Interview: I NEVER USED GOVT MONEY TO FUND WOTCLEF – Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar
Unlike numerous other pet projects of wives of political office holders which fizzle out when their husbands leave office, Chief Mrs Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar, wife of the former vice president of Nigeria, has kept her vision and passion for the less privileged alive.
Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) was established as her pet project when her husband was in office. Ten years after leaving office, the Foundation has remained functional and continues to offer assistance to trafficked women, children and others at risk of being trafficked, abused and exploited. WOTCLEF’s rehabilitation centre for trafficked and vulnerable women and children is one of the few centres run by non-governmental organisations in Nigeria.
Her Excellency, Chief Mrs Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar, the wife of the former Vice President of Nigeria was born in Lagos on June 6, 1950. She had her primary education in Lagos and secondary education at St Mary’s Catholic Grammar School Iwo in Osun State. She obtained her Higher National Diploma (HND) certificate in Catering and Hotel Management from the famous Kaduna Polytechnic in 1983.
Due to her exceptional performance, she was offered automatic employment as a lecturer in the same institution where she taught for ten years. Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration and a Masters Degree in Business Administration both from the University of Abuja.
She undertook a specialist course in Hotel Management at the Scuola International de Science Turistiche Roma, Italy under the auspices of the World Tourism Organisation and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was while she was in Italy that she came across women, especially Nigerian women, in their prime abusing their bodies through prostitution. At first, she thought that these were some wayward women giving Nigeria a bad image. On enquiry however, she learnt that the women were deceived and brought to Italy by some unscrupulous men and women and forced into prostitution.
While agonising over the plight of these women, she said God inspired a vision in her that she would one day be in a position to help such women and others at risk.
Dream Come True
The opportunity presented itself in 1999 when her husband became the Vice President of Nigeria. She remembered her vision and established the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) as a not-for-profit, non governmental organisation registered under Nigerian law with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
She used the WOTCLEF platform to sensitise Nigerians on the detrimental effects of human trafficking not only on its victims but on the image and security of Nigeria as a country. Through WOTCLEF, several thousands of trafficked women and children and others in situations of abuse and exploitation have been rescued, rehabilitated and reintegrated into their communities. She has also continued to provide educational sponsorship to many vulnerable and indigent children in primary, secondary and tertiary institution.
A significant milestone in the work of WOTCLEF was the enactment of the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act 2003 and the subsequent establishment of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffick in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) which has today become a model anti-trafficking agency in Africa.
Chief Mrs Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar is a recipient of numerous awards and titles. In 2003, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) appointed her as a partner in the crusade against child illiteracy. Other honours include: Paul Harris Fellow of the Rotary International; Merit Award from the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) and the Woman of Excellence Award 2003 from Dublin, the Republic of Ireland. In the year 2002, she was honoured with the Nigerian Woman of the year awarded by Dame International. She was also crowned Queen of the Nigerian Youths in 2004 by the Patriotic Youths of Nigeria, a group of young Nigerian Professionals. She was awarded the First Lifetime Award 2010 by a German based organisation, the Great Africa Network for Women, in recognition of her work in promoting the dignity of trafficked women and children. The All African Students Union has also recognised her with the 2010 Kwame Nkrumah Leadership Award. In appreciation of her pioneering efforts in the fight against human trafficking in Nigeria, especially in the sponsorship of the bill that established NAPTIP, Chief Mrs Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar was honoured with an award by NAPTIP in 2009.
In an exclusive interview with ‘LADIPO-SANUSI, Mrs Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar recently spoke on her passion for the fight against trafficking, how WOTCLEF, her pet project is being financed even when her husband was Nigeria’s vice president, challenges on the path of this noble goal, her unrelenting effort at breeding responsible future for young girls, family institution and other sundry issues.
“I NEVER USED GOVT MONEY TO FUND WOTCLEF”
What were you doing before your husband, His Excellency Atiku Abubakar became the vice president?
I was married to my husband in 1969. As a young customs officer, he had worked in so many places. Idi-Iroko, Apapa, Kano, Maiduguri, Ibadan, Kaduna, etc. When he met me, I was just finishing school and he was absolutely ready for me. When I took him home, my mother refused bluntly. For her, she had heard of Northerners from Kano, Kaduna and not from a place like Gongola (now Adamawa state). Even though my husband promised he would ensure I went to school and do everything for me; no member of my family was ready to let me go with a Northerner. In fact, it was like a tug of war. In the whole of Lagos, when they heard that I, a Yoruba girl, wanted to marry a far Northerner, it sounded like a taboo.
