Hajiya Fatima Muazu served as secretary to the old Bauchi State Government. At the federal level, she also served in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as a regional commissioner for many years. In this interview, she shared her experiences as a female civil servant, as well as other issues.
Considering how difficult female education was in northern Nigeria during your early days, how did you overcome the obstacles to go to school?
I keep on wondering why people say that education for women was difficult. In my own time, education was not only simple and easy but very expensive for the government and not for us.
I remember that right from class one to class seven, my parents never spent a kobo, including on uniforms. At the secondary level, government was in charge of everything, including feeding, transportation, pocket money, counseling, guidance. We were pampered in such a way that if you really wanted to be something, you could achieve it.
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Fortunately for me, it was a lot easier because my two parents were both teachers, so they knew the value of education and encouraged me and my sisters to really work hard; and we did.
Was that in Maiduguri?
I first went to school in Gashua, then Wuru when my grandparents were posted there. I later came back to Gashua, and in 1964, I got admission into the Girls’ Secondary School, Maiduguri, where I stayed for five years. Then I was admitted into Girls’ College, Ilorin (Queen’s School, Ilorin, as we used to call it). Life was easy, education was simple but very strict.
We say that education was challenging for the girl-child because not many parents would allow a young girl to move from Borno to Ilorin to go to school. That restriction would normally be imposed on a girl, but not a boy, what’s your take?
As I said, my parents were educated. My father had a National Certificate in Education (NCE) while my mother was a Grade II teacher, so I had no problem at all.
Secondly, the government ensured that I was accompanied from Maiduguri to Kano, then Ilorin. I never went alone. And later, when we were many, they used to hire a train for all of us. They would hire a coach for us.
But things changed later when education for everybody became difficult. At times it was better to stay in school than your parents’ house because food was better there and you had the encouragement that if you did your very best every teacher would love you. Unlike now, there was no shortcut, you either worked hard or remained at the bottom of the class.
Another thing that impeded female education was that even when she was allowed to go to school, as soon as a girl reached a certain age, say 15 or 16, that was the end of the road as the next thing was marriage. But you didn’t seem to have experienced this kind of break in your education, how did that happen?
I agree with you. That problem was there. When we started form one in secondary school, we were 45, but only 14 of us stayed till five years.
Whenever we came back from holidays, some people would be missing. And when you asked, you would be told that they were married off and some got pregnant and couldn’t come back. Somebody did not come back because her parents died and the people insisted she got married. So, the challenge was there, but I was never affected.
What happened to you after Ilorin?
After Ilorin, I had a temporary employment by the government, which was basic for anybody that had A-levels. I worked in the Ministry of Health in the North East. I wish I were in the same Nigeria I was then.
After nine months, admissions came out. We didn’t have to see anybody and I saw my name in the newspapers, stating that Fatima Muali was going to read Sociology in the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). You just needed to go to the Ministry of Education to ensure that your name was there; then you moved on.
A week or so later, the officer in charge of scholarship would be in the school and you would go and collect your money (bulgaria as we used to call it). And it was enough for everybody. Meal ticket was 20kobo for morning, 50kobo for afternoon, 50kobo for dinner. You would just go and pay in the bank and collect your meal ticket and move on.
In the afternoon they would come to collect your items for washing. And by the time you came back from school, everything was in front of your room. We never had a problem with electricity, and water was always running. It was an easy life.
So you read Sociology at the ABU?
No, I didn’t. I had a problem in secondary school because we didn’t have science teachers, so I couldn’t go for the course I wanted. They just placed me as a Sociology student, but when I got there I changed to Government/Political Science.
A lot of parents would say you could go to the university but make sure you have a husband first. So up to that point there was no pressure on you to get married?
The society was such that we didn’t need any pressure to think about marriage. By the time I got to part two, I had identified the person I wanted to marry, and at the end of part two, I was married. So I completed my university education as a married woman.
Were you the one who did the identification or the man?
Let’s say both.
You had just graduated from the university and got married, did you feel free to pursue a career or you had to follow your husband wherever he was and worked with him?
Fortunately for me, my husband was stationed in Maiduguri, so I did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme there. In fact, it was near my house. And since he was in a privilege position, I was able to get the job I wanted – an admin officer. But even if he wasn’t there I could have gotten a job anyway because everybody was employed then.
