Ndidi Anike Val-Okeoma, is a gender rights advocate and the managing partner at ’Didi Anike & Partners. She is also the immediate past chairperson, Federation of Female Lawyers (FIDA), Imo state chapter. In this interview with ENE OSHABA, the legal practitioner who contested in the Labour Party (LP) 2023 governorship primary election in Imo state, shares her career journey and experiences in politics, among others.
How did you become a gender advocate and politician? Did your background influence you in any way?
Regrading my background, following the Nigerian school curriculum, after I had my primary, and secondary school education, I proceeded to the then Imo State University, Owerri, where I studied Law and obtained an LL.B (Hons.) degree. I was subsequently admitted to the Nigerian Law School, Lagos Campus, and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2004 as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. I have been in active legal practice since then.
My inspiration to study Law is a very interesting one. For starters, I was told by my parents that at an early age of five years, I had specifically said that I would be a Lawyer.
To buttress my ambition and desire, I was told that I was an addict to “Crown Court” a British Legal series that used to air on TV in the 80’s. I was also told that I would not miss any series. It used to amaze them how I would stay engrossed all through the programme and they wondered how my little mind could assimilate such.
Again, I have always been vocal and a lover of justice, even as a child, I could not stand others being bullied. I will always speak out and crusade for the right thing to be done. My classmates still testify of these things till date.
I owe that boldness and audacity to the upbringing my parents gave me. It instilled a lot of confidence in me.
Lastly, being the first child gave me an edge in terms of leadership. I had come to accept and enjoy the role of leading my siblings and indeed taking charge, whenever my parents were away on trips. I considered myself as some sort of a governor and a judge at the time.
I evolved to become the chairperson of FIDA in Imo state. This was one of the highpoints of my love for being a voice for the voiceless. It was a wonderful experience. Of course, it came with challenges. However, we scaled through by the grace of God and sheer determination to stand undaunted.
Upon my assumption, we gave ourselves a vision to reposition FIDA in Imo state. We hit the ground running immediately by entrenching our mark on every space and home in Imo state.
FIDA Imo became a household name under my watch and we were feared by perpetrators of domestic and sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) and respected by all.
Again, what stood out for us was our proactiveness at crime and justice interventions and massive advocacy outreaches.
This accounted for the massive boost of our legal clinics where we offered free legal services to indigent women and children. FIDA Imo was everywhere and we became a voice and a succour.
Though, the most prevalent challenge during my tenure was the issue of funding. Given our mandate, we were constrained to levy ourselves to be able to prosecute cases Pro Bono for indigent women and girls. The paucity of funds was always a bottleneck.
As Chairperson, FIDA Imo I became an authority in the state on issues of women and girl protection.
We were very intentional and brazen about our stand and we backed up our words with prompt response and action.
Again, it was under my watch that FIDA Imo State University (IMSU) was inaugurated. We were the first branch in the country to do so and this was in line with our mandate of mentorship. By this, we inaugurated the student members of the Law Faculty of Imo State University, who would join our activities and be groomed as future FIDA members. It was one of the highpoints of my administration.
Again, it was under my watch that we organised the first ever FIDA Yard Sales where we had several exhibitions and sold many branded items.
The idea was to create awareness about the organisation and also to raise funds for the prosecution of cases. It was a hit, back-to-back.
Similarly, FIDA Imo intervened in the cases of three minors who were stranded in one of the government hospitals in the state for almost a year over unpaid medical bill.
With the support of one of our donors, we negotiated a 50 per cent discount on each of their bills, got them discharged and set up an education fund for them.
You are a very passionate lawyer, what inspired you to join partisan politics?
My inspiration came from a passion for social justice and public service including a desire to make a positive impact in my community and state. I was also desirous of addressing important issues especially those affecting women and girls, advocate for change, and influence policy decisions for the good of the citizens.
Let’s just say that being a frontline advocate for systemic change, I decided to walk the talk.
You participated in the LP governorship primary election for the November poll. Can you share your experience?
Yes, please. I was a governorship aspirant in the primaries that produces the party’s flag bearer. I was not only the youngest but also the only female aspirant.
It was an exciting opportunity and experience for me. I was determined to stand till the end no matter the outcome.
Of course, the usual patriarchy that plays out in issues like this showed up but I remained undaunted.
You see, women are taken to be unserious in politics and when they indicate interest to run for political office, they are not accorded that usual attention given to their male counterparts and that accounts for the sometimes off-handed attitude.
Again, it was quite a lonely walk. Women have not yet exercised their strength and power in this regard. We seem to have accepted the narrative that we are second class citizens and shouldn’t even dare to dream big.
Well, I lost my bid to get the ticket but I believe that I made a strong statement that the office of the governor is not an exclusive reserve of the men.
Also, that women can run for office and stand uncompromised till the end with their dreams, values, and standards very much intact.
So, you won’t mind trying once again?
Yes, I will definitely contest again irrespective of the challenges. The only way for the eagle to soar is to get through the eye of the storm. My zeal and quest for positive change is unquenchable.
Can you speak on the challenges you faced in the process?
There were several challenges I was confronted with during my political journey. Topmost of them is patriarchy which is a hydra-headed demon fueled by our socio-cultural biases. The belief that women are not good enough to occupy certain positions.
