August 31, 2009

How Clinton’s security guards dazed uss

•Dr. Agary, former Perm Sec

Dr Timiebi Koripamo Agary made history in 1997. She was and still the first woman in Nigeria to host a president from the United States of America (USA). Her hosting of President Bill Clinton while she was the Executive Secretary of the National Women Centre in Abuja is today more historic. It remains one of the memorable events in her life. “

The visit of Bill Clinton to THE National Centre for Women Development when I was there was memorable. I remember in the report that it was only my name that appeared in the report from the US Embassy and I think it was a very good event. That was also the day I think HIV/AIDS pandemic was seen in human form.

That feat is proving stubborn for her to brush aside even though she is known more in the Civil Service of the federation. A former Permanent Secretary in three Ministries – Science and Technology, Labour and Information, she made considerable marks on the Labour Ministry. Timiebi has been at the very heart of policy formulation of key labour matters through her membership of negotiating committees. Since her retirement, she has been running an NGO.

Timiebi is definitely a woman to watch. She is an alumnus of the University of Ibadan where she read Biochemistry. After her graduation, she joined the Federal Civil Service. She rose to become the Permanent Secretary, recording in the process of history one of the few Nigerian women to attain such an office. She was retired in a rather curious circumstances, an act which forced those retired to place the matter before a court of law.

In retirement, she went into the running of an NGO and it climaxed with the founding of Gender Action. That NGO is to assist brilliant but indigent and less privileged children in the Niger Delta region. That she hails from Odi in Bayelsa State is beside the point of her setting up of the NGO. She is gradually spreading the message of hope to the hopeless children in Nigeria. And as she puts it, it is only a matter of time for children outside Bayelsa to benefit. “Don’t forget I am a retiree,” she said.

In the realm of politics, she also has a background. She was the mobilizer in her days at the University of Ibadan as a member of the Student Union Government. In Nigerian polity, Timiebi is emerging into something of a voice for the Nigerian government in the Niger Delta region. Her campaign now focus on the need for the militants in the region to drop their guns and embrace peace, believing that a peaceful resolution of the contentious issues in the Niger Delta can only be resolved through peaceful means.
Her minority background also informed her position on her involvement in the Niger Delta issue.

What have you been doing since you went on retirement?
Some consultancy: But mostly, my focus has been on my NGO. It’s a developmental NGO and my focus is on human capital. I also focus on my local community and I hope to expand to other communities in the Niger Delta. I think that I need to give back something to where I come from and I think education is so critical to the development of the human person. I’m talking here today because education opened the door for me and because my parents had the ability to also support me. There is pervasive poverty in the Niger Delta, but there are also very brilliant kids who need to be supported to be able to assess resources that are available and there are resources all over. I’m looking forward to having one or two kids score very high JAMB results and getting out of that place or even scoring very high SHA results and having a scholarship to go to Harvard. So, my challenge is to go there and challenge young men and women to focus on their education, be patient for the girls.

There is, of course, high teenage pregnancy, which is a fallout of the irresponsible actions of oil and gas workers. So, we also need to enter with reproductive health information for the girls. Whether we like or not, HIV/AIDS is real and we need to do some of those things. I also want to now begin to talk about the issues of democracy and governance. Until we all decide to take a stand for change, we will continue in this cycle of motion without movement. I want to begin to let people know they have rights to make requests and demands of their representatives in government. I want to give voice to not just the young people but the women.

The men are so much involved with your testosterones flowing in your veins and you don’t think that women need to be given a space. So, we need to work on the men to also open up space for women to join in the process of effective social, political and economic change; at least, in my community and by extension, other communities around the Niger Delta. I don’t have the resources because I’m a pensioner. But I’m willing to spend my money to start doing something. This year, I got teachers to work with the children and I managed to get past WAEC and GCE exam questions. My focus was on Math and English because these are challenging subjects where you don’t have too many good teachers in the rural areas.

So, my challenge was to assist them to improve on their grades in those key subjects. I was preparing them for JAMB, WAEC and NECO. But unfortunately, a few things happened. With this Gbaramatu incident, my coordinator advised that we stop because the kids were just coming in, writing their exams and taking off. Of course, Odi also had some real threats again, but fortunately, the community took a proactive action.

What is the name of this NGO?
Gender Rights Advancement and Development.

When you say you’ve been doing some consultancy, what area do you specialize and who are your clients?
I do consultancy in the area of labour. Some of my clients are in the oil and gas sector mostly. I also give advice to my friends in government.

