An alumnus of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST) now Rivers State University (RSU), Port Harcourt, Dame Judith Amaechi, who hails from Enugwu-Ukwu in Njikola Local Government Area of Anambra State, is the wife of Transportation Minister, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, a former Governor of Rivers State, who is an indigene of Ubima in Ikwerre LGA of the state. The ex-First Lady of Rivers State, in this interview with our Bureau Chief in Port Harcourt, BISI OLANIYI and FAITH YAHAYA, speaks about her relationship with a former Rivers Governor, Dr. Peter Odili, what motivated her to establish a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), the Empowerment Support Initiative (ESI), and the face-off between her husband, and the incumbent Governor of Rivers State, Chief Nyesom Wike, among other issues. Excerpts:
How was it, while you were growing up, considering the fact that you lost your mother at a very tender age?
I have never been asked this question in my life. I was privileged and it is a great opportunity to have grown up in a house of one of the most wonderful women I have ever met on earth, with her husband. She was everything to me. As a mother, she did the best and gave me the best of education. For me, it was just okay, while growing up.
Will it be correct to say that you had silver spoon in your mouth, while growing up?
Not quite. I grew up in a house where education was the main bane of sustenance for them. They believed so much in education. They also taught us discipline and morals. I will not say I was looking for food to eat, but I know that I had challenges, when sometimes there would be nothing, as much as children who were more privileged, but I just grew up in a normal house. My parents were both teachers and maybe civil servants.
You got married in 1993 to Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, who was then the Special Assistant on Students’ Affairs to the then Governor of Rivers State, Chief Rufus Ada-George. How did he meet you? How did he propose to you and what was your reaction?
Oh, my goodness! Whaoooooo! We met for the first time in a wedding at Elekahia (Port Harcourt). Then I was still a JAMBITE, having been admitted to the then Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), now Rivers State University (RSU), Port Harcourt, where I was studying Urban and Regional Planning, and I later graduated by God’s grace and mercy, with Bachelor of Technology.
While still a JAMBITE at RSUST and quite young, during the wedding, he greeted and talked to me. He later asked for my name and address in the course of the discussion. I was very suspicious. So, I gave him a wrong name and address.
How did you eventually reconnect?
I did not meet him again until one day he caught me up in Port Harcourt, after about three years. He said he was going to drop me off, but I did not want to take him to my destination. I did not realise that he was then living very close to me at Elekahia Housing Estate. He then took me to my house and he waited for me to enter the house, but he used the opportunity to inform me that he was the person I earlier gave a wrong name and address. He then said I could not trick him anymore, since he had known my house and that was the beginning of the journey of a lifetime.
During courtship and when we eventually got married, he was very nice. He was more like an elder brother and a father to me. He was always treating me so kindly. He taught me a lot of things. He was a very patient person and he was willing to allow me grow.
After knowing my house, he was visiting occasionally and would also call me up. Then, perhaps, I was not too much of a knowledgeable person, in terms of the worldview and relationship. While going to fellowship, he would drop me off. He was then working.
Since he was then working and you were schooling, was he always spoiling you with gifts and cash?
I did not realise that I had needs and it was not really that kind of relationship. He was not that kind of person. He was more like personal interaction between us. It was like two persons who just wanted to talk to each other. It was not like that kind of relationship of spoiling a lady with gifts or cash. I actually did not have that kind of interest at all. He was just keeping up with me. He was actually a very good and understanding person and I would also not joke with my studies and fellowship.
Besides his intellect, kindness, care and being handsome, what actually attracted him to you?
I just liked him and I still like him. Then, I did not think about relationship with him, but with time, we became much closer. It is just like when you see someone for the first time, something just clicks and you can get along with the person.
What of the insinuation that he met you while you were with a former Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili, and his wife, Justice Mary Odili, now of the Supreme Court?
I did not know anything about his (Amaechi’s) political inclination. That is the truth. Dr. Peter Odili is an indigene of Ndoni in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers State, where my mother hailed from. It is just mere coincidence. I met him (Amaechi) as any young girl would meet a young man and somehow, he had interest in me. He is a very kind person, with a giving nature and he always wants to help people. He does not bother about material things.
I remember telling him (Amaechi) in the early days that the Lord Jesus Christ was looking for people like him, especially with his good nature, charitable heart and always wanting to help people, because I saw God’s gifts in him and that how great it would have been, if he could be much closer to God and to be attending fellowship. He is always parting with his money and material things, and he would not mind giving out everything he had, because I was watching him closely.
I always like to evangelise and attend fellowship. As days rolled by, I saw someone who was really selfless. To be honest, having my kind of background, because it was my auntie that brought me up, with a knack for education and also very kind, catering for other people’s children. So, he suited me, to be honest and I felt that I was in a very good hand.