There was a deliberate move to shut me out most times and not carry me along. This may have been targeted to frustrate me so much that I would give up and walk away. However, like I said earlier, I remained undaunted and it further challenged me to stay strong.
There is a Lack of support from the women folk. I found that even though most women were happy that there was a female aspirant, they didn’t commit themselves to the process of seeing us succeed.
In fact, many times, it was women who would ask me why I opted to run for governor instead of deputy governor or even for House of Assembly.
We must learn to speak with one voice and one spirit.
Finance is also another major challenge. Elections cost money and by this, I mean cost of logistics. Sadly, we have turned politics into a transactional affair for the highest bidders.
We have moved away from the values that should devour conscience. It is no longer about competence but all about money and unfortunately our system has now used the tool of poverty to break the will of the people. It is a vicious cycle indeed.
So, these challenges are peculiar to women?
In politics, women face several challenges, including underrepresentation. Women are often underrepresented in political offices, both globally and at the national level.
This lack of representation can hinder their ability to advocate for policies that address women’s concerns.
Gender Bias and stereotypes can affect how women in politics are perceived and treated. They may be subjected to unfair scrutiny and criticism based on their gender rather than their qualifications or policies. It is so prevalent in my region.
Women often face double standards in politics. They may be expected to be more likable and empathetic while also being tough and assertive, striking a delicate balance that their male counterparts may not face as intensely.
Also, women often struggle to secure adequate campaign funding compared to male candidates. This financial disadvantage can limit their ability to run competitive campaigns.
There is also limited access to leadership positions. Women may have limited access to leadership positions within political parties, which can hinder their ability to influence party platforms and decision-making.
Harassment and threats were also and issue. Women in politics are sometimes subjected to online harassment, threats, and even physical violence. This hostile environment can discourage women from participating in politics.
There is also work-life balance. Balancing political careers with family responsibilities can be particularly challenging for women, as they often shoulder a disproportionate share of caregiving duties.
Similarly, there is the issue of lack of mentorship. The absence of female role models and mentors in politics makes it harder for women to navigate the political landscape and build necessary networks.
Also, societal expectations about women’s roles discourages them from pursuing political careers, as some may feel pressure to conform to traditional gender roles.
Policy prioritisation on another hand is important to women, such as reproductive rights, gender equality, and childcare, are not always given the priority they deserve in political agendas.
Myself and most women faced all these and much more.
What would you have done to improve on development, especially for women, if you had won the ticket?
My vision was and still is to reposition Imo state. I hoped to achieve this by creating a prosperous and inclusive society where every Imolite will have access to basic needs and opportunities for optimum growth and development through the Rule of Law.
From your experience, how would you describe Nigerian political terrain?
I have always maintained that politics is not a dirty game; it is some of the people in it that make it dirty.
I liken politics to a clean bowl of water. What happens when you put a dirty rag or plate in it? The water runs dirty. But in order to get success, the plate or cloth should be put under running water. That way, the water cleans and at the same time is untainted. That is what politics should be; running water.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in Nigeria. Politics is transactional and we have given validation to evil and loose morals and values rather than competence. By doing so, we have destroyed the confidence of the people who now measure the competence of a person only through the amount of money he can throw around.
However, I am hopeful that one day, there will be a paradigm shift and all of these will change for the better.
What is next for you?
My plan is to build more networks, invest in personal capacity building and continue in my advocacy until we get to the promised land.
So, what of your Law practice?
Yes, please. I am still practicing Law and I will also be fully involved in politics. Though I lost at the primary election, I am still a major stakeholder in the party and I work towards its success in the forthcoming election come November 11, 2023.
Elective positions remain a difficult terrain for women, how can this be addressed?
Elective positions can indeed pose challenges for women, and addressing this issue requires a multi-faceted approach. Some key strategies to promote gender equality in politics include: Awareness and Education; Promoting awareness about the importance of gender diversity in politics; and educating the public about the value of women’s participation can help shift societal attitudes.
Also, there are legal reforms which entails implementing and enforcing laws that promote gender equality in political representation, such as quota or electoral reforms, can be effective.
Support networks; establishing support networks and mentoring programs for women interested in politics can provide guidance and encouragement.
Political parties; encouraging political parties to actively recruit and support female candidates can make a significant difference.
Media representation; promoting fair and positive media coverage of female candidates and politicians can help combat gender biases.
Role models; highlighting successful women in politics as role models can inspire others to pursue political careers.
Community engagement; engaging communities in discussions about gender equality and encouraging them to support female candidates can be impactful.
Work-life balance; implementing policies that support work-life balance, such as family-friendly policies, can help women in politics manage their responsibilities effectively.
Eliminating harassment; taking strong measures to address and prevent harassment and discrimination against women in politics is crucial.
Changing cultural norms; promoting cultural shifts towards gender equality in all aspects of society can have a positive ripple effect on women’s participation in politics.
Addressing the challenges women face in elective positions requires a concerted effort from individuals, communities, political institutions, and society as a whole to create a more inclusive and equitable political landscape.
What is your call to government regarding women inclusion in leadership positions, especially elective positions?
There is the National Gender Policy, 2006, which seeks to promote equal and equitable access, control and ownership of resources in order to address gender inequalities; Promote equal advancement of women and men in all sectors and create equal opportunities for women and men in decision making in all areas and at all levels.
My call to government is simple, enforce and implement your own laws and policies and stop being dragged or begged to do so