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Women are not given the chance, they earn it, says Esuene

HELEN Esuene, erstwhile Minister of State for health and Minister of Environment and Housing is the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senatorial candidate for Eket senatorial district, Akwa Ibom State. She defeated the incumbent, Senator Eme Ekaette at the primaries. She spoke to AYOYINKA OLAGOKE in Eket on her political agenda. Excerpts:
WHAT is behind your victory in the primary, defeating the incumbent senator?
It was sheer hard work and the goodwill of the people of Eket senatorial district. I have a lot of good will and that was displayed during the primary. There are many ingredients that make up a successful story for a female aspirant, but in my own case, I think that what really helped me was that I started my campaign very early. I started consultations around May 2009, because I didn’t have a political structure and I have never contested an election before. So, my early start paid off. By the time other people came, people had already taken their positions with me. It was a well-structured effort. We toured the 12 councils in the state at least three times, we met the party members, met the women, and traditional rulers. And it yielded positive results.
Did you structure it so, knowing that you were going to face an incumbent at the primary?
Three things define incumbency. They are finance, contacts, and popularity. The incumbent had funds and contact but my popularity rating was very strong because of parts I have played in the past. I also have contacts, which might not be as much as she has considering her background. But I know that money is not everything. In politics money goes to a certain extent; it cannot do everything.  I knew my limitations, which was why I opted to start early to cultivate a relationship with the electorate. Am so sure they took her money but the votes were for me.
From your experience during the primary, how do you think the nation can achieve a credible election in April?   
We have to insist on what we want, one man one vote. That’s the only way the popular candidate will win. One man, one vote will serve this country well because the people will be sending forth people they know that will go there and represent them well. I am confident that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will make that dream a reality.
The June 12, 1993 presidential election has continued to be the benchmark and people, wonder if we can have another election like that.
I remembered June 12 because I went out and voted for the late MKO Abiola though I just lost my husband then. The beauty of that election was that the two presidential candidates and Abiola’s running mate were Muslims. It was an election that people really went out and voted. That election showed that if we believe in somebody, it would not matter where the person comes from or his religion. Nigerians have suffered enough from election malpractices. There should be a level playing ground where if people lose, they should know that they were not cheated. People become bitter when they know that they were cheated. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether they were cheated because if the process was not transparent, you may feel you were cheated whereas in actual fact you only lost. But because it was not transparent the winner is usually seen as the beneficiary of a fraudulent process. Transparent elections are crucial to our democracy right now.
Why do you think women have not really had a good deal as far as elective posts are concerned?
Politics has its modalities or processes, and you cannot by-pass the processes. You don’t go in there and you say ‘I am a woman, I need to be given a chance.’ Nobody will give you a chance; you have to earn it. Sometimes women have to work twice as hard because there are certain things that are easier for men than for women. In order to meet the standards, you have to work extra hard. It’s not about gender, a woman has to work hard and earn it in politics.
What will be your focus if you win the senatorial seat?
Eket senatorial district is one of the largest in the country with 12 councils. We also have four ethnic groups. I believe that when people can sit and dialogue, when there is harmony, unity, then progress is assured and sustainable. This has been lacking. I intend to put in place a mechanism that will foster harmony and unity in the senatorial district.
The district also has some distinctive attributes because it is largely riverside. The entire coast of Akwa Ibom is within this district. Being riverine, problems like pollution, erosion and oil pollution are evident. We will need to talk about it and see how we can help the district to alleviate the problems. The issues of unemployment and job creation are very close to my heart. I cannot employ everybody but at least create some jobs that will make some impact. One person employed, the multiplied effects covers about 10 – 20 people.
I see the position of a senator as that of a catalyst, somebody who can generate activities because you are interfacing with colleagues at a level. As such, I believe I will be able to network with my colleagues and other Nigerians at various levels to get issues that may have been hanging resolved. Overall, I believe that it will not just be Eket senatorial district, but Akwa Ibom that will benefit from the good representation that I hope to bring.