At times, he would sit me down then, telling me that I was juvenile in my thinking and my ways, insisting that life was not like that. He taught me a lot of things that shaped my life, but very personal, which I will not reveal.
I met Dr. Peter Odili then without knowing who he was. Prior to meeting Dr. Odili, I was already in the relationship (with Amaechi). It is not true that Dr. Odili or his wife introduced me (to Amaechi). Never. He met me like every other man would meet a lady. In fact, he was not even introducing me to anybody and he decided not to take me to any of his bosses or friends, until much later.
How is your relationship now with the Odilis, considering what later happened, when your husband was the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly and eventually the governorship aspirant and later candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2007, before the party’s ticket was given to his kinsman, Sir Celestine Omehia, from the same Ubima in Ikwerre LGA, because of K-leg, while Dr. Odili was Rivers governor and presidential aspirant on PDP’s platform, with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, then of PDP, as President?
To be very honest, we have never held anything against the Odilis. My husband and I have always seen them as our parents. I really do not know their own opinion. One of my children, who is taking the course-line of Dr. Odili (medicine), would always say that he was inspired by the Odilis, but I know that sometimes, people can read meanings to things. My husband is always having respect for the Odilis.
For the first time, I will voice out something that most people do not know about my husband. He respects authority and his bosses. When you have ever been useful to him in his life, he will never try to harm you, talk nonsense about you, bring you down or tries to disrespect you. He is like that. Sometimes, I would feel upset with him and I would tell him that someone was hitting him hard and dealing with him, but he would just remain calm, but he would respond that as long as the person was part of his success, it would not be nice of him to wake up in the morning and abuse the person. He would prefer to let the person be, adding that if God wanted it to happen like that, so be it, but let it not be that he would be the one that would be found wanting.
I remember when I got married to him, he was always very busy, always going out and he was fond of saying, ‘my boss and my Oga’. One day, he told me that one thing he wanted me to do was to take Dr. Odili as my father and that for whatever it might be or whatever inconveniences it might cause me, he would never do anything to go against him or things that would hurt him.
Sometimes, I would hear rumours but I would rather toe the positive side of life, I would rather spend my energy listening to good news and that is what my Bible advises me to do. Rather than sitting down, talking down on people or listening to bad things that some people would want to say. How do you progress in life when all you do is to listen to gossips and act on them? My husband does not take things to heart.
My husband and I will never go against the Odilis. I do not think anybody has ever heard me or my husband criticise or say anything negative about the Odilis. I believe it is a political problem. My husband sees politics like sport but unfortunately, some people take it beyond sport. The only time I can take it beyond sport is when someone is threatening my life. At that point, I would simply ask my God to handle the person.
In the second term of your husband being the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly, in the days of K-leg in early 2007, he relocated to Ghana and you moved with your children to the United States of America, but your husband’s kinsman, Sir Celestine Omehia, was inaugurated as governor on May 29, 2007, instead of your husband, who decided to go to court, with the matter ending at the Supreme Court, which gave a landmark judgment on October 25, 2007, sacking Omehia and your husband was inaugurated as governor the next day, making you to become the First Lady of Rivers State. How was the experience?
That is one moment I really do not always like to remember, but in all, God is faithful. To be very honest, it was a fine moment because it just came suddenly and I could not believe that we were in that position. Me and my children were in one room and we were separated from him (Amaechi) for so long and we were moving from one house to another. He was in Ghana, while the children and I stayed in three overseas countries.
We had horrifying experiences. The first nasty experience we had was losing all our passports and my bag at Atlanta. I felt somebody deliberated picked up the bag, because they later saw the person on Closed Circuit Television (CCTV). At the Atlanta airport, I told God to have mercy on us. At every moment, I could see the glory and the hand of God. When our passports got lost, it was normal for them to ask us to go back and re-organise, but they allowed us. We reported to the immigration and they allowed us to continue our journey because we had not reached our destination in the United States of America.
We were not heading for USA because we just wanted to go there, we decided to leave Port Harcourt because the political scene became so mean and our lives were hunted for. We were not safe. My husband never believed in children being out of Nigeria. He always believed that we should be in Nigeria since Nigeria is our country and we should stay and struggle it out. Moreover, it prepares someone for tough times as well but for some reasons, we had to just leave Nigeria because we needed to be alive.
Therefore, we started going through the ordeal of not having anything (money and other needed items) with us. We just left Nigeria and my children had to abandon school in Nigeria. Before then, my children had started having series of attacks in the school. When we left and we had that unpleasant experience at Atlanta airport, it was really depressing. I want to really thank God because it was a terrible moment that I do not always like to remember. We are still alive by the special grace and mercy of God.
