Her passion for her political party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the duo of President Muhammadu Buhari and his wife, Hajia Aisha Buhari, easily comes across. Mrs. Pauline Kedem Tallen, Chairman of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) is one of the very few female politicians who started from the grassroots as local government councillors and rose to rub shoulders with others at the very top. In 1999, she was appointed Minister of State for Science and Technology, becoming the first woman to be appointed as a minister in that capacity by former President, Olusegun Obasanjo. She spoke with Assistant Editor, ‘Jide Babalola. Excerpts
MANY speak about under-representation of women in governance but here you are, defying stereotypes by becoming a councillor in 1986, a council chairman in 1993, the North’s first female Deputy Governor and a Minister of State. So, if Pauline Tallen can do it, why can’t other women?
I was local government councilor in 1986 and then, contested for council chairmanship in 1993 the first woman to do so in the old combination of Plateau and Nassarawa states and in 1994, I became a state commissioner.
Defy stereotypes? How many of us? When we are talking about the percentage of women, I believe that you will agree with me that there are more women in the population; women constitute at least, 53 to 54 percent of the total population. Women go along with youths and children. If this percentage only has about 5.9 or less than 6 percent representation, it is heartbreaking! It is so bad that we should all bury our heads in shame because we already look like a disabled country in the sense that more than half of the population is not being properly carried along. It is like a country walking on one leg because of the poor representation of women. We call ourselves the giant of Africa but look at so many African countries that are far ahead of us in terms of women representation. South Africa has about 45 percent women representation, Rwanda has 56 percent. Any country that you see developing rapidly is carrying its women along. The woman’s heart is a mother’s heart; a woman can never eat and allow her children to go to bed with hunger. A woman once nurtured all those who became leaders yet you say we are the weaker sex and incapable. If they are that incapable, would they have nurtured you into adulthood? So, it is very wrong stereotyping when anyone underrates women or refuses to carry them along. Women are sources of strength in every society and the sooner we realise that, the better for us.
What has enabled you to move ahead; what do you think you had that young women can take inspiration from?
First, I must start with the Almighty God; He is the giver of all that we have. At the same time, God uses people, He will not come down to perform miracles, and He uses people in our lives. After God, the biggest factor was my late husband. He was the greatest inspiration as far as my political life is concerned. He believed in me, stood by me, he encouraged me and he supported me all the way! That was why I had to decline to leave him and leave an ambassadorial posing three years ago. That is because I believe that it was payback time for all his goodness, all his support and all his encouragement. I believe that for any woman to succeed, generally, women would succeed better if we have the support of the men. Men too, will succeed better when they have the support of the women; it is a two-way traffic. God created the woman because He saw that the man could not function well enough without a woman and there’ll be no procreation if He did not create the woman. Woman is the extension of life. God saw that the man was incomplete and ineffective without the woman. God’s only solution was to find man a helpmate. I am sure that you are a better person once you get a good wife because you will function better, be more balanced, sleep well and so on.
Many people say that the nation’s current spate of insecurity affects women more and that society cannot be balanced. What do you think of this?
That’s it! That’s true. I believe that. Women are the greatest peacemakers in the home. When there are crises among families, there is solution when the women steps in. Women hate bloodshed; they hate crises and they always want peace. When you see a woman creating problems, find out and you will discover that she must have been pushed to the wall or gotten frustrated by a man.
Insecurity affects women so much; when there is a war, it is the men that go to the battlefield, get vulnerable and get killed and the woman is left a widow, with the responsibility of taking care of the children alone.
Can you tell us about one of your very special friends, Hajia Aisha Buhari? I noticed that hers is the only other photograph hung on the wall in your sitting room. How did you meet; what is the nature of your relationship?
How do I describe her? She is the First Lady, the wife of my President. I respect her as the wife of my President and as a woman that I love and respect so much because of what she stands for, as a mother of the nation. I do not call her my friend; she is a sister, she is my President’s wife. I appreciate her because I believe in her and she believes in me. I give her her due respect as the wife of the President and she also respects me for my age. So, there is this mutual respect. She is a very humble woman; she does not take the advantage of being Mr. President’s wife to treat us anyhow. No! She appreciates those who are around her and she appreciates those who work and offer their life for the progress and success of her husband, particularly during the first and second elections. So, it is mutual respect between us.
You were in PDP, became the first woman to become a Deputy Governor in Northern Nigeria and you also became a Minister under the PDP. Why then, did you leave the PDP a party from which you benefitted so much?
The party was no longer standing for what we initially started out with. When we formed the PDP in 1998, it was a combination of various political parties, just like the APC had it when it came into being. There was nothing new or strange about my leaving that party; I am someone who believes in service to my nation and my community and you can only do that under a political party as long as they keep to their promise to the Nigerian nation. No doubt, I was not the only one who left; there were so many others. We, the key players in PDP left for the APC because we saw that the leadership was not keeping to expectations and things were not going the way they should. That was the reason why even the former President (Chief Olusegun Obasanjo) left the PDP. The leader of the party, the first President that the PDP produced! He left because he saw that things were not going according to what the party was founded on.
The main project is the Nigerian project and where the leadership fails to meet the yearnings of the masses… it was a sort of silent revolution that brought Buhari to power; it was not the sole effort of one political party, the opposition or the PDP. Many of us left from the PDP and there were others from the political parties that merged before APC was formed. Why did all these happen? Because we believe in the Nigeria project and we believe it was time for change and we could see the hands of God in the entire process.
You once aspired to become a Senator and also, a state governor; what is next for you politically?
Politically, I am someone who deeply believes in the will of God. If you try something and it doesn’t work, God has a better reason for such. It is God that gives power to whomever He wishes at His own time and whoever denies another person the chance to fulfill his destiny will not end well.
There is a school of thought that here, poverty is a major part of the problem that makes HIV/AIDS spread such a big challenge while making women more vulnerable. What is your perspective on this?
That is very true! Poverty is one of the major issues that affect women more. When you are so poor that you can’t think for yourself, you are at the mercy of whomever. Poverty is one of the major problems affecting many in the lower socio-economic class and it affects women more. Women are more vulnerable because the woman is at the mercy of the man and cannot adequately fend for herself and thus, becomes very vulnerable. That is why you find more of the high prevalence of HIV in the poor, poverty-stricken communities. These are issues that government must address seriously because if we really want to fight HIV and curb it to its barest minimum, women must be empowered, women must be safe and capable of being self-sustaining, without having to rely so completely on men either the husband or whoever may want to abuse them.
Would you say that your political party, the All progressives Congress, which is in power today, has been sensitive enough towards addressing the issue of poverty in Nigeria?
Well, I can say that under the able leadership of Mr. President, government is doing a lot to empower the widows, the downtrodden… The Social Investment Programme (SIP) is one of the key projects through which Mr. President is making a big difference. The SIP has touched lives in the most sensitive areas of or communities, including the widows and unemployed youths that had no jobs or source of livelihood. With the Social Investment Programme, they have been able to set up their own business and become able to take care of themselves. The National Directorate of Employment (NDE) is also doing very well in this area by training women, unemployed youths and others in various lines of business like cosmetology, barbing, sewing and so on. After the training, they gave them what to start business with. This effort has been more pronounced under this administration. My prayer is that Mr. President should even do more and I believe that being a man of integrity, under the ‘Next Level’, we will see better things that would improve the lots of the common man and women.