As a woman from the Niger Delta, you have really made your marks on the national scene. What are the peculiar challenges of one being a woman and girl child from the Niger Delta?
My father believed in the girl child education. So, I didn’t have that challenge. My mother at 98 is literate. She is a very highly educated nurse midwife. My parents encouraged us to go for the sky and they were ready to give us the support. I must also say that at the time, we were in the university and the time we finished, life was good. With the encouragement of a father who tells you I’m sending you to school, so that you would be able to look after yourself, not because I want you to find a good husband, you know that’s a 21st century mind. So, with that kind of background, I was just encouraged.

When I finished, I wanted to do my post graduate. Diette Spiff was then the governor and scholarships were given to anybody who had the requisite qualifications. So, I just went on, did my doctorate and came back. I did my Masters in London; did my Doctorate in the US and I have another Masters degree from Belgium. Really, I now went into nutrition. I did cardiovascular diseases – metabolism of sodium and calcium in the heart, which results in high blood pressure.

My second Masters is on Statistics and Epidemiology, because we needed to monitor things and I wanted to have some capacity for doing monitoring and evaluation in quantitative terms not just qualitative; to be able to do statistical analysis of date. I’m fairly good in Mathematics and just to help prepare me to provide better service. Of course, I went on to do several other courses in project management abroad. I have an Advanced Management Certificate from ALSCON. Just to improve on my knowledge and skills, I craved for more training and I did a lot of reading on my own. When I was posted to the Ministry of Labour, I chose to just read up on the laws and the Conventions of ILO just to get understanding of what I needed to do and that’s the way it’s been.

I wouldn’t think every man that came your way always thought like your father in terms of giving you the chance to excel?
You know, if you work hard, the man will respect you. I tried to work hard and be productive. Wherever I found myself, whatever task I was given, I tried to be productive. So, I did my best. But I also must say I do not suffer fools gladly and I do not tolerate any attempts at debasing me as a woman. You can go and ask el-Rufai. I don’t accept it because I’m very conscious of what my rights are. In fact, I have copies of the Constitution littered my bed and table here. So, very quickly, I would go through the Constitution to know where to draw the line. You have to search your boundaries even in the office with your bosses and subordinates. Whatever the challenges are, I think I got on with the men as my boss and I got on with the men as my subordinates. I maintain good relationship with my clients, my messengers and directors and we stay with good friends. Life is a question of give and take. I’ve tried to strike good balance.

All the years you spent in the Civil Service, what would you say is your most memorable event?
The visit of Bill Clinton to National Centre for Women Development when I was there. I remember in the report that it was only my name that appeared in the report from the US Embassy and I think it was a very good event. That was also the day I think HIV/AIDS pandemic was seen in human form. One HIV positive man came and publicly declared he was positive and called his wife and daughter. I’ve stayed in very good touch with him ever since because he’s always been a good role model. It was a very memorable day for me in the sense that it was a very good event. It’s also memorable for me in the sense that I see the security challenges our President has in this country. It confirms to me, indeed, that Nigerians are very peaceful people because if you see the trouble the US security people took to protect their President and I knew who they were; they were there for two weeks before President Clinton came.

They asked for the plans of all the buildings. I got an architect to put the seats in the auditorium in a plan. It was so meticulous and I kept sending words to them that I have not seen the President’s people. The day they came, they took over the entrance to the auditorium. They practised how the President was going to arrive and come in. They did what they call a walkthrough. It was just amazing that my President’s security people had no clue and we had practised it everyday. So, it wasn’t a question of he was going to come in and walk straight down. They came in, turned left, went down, walked out, walked back in and entered from the back and my President security men in their trench coats blocked the doors, thinking as he comes, he would go through the auditorium and walk down. That day, I just said God is really with us. With all those seats, I knew all the CIA people and they were all sitting on the ground. Nobody was hanging around and I was just amazed. There was this young man who was screwing something on the stage and I went to him and said you are destroying my stage. He said Mam, you see I’ve signed my life to die for POTUS – President of The United States. You know, they call him POTUS.

He was screwing this thing and it was a bulletproof shield. You wouldn’t know it because we had to cover it with a cloth. Clinton was sitting there and in front of him was this shield. I’m told if you want to get him from anywhere, you couldn’t because of the way it was placed. We had to make new drapes on the stage and it was covered with the same material. At the end of the day, they unscrewed it and said Mam, thank you very much. Another memorable incident was when el-Rufai decided I was less a Nigerian and threw me out in violation of my rights. I was actually attending a meeting at the UN in London. Fortunately, he was stopped and my things were taken back. He was stopped because of the uproar by the unions and I remain eternally grateful to the Civil Service Union. But he still had his way. On the 25th of May 2007, I was still evicted. The first one was in March of 2007.