In the USA, we stayed in a friend’s house and the four of us stayed in one room. I had to stay with them because they were children then. We stayed downstairs, where the room was, close to the living room. From there, we had to move to London and we later moved to another country, but our passports were lost. We were just trying to stay safe.
I do not want to go into details of what we passed through and everything that happened. Most times, we would see the people who were chasing us. They would either send their family members or agents to be on our trail. Immediately we sighted them, we would run because we did not have any form of security other than God.
We did not do anything to the persons who wanted to kill us but they felt that my husband was a threat to their ambition. So, we had to stay away from Nigeria. In the USA, initially, we were staying in a hotel, but it got to a point that we could no longer afford it because everything was not planned. My businesses in Nigeria were there, but what we were thinking about first then was safety. Something interesting was that my kids were so good. They did not make me feel down and out.
In the one room in USA, me and my last son would sleep in the room. We got a mattress for my two other sons to sleep with on the floor of the living room or they might use the foams of the chairs, with one toilet. We all managed it and we continued to pray. My last son prayed a prayer that I believed that God really answered but I will not disclose his special prayer. My other sons also prayed.
People would say what they wanted to say. Whenever I wanted to speak with my husband in Ghana from USA, I would move into the room, but the children would wonder what I was hiding when everything could be found in Google. That was my first time of knowing that the things were in Google.
There was a day that my last son knelt down and prayed on what we were passing through, especially the challenges his daddy was facing, but I will not disclose his special prayer to the members of the public, but the then small boy prayed to God and God answered his prayer.
Something miraculous also happened. Throughout the period we were in the USA, we were living like king’s children, because people that I did not know from Adam would send us big money and sometimes passports. My husband too would send to us the money he could afford, telling me that our children and I must be going through hell because it was a very challenging period, considering how he was surviving in Ghana, the court cases in Nigeria and the lawyers’ fees to pay. I saw the very strong hand of God.
When some people behave the way they are behaving these days, I would just laugh because when I remembered the Egypt, I would simply give thanks to God. While in the USA, my children and I became the envy of people around us, because they saw God in action especially for divine provision and protection.
In difficult times, God would always show His children mercy and favour.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was Nigeria’s President in the days of K-leg, but while your husband was Governor of Rivers State and Chief Obasanjo was out of office, he visited Rivers State and he was lavishly hosted by your husband and he inaugurated and inspected many capital-intensive projects of the administration. What was your reaction then, to the eventual reconciliation?
I did not see anything wrong with the later reconciliation. People were then struggling for power and they might have gone to the extreme. We never went to the extreme. I knew that God would certainly vindicate us and give us victory. I will rather make heaven than sit back here and dwell on the wickedness that happened. I will never be part of wickedness.
If anybody came back and said he was misunderstood and he did not know the truth then, why not embrace reconciliation?
When I saw former President Olusegun Obasanjo in Government House, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, when my husband was governor, honestly, I was very happy and I thanked God that finally, the truth was in the open.
No greater joy than having the joy of reconciliation, especially when it is genuine, not the one that is fake. I learnt something from my husband that it was always better for someone to be the victim, than to be the one that would be unleashing the evil, in order to be able to sleep well and have a clear conscience, no matter the situation. Above everything you are doing on earth today, there is an answer you have to give someday in our lives and I will not want to be remembered for evil. I want to be remembered for good.
Sometimes, interests matter. People too also gossip to leaders. My husband would always fight for people with all his heart, strength and everything he has, without thinking about the benefits, but some people are not like that. To them, it is all about themselves and themselves alone.
Some people might have gossiped to the then President Obasanjo about my husband, hoping to jam their heads, for Dr. Peter Odili and my husband not to get what they were then looking for (presidency and governorship respectively). The gossipers would meet big and small Ogas (bosses), telling them different stories, just to cause confusion or disaffection.
What is your foundation about?
I have something that I call a passion and the name is Empowerment Support Initiative (ESI). It was founded on the 16th of October, 2008 and it was launched by the then First Lady, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua.
What is the foundation about and did you go into it because it is a trend with women whose husbands hold political positions?
The organization was born out of a passion. The passion is dated as far back as even before I became the wife of the Speaker. I l have always wanted to help people as a person maybe by virtue of the position I have found myself. Even from my house, we have always had people coming to us with one need, burden or desire and for some reasons, except you have a stony heart, you would just find yourself giving and finding solutions but beyond that, I lost my mum quite early and I have sympathy for people who are orphans. I have that soft spot for them having being through some of those traumas as well and luckily for me, I had a great opportunity. A wonderful woman and her husband brought me up and gave me the best and for me, I take it as an opportunity and that opportunity is what I want to give to everybody that I come across, especially when they are less privileged. I could have been different if I didn’t have the opportunity but I did and see me now. So, the passion didn’t start because I became a governor’s wife or speaker’s wife. It was born out of the circumstances I found myself in and then having married my husband, I just found it very interesting to carry on because he is someone that is selfless and generous. It was a dream fulfilled because I met a partner who was really there to reach out to the needy. He had so much compassion in him too. I love reaching out and I believe that if every child or every human is given an opportunity, they will make the best out of life and the world will be a better place to live in.
