In an Exclusive interview with Punch correspondents, Titi, who is the founder of WOTCLEF, explained how she met her husband and the difficulties he faced from her families when he wanted her hands in marriage.
What inspired you to set up the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation?
I set up WOTCLEF based on my passion to protect children and women and the vulnerable in our society. I remember that as a lecturer at the Kaduna Polytechnic in 1986, I went for post graduate studies in Italy. While there, I saw many Nigerian girls on the streets of Rome. As a mother, I started asking questions about what the girls were doing on the streets. I was told that there were some unscrupulous Nigerians who facilitated travelling documents for these girls and took them abroad. I was told that before their journey, they would make the girls go through some rituals where they would be told that all the money they would make abroad would be for the madams and that if they disclosed the identities of their sponsors, they would die. I was told that the girls were made to serve these madams for 10 years before they could regain their freedom. As a mother, I was moved when I heard this. In the polytechnic too, one would see some girls coming into the class looking spent. If you raised questions about their looks, they would tell you that they went on pilgrimage to Rome. It was when I went to Rome that I discovered that these girls only went into prostitution and nothing more. So, I told myself that any time I found myself in a position of authority, I would help such children. That was what inspired me to form WOTCLEF. Immediately my husband was inaugurated as the Vice President in May 1999, I remembered that I had a covenant with God. I immediately swung into action by calling spirited people such as governors’ wives, local government chairmen, members of civil society organisations and security people, among others to a meeting. At the end of the day, many claimed they had not heard about human trafficking before. Immediately we held a three-day workshop, they started repatriating our girls to Nigeria. The first set of girls that were sent back were about 70 and they were accompanied by 140 policemen because they were very reluctant; they did not want to come home. When they came, I met them and promised to give them succour. Some of them tested positive to HIV, others had all kinds of sexually transmitted diseases. They stayed with me in the presidential villa and I put them through school up to university level. Many became employers of labour because they were taught skills while I put others in school. WOTCLEF has been in existence for 19 years.
How exactly does WOTCLEF operate?
WOTCLEF is into rehabilitation. We rehabilitate and reintegrate these children; we send them to school and reunite them with their parents for them to know that their children are with us. WOTCLEF sensitises school girls to create awareness and advise them to speak out in case of anything. We have the WOTCLEF Anti-Trafficking Brigade in schools to sensitise children. We also partner with government and international organisations.
Can you recall some pathetic cases that WOTCLEF has handled?
People go to villages and bring these children as home helps and randy men abuse them. We have them here. We have both local and international trafficking. The domestic ones are the ones that go to villages and bring these children to towns like home helps but at the end of the day, they abuse them. We also have the international ones. WOTCLEF had been to Gabon to bring some of these children back; we have trained them and given them soft loans to go and set up their businesses. Those who want to return to school have been encouraged to do so. I have a case of a lady that was brought all the way from Swatziland; very pathetic case. She just finished at a university now.
You said human trafficking has an international dimension. Do you work with some international organisations to put an end to it?
Yes, we work with international organisations such as UNICEF. We work with organisations that deal with the issue of trafficking.
Apart from poverty, what other factors do you think contribute to human trafficking?
It is not just about poverty. For some, it is greed. To others, it is about unsettled homes. When parents are separated, anybody can just come around and take their children abroad. Greed comes into play at times when these girls see their mates dressing well and carrying expensive bags; they too will want to be like them. They don’t mind doing anything to get such things. They will tell their parents that they are in school, whereas, they could be with some sugar daddies somewhere else to spend the weekend. There are some cases too where parents push their daughters out to make money for them. They usually compare them with other girls in the neighbourhood who buy things for their parents.
Do you think the penalty for human trafficking in Nigeria is stiff enough to deter offenders?
I don’t think the law promulgated in 2003 is stiff enough. There was another one promulgated in 2015, which recommends the confiscation of the property of human traffickers. Such property, the law says, should be given to the victim. There is also a provision for jail term for traffickers. The 2015 law is stiffer but it can be better.
You sponsored a private bill that led to the establishment of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons. What can you recall of that experience?
When I started creating this awareness in Nigeria, the United Nations heard about it. They sent a letter to me in 2000 that there was a protocol to be signed. I travelled with the then Minister of Foreign Affairs to witness the signing and I made a speech. When I returned home, I told myself that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well. I decided to take a bill to the National Assembly. I invited all concerned stakeholders and came up with the bill. They asked me at the National Assembly why I wanted the law and I explained that it was because of the embarrassment we always suffered whenever we travelled abroad. The then President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was happy when he heard about it. He confirmed that every time he travelled abroad, he was embarrassed by the same issue. They passed the bill; it became a law and that law gave birth to NAPTIP.