Did you have anything with him?
When I graduated in 1970, how old was he? He may have been in primary one or nursery one. The problem was that I was a political office holder and I was offered a house for N15 million. I raised my N1.5 million draft, which is 10 percent to go and pay, but they refused to take it. They sent me a letter that I was a political office holder and would have to bid for the house. I bided for the house but my bid price was lower. I think it was just contrived. Somebody actually bided N65 million and that house was offered to me at N65 million. I didn’t have N6.5 million to pay and I was away at a meeting in Geneva. This happened in 2006. I applied to the bank and it took exactly 60 days to get the draft. When I went to pay, they said it was late.

Fortunately, my government had given Bayelsa people some grants to help pay. So, I had N13 million within 63 days because we had 90 days to pay 20 percent. I went back to pay but my PA said they brought out a list, saw my name and the Minister said they should take money from me. I think he didn’t probably like my position on some labour issues because I subsequently heard he said I was using the unions to work against the reforms. I know the one time I had met with him was just to draw his attention to the fact that the laws were very clear on certain provisions.

As far as I’m concerned, the reforms were declaring some workers redundant and the provision of the law requires that an employer discusses with the unions and reaches an agreement in terms of the severance. He didn’t like that but I don’t also owe him an apology. There was a contract of employment for Public Service officers. You are to retire at 35 or sixty years and at the time all of these were happening, nobody had changed that contract of employment and if the unions suspect enough and go to court, I feel they would have been able to stop it. But my position as a mediator was not to take sides. Some people were removed because of additional qualification.

That was not part of their contract of employment. If you wanted to change those requirements, you need to give them a time limit for them to acquire the additional qualification before you remove them. If you still go back into the scheme of service, I don’t even think those things have been amended. I was a mediator and I was just sitting there watching the unions and the government flex their muscles. Otherwise, it was such an easy thing to go to court. But Nigerians don’t like to go to court and I don’t know why.

Is it not too expensive going to court?
There are people who will do it for you free of charge. There are lawyers who are providing pro vono service and that might be one of the things I might get engaged in. The Civil Service has come under so much bashing. Everybody is bashing civil servants. We are not the problem of Nigeria. If the head gives a direction, they would follow, knowing that there are certain things they could not do in my Ministry. They would not even bring it up because they know I won’t tolerate it. So, let the head leads and we will follow.

For those people who don’t see the benefit in the rule of law, please, let us try the rule of the jungle as I experienced. The rule of law may take time, but ultimately, it’s better than arbitrariness. There was so much arbitrariness during that time and as a beneficiary of the rule of law and fair hearing because immediately this President came on board, I sent an appeal with all my documents and with the support of the present Secretary to Government, who was then the Head of Service, the two of us permanent secretaries that were removed were reinstated. But my house has not been returned to me.

Who occupies that building for now?
I haven’t actually been there. But people who have gone there tell me nobody is really occupying it because there is still a subsisting injunction on that property. The property is at 85 Kwame Nkruma Way, plot 112, Asokoro District. I really don’t know whether somebody is occupying it or not. I just want it back because it’s my right. I served this country, I’m entitled to it and they should give it back to me.

Where do you stay now?
I’m renting a house. That’s why you think the Civil Service is corrupt. I’m renting a house with money that I could have put to other good uses. That’s why I really must get my house back. I worked very hard and at every point in time, I served this country well. In Labour, I hardly slept. We managed to apprehend many labour crises. Obasanjo himself admitted that, at least, he had some peaceful moments.

On a typical eve of a meeting with Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, what kind of preparation would you do?
I have to read the labour laws, I have to study the issues in dispute and look at what the law says, whether the law supports it or not. Usually, we mediate between workers and the employers and we use the law. When it involves government, I use that law. I tell government you are an employer.

Do they listen to you?
I think there was relative calm. When the workers are wrong, I also tell them you are wrong. When employers are wrong, I tell the employers the law says this. Many employers in the private sector did not want unions in their organizations and I never mediated without the constitution and I tell them you cannot abridge anybody’s rights provided in the constitution. One has to be very familiar with the provisions of the law and, of course, the Constitution.

But mostly, it’s just good reasoning because one thing you must do when you are mediating in a labour dispute is to make sure that you settle the employer and the employee and they end up being friends because they are still going back to that environment to work. It’s not a law court. You appeal to people’s conscience and show them where they are wrong and I never did it with the two parties together. I always separated the employers from the workers. So, I would tongue lash the workers and screw the employers to concede to the demands of the workers.

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