Can you talk about your empowerment programs and your philanthropic role?
There is the Esuene foundation, which since 1997 has been giving out scholarships to students within the state in tertiary schools. We have also given to people outside the state. We give out 100,000 every year for science subjects. We give scholarships to orphans who are admitted into the university. The foundation used to hold under-15 youth soccer tournament nationwide.
Any philanthropic work is done out of love, not for publicity or accolades. But politicians tell me that if you don’t blow your trumpet, no one will blow it for you. I have tried to fill some needs whenever I can find.
How do you evaluate your tenures as minister?
As a minister of state for Health, for seven months, I was part of the team that put in place the health service reform and Roadmap for its achievement. I also help to blow the whistle on the bird flu pandemic in Nigeria. I was part of the process that help to convince the government of the need to make the treatment for HIV victims free, as well as a member of the team in Beijing conference that solicited international bodies to fund countries especially developing countries with the pandemic.
As a minister of Environment, Housing and Urban Development for 12 months, I created awareness on the need for integrated waste management, holistic management of our arid lands through Desert-to-Food and Green Wall Sahara Programmes were put on the front burner of government activity and also put a concerted effort on the remediation of oil polluted environment of the Niger Delta Region through the UNDP. I repositioned the Federal Housing Authority for greater service. I toured some of the contaminated areas specifically in Ogoni area. On that tour, I went with the chairman of the House Committee on Environment and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment. I just wanted them to see the seriousness of the situation. More visits were made and the president asked the UNDC, United Nations for a proposal on how to conduct remediation within the Niger Delta and Ogoni areas.
I was in housing before the end of the Obasanjo administration. The major thing was that we presented the building code to the National Assembly and requested that they should go through it and come up with laws that will help the code to be imposed.
What will you do from the Senate about the ecological problems of the Niger Delta?
The Niger Delta is a fragile environment because of its nature. The degradation within the area is enormous and pathetic. Some areas are so degraded that you need a concerted political effort to help out.  When we talk about degradation, we are talking about oil exploitation and it becomes tricky because the government is the major operator with 60 per cent. If the government was not an active participant in the oil exploitation, it would have been easier because then you could set your environmental policy and laws for whoever is coming to Nigeria to exploit and they must comply. The involvement of government makes it tricky and that has been the greatest problem as far as ecological issues and oil exploitation is concerned.
There seems to be an unwritten agreement on rotation and tenure in your district and there are fears that you might not respect the arrangement…
It is a question that has been coming up now and then. When I was consulting my paramount ruler, I made categorical statements. The zoning formula in my senatorial district is such that any federal constituency that wins a Senate seat, the seat will remain in that federal constituency for two terms, and Mrs. Ekaette is from this Federal constituency. When I go there, it would be to complete the second term. I cannot stay beyond that. If that is interpreted to mean that I won’t want a second term, yes, I will not seek a second term.  I respect constituted authority and agreement of this nature.  Also, I don’t really think I need a second term to prove that I can perform or do things for my people; four years is long enough for me to be able to help my people in a few of the things that are happening.
Comment on internal democracy and the trend of imposition of candidates by the parties?
It used to happen in past years where somebody will be declared winner at the primary and later on someone else will be actually upheld as the winner. But this doesn’t augur well for Nigerians or the party. Other parties are contesting the political space with the PDP and if PDP presents an unpopular candidate, the people might vote against the candidate. It is better to allow the popular candidate who won the primary to run the election. If you impose candidates, the PDP will lose. This is the time that the party should show internal democracy stands with conducting primaries in a transparent manner. And since what happens in the elections have direct correlation to what happens during the primaries, when your internal democracy is wrong, and primaries are not transparent, it will affect the elections. People do not want to be disenfranchised. If people for good reason have voted a particular person because they believed the person will represent them well, then let that mandate stand firm, let nothing in Abuja or elsewhere try to meddle with that mandate because it’s going to speak negatively of the party.

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