I was forced into my first marriage and it crashed

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Hon. Binta Masi Garba is currently the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Women Affairs. Until the recent committee reshuffle carried out by Speaker Dimeji Bankole, she was the chairman of the Committee on Inter-parliamentary Affairs, a position which enabled her to visit so many countries of the world, even as a nursing mother.

Binta, as she is popularly called by members of her constituency, has set the record of being the only federal legislator to have so far contested elections in two states as a member of the House of Representatives, having been elected twice in Kaduna before switching over to Adamawa State where she now represents Michika/Madagali Federal Constituency.

Unknown to many, Binta has not always been a political heavyweight. She was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth either. If anything, she knew poverty at a close range, and even hawked bread, groundnut and sugarcane in the barracks. In this interview, she speaks of the challenges of growing up, including the sexual molestation that came with hawking and how she dealt with them. Excerpts

My Name is Binta Masi Garba. I am from Adamawa State, representing Michika/Madagali Federal Constituency here in the National Assembly. I was born over 40 years ago in Kaduna to the family of retired Corporal Garba Tunba and Hajiya Hauwa Masi Garba Tunba. My father had us all in Kaduna and I am the third child from my father and the second child from my mother.
In the place where I come from – Michika, children are named from their mother’s side. So, I’m the second child from my mother’s side and that’s why I was given the name Masi, which means the second female daughter.

I schooled in Kaduna Primary School, Army Children’s School Cantonment D, now in Kaduna North from 1975 to 1981; and from 1981 to 1986, I went to the Government Day Secondary School, Kurmi-Mashi. When I finished in 1986, I was given out in marriage that year, barely at the age of 18. From there, I furthered my education and went to Kaduna Polytechnic, College of Administrative and Business Studies, where I read Marketing and Purchasing. I was in the Marketing Department and finished my National Diploma in 1990. I started work with the New Nigerian Newspapers. First in the advertising department where I worked for about four years. Then, I was later transferred to the marketing department and later returned to the advertising department, before I resigned my appointment in 1998 to veer into politics.

In 1998, I contested on the platform of the National Center Party of Nigeria (NCPN) but did not make it at the polls. Then in 1999, I went into the election and, to God be the glory, I won on the platform of the All Peoples Party (APP) and in 2003, I re-contested on the platform of the same political party which was later changed from APP to ANPP, that is the All Nigerian Peoples Party from 2003 to 2007. Later on in 2007, I had to go back to my home state when the call was too loud that I should come back home in Adamawa State to contest. I had to leave Kaduna for Adamawa state and, to God be the glory, I am now represents Michika/Madagali Federal Constituency in Adamawa State. I’m a mother of three – two girls and a boy. I’m happily married.

What encouraged you to go into politics?
It was mainly owing to the treatment meted out to me in my former place of work – that was the New Nigerian Newspapers. I remember I was employed on grade level 7, step 2 with some of my colleagues. Four years later or thereabout, we were promoted. I was promoted to level 9 step 4 ,while my other colleague was promoted to level 10 and instantly given acting grade level 12 and again posted to be the manager in Bauchi branch.

I couldn’t bear it and I had to ask questions because we had the same CV, from same institution and the same schedules. Why was I given Level 9 and him 10 and acting 12 or is it 12 acting 14 as a manager then. In trying to respond to the issue I raised, the managing director then said, Binta, you are a married woman; your responsibility is not as much as that of a man. But I said the job schedule is the same; why the different levels? I couldn’t bear it. I said no, this is marginalization and the segregation is becoming too much.

To worsen the matter, the next month, I was downgraded to Grade Level 8 and I said no, I won’t take that. Luckily for me, that was when political activities started picking up and I made up my mind to resign and take up the challenge. Furthermore, I said, if Binta as vocal as I am could be treated this way, what about other women that are not as vocal as myself? So, the only thing that I had to do, not only for myself but also for the other women folks out there was to join the wagon of politics and see if we could contest election and go into the legislative house. That way, we can become a voice crying in the wilderness with the belief that someone out there could hears us and say these women need to be given equal opportunity to use their God-given capability to bring about good governance to the people of this good nation. I thank God that, maybe the determination that I have and the will that I was having propelled me to be where I am today and I think, to a large extent, I have been a fighter for the women’s cause.

Given your barracks background, why did you opt for politics and not the military?
Actually, when we were growing up, my father used to sit us down and asked what we wanted to be. I used to say then that I wanted to be a soldier but as an officer and not a member other ranks. And my father would say you can only be an officer if you are in the medical corps or in the communications corps. But when I finished school, I was hurriedly given out in marriage because I finished June 1986 and by December 1986, I was given out in marriage.

