Dr. Joe Okei Odumakin is not all about activism. Like all women, she also believes in love and all the good things that emanate from it.
In this exclusive interview with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, the amazing dynamite shared her love story with us as well as what has kept her and her activist husband, Mr. Yinka Odumakin going.
The interview held inside her beautiful office in Omole, Ikeja, Lagos on Tuesday, January 16, 2018. By the way, she never failed to inform us both unequivocally and categorically that activism is her life. Enjoy…
First, what got you interested in activism?
Growing up, my mum, as a princes; I watched her settling quarrels and then my father, as a top civil servant; when I went to his office to collect money and other things. Initially, I wanted to be a nun, a Reverend Sister, because my parents were staunch Catholics…
Okay, you were born a Catholic?
Are you still a Catholic?
(Smiling) No. Also, Father Kennedy and Sister Tiren, I just liked them; I just wanted to be married to Jesus. Later when my dad was in the UK, my mom then told him and he said he had disowned me. So, I went to tell the Reverend Father. He said he’s your earthly father, if he disowns you, the one that is important that will not disown you is the one in heaven. So, when my dad came back, he said young girl, do you still want to be a nun; you don’t want to procreate, I will not only disown you, I will also publish your obituary, I’m going to put it in The Observer newspapers. So, after I cried and everything, I continued with my school, my A-levels, Kwara State College of Technology, Ilorin. After that, I went to University of Ilorin. So, one day, one lecturer discovered that somebody had high marks in her test and called my matriculation number and I went to see her. She said, are you not the one called Reverend Sister? Why Reverend Sister? I said ah, ah…she said are you a stammerer? Be bold! Someone that passed my test should be bold. So, I said well, I want to be married to Jesus. So, she said have you read so, so books? I was given a book to read and one quotation changed my life. And that’s from Martin Luther King that says ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’. So after that; that was what changed everything.
What is your own personal definition of activism?
My personal definition of activism is being a change agent, influencing one’s world. Although change has been bastardized, but when one is a change agent, one will see his or herself as a carrier, of such and one will become the message. People are seen unconsciously, they become role models and when you see this person, he will always stand for truth, he is a transparent person. Who will look at the life of Gani Fawehinmi, who will look at the life of Wole Soyinka, who will look at the life of Pastor Tunde Bakare and won’t be affected? So, unconsciously, they’ve been identified. Our people are very lazy in reading. So, we don’t need to go and keep acquiring books and books. So, when one is seen, one’s life is studied. When I’m seeing you off now, you will see the portraits of some of the people that have influenced my life and through them I’ve been able to impact positively on other people’s lives. So, it’s the ability to change, influence, either consciously or unconsciously.
What do you like most about being an activist?
Putting smiles on the faces of people.
What don’t you like about being an activist?
(Hmmm) What I don’t like about being an activist is agonizing. When you see people that can even influence, they keep agonizing, oh this is bad, oh no, this can’t happen. But if we continue to agonize and agonize, if we do not organize, if we do not act, it will be like the barber’s chair, motion without movement. There must be movement. It’s not only movement, we should also not become arm chairs… It’s not the best. There must be that movement.
What is the greatest thing that activism has done for you?
Activism has made me, wherever I go to, people reciprocate, people will thank me; not only thanking me, people celebrate me. Almost all my flights, I fly economy. I will just go, but by the time I am going in, it’s either the pilot announces it or one air hostess will come and then when I’m moving around, people will say oh, let me have a shot with you; oh, thank you for all you’ve done. When people see me…in fact, before I saw you, I went for a programme, then I went into the bank. People were just appreciating me. So many things. No, you are not supposed to be on queue. At times when I move, anywhere I go to, I must see people, even the young ones that know and admire me. Most of the time I celebrate my birthday in a secondary school and I was almost weeping when the Head Boy in one of these schools said please tell me you are 12 years; tell me you will not go again, you are my friend, please don’t leave me (laughter). And the Head Boy started crying. So, it is when people come to me and say this is what you’ve done at this particular time, I’m fulfilled.
What would you have wanted activism to do for you that it has not done?
