What was meant to be a 30 minutes question and answer session with Senator Daisy Danjuma ended up being a friendly banter which went on right into the late evening, accompanied by a cup of tea, a delicious slice of her 70th birthday cake and loads of laughter.
“I love people, and I love having people around me,” she says emphatically. Not many people know this side of her as being married to one of Nigeria’s most powerful men has earned her a larger-than-life status. And this right here is almost everyone’s experience with the beautiful and seemingly ageless Aunt Daisy, as she’s fondly called. This same love for people and willingness to serve saw her contesting and winning the Edo South Senatorial seat, where as a first-time Senator, she was appointed Chairman of the Senate Committee on Women Affairs and Youth Development. “Being Mrs Danjuma also helped me afford the expenses that came with politics, But, regardless of all this, I worked very hard, and people were very surprised by my efforts.”
Ask her what her leadership style is, and she will say, ”I’m always very passionate about what I want to do. And whatever I do, I like to sustain it.” Turning 70 hasn’t in any way slowed her down. When she isn’t politicking, she sits atop South Atlantic Petroleum, holding sway as Executive Vice Chairman. At other times, you will probably find her in the Kitchen, performing one of her favourite tasks, Cooking.
Words and Interview by Konye Chelsea Nwabogor.
Photo by T Y Bello
Happy birthday and congratulations on your 70th birthday celebration. Can I still refer to you as a politician?
Thank you, my dear. Of course, you can. Once you are a politician, you are always a politician, and who says I am no longer active in politics? I am a member of the PDP, and I am still very active in my state’s politics. I also believe that voting and being involved in politics is a civic responsibility. You need to choose your leaders and who governs you, not when people are in power; you complain about them. If you do not participate, you have no right to complain. I can tell you for free that all the parties are the same. I don’t see any difference. Your style of leadership is what makes you different. If you ask all the politicians in Nigeria to write a manifesto, they will come up with the same thing. I will give you good roads, water, light, a good education, and health. It’s all the same thing. We just pray we get someone who implements what they have said. In Nigeria, we have all the blueprints. We’ve had all the conferences and have come up with solutions that will solve our problems, but our main issues are implementation and accountability.
So, how did you get into politics? Was there a particular incident that inspired this move?
I would say I got encouraged. When my husband was a Minister, the Late Chief Bola Ige visited me one evening and talked to me about going into politics. He said whenever he watched women from the Middle East like Benazir Bhutto being involved in politics; he saw no reason why Nigerian women couldn’t do the same. Particularly the educated ones. Yes, we had a lot of women who were very active in politics, but they didn’t have that level of education to enable them to attain high positions. After that conversation, I So, I decided to give it a try. I went to my home state, indicated my interest, and joined PDP. Initially, as a woman in Benin, it wasn’t so easy. You grew up there, and I am sure you know what I mean. They were surprised. But I proved to them that I could do it, and they gave me the opportunity, which I still thank them till today, to represent them in the Senate.
Did being married to one of Nigeria’s most powerful men make it easier?
Yes, I would be honest; it did. I had the opportunity of meeting people who supported me. It definitely helped. Being Mrs Danjuma also helped me afford the expenses that came with politics. You know, it’s not easy or cheap to be a politician in Nigeria. My husband supported me morally and financially. But even more, my family name Ehanire also helped. It is one of the prominent names in Benin, and my father and grandfather had been kind to people.
But, regardless of all this, I worked very hard, and people were very surprised by my efforts.
Earlier, when we talked, you mentioned personal leadership skills. How would you describe yours?
I’m always very passionate about what I want to do. And whatever I do, I like to sustain it. That’s one of the main problems in our country. Sustainability! We build and destroy. No maintenance culture. Look at the old secretariat, a beautiful edifice, all rundown. For me, sustainability is very important. In a country that works, many things are in place. The rule of law and sustainable development is in place. I also believe in set visions, values, and integrity. We’ve lost our values along the way in Nigeria. It’s a very big problem. I see how we celebrate overnight riches. In those days, you couldn’t even marry a family with a bad name. But now, people don’t care; once you have money, nothing else matters. We lost our sense of value, which is very sad.
From when you were a senator till now, do you think the political climate has changed for women?
It definitely has. When I was contesting, there were not many of us. People used to view politics as dirty, but it needed someone decent to come out for everyone to see that it wasn’t. When I was in the Senate, I was the Chairman of Women and Youth Development. I encouraged a lot of women to come and join politics. Senator Florence Ita- Giwa also did. We had about 6 or 7 women in the House of Representatives, with 3 in the Senate. I was there with Iyabo, Gbemi Saraki and Joy Emodi, who has always been a politician. We tried to encourage more women, and the numbers started rising. There are many more women now. At the same time, they are not enough. I believe women are very compassionate and want us to have a proper country. If we had more women, we would do much better.
You’ve been in the background of politics and have experienced many behind-the-scenes intrigues and all that. Based on all this, would you say women make better politicians?