As fate would have it, we got married and I went to Kaduna Polytechnic where I did a certificate course in Hotel and Catering Management. Shortly after, I had my diploma and higher diploma also in Kaduna after which I became a lecturer in the same polytechnic for 10 years. I became a wife, mother and teacher.
What actually convinced you to marry your husband since he was such a stranger to your people then?
I was convinced by his promise to take proper care of me.
What inspired you to establish WOTCLEF?
When I was a lecturer at the Kaduna Polytechnic, as a mother, a teacher and a sister, I was inquisitive whenever I noticed that most of the ladies looked spent. When I asked, some of them would say that they went to Rome to pray. I had to spend extra time following them up, so that they could catch up with what I was teaching them. Between 1986/1987, I went for a course in Tourism and Hotel Management in Rome. When I landed in Rome, I observed that all those with the green passport were taken to a different bus to immigrations. They had a separate line and were the last to be checked. It never occurred to me that there was a reason until I got to town and saw many black girls on the streets of Rome in skimpy clothes. I later found out that they were mostly Nigerian girls.
I was told that the Italian old men were randy and needed their (the girls’) services. I was told that some Nigerian women brought these girls to Rome under the guise of greener pastures. They deceived the girls that they were coming to become English lecturers in Rome. They painted a beautiful picture of picking the Lira (now Euro) from the ground and made them go through rituals, using their pubic hair, menstrual flow mixed in gin to drink under a secret oath that all their proceeds from the “job” would be for the madams at least for a period of 10 years after which they (girls) become independent. The madams, I learnt, facilitated their visas and then seized all the documents, kitted them up in skimpy clothes to do prostitution. If the girls refused to obey these madams, they get burnt, thrown down from a high place and subjected to all forms of brutality. These madams were mean.
I was really touched, and I made up my mind that if, one day, I found myself in a position to do something about this, I would do it with all my might. Can you see that there is power in the tongue? In 1999, May 29th to be precise, when my husband became the vice president, I remembered I had a covenant with God and it rang a bell in my heart to remember that I must do something about those trafficking victims. October 1, 1999, I formed WOTCLEF (Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation). Immediately, I had a three-day workshop. The venue was jam-packed with governors’ wives, local government chairmen’s wives, civil society organisations, stakeholders. The workshop went well.
Surprisingly, many mothers in the hall claimed they were hearing human trafficking for the first time. All evidences shown to them were like fairy tales. Just as we concluded the workshop, our girls were sent back to Nigeria. In fact, 70 of them were sent back to the country with 140 policemen. The girls were hardened and very reluctant; they were forced back. They disembarked at Lagos and news went round that someone has placed a searchlight on trafficking. These girls were taken to a police station in Lagos. They all tested positive to HIV/AIDS.
Sadly, they travelled with false names. But I requested for them, gathered them and gave them succour. I rehabilitated about 30 of them that came to WOTCLEF. As at now, WOTCLEF has counseled over 6,000 boys and girls. I gave some of them micro finance. Many became self employed. Every one of them was settled accordingly. It will interest you to know that the Aso Rock Villa was the first place I camped these returnees because I had no shelter for them. I did my best to nurture them. A kind-hearted Nigerian gave us a place at Wuse Zone 2. It was an uncompleted property. So, we sourced for funds and made the place comfortable for the girls.
We travelled far and near to get our boys and girls rescued from labour and trafficking. We went as far as Gabon to open an office. Once they were rescued, we put them in schools – primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. In 2000, the Nigerian government went to Palermo and the United Nations heard of WOTCLEF and wrote, inviting me to speak. I went with Alhaji Sule Lamido, former Jigawa state governor, to present a paper. When I returned, I knew the fight against trafficking must be faced squarely. So, I called some stakeholders and tabled everything. There was a need to put a law against trafficking in place.
Her Excellency Justice Mary Odili, then wife of the Rivers State governor chaired the committee set up to put the law together. It got to the National Assembly and passed through all necessary legislative processes. We did not sit down. We lobbied and at the end, the bill saw the light of the day. From the former President Olusegun Obasanjo to the then senate president, Senator Pius Anyim, to the common man on the streets; this was a move forward. President Olusegun Obasanjo was particularly interested because whenever he went to a foreign country, the embarrassing questions he got were often about what he was doing concerning the Nigerian girls who were prostitutes abroad.