What would I have wanted activism to do that it has not done? (Thinks) It’s having a turn-around of our detention centres, prisons. Detention, prison is to reform, but you will see that when people get there, they become hardened. I remember being thrown up and down in detention. At times people are beating you; you have president of this cell, you have president of that cell. So, people come back and they become hardened. So, instead of them to have that change of mind, that change of attitude, for them to sit down and just have a flashback of what has happened, they become hardened. Mine was persecution on political grounds, but getting there, I met people that were detained that are armed robbers, that have committed all sorts of crimes and you will see that some of them will get out more hardened. And you find presidents of cells behaving as if they are kings. So, I want reforms in detention centres, prisons. These people are human beings. Let’s ensure that the environment is okay, let government invest money. In fact, not only government; philanthropists. People that are detained are now writing exams, JAMB. So, we need to make that environment more conducive.
Of all your detention experiences, which one would you describe as the most traumatic, the most painful and the most difficult?
The most difficult one was during the protest (after the June 12, 1993 election annulment). More than 200 people were killed. I also sustained a gun shot (wound) on my leg and while they were coming to take the dead bodies, lucky enough, I was among those who ran away. But I didn’t feel the pain; what affected me was the blood that I saw, people that had died. So, after the bullet was removed locally and as at the time that I felt freedom had come at last, that was the time I was arrested. Arresting me and detaining me!
How were you arrested and how long were you detained?
I was in hiding! Around this Maroko side. I just came out, you know we were running and I had to introduce myself because I saw somebody carrying a transistor radio and they were announcing names of those people that were declared wanted. So, I just explained to the old man that this is my name, this is what I have done. And the man took me, well, to his farm. I just knew that I had no wristwatch or anything. I spent about three nights there. So, it was on the third night, the man now brought me out to the road and told me that I should just wave down any vehicle that will take me to town. Unfortunately for me, as soon as he did that, he left. I don’t really believe in superstition…because I didn’t know where the man came from, very old man, and that was when I was in the bush with him, roasting yam, taking care of me. He blew a certain trumpet and somebody came out, they did leaves and started putting it on the wound. After everything, I wasn’t looking at him, I was concentrating on the vehicle coming to pick me. Well, let me not say he disappeared. But I didn’t know how he went away. So, I was just there and the vehicle that stopped, they said I was the one and I was first beaten mercilessly. I knew that I was first taken to a place called Intercentre, put in detention and after that; after about 2 weeks or so, I was taken again. I was actually put in the boot of a vehicle. So, I stayed there for close to five months and then, where I was detained, cell one, upstairs, I saw some women, one did abortion, the person died, armed robbers, assassins, all of them, women, hardened ones. I didn’t bath, I didn’t even brush my teeth for close to five months. In fact, it got to a time that I started feeling funny that…in those days, my mummy will say fast. But here I can tell you that for 14 days, I didn’t taste anything, because I didn’t want to go and use the toilet where there were heaps of maggots and one will walk there bare-footed. So, it was there I got infected with chronic cough, my legs were swollen because you don’t wear slippers, you have to walk bare-footed and then it was when I came out I realized I had ulcer and that ulcer almost killed me. It was Chief Gani Fawehinmi that later provided the vehicle that took me…I’m not sure because I was still discussing with Gani, the bed bugs; I’m not sure that he was able to get them out of his vehicle. I’m sure he had to sell it because it was not leather, and you know, different skin diseases and so many things. It was as bad as that. So terrible, but my spirit was not broken.
You have also gone on too many battles as an activist. Which would you describe as the most memorable and why?
