the World War 11 was raging and Nigerians being subjects of British, they were drafted into the war. I was born in my hometown, Nnewi, in St. Thomas Maternity, Akwodo, Anambra State.
I must say that my birth was divine. My parents were Chief and Madam Josiah Ejinde of blessed memory. Both of them were from Nnewi in Otolo. I was brought up by an uncle of mine. An uncle that used to be described as a real uncle more than a biological father. Education I attended the famous Igbo Union Primary School in Kano. It was a school every Igbo indigene loved to send his or her children to. My headmaster was one Mr. Okwara from Abia State, a polished man who never gave room to idleness. The school was one of the tops in northern Nigeria. A former Chief Judge of the High Court, Justice Roseline Ukeje, was my classmate, sitting beside me on the same bench. Prof. Bernice Ezilo, is also a classmate.
We had an adjacent missionary primary school, the Sudan Interior Mission that changed my life completely. One early morning, I was just sitting near the garden of our abode in Sabon Gari, Kano, and a classmate of mine and a friend beckoned on me to escort her to Sudan Interior Mission Primary School where she was to write her entrance examination for post primary school. I went with her and sat outside under a tree while she went in for the examination. While I was outside under the tree, sitting alone, the European Missionary who was supervising the common entrance examination peeped through the window and saw a girl sitting under a tree, he beckoned on me. I went near the window and he asked me if I would like to participate in the exam. I said yes. I wrote the exam. Behold, when the result was published, I was one of those that were successful and that is how my destiny started changing and working towards success. I found myself in SIM Kaltungo Teachers’ Training College now in Gombe State. Formerly it was in Bauchi State but now in Gombe State.
It was there in 1959 that I gave my life to Christ. I schooled in all the geopolitical zones. I speak Hausa fluently because I preached in Hausa. I did my practical teaching in Hausa. When I went back after 50 years to Katungo, it was a thing of joy. The whole town stood still because they felt that one of them arrived. A dormitory was named after me, Dame Virgy Etiaba Dormitory.
A durbar was organized for me. The Emir of Katungo honoured me with a title of Yargoma Katungo. I also attended Women Teachers’ College (WTC), Omu-Aran, Irepodun LGA, Kwara State. I went there last Friday to celebrate its 50th anniversary and my 50 years of leaving the institution. I got married very early in life, I got married just a week after writing my higher elementary teacher examination at Omu-Aran and that made me to slow down my educational career. After having my last child, I went to College of Education, Abraka, Delta State, where I had my national certificate in education. I had my Bachelor in Education in Enugu State. I went to London University Goldsmith branch, for my ICT. My marriage I grew up when gender inequality and discrimination against women were in vogue. In those days, women were seen and not heard. They were just made for house chores and breeding of children. I met my husband as a result of recommendation from a woman who claimed to be the mother of my then husband. My husband was a London-trained lawyer.
In those days, you could not pass me without turning back. So, when this lady saw me, she felt, you must be married to my son and that was how the thing started. Coping without my husband I was able to manage myself because of the love we shared with my children and their late dad. My son, Bennett Jnr, is such a loving son, he is able to carry his siblings. Bennett left the shores of this country when he completed his secondary school education and as at the time the dad was letting him go, I was just weeping. Their dad said: “You are not wise. If you are wise, you wouldn’t weep.” Bennett left the country very young and this has been a saving grace. When the father left, Bennett was abroad. He fell into the hand of a very good family, the Steves and they trusted him so much that at a point, they made him manager of the company. So, it was there that Bennett worked very hard and was able to take care of the family as much as he could before others; Emeka, Okenwa, Echezona, and the rest started grabbing themselves.
These children were the ones who trained themselves academically. Retirement I retired voluntarily when I was not due as a result of the death of my husband. We set up a memorial for him, that is is why we have Bennett Etiaba Memorial School. I wanted to put in my best and I am someone, no matter the task I am given or I find myself, I always put in my best.
Do you know why?
“I shall pass this world but once.” Anything I set to do, I must do it well because I will not pass this world twice. That’s why any task I’m given, I do it to the best of my ability. Even when I was the deputy governor of Anambra State and then God lifted me, still following my destiny, as governor. I don’t want to blow my trumpet. My days as the first female governor What lifted me up was that impeachment. Both of us were to be impeached on circumstances I never knew until God intervened. The first statement I made was that I would not step into Governor Peter Obi’s shoes. That I would not present myself to be sworn in as the governor but man proposes, God disposes. When we were evaluating it at that crucial time, we were with our late Ikemba, Ezigbo Gburugburu in his residence in Enugu. Obi, chairman of APGA, Nwobu Alor and one or two others were there when we took the decision and I was persuaded to take up the mantle. We finally analyzed that if I didn’t present myself to be sworn in that would have been the end of APGA. The following day, the Chief Judge kept on saying that if I fail to present myself at a particular time of the day, that was for swearing-in, that we should forget it and the PDP would be sworn-in. As soon as I finished taking the oath and stepped down, the Speaker surfaced, you can imagine what would have happened. Anambra State would have become a PDP state till today. I never wasted a day, I started to show the Anambrarians that God is on the throne. I did my work as a mother, I embraced everybody. Everybody had cause to smile.