Yes, of course, they are. Women are more loyal, more faithful, and less distracted. Also, they bear the burden of society. The first point of call for a woman is her home, and I don’t need to tell you how efficiently she runs that. Put a woman at the nation’s helms of affairs and watch all our problems disappear. Power, Water, Maternal and child mortality and the health sector in general. You know a lot of these issues affect women directly. So as mothers, we know what’s more important to focus on. Education. The mother is blamed if a child doesn’t do well in school. So, if you are in a position to provide these things to reduce your burden, why won’t you do it?
Regardless of all the talk of women in politics, It’s still predominantly male-dominated. Do you think that in another eight years, Nigeria will be ready for a female president? And what do you think it would mean for women, politics, and our culture?
Let me tell you something: women in the background in places like the north is more about tradition than religion. Remember, Benazir Bhutto was from an Islamic family and was President. Here we tend to mix religion and tradition. There’s nothing that stops women from being elected. Morocco has refined their laws. The present King has reformed most traditional laws to include women in policy and decision-making. I don’t see why that can’t happen here in Nigeria. We have more than enough capable women, even from the north. Some are raising their voices even just as activists. We also have men encouraging women to come out for elected positions. In the next few years, more women from all corners of the country can come out to run for elective positions. Why can’t a woman be President or vice president in the next eight years? We can do it if we want to—we women of substance in this country, who are very bright.
What are your thoughts on the current state of affairs in the country? From insecurity to economic issues, Nigerians are going through a lot.
It is very sad and unfortunate. Let’s talk about the insecurity I, for one, like travelling by road. If you ask me to travel by road from Lagos to Maiduguri, I will be happy to do so and would even stop in several places along the way. I like the serenity. You know, we are blessed, and we have good weather. But I can’t do these things anymore. And it’s particularly sad for people like me, who enjoyed the 70s in this country. The 70s and 80s were a paradise, even up to the 90s. Sometimes, I would drive to Benin in the morning and return in the evening. I was scared of nothing. Some of my English friends will stop on the way, spread a mat, and eat bush meat. The expatriates enjoyed Nigeria so much that when they were posted back to their base, they would look for companies that would instead retain them here. We have lost all that now.
Nigeria is beautiful, and we could have made a lot of money from tourism. We have good weather: no cyclones, no hurricanes, no tsunamis. We have so many tourist attractions. Nigeria is a sight to behold. It’s so beautiful. I’ve driven the whole length and breadth, but you can’t do that anymore. I tell you; I am really happy I belonged to that generation where in Zaria we woke up at 1 am and went to pick up our friends who would land at 4 am on Nigeria Airways in Kano airport. We will then stop on the road and buy suya and kunu. We had fun, and it was beautiful. I’m so sad our children cannot enjoy the life we lived; it was beautiful and so nice. The insecurity is so much/ And you know it goes hand in hand with the economy. How do you farm or run a business effectively in this terrain? God has blessed Nigeria, and the fact that we still exist is by his grace.
So, what do you hope the 2023 elections will bring?
I’m Nigerian first. As a Nigerian, I want the best person to emerge. Yes, I am loyal to my party, but I pray that whoever God makes President next will change this country because we have problems now. Let him guide us and our leaders. Peace and security must reign because nothing works without these two things. Not even the economy. Nothing.
Are you ever going to run for an elective position again? You know age doesn’t stop men when it comes to politics.
Yes, that’s true, our male counterparts keep going, but I am 70. I don’t want to run. We have younger people who can run. Who we can encourage and support? It’s not a question of age but instead delivery. You are young does not mean you will be the best. Same with being old. It’s not automatic. At the end of the day, we pray that the best happens in our country. Let God choose our leader for us.
Can we talk about your husband? He has a reputation for being outspoken and tough. What is it like being married to one of Nigeria’s most powerful men?
I have heard this several times, but the truth is my husband is a very kind person. It is a matter of understanding someone; you must understand the person you live with. And you know he helps a lot of people, even outside the foundation. He touches people. And this alone makes me so happy because I am a people person.
What takes most of your time these days?
I work, I am the executive vice chairman of South Atlantic Petroleum. I still work.
You look nothing near 70. Are you going to share some tips with me?
My dear, I honestly don’t do anything special; it is just by the grace of God and genetics. I noticed in my family; we don’t look old. My brother, the Minister of Health, is six years older than me. Look how young and energetic he looks. As you can see, I’m not someone who will sit at home in make-up all day. When I do make-up, I like for it to be very simple. I want to be able to recognize myself.
I was looking at your 65th birthday pictures, and there’s this timeless elegance that stands out in all your photos.
My style hasn’t changed over the years. Your style is you. For me, comfort is key. I like to be comfortable. I’m also not a designer freak. Comfort over labels. I wear what I like. I sometimes create my design.
Earlier, you mentioned having your birthday dress in your wardrobe for about six years. That means you’ve maintained your stature for a bit now.
I’ve been the same for many years. For the past 20 years, I think I’ve just added just a tiny bit of weight. I don’t really exercise, but I’m very active. I move around within the house so much. I love cooking. That’s one thing I enjoy.
What parting words of advice do you have for women who look up to you?
Hard work, integrity and focus are a must. Whatever you set your eyes to, focus on it. Be prayerful, and God will balance it up. Whatever you do, pray to God that you achieve your desired goals. At the end of the day, man proposes, and God disposes. So that’s the important thing.