How do you reach out?
I don’t believe that calling people together and giving them food to eat, giving them rice or wrapper is an empowerment. Teaching them constructively how to use their talents or how to use their hands to do something that would sustain their living is a form of empowerment to me and then probably giving them a backup to that which they have learnt . I believe empowering them through skills would take them off the street and off your burden as well. For me, that is what I do whenever I find myself in a circle of the less-privileged. I never would have been the governor’s wife but God decided to promote my husband and I found myself again in another privileged position and it was a tough one and I think I had to make some covenant to be able to get to where I am. Part of the idea for ESI came when I travelled abroad and I saw where women were producing garments in quantities and I sat down in the company for like three hours. Nobody knew why I was there but I was amazed at how about 300 people were sitting down and producing. I became very inquisitive and I asked lots of questions and something in me said this can be done in my country and in my state in particular. When I came on board as the governor’s wife, I brought people together to actualize the idea. I looked at our state then and militancy was the order of the day and luckily for me, my husband is one man who is very much inclined to education. So I said to myself, if they are already convincing young children in primary school to go into carrying arms and being vulnerable to doing the bidding of the so called well-to-do, then I said the best thing I can do to address it is to go to the nursery school because the formative age of a child is between age 0-9 and when you guide a child at that age, the child becomes near perfection.
You hardly hear of children within that age drop out of school, so you would have opened that child’s horizon to becoming a better person in future. I then asked what to do and to be honest, it was just God’s brilliant idea because I didn’t know how it came about. I always say that when you have a dream, you need God to bring it to fruition and God used a man from Bayelsa, who is now late. The nursery school idea came and I felt if we follow the idea, we would give the children a sense of direction and avoid majority of the vices that we are finding ourselves suffering from today. I have also noticed that in Nigeria and in my state, all we do is amendment. Why wait for a human being to get to age 18 before we start thinking of how to make that person’s life more useful? Why not key in on that child’s age when he is very young and needs some sort of direction and I used to use a phrase; ‘catching them young’. When you catch them young, you can make or mar them.
As I started having outreaches, I asked the elites where their kids were and those who had kids below age 9 said they were in nursery or primary school and I asked why they didn’t keep their children at home? I asked because it was the problem in the rural areas; children were not in school for some reasons; either they were not exposed or they lacked the wherewithal to get basic education. Now, how do you get a mother in the village who does not have any money to convince her that her children should go to school and remember, she does not know what education is all about? How do you make her child go to school and expose the child to seeing the values of being in school and how do you convince a child who is not exposed that carrying arms and engaging in other crimes are not right? So, from that tender age, you instill morals in them by way of education and give them a brighter hope for tomorrow because when a woman is vulnerable, anyone who is rich and into all the vices like militancy can easily give the woman N10,000 and being someone who has never seen N100, she will easily do whatever the rich man tells her to do.
It is for me very important that every child be given an opportunity to go to school and then leave the rest to God.
How many nursery schools have you established?
We have over 37 nursery schools in Rivers State and we hope to expand to other parts of the country.
How much does it cost to train a child in the nursery school?
One child used to cost me N36,000 per term and N108,000 per year when the foreign exchange was okay.
Why are the schools located in Niger Delta?
I started the school project from Niger Delta because I was concerned about our people because all we hear is militancy and it is not true. Majority of us are not into that at all and we also wanted the agitation to stop. We wanted to create an enabling environment and opportunities that would make us get out of that negative image.
Why did you decide to go into skill acquisition centre?
I decided to empower people with skills because people come to my house to ask for help but the truth is this, how many people can I help? There is also this feeling in Nigeria that just because it is government, it should run down. But it is wrong. I think at the individual level , we must take the responsibility of trying to shape our people’s lives and giving them the right norms and values so that at the end of the day, they will see government as not just “use and dump” or it is “our fathers right”. I ensured that the centre was handled by a professional because not everybody wants to go to school. We have about 92 skills and nine faculties and we work with people who would give the best. I believe if you have the best hands as trainers, the trainees would come out to be the best too.
How many people would you say you have reached out to since the foundation was launched?
For the nursery schools, we are clocking over 4000 children because every year we graduate pupils and it has not been easy between 2015 and 2017 but we are still moving on. For the skills, we try not to do more than 300 every session because it is very expensive to train them but I cannot get the proper data right now.