Was the marriage against your will?
Yes, it was absolutely against my will and that was why the marriage did not last. At least, it only lasted for a couple of years.

What really happened?
It was based on irreconcilable differences. I think this is the area where I should call on parents to allow their children to make their choice and not parents making a choice for their children because, sometimes, when you push a child out of his/her will, definitely, it will not work. But I think my parents did that purposely, maybe because of the poverty level and they reasoned that if they pushed one out, they would have succeeded in trying to eliminate one mouth to feed. But it’s not a good thing to me and I vowed that I would never interfere in my child or my children’s relationships whatsoever. The most important thing is to allow them make their choices and if you make your choice, you live by your choice. If their choices will bring them happiness and joy, which is the backbone of every successful marriage, why not? It’s unfair for a parent or a mother to insist against the wishes of her children.

You had a humble beginning
Yes, when we were in school, I was from a very, very poor home or to put it the other way, I had a very poor background. My father then was in the military. We grew up in the barracks and things weren’t rosy as at then. I remember vividly that I started hawking at the tender age of nine to 10 or 10 going to eleven. I stopped hawking bread when I was in my final year in secondary school, when we sat for the mock WAEC examination in which I made barely four credits out of eight papers. And I felt that it was time for me to look more focused about the future. Thus, I had to forget about hawking which was meant to sustain the family. I felt I should give myself about, maybe, three, four months to really look inwards into my education pursuit.

Even in secondary school when other ladies were being picked up by their friends in some of the latest cars then, which was Honda Prelude or Honda 86; they would just wave because from Kurmi-Mashi to our house in Ungwar-Shanu, which is part of Kaduna North then, we just went and picked bread.
As at then when I was passing, people would be calling me Binta mai breadi. I used to laugh but, at least, I was happy that, to a large extent, I was trying to help sustain the family or to help my mother to see, at least, that the bulk of the family upbringing pressure could reduce for my mum. I was glad I did because in the process of that, doors were opening as we moved from retail bread selling to distributorship status in Kotoko Barracks then.
That was why I recently told a lady that it is not by standing on the road that will sustain you and your family. Sometimes, it is the little things we see and don’t even consider as important that become the centre point which can now propel us to better things in life. I told her that this Binta you see had sold bread, hawked sugar cane, roasted corn by the roadside, sold groundnut and what have you.

What kept you going in spite of all the difficulties?
What kept me moving on was what my mother told me that suffering does not kill. It would rather fortify you for the future. Today, people might laugh at you or look down on you because you hawk bread. Nobody knows what you will become tomorrow. One thing that kept me going was the silent voice that used to tell me: “Determination brings about possession”. Tomorrow, you might be the person to look back at where you started and you say, indeed, determination, through the help of God, brings about your possession. That is the story of my life.

Were you ever harassed sexually as a child hawker?
Harassment? Yes, I was harassed not once or twice. But, like I have said, it depends on the areas where people harass you. During my hawking days, I didn’t use to hawk alone. Second, the timing again determines. When I was in primary school, I remember vividly that I used to fry bean cakes in the barracks. So, my hawking is within the barracks and not outside the barracks. You know, when you fry bean cakes in the morning, by five o clock you are up and by six o clock you are frying your cake. By 6.30, I was through with the frying of bean cakes or whatever. Thereafter, I would take my bath and go to school.

But, sometimes again, when you go buying the bread, where they normally produce the bread, people will now start touching you and all of that. However, I was one person they used to call tomboy, maybe because I grew up within boys. I don’t used to allow myself get harassed to a large extent because if you started it, the next thing I would do was to shout or cry.
Having said that much, if I say I wasn’t harassed, I lied particularly when I became almost a little more matured and was in secondary school. I saw the harassment becoming too much when I was hawking bread. Later on, my mother took over from me because we stopped going to the producer rather the producer started bringing the bread to us.

Since you came to the National Assembly in 1999 and before you got married, would you say you had it smooth or rough with men?
It depends on how a woman conducts herself in the first place. I have my strong will. But I’m a very liberal person when it comes to interaction with the opposite sex. Again, it depends on the presentation of the woman in the first place. If you don’t conduct yourself in a responsible manner, definitely, men would want to take advantage of you. Maybe, again, because of my upbringing and because of the constituency that I represented in Kaduna State that is Kaduna South. One is the conservativeness of the people. Second, the religious background that I was brought up in made me to know that there is a limit to where you can conduct yourself as a woman because if you try to go contrary to the norms of our culture or religion as a woman, people will give you a negative name tag.
I thank God that, at least, the eight years I have spent in Kaduna State or Kaduna South, if I had not conducted myself reasonably well, I don’t think I would have been given the respect I got from the people of that constituency and Kaduna State in general. So, I think that how people perceive a woman depends on her conduct.