Hmmm! I’ve fought several battles, but the most memorable one (Thinks)…That one of Idongesit! Although the case is still in court. The woman that was breastfeeding her child, Elijah and inside the tricycle, a bribe was demanded, the husband couldn’t pay and he was told to go. As at the time he was going, they pulled the trigger and he didn’t know. All they just knew was that Blessing (their other child) said the mummy had been shot. Not knowing that the mummy that was breastfeeding the child, the bullet pierced through the mummy’s skull, came out, hit the father on the jaw and his shoulder. So, when the father was even shouting that he’s been shot; he’s been shot, that one came and said mummy’s brain had be shattered. Mid air, while I was travelling, I developed some complications. So, I had to go for a surgery for bladder stone. I was in Dubai, but I came back to Nigeria. I left the hospital in Dubai for Nigeria. So, I was lying down and I was listening to this – that somebody was shot, he’s in LUTH (Lagos University Teaching Hospital) and that he’s not been operated. I just stood up from the bed and that was how the struggle began. I went to see them in the hospital, I called the then Commissioner of Police (Mr. Fatai Owoseni), and after that the battle started. But at the end, Musiliu Aremu was arrested, paraded, is being tried. The case is still in court, but the four children (of the victim), I organized a series of protest, the then IG (Mr. Solomon Arase) gave them scholarship. After that, the Commissioner of Police got a new apartment for them to rehabilitate them, and the woman was buried. But the thing really is helping the woman to get justice. That will be the ultimate joy. However, I am happy to tell you that even the man told me that he knows that wherever the wife is, she will be happy. I don’t know how I will put it (sighs); I think Prophet T.B Joshua also got to know about it and he went to the church again, he gave him N500,000. So, there were lots of openings for him, but we are still in court and hoping that we get justice. You just caught me unawares. There are so many things that I have done…
Activism, you will agree with me, is fraught with too many dangers. How do you navigate them?
The only thing really is that I’ve come to think about life this way – those who want to protect their lives, they will lose it. In those days when I will be detained, beaten, arrested; there was a time my blood was forcefully taken. They said I was sniffing something. They don’t know that I’m always emboldened; my happiest moment is when I’m marching. In those days of military dictatorship, you are marching and live bullets, the armoured tanks; those people are not even ready to listen. Let me even tell you that one of the slaps I got, despite the treatment, pus is still coming out of the ear. As I speak, up till today, when we want to descend, when I am in the aircraft, I still have to block my ears because that pain, I still feel it. So, when I see all those hazards…but one thing about me is, I feel that those who want to protect their lives will always lose it. People always tell me Joe, don’t say Nigeria is worth dying for, don’t say it; but I believe that. I see all the dangers, but I’m not deterred, I’m more emboldened and my own dream is seeing a Nigeria that works. I will never forget June 3rd, 1996 when I passed the night in Kudirat Abiola’s house. We were to go out on different assignments. She dropped me off. This phone, 090, was what we were using then. She dropped me off and she said we would meet at 4pm. And two minutes after that my phone rang. They said she’s been shot on the head and I raced to Eko Hospital. She was dead. So, all these hazards will not get one deterred, because I know that one day something will happen, but my own portion really is not to die. So, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil…
You look too frail for some of the things you do. Where does the strength come from?
One thing I have always said is that, it’s just the passion. When I see injustice, I’m always very, very restless. Whenever there’s a time for me to make my impact felt, and I’m unable to do that; I remember during the pepper story – when I saw it on YouTube, around 12am, I was just wailing for daybreak. How can you be inserting pepper and sticks inside someone’s private parts? But at last, that day came. When I’m on the street or carrying out a project, I won’t even know that I’ve done anything, but the people around me will say we are tired. It will just seem to me as If I just started. So, I think that, that natural thing is…when I see injustice, I get emboldened. I want to see smile, I just want to make my impact felt. What we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others are the ones that remain. So, I will continue to make my impact felt, no matter whose ox is gored.
So, how do you feel whenever you hear people say that most activists are into it for money? And not necessarily for any altruistic reason…
Yes, one thing I’ve always said is that activism is not a job; that no matter what, I teach, I’m a university teacher and I do contract teaching, I’m a local and international rapporteur, I deliver papers, I write papers, I do editing, people contract me. At times I do the editing and my name will not even be there, but I will get paid for it. So, really, we still have some bad eggs and we have some good ones, but the thing is that at times I feel bad, I feel pained, especially those that had come before, when it was very, very tough. Immediately I joined and I became very, very active, when we were going out, we would know that this person may never come back. Then, what did I have? I had a mattress and few books. I told a lawyer to help me prepare my Will. If anything happens to me, let these books go to the University of Ilorin library and let this mattress and other things go to the motherless babies’ home. I know that people, in anything, will always talk. But conscience is like an open wound, only truth can heal it.
Now, how do you feel about having your husband (Yinka) involved with activism also?