In the first three weeks, somebody came and said he was a vendor and if I needed any car he would be willing to let me have one. I identified the car and signed the papers, and two days later, the car was brought to my house. It was stated that government was going to pay him from my income. It was very simple. And if I hadn’t gotten a house, I would have been given one with furnishing and everything. So being married was an additional advantage as I didn’t have to pay for accommodation. It was stress-free.
You rose to the top of civil service in the old Bauchi State. And as a woman you had to combine work with housekeeping, raising children and official responsibilities and was still at the top of your game, such that you became the secretary to the state government; how did your career develop?
I had no problem getting a relative to look after my children, not young girls, but elderly women who could do better than me. And since my husband was in the same locality with me, I was not posted until when he was sent out of the service by the government. I had no problem. But life has changed since then.
When Bauchi was created, I moved there. Even back in Maiduguri I was very happy because I was the first female admin officer in the former northeastern state.
When we got there, my husband was looking for a job, so he moved to Lagos. Consequently, I asked to be posted to either our office in Lagos or be moved to federal service. I was temporarily sent to the federal service. I stayed there for three years and came back to Bauchi. When my husband was appointed a liaison officer in Yola, I was alone in Bauchi, so that stress that most women go through, such as cooking and looking after the kids, was not very difficult.
There were drivers to pick the children from school and bring them back. The work was so serious that you didn’t even think of anything, and by the time you realised it, it was prayer time and you would go back home.
One thing that is missing now is lack of commitment. Government used to encourage you to do your very best, and once you did your best, government was thankful. If you failed and went below the standard required of you, the government was also prepared to warn you or even get rid of you. So everybody was on his toes. But personally, I would say I had no problem.
I had only three kids. I have brothers and sisters, 10 of them. I lost my father in 1984, so I brought all my brothers and sisters. So everybody was looking after each other and I had no problem.
Did you experience any discrimination as a woman rising to the top in the civil service, or was it not there at that time?
I wouldn’t say it wasn’t there because there will always be discrimination – male or female – it all depends on how you play your cards. What I know and still believe is that if I do my best, no matter how you hate me, we will meet halfway, but if I fail and decide that since I am a woman I could do less than what men are doing, then you are calling for trouble. I ensured that I did better than most of the men around me, just to ensure that they respected me.
You are originally from Borno but got political appointment in Bauchi. There is always an indigeneship syndrome, especially when women are involved; was it easy for you to get that appointment?
It was different in Bauchi. We had permanent secretaries who were from Kwara and Edo. And those of us married to indigenous husbands were regarded as part and parcel of the state. So Bauchi was very accommodative for everybody, provided you were contributing your quota. I never experienced any discrimination.
To prove to you that there was no discrimination, two weeks after I retired, I was invited to the Government House by the then governor, telling me that he was considering about three of us for the position of directors-general. I never asked for it.
What about the position of secretary to the state government?
I was told to pray; and I said that if it was the best for me, let Allah decide. I went back home, and the next morning, a car came to pick me to the Government House. That was how I started the job.
So the appointment was made overnight?
It was made overnight. I don’t know how long it took them to consider that, but I think that even before he called me, he had already decided what to do.
One other thing is that if a woman becomes prominent in a place like that, there is always a challenge of relationship with people, even husbands; are you aware of this, maybe in other cases?
That is a scenario that would affect every female who finds herself at the top of the leader. There are some of us who feel that a woman should not be there. In fact, I know of people who went to the governor and told him that Islamically, it was wrong for him to appoint me. There were some who were not comfortable to work under a woman.
I remember one traditional ruler who had a problem with the government because he wanted to ask for something and the procedure was that any file going to the governor had to go through the office of the secretary to the government, who would append his or her opinion. I am not a vicious person, but that person went out of his way to wonder how he could stay under a woman. I saw his file and I kept it on my table. It took two weeks, and the third week he came. I thought he would never come to my office. When he came, he said he wanted to travel out of the country because he was not feeling very well and his doctor had advised that he got a second opinion. He said many things and sounded very nice. I told him to wait for me while I took the file to the governor and told him the truth. He just smiled and signed the file.
I brought it back to him and I said he should give us an hour or two and a letter would be issued to him. I told him that his file stayed this long because he didn’t want to come; he wanted to go against what God had destined.