You served Kaduna South for two terms. What was the magic as a woman when other men within the party you belonged to then – ANPP and even PDP that was the ruling party in the state could not make it?
There was no magic. I’ve been telling some of my allies that if you want to aspire politically, you must understand your people and you must align yourself with their needs and aspirations. If you do that, then definitely the sky would be your limit. Everybody believed that Kaduna, especially Kaduna South, was very a troublesome and an uncontrollable constituency. But when I was a member, representing that constituency, I think I had the smoothest ride. One, the people need attention. Two, the people need respect. Three, the people need to be recognised. One other thing I have observed and which has helped me in my day-to-day life is that you must respect people’s opinion, respect their religious belief, respect their traditional belief. Once you have that respect and you don’t look down on the people, definitely that respect will be reciprocated.

I understood Kaduna very well, especially Kaduna South. Don’t tamper with religion. Don’t be biased towards ethnicity. Whatever I do to religion A, I try as much to do to religion B. Kaduna South and North are cosmopolitan city where you have almost diverse cultures and religion. So, you try not to downplay one for another and I think that has really helped me. Even when I went back to Adamawa State, I still used the same tactics I used in Kaduna and I thank God Almighty that it has helped. Even we as leaders, if we could respect one another’s tradition and religion and not castigate one another, I think Nigeria will be better for it.

You’ve served two different constituencies. How would you compare the politics of Kaduna and Adamawa?
Well, Kaduna, is urban, while Adamawa is rural. So, in comparison, there is a sharp contrast. In Kaduna, the people are more enlightened politically; they participate in the political process. In Adamawa, maybe because I’m a new comer in the politics of Adamawa State, I think Adamawa is a little bit difficult, in terms of the powers that be, trying to control the politics of the state. But I always align myself with my constituency. That, I can say with certain level of authority. My people whom I represent now are rural based. Two, they are in a very tight and bad terrain. Third, government presence in the mountainous areas is not adequately felt. So, I think I have more jobs to do in the present constituency than what I did in Kaduna. I’m putting almost four times the effort I put in Kaduna in Adamawa State. I am trying to understand my new environment better.

Why then did you leave Kaduna?
As I told you earlier on, it was not like I left Kaduna. It was the pressure from the people. They said that Madakali had done two terms in the National Assembly and it was the turn of Michika. I think it’s the same political powers that be within Michika Local Government that now agitated that I have the experience. Two, the little I did in Kaduna, was commended and talked about by a many people, and they are very appreciative and that made my people to say, “why don’t you come back home”?
Probably, the people will see a different kind of political game, apart from the traditional one that has been on ground.

So, I didn’t jump to Adamawa from Kaduna. It was the pressure of some people that said I should come to Adamawa. Destiny has its role that it has played on me. The first question I asked when they asked me to come was where do I start; who do I know and moreover, I’m not even in the ruling party and in Adamawa then, PDP was in total control and they still are today. The people said is it Binta from Kaduna, okay we’ve heard what she has done. I think she would be a good material and many people don’t even know me in person. They only know my name. They would say is it not Binta Koji and all those things. I think the little I had done in Kaduna sold me rapidly in Adamawa State.

You were chairman, House Committee on Inter-parliamentary Union. How was the experience?
When I came in 1999, I was a sub-chairman on Infrastructure and a member of the Committee on Appropriation. In 2003, towards the end of 2005, I was the deputy chairman of Anti Corruption and National Values. When we came back, the former Speaker now said Binta, you were to chair the Inter-Parliamentary Committee because you are an old hand that knows Inter-Parliamentary system. I had no option. One, I’m not good at lobbying people to get position. When she called me, I accepted. It takes a lot of my time because when you are in Inter Parliamentary Committee, you are always travelling here and there. I said, I’m just a nursing mother, why don’t you find something that could, at least, keep me home? She said no, that is it and I couldn’t say no to the Speaker. I just took it up. But it has not been easy in that Committee because it’s an inter-parliamentary relationship that you have from your parliament with other parliaments in Africa, Europe and all other continents.