You know that while I was doing my own in Ilorin, he was at the University of Ife then. Later, he moved to Lagos, National Conscience Party, which Chief Gani Fawehinmi formed. So, I never met him. But I went to paste posters during IBB time and I was arrested. I was at the Police Headquarters, I was beaten, detained for about a month. After that, my father was to sign an undertaking that I will be of good behavior, I told my father no, you have other children, I’m sorry dad, if anything happens to me, you have other children. Don’t sign! Immediately my dad left, they handcuffed me. I was on drip, I think I had typhoid. So, I was taken to Police Clinic, they handcuffed me, ruthlessly took off the syringe, my vein stuck out, so they used plaster. I was just going on the way, I was almost lifeless. So, Chief Gani Fawehinmi saw me and said what are you doing here? I saw one young looking guy and Chief Gani Fawehinmi said don’t you know Joe, Yinka? That one said Joe? That one from Ilorin. And he said is that one not a man? So, they later left, but I was still detained. And when I came back, we continued. You know it’s a male-dominated sector. We will go on protests and so on. So, one day, just as we are seated now, we were writing on the state of the nation, he then said comrades, I want to tell you about the state of my heart. I’m in love with this girl, and she said she will not get married. Please, can you give us an opportunity, let me express myself. So, they argued; we are doing serious things, but at last, they gave him 3 minutes. Why do you want to marry her? Yes, she will be an addition to me, I will not distract her. Time up! Joe, why do you say you don’t want to marry him? I said I am married to the struggle, I don’t want distractions. They said well, he has defeated you. And that was how the thing started. And that was how one newspaper said what Abacha or Babangida, I can’t remember now, has joined together, let no man put asunder. That was 1997. In 1999, we were going to have a programme and I just felt funny and I went to the hospital. The doctor said this is labour. I said I had a press conference for 11am and this is 9am; I’m going to Apapa. My husband said no, this is advanced. So, he left me and went and after about 20 minutes I heard the cry of a baby, I just looked at her, held her. Fortunately my mom was around, so she held her. I went to the bathroom, from that place, I left. I went to the press conference. We left the baby with my mom. We were there, nobody knew what had happened. He just looked at me, and after that I went back to the hospital. So, all those times when we faced those hazards, my mom, we have two of them, a girl and a boy, was always there…
What are their names?
One is Olamide, the other one is named after Abraham Adesanya. We are not necessarily thinking about the hazards. Even when we got married, we were supposed to go on honeymoon, in one hotel in Ilorin (Kwara State), one person, the owner called and said I didn’t know I was housing some troublesome people here, please you have to leave now, now, now…And that was the day of the wedding. So, we immediately packed our things. We got an idea that we might be arrested. So, we left for Lagos, continued. But the only thing is that comrade, he…You know the home; my mom has always told us that anyone that fails in one fails in all. So, we always try to strike a balance.
So, when you disagree at home, how do you resolve it? Who mellows down for the other person?
Well, the heated times are times when we are discussing the state of the nation. I remember one time they had elections in America, he was supporting a different person, I was supporting a different person – during Obama’s time. It was always very, very tough, but at times when things happen like that, we debate and settle for a superior argument. But most of the time, he will say hmmm! You are just a troublesome girl.
So, what would you say has kept your union going?
I think it’s seeing marriage not as a competition, but to complement each other.
What don’t you like about your husband?
Well, he’s sometimes thinking as if I’m carrying the whole world of activism on my head. And at times he just comes and says, because at times I wake up and my mind skips. Why? It’s 24 hours, but it should be 48 hours that make one day. You know all the programmes that I have and for the fact that I’ve changed; sleeping from one hour, I’ve moved now to 3 hours. So, what I don’t really like is that by the time he comes, he will continue to taunt me, you are not sleeping, if you kill yourself, go and check the health hazards, if anything happens to you, if this, if that…Once there’s a slight headache, he will say you are the one that has not been sleeping. You know before, I wasn’t switching off my phone. Even at 4am; I’ve forgotten the adjective. I was feeling insecure doing that. Even as I am now; I might have programmes that I might not even be at home for 2 weeks. I might even be in Lagos, but from here I move to that place. At times the programme might even be so tough that in a day I might just remember that I’ve not even called or he’s not even called and it’s not that oh, you’ve not even called for one day. So, all those things are not the things that give me joy. The thing I derive joy from is activism.