Have you ever been threatened in the course of working against trafficking?
No. It is a multi-million dollar business by these mafias but to the glory of God, nobody has ever threatened me because the project itself is God-ordained. It is a covenant and that covenant will not allow anybody to threaten me.
How will you assess the protection of children’s rights in Nigeria?
Children’s rights are not well protected in Nigeria. We have it as a law at the federal level but it is not domesticated in all states.
How will you assess the level of women participation in politics?
Men are always chasing the women away. We have spoken to the women many times to come out of their shells. Men make us to spend the little we have. We sell the property we have to go into politics and at the end of the day, we are still denied of the positions. Men have turned women to mere dancers and clappers. You incite women against fellow women. We still need to educate the women so that they don’t continue to sell their birthrights.
What can you recall of your days as a lecturer at the Kaduna State Polytechnic?
My days at the polytechnic were very glorious. I found succour in teaching. What I saw in the polytechnic contributed to the step I took to fight trafficking; maybe that is what God destined me to do.
What did you enjoy the most about being a lecturer?
As a lecturer, I was a mother hen to the students. When they missed lectures and they returned, I would repeat what I had taught their colleagues. They were very happy with me. It was a breakthrough for me because God destined me to do that. God was providing for me to provide for the children.
How did you meet your husband, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar?
I had an aunt that was living in the Republic of Benin. I finished school in 1969 and decided to visit my aunt. On my way back to Nigeria, I was stopped at the border. Because my aunt was trading in textile materials, she gave me about three or four materials. I was stopped at Idiroko Border by Customs officials. They insisted I must pay duty on the materials. I told them that I was a poor student who just left school and decided to visit my aunt. In the process of arguing with them, he (Atiku) was in his office but I did not notice him. He was the one in charge of that border then. He noticed that there was an argument and he asked his men to bring me. He demanded to know what the problem was and I explained to him. While we were talking, he was with my passport and he was taking down notes – my name and address among other things – though I did not notice that. Then, he asked me that if he should lend me money to pay the duty, when would I repay him? I told him that I didn’t know when I would ever come that way again. He then brought out two pounds and gave it to an officer to go and pay the duty. When the officer returned, he gave me the receipt and I thanked him. I then left the border innocently. I travelled with a brother and a sister. About three days after, I was with my mum in our house in Lagos when the brother I travelled with asked me to come. He told me that the guy I met at Idiroko was around. I was shocked but I managed to go and see him. He said he wanted us to go and watch football but I declined. He came with a friend and that friend started telling me that they had not come to deceive me. It was later that my husband told me that immediately he set his eyes on me at Idiroko, God told him that I was his wife. After I declined to follow him the first day, he returned the second day. I wondered what “this Hausa man” was looking for again. A friend of mine was with me that day; he said he was returning to Idiroko and we should see him off. I got into his car with my friend and we saw him off to Yaba where we alighted from the car. While alighting, my sister’s friend drove past and saw me. She told my sister that she saw me at Yaba. My sister asked me and I denied leaving home, but she insisted that somebody saw me at Yaba. My mum warned me but this man would not allow me to rest. He kept coming to our house regularly even though the road to Idiroko was in a bad shape then. So, the news got to my mother that a Hausa man had been visiting me. My mother protested. She confronted me but I denied it. The Hausa man told me that he wasn’t sure my mother would allow us to marry. So, he said he had decided that he would take me to the registry to seal the relationship. I was already in love then, because I had to pity him with the way he used to come every day despite the bad road. I told him I just finished school and I wanted to continue my education; he promised to do everything for me. My mum warned me not to marry from Gongola (now Adamawa). There was nothing she did not say to discourage me. She was even going from house to house in Lagos, begging people to talk to me and advise me not to marry a Hausa man but I was already in love. So, I agreed with him that we should go to the registry. My mother saw me dressing up preparatory to my going out and she asked me where I was going. I lied that a friend of mine was getting married and I wanted to attend. She was suspicious and asked if I was sure. That was how we got to the registry and got everything signed in 1971. The day my mother got to know, it was a tug of war. She sent for my sister immediately and reported me to her. They both threatened to slaughter me. At the end of the day, they became friends. My mother later told my husband that if she had 10 daughters, she could give all of them to him to marry because he fulfilled all the promises he made to me. He sent me to school and took care of my mother when she came to be with us in Kaduna when I had my second son.