Most of the job is technical. You have to read a lot to keep abreast of happenings in the world and what have you. It has exposed me to a large extent to some parliamentarians outside Nigeria and enabled me to see how their parliamentary procedure works, trying to put it in comparison with ours and it has helped me as a person. Sometimes, when I see some of our colleagues and their behaviours, I tell myself that we are new in this business and we should give ourselves some time. But again, it’s like another challenge to me or we as parliamentarians here in Nigeria when you look at countries lsuch as Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa that just came yesterday and the women are too vocal in their decision making, in their approaches on legislative or parliamentary procedures, vis-à-vis what we are doing in the House as civil women.

But, again, how did they come into the House? They didn’t go through an electoral process like us. It was the party that was voted in before the party started distributing the positions to people within the party. So, it has helped me. It wasn’t easy but I thank God. I had to meet the Speaker when he said all the committees had been dissolved. I said Mr. Speaker, please don’t keep me in Inter-Parliamentary Committee. He said why and I told him that I was tired of travelling. Indeed, I was really tired of travelling.

Again, when they were reshuffling the committees, I never lobbied anybody. I believe that if you know that this person is worth his onions, why don’t you allow the person to work? When they said I should chair the Committee on Women Affairs, I said God has a purpose for it. Maybe He wants me to make another input in that committee.

You have passion for women liberation, what do you intend to make out of it?
Unfortunately, I have been made the Women Affairs Committee Chairman when the Constitution Review Committee had been set up. As I was telling the Speaker and even pleading with him that women should be given a voice. If we are 36 members, talking about affirmative action that we are signatory to, 30 per cent of 36 is how many? He told me that among all the principal officers in the six geopolitical zones, nobody has brought in a woman. But he used the discretion to give four. I said why don’t you make it as the former president, so that each geopolitical zone can be given a slot for a woman as a representative from each of the six geopolitical zones, so that out of the 36, we will have six women to now fight the cause of women in the review of the constitution.

Would that not amount to sacrificing merit for gender?
It’s not sacrificing merit. Even being a member of the House of Representatives is based on merit from your constituency. It is the same struggle. At least, I don’t think anybody has two or three heads better than me. If people feel that I’m not competent enough, they wouldn’t have voted me. At least, I contested against seven men. If I was the only woman that contested against seven men, at least that should be on merit.

That is why I asked the question why you are that powerful?
God has His way of playing the destiny that he has for one in life. If God says Binta, you are going to be in the House in the next 20 years, no man can stop it. I knew many people were against me politically within that area. But when God said it is Binta, nobody could stop it. Like I told you earlier on, I believe in destiny. If God has destined you for something, until you fulfill that destiny, no man can stop it. But when we in the House, for goodness sake, out of 360 members, women are just 26, less than seven per cent. So, I don’t see any big deal when you say out of 36 members in that Constitution Review Committee, why don’t you give six slot to the women, which is less than 10 per cent.

Away from the politics of women, let’s come back to the issue of morality and accountability hovering round the House of Representatives of recent. As a member, are you not disturbed by the issue of purchase of cars? Are you not bothered that as you walk down the street, your people will be looking at you as somebody that is corrupt because of the burden of corruption hovering round the House of Reps?
The allegation going around is unfortunate because the public is entitled to know the truth. Second, whoever is giving out information should give out information that is not biased. Third, those cars are not meant for personal use. They are meant for committee use. The clients that brought in the car testified that this is the amount of money with which the cars were purchased. I think some people have gone further to now write the EFCC. I think they should leave it for the EFCC to make its investigation or what have you. As a parliamentarian, I feel embarrassed and I feel pained because there is this Hausa adage that says: “One beans normally spoils the whole”. When I was in Lagos and they came to pick me up in a National Assembly car, we were in a traffic hold up and when the car wanted to move, somebody would shout ole! I felt slighted and I felt pained.

These are legislators and parliamentarians that need to be respected. But here we are, being looked down upon and there is no atom of respect for that office called House of Representatives. So, it pains me the more. But I’m one person that cannot jump into a conclusion, until I see the facts on ground. If this thing is true, why don’t we find a way out of it? I stand by truth and whoever you are, if I know the truth, I will never compromise on the truth. That is who Binta is. I’m very blunt, I’m very open and I’m very transparent. I don’t compromise on my integrity. But it’s unfortunate that members are being looked down on even right now. We’ve been coming from one crisis to the other and I think it’s high time we got to the roots of the matter, because whatever impression you give to the public, that is what the public will take. This one will come and say this is what happened; the next person will come and say something else. It’s not going to take us anywhere.

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