Do you agree with those who say that activism was better under the military compared to what we have now?
I think the most galvanizing one that we had was under military dictatorship. We had an enemy, we had to fight military dictatorship because it was an aberration and we fought it to a standstill. Civil rule then came; oh Obasanjo is a civilian, oh Jonathan is this, let’s see. We had some few people that went into politics, some will say ah, let’s give this person a chance, but one thing again that I like people to understand is, even if for instance, maybe let’s say corruption, at times you will have some people within the administration, maybe JAMB, maybe Road Safety (FRSC), maybe anti-corruption agencies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that if there’s synergy for us to make Nigeria work, that one’s voice is lost. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. So, I just want to encourage our people; we must speak out more, but we must always offer constructive criticisms, we must continue to educate the larger public, we must galvanize, we must let people realize that the power they have is the power to vote in or vote out anyone. That they must all have their voter’s cards, they must all be part of the Nigeria project, and that they must always endeavor that wherever they can make their impact felt, it should be felt. The only thing is that history will be very, very harsh on those that when it was time for them to make impact, they did not. But history will be very kind to those who will still speak out and if we don’t learn from history, there’s the tendency that history will always repeat itself. So, I just want to tell each and everyone that those that are activists, all their track records will be there and history will always judge.
Of all the activists you have interacted with, who do you have the greatest respect for and why? Just one person!
Hmmm! Ayayaya! (Thinks). Well, Prof Wole Soyinka.
I’ve known him for close to two decades and he remains tireless; even most of the times when we always have rallies; I call him WS. He will be outside the country and he will promise that he will be at that rally. He will be landing that same morning. What he will not do, he will tell you he’s not interested in that, but what he will do, he will surely do. So, even in the 70s, early 80s, I still remember him. I still remember when we were all tear-gased. It wasn’t out of anything. When we were at Campos Square (Lagos), we were tear-gased. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, another person I also have tremendous respect for, fell on top of soak-away; Beko Ransome-Kuti sustained injuries and so many others. Even Pastor Tunde Bakare. Tunji Braithwaite. You’ve put me in a very tight corner, Azuh with this question (Laughs). So many of these people that have remained consistent. We were all there. Soyinka was still standing after the tear-gas, and he was even the one that tapped the person who wanted to shoot me that day – May 19, 2004. And up till this moment that I speak, there’s no where that Prof. Soyinka is in the world that I don’t know his itinery. What he will do, he will tell me I will do; I don’t abuse relationships. At times there’ll be a programme and I will beg him that please, because you will see that for two years he’s already booked. But maybe a programme that will take place in 48 hours, I will just say WS, please do it. Maybe he gives in to some of those things because when he looks back, he also sees the sacrifices. He has also seen that we’ve come a long way. So, I have tremendous respect for him and I have respect for several others too.
Lastly, what’s your dream for Women Arise?
My dream is for that organization to get to that pedestal that worldwide it will be a reference point, it will be like a centre of harvest for anything; because we have different departments – we have research, we have campaign, we have documentation, we have the human rights desk that deals in abuses. Every Thursday we have lawyers who are there on pro bon basis that attend to those cases. At times we have 60, we have 70, we have different courts. And then my dream really is to have Women Arise stand and then we will also be able to have a big safe house. Because at times we put them in the hotel, where they will be so comfortable like a home and all comforts will be there. When anybody is bruised, you take the person out, not necessarily taking the person to the hotel or taking the person where he will not be comfortable. So, all strata of life, like I’ve said, documentation, research, also helping; at times we have mentors and mentees, we take these people. At times we go to institutions. So, anything, once any information comes…and like I also tell people that Women Arise does not connote that. We also defend men. Prof. Wole Soyinka is our Board Chairman, we have Prof. Pat Utomi, we have Pastor Tunde Bakare, we have Mrs. Fawehinmi, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, Dr. Peace Obiajulu, myself. So, we have a Board that is so flexible, but I want all facets of life, everywhere, any information, any documentation, any leeway that anybody wants about Women Arise worldwide at the tip of their fingers. And don’t forget that I wear several caps – Centre for Change; I was in CD, I just handed over to Bako, the secretary, for about 10 years, and the president for about 10 years too. It’s been really nice and my pleasure serving humanity…