How did he propose to you?
The man was just in love. He said God had told him that I was his wife and that was why he was visiting regularly.
Did you have an inkling that he would become a politician and rise to this height?
No; but he used to tell me stories of how he participated in students union politics while he was at the Ahmadu Bello University (Zaria). We never thought he would go into politics.
Did you initially support him when he announced his intention to go into politics?
He just called me one day and informed me that he was going into politics and he had resigned from the Customs. I asked him why and he said he just wanted to go into politics, and I prayed for him.
People believe that polygamous homes are full of crisis. What’s your experience in that area?
I don’t go to bed with anything on my mind. I am a very peaceful person. I also have a peaceful home.
In what ways are you supporting your husband’s presidential aspiration?
He has attempted to become the President many times since 1993. This is probably the fourth or fifth time and almost everybody in Nigeria now is for him because God has shown us the sign. There were agitations before the PDP primary but as God would have it, he won. It is God-ordained. You can see God’s hands in the primary. Since he won that primary election, I have been receiving visitors.
What are some of the misconceptions people have about Alhaji Atiku Abubakar?
People have different misconceptions about him but I keep telling them that I know him very well; he is the husband of my youth. Atiku is not a thief. If Atiku was a bad person, as a Customs officer in charge of Idiroko border at that time that I had no money to pay duty, he would have just asked me to go but he did not say so. He brought out money to pay the duty from his pocket. That was just an example. Another example is that when he was posted to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, there was the case of 53 suitcases. Atiku insisted that those suitcases must be opened. They contained laundered money. Those in power then were not happy with him because it was during the military era. They called his boss, the then Minister of Finance, asking him to sack Atiku. The man refused to sack him but he was transferred to Kano. You know he travelled and returned to the country recently. His aircraft was searched, thinking that he was going to bring money into the country. They sent security officials to ransack everywhere but they did not find anything. I even told people that if Atiku had brought money into Nigeria, it could not have been the nation’s money. He has many friends abroad who are aware that he is contesting election and they can decide to assist him financially. What is wrong with that? Atiku is a rich man. He did not steal Nigeria’s money. He has a conglomerate of businesses. They did that to him as a former Vice President and I think it was not right. He subjected himself to searching.
How did you feel when his former boss, former President Obasanjo endorsed him?
I was happy because Obasanjo is our father. I have expressed my desire to visit him and he told me I should not worry, that we are all working towards the same goal of making Nigeria great again. Baba Obasanjo loves my husband so much. You know that my husband won the Adamawa governorship election before Baba sent for him to come and be his Vice President. It was people around them that caused the friction (they had while in office). They don’t like seeing two people in agreement; they would start to carry tales in order to cause division between them. It was all those lieutenants that were with them when we were in the Villa that caused the friction between them.
Why should Nigerians vote Atiku as their next President?
I am not trying to run other candidates down, but among them all, my husband is the most qualified. He is an entrepreneur who has several businesses. He is second to none in terms of employing people in Nigeria. Atiku is conversant with the economy. When he was the Vice President, he was actively involved in the activities of the economic team. Even the EFCC and ICPC were Atiku’s creations; so also was the privatisation programme. People who say wrong things about Atiku are myopic or they say such out of jealousy.
What are some of the lessons you have learnt over the years?
I am very peaceful and frank; I speak the truth always. I live a very simple life. I don’t gossip. I am a mother hen to everybody and people come to me for advice.
Who are your role models?
My role models are my parents that brought me up.
Which schools did you attend?
I had my elementary education at Lafiaji, Lagos. I also attended St. Mary’s, Iwo, Osun State, for my secondary education. I attended Ibadan Girls High School for a year before I was taken to Iwo. After I got married, I went to Kaduna Polytechnic. I also have a Master in Public Administration.
How romantic is Alhaji Atiku?
I think that one should be private to me.
Did you learn to speak Hausa after marrying him?
Yes, it was when he was posted to Maiduguri. I worked then at the university as a catering officer. I used to go and sit with the workers in the kitchen. I helped them with what they were doing and I also imitated them. That was how I learnt to speak Hausa.
How do you like to dress?
I wear what fits me. I don’t just wear anything. I dress moderately; I am not flamboyant. My favourite colours are blue, green and purple.