I am a woman and can’t change that. If God says I will be in that place, I have to be there. I equally told him to accept whatever came his way; if he would not, let him go and pray. I added, “If I were you, if I didn’t want to work with her, I would stay at home, may be God would find another way of getting you to the hospital.” He said I should not be angry. That was how we parted and eventually leveled up. But I must assure you that it wasn’t easy.
Did your position not affect your relationship with your husband?
Honestly, husbands are the same all over. No husband wants a woman to do certain things he feels he should be the one doing, but it is easier when we understand that it is God’s will. May Allah bless him – my husband encouraged me to work hard. He ensured that I got that employment. He said, “Don’t allow anybody abuse you or say something bad about you because you have failed in your duty.” He knew the civil service very well, so that was okay with him. He encouraged me.
But there were times he would just blow up over little things and one had to be patient. When I knew I was the cause of the situation, I piped down and waited until he calmed down and we would sit down and talk about it.
When I was the secretary to the state government, there were times I would go back home at 4am because I was in a meeting. So, if I was in a meeting and knew I would not go back early enough, I would call and explain. But there were some bad days and you had to accept that.
The situation was even different with those you stayed with in the house as you had to break your head down, just for somebody not to think that one was doing certain things because one was so and so. I hate it when anybody thinks I am ‘misbehaving’ because I have an advantage over him or her.
After your civil service job, what did you do before eventually moving to INEC?
I was a big farmer. I keep livestock, which brings in money, but it keeps you busy. It gets you money when you want it without asking anybody for assistance. I keep my farming produce in my home. When I am in need of money I go to the market, tell somebody to come and buy bags and give me my money. It is the same thing in livestock. So I am not used to staying and asking for everything.
Are you still farming?
I have 250 hectares on the Gombe-Dukku road, but you know that farming by proxy never works. You have to be there personally; and I find it difficult to go to the farm every day.
I am 72; and there are certain things in life you want to do before you pass on. This is the time for prayers, reconsidering your life and amending those wrong things you have done. So I leave farming for money for those who can do it. My farm is always there, but I think there is the need for one to connect with one’s God.
Did your invitation to work in the INEC come to you as a surprise?
I don’t know how it came, but I always got things without asking for them. I never asked for even a post. I was the first female permanent secretary in Bauchi and I never knew when I was considered, so even when I was jobless, I knew God would send something for me. It doesn’t have to be a job, but it will be a way out.
I had gone to Yola when my aunty lost her husband and we were watching the NTA network news and I saw my name on top of the list. I said God had done it again. I don’t know who did it for me, it was only God. Nobody consulted me, nobody asked for my curriculum vitae. I didn’t know who sent in my name.
Yet you spent quite a time in INEC as a zonal commissioner.
It was only one term of five years.
Did you find that challenging? And how did you cope with Nigerian politicians as INEC commissioner?
Politicians are also Nigerians, but we behave differently, depending on where we find ourselves. However, politicians are different, in the sense that today somebody will come to you preaching for this and that, but tomorrow he will say that is not how it should be, it should be the other way round.
But politicians could be good Nigerians if government establishments treat them so. What is right will always be right and what is wrong will always be wrong. And we have our ups and downs.
At first we said only three political parties were qualified to contest, but we later took Nigeria into account and felt that would probably bring us back to square one. Considering this and other variables, we discovered that we could have five political parties. Even then, some Nigerians were asking questions. Now, we have 50 or 60.
If I mention the consequences of having that large number of political parties you won’t be happy because it is just a waste of money. We know the politicians move from one party to another, so why should we have many of them. I hope and pray that all of us would change.
What came to your mind when you heard that some politicians were buying N100 million forms to be president and some N50m to become governors? Do you think the electoral system is improving or retarding?
We are just getting more qualified to do the wrong things, thinking that Nigerians will not get the message. Nobody will give you N10m or N50m to buy a ticket. Politicians are taking us for granted.
How could women collect N50m and buy nomination forms for somebody? How could somebody collect N100m and pay for somebody to go and contest? I don’t know where I stand, maybe I don’t know where they are, maybe it is easy for them to get millions. But I don’t see any reason why anybody will buy anything for any politician just to come and contest elections; I don’t get it. Maybe I am not operating on the same wave length, but we are just getting more defined in making sure that we circumvent the rules. Maybe the Nigerian government should be wiser and find more ways of putting us straight on the road.