The National Assembly invited me and so many questions were thrown at me. I am glad that eventually the bill was passed and signed into law. It was as a result of the law that the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and other Related Matters (NAPTIP) was established. That bill was the very first private bill to be passed into law. Since then, people have asked me to rest. But I have a passion to go forward still. That is why even when my husband is no longer in office, WOTCLEF is still alive. One thing I want to stress is that I never used government money to fund WOTCLEF. I am doing this so that WOTCLEF will outlive me.
With all these efforts, what do you think still attracts victims of trafficking to Europe?
It is not really the young persons’ faults but the madams’. They often deceive the victims and paint a rosy picture. They deceive even graduates, for instance, they make them believe that they will become English lecturers when they get to Rome. They tell them they will do many lucrative jobs. They will never let them know about prostitution. Eventually, some of them go through dangerous routes- deserts, oceans and many unthinkable experiences.
How far has WOTCLEF translated your dream of fighting for the rights of women and children?
I am really happy for WOTCLEF so far because it is a dream come true. It is one thing to have a dream; it is another thing for it to be actualised. When I first knew about trafficking, it was an eye opener for me. Good enough, I was later in a position where my voice could be heard and I did all I could. I travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria creating awareness.
For having partners who are still interested, for NAPTIP to be established, for a bill to be passed into law by the National Assembly to penalise offenders; my dream has come true. Most importantly, WOTCLEF is still waxing stronger and stronger. In the comity of countries, WOTCLEF is recognised. For instance in ECOSOC council in the United Nations, it is a voice for women.
How is WOTCLEF funded?
God is on our side. The Board of Trustees (BoT) helps WOTCLEF and some public-spirited Nigerians too. But since NAPTIP was created, people think WOTCLEF is a branch of it. And many just don’t look at WOTCLEF again.
What are the major challenges facing WOTCLEF?
First on the list is finance, then the political terrain. As you know, I am out of office. I don’t have the boldness to start travelling the length and breadth of the country. Moreover, it will look like a conflict with the programme of those in authority. Another challenge is culture and tradition. It is a pity that children’s rights are not often respected and some states are yet to pass the Child Rights Act (CRA). For instance, under-age girls are still being given out in marriage. This will only leave the girl child with VVF, depressed and useless eventually. You can imagine if this cycle continues on and on. Our police still need a lot of re-orientation on adoption, abuse, abandonment. There should be a child court to iron out a lot of things, and for them to be handled professionally. The traditional rulers are supposed to be custodians of our culture. There should be proper education so that a boy child should not be given preference over the girl child. The girl child should not be pushed into marriage. It makes her docile, loses her dignity and feels useless to her self and society.
Today, the family institution has degenerated. How has this affected the society and what remedy do you suggest to get our family values back?
The family institution must break down when mothers especially don’t care about the home any more. Rather they go about chasing money. It is sad to tell you that most parents don’t know what their children are doing in schools – the friends they are keeping and their lifestyle. Most young people live a life that is far too expensive. Female children keep sugar daddies. We have heard incredible stories of ritual killings while on a mission to acquire material things. As parents and especially mothers, we should really be connected with our children at all times. The family is really dysfunctional; we must be up and doing. In this age of technology, only God can save us. So, we should keep calling on God for help.
As a fashionable woman, what is fashion to you?
Am I fashionable? Well, I dress and wear what befits me. I don’t go with the trend. I like to be simple. I’m not fashion crazy. I wish to advise everyone that dressing decently all the time is fashionable.
What are your likes and dislikes?
I like honesty, transparency, truthfulness. I like the cause I’m fighting. I dislike dishonesty.
What are your immediate future plans?
I don’t want to see ladies on the streets as prostitutes. In years to come, I wish for total reduction if not eradication of this undignified act. I wish there would be no child labour and abuses. Children that are abused become miscreants in the society. If people need help, they should engage them meaningfully. They can go to National Directorate of Employment (NDE) to engage their services and not abuse them in form of child labour.
Goodwill Message to Women
I thank all women for the good work they are doing. We should all be responsible so that the children can look up to us and learn morals. We will hand over the baton of leadership to them. We should therefore be good examples. We should mentor good wives and mothers.