The widows were very happy because then, I was a widow of 23 years and I knew how it feels. School children, religious bodies were very happy with me. I paid the pensioners, made a very big inroad in that direction. The widows were happy, even the commissioners who would have been replaced were happy. There was no stone left unturned; structures, road construction were made.
I even announced that anything that could be done by an indigene or local people must be given to them before foreign contractors. Actually it was good during my time. Pressure not to hand over to Obi There was a court judgment, as soon as it was given, Abuja came in that the status quo should be maintained, that I should not hand over. So, he went on appeal. Throughout that period, I listened to my boss, Obi. I always refer to him as my son and a son indeed was he during the impeachment. When the second judgment came, that particular day was remarkable. It was the burial of Sir Akpamgbo and I was there to receive our guests.
I had a long and interesting conversation with General Ibrahim Babangida. We were conversing in Hausa, so he took interest in me. After that, I went home, then Echezona, my SSA, phoned me. I respect the former President Olusegun Obasanjo. I decided to visit him after three weeks of the impeachment. It was during that visit that he advised me that I must have one of my children in the cabinet or else, I would be sold off. That it was only my child or my son in the cabinet that would be truthful to me.
That was how Echezona, my fourth son, came into my cabinet. He was the one who phoned me. I never knew that Emeka who was in America for medication heard it. So, less than two hours of the judgment, I handed over to Obi. If you see the picture of handing over, you will know that a mother handed over to the son. We embraced each other. Immediately I handed over, I went inside my car. It was the late John Haruna, Police Commissioner, Anambra State, who held me by the hand and led me out of the car into the Governor’s Office.
All of us went including Victor Umeh. Haruna then asked, who authorized me to hand over when Abuja had not given order and the police had received no order. I told them that actually, I did it. He demanded whether it was under duress, I said no, I did it with all consciousness and wholeheartedly because I knew that the time had come. Umeh embellished the whole thing and Obi was looking at me directly (laughter). That was how I left the office. I never removed a pin from my table. My joy till date is that I served Anambra State wholeheartedly. It was God that permitted me to work positively, carry every person along and then left the stage when the ovation was loudest. Back as deputy governor I am a cancer survivor of 14 years now. When I relinquished the post of governorship, I went back to my office. I said to myself, but you were gainfully employed, doing charity work, moving up and down. I went to Obi I told him that I have a charity work with which I touch the lives of people.
Instead of me staying idle in the office I would like to go into my charity programme. I sought for support for the programme. He told me he was happy for the programme but that the state would not and he would not support me. So, I went it alone with my children and my friends. But he sounded a note of warning, probably he thought I was going to make a political programme out of it. He said I should keep the Commissioner for Women Affairs in contact, which I did and there was no response.
Life out of office Life after governance has been marvelous to me, very pleasant. The gift given to me by God, my children and friends and their friends are so happy with me. Everywhere I go, Mama Anambra, Mama Anambra, what can be more than that? And besides, they give me joy, I really enjoy myself; I retired quite all right from the service of Anambra State but that is not to say that I’m tired. I’m not tired at all, I just feel as if I’m still within the age of 50-55. So, whatever the Lord has for me is still what is still what I’m looking for. The future is very bright for me. Celebrating my 70th birthday Sunday is going to be glorious, judging from the text messages, I wonder if there would be any space there in Yar’Adua’s Centre. What will happen that day is rejoice, rejoice, rejoice. I’m celebrating my 70th birthday, there’s going to be birthday dinner, birthday cake and unveiling my autobiography. I will tell the story of my life. Assessing President Goodluck Jonathan The President is always dear to my heart, knowing the circumstance that threw him up.
When you see what is happening these days, I just feel that all these things are planned to distract him. He is hell bent on reforming whatever sector. Look at what is happening in the EFCC, oil and education sectors to mention but a few. All these he had in mind and there is nowhere you can vouch for development when there is no peace. It is that peace that they are trying to thwart. It was earlier said that if he won the country would remain ungovernable. I believe that by the grace of God, things will take shape because he’s a man that believes in institutions and not in individuals. I have always prayed that God will give him such wisdom to know when he is being misled and when he is being given genuine advice.
Dame Patience Jonathan Goodluck, I don’t know the type of adjective to qualify this lady, lady that is the backbone of the husband. She is always in the forefront. If God appears to you today, what else would you want Him to do for you? I will ask for good health so that I will continue to mentor the young ones. I will ask for peace in Nigeria. With Boko Haram in the North, MENDS here, kidnapping, armed robbery, prostitution, child labour, slavery, these are things I will ask God to please eradicate for me so that we will enjoy the world He has created for us.