Do you think the Nigerian government is able to really deal with some of the problems you have highlighted. Are you optimistic?
The problem is that we have waited for too long to make amends. I remember that when I was young, everybody used to pay tax, no matter how small. You had to pay and move about with your tax papers because any government official could stop you. That made people more responsible and committed to the government.
In the 1970s and 1980s, government said that ordinary Nigerians were suffering, so they didn’t have to pay taxes. They said government was rich enough to do everything. That’s our problem number one. We did that and depended on oil.
And we kept on multiplying. From maybe 20million we are now 200million; where will the money come from for education and health and other developments like factories, roads? You need money. The best governments worldwide are the ones taxing their people. People are more responsible and concerned about those who rule them, such that if you are wrong they say it because they have nothing to lose.
Now, government is finding it difficult to do anything. Those of us who are pensioners are praying everyday that pension wouldn’t stop, civil servants are praying that their salaries would continue to come, and there are states that are not paying regularly.
So, government should reintroduce something, no matter how small. We want to be responsible and accountable for our government. We have reached a stage where only the geniuses among us will sit together and find the way out, but I am scared for my kids’ children.
As a pensioner now, you have done your part for Nigeria, what is your focus now?
Well, there is always something to be done, what is lacking is the physical aspect. We do as little as we can. The body says no, but we should always be prepared to help the family. There is always something to be done. We have friends and relatives who need our assistance.
Are you invited to some gatherings like the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and some of these associations that seek to deal with the problems we have?
Yes, once in a while, but the problem here is that you have to belong to a group to do certain things, and I am not fond of being in some groups. I am a lone ranger. I always know what I want and pursue it. If it means helping people individually, I do that. But if I am invited, I do go.
Do you have role models?
You may be surprised; my female role model is my grandmother. Our mother died when we were very young, myself and my two sisters, and this woman singlehandedly raised us because my father was not staying in one place. He used to work for the Northern Region, so he moved from one province to another. So our grandmother looked after us. And all of us are graduates, including our children, because of her.
In fact, a cousin of mine who also stayed with her built a big company in Kaduna and named it after her. My sister wrote her PhD thesis and dedicated it to her, stating that the woman did everything for us. And she had never been to school but all her children and grandchildren went.
For a male role model, I didn’t have the exposure to get one as it were, but I always thought that people like Sardauna, Tafawa Balewa combined simple life with service to community, and that is what I love in anybody.
My father was a simple person. He left two gowns and one mud house, not because he couldn’t have done it but he was the type that didn’t care; and I didn’t want to go that far. Certainly, I want to look after myself.
So, as time went on, I knew what I wanted in life. I identified those things I hated and ran away from them. I have many male role models. The good thing is that there are so many people I admire.
How do you spend your day?
There is always something to be done. Every picture you see here tells a story. My husband has so many brothers and sisters. I also have so many. Most of them have grandchildren, so there is always something to be done. I waited for you, otherwise I would have been in Gwana because my grandson is marrying somebody from Bauchi. But I will go tomorrow.
When somebody is sick you have to go to the hospital; at times if you don’t go and push, the person will not get the needed attention in good time. Sometimes you will go and see somebody who has had 10 kids and the husband has run away; you would go and see what you can do. So there is always something to be done but not something that will bring in money.
What about community service?
I started something I thought would provide for me for the rest of my life, but it didn’t work out. I had a gum Arabic farm of 50 hectares, but somehow, I was given the wrong seedlings, so they are not producing. If they were productive I would have been comfortable. But I am not complaining because even now, I am comfortable; it depends on how you take life.
Do you do anything specific to take care of yourself – health wise, food, exercise?
Of course, as time goes on, doctors will tell you what you should not eat, and how to eat. They will also advise that you do not stay in one place. And you will follow that advice. At times you walk around just to keep body and soul together.
Apart from that, what doctors have not advised me and what I think works for me, is being happy, especially with my maker. I don’t joke with that, and I extend it to all the people I meet because if I do anything wrong to you, somebody is there watching. So being happy is very important. And I am happy that God has done wonders with me. I never worked too hard but I found myself in places that were okay for me.
When I go back to the village and look at my classmates, I thank God. I see how they are and how life is for them; and considering that I didn’t work any extra hard to get to where I am, I am grateful to God. I parted with my husband in good position, so I am okay.