From the fairytale life as the daughter of a top military officer, Aisha was thrust into a bitter reality when her father, then Head of State was killed in a coup attempt, In the aftermath, she experienced the irony of not getting needed assistance—unlike before. This lesson has shaped her adult life, and having attained the best of formal education could offer, she now coordinates the activities of a top NGO, the Muritala Mohammed Foundation, MMF, with particular attention to the ‘real’ needy. Aisha Muhammed Oyebode is also a renowned barrister with a repertoire of legal experience in international contracts, litigation, Commercial Law, Oil and Gas Law, and advisory.
The Asset Management Group offers financial and business advisory services, management and operations audits, venture capital and project finance, investment appraisals, business linkages, and risk and legal compliance analysis. My positions changed over time in the firm as I rose from Executive Director to Managing Director in 1993. I held this position till 2000 when I became chairman. The metamorphosis also influenced my business acumen because I handled a number of sensitive responsibilities. Prominent among these included the development of a profitable and credible business with acknowledged integrity. People were able to trust the organisation and what it stood for. Some of the activities we were involved in included Enterprise Africa,a project of the United Nations Development Programme, Niger Insurance Plc, Palms Mall at Lekki, and two residential projects in Lagos and Abuja.I joined the reputable law firm of international lawyers, Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko, immediately after the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) year in the Ministry of External Affairs in 1989. I serviced major international corporate clients at Ajumogobia, Okeke, and Co. My responsibilities there as an associate included providing advice, revising and preparing documentation relating to privatisation, commercialisation, foreign investments, international contracts, master and servant and litigation, primarily for the oil and gas sector. I also managed a personal case load of private individuals and corporate clients, specifically dealing with legalities of oversea joint ventures with local firms. I was there till 1991, when I teamed up with Asset Management Group Limited as the Executive Director.
Besides my involvement with the Asset Management Group, I have been busy with self-development opportunities. This is usually through advanced trainings and membership of pertinent bodies. In terms of training especially, I have given my resources to better myself, and this has seen me attending training workshops and seminars within and outside Nigeria. I am also a member of several associations and bodies here in Nigeria and outside.
A most challenging activity I am currently involved in is as the CEO of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation. The idea behind it began in the 1990s when the then MD of Daily Times newspaper started an annual Murtala Muhammed lecture. This has attracted top-notch experts from different parts of the world who come to interact with their African colleagues. The inauguration of the Foundation in February 2002 was set on a mission to sustain the lofty ideals of the great leader to the benefit of Nigeria and Africa, for which eminent Nigerians have shown great support. The inauguration was witnessed by members of the Board of Trustees led by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, General Ibrahim Babangida, General T. Y. Danjuma, and the wife of the late General Muhammed, Dr (Mrs.) Ajoke Muhammed, Mr. Risqua M. Muhammed, Dr. Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo. Others included were a number of federal ministers, several state governors and representatives from international communities, non-governmental organisations and other eminent personalities. Initially, the Foundation operated programmes that focused largely on engendering and supporting self-reliance efforts in major areas like housing, business development, the environment, displacement and resettlement, and disaster relief.
Shortly after a series of plane crashes in Nigeria, the Foundation took its Disaster Relief Service to the level of policy campaign, which heralded a new form of intervention. It drew national and international stakeholders in the aviation industry, disaster response agencies in Nigeria and around the world and the government to deliberate on global perspectives on disaster management. This led to what is certainly the most incisive reform in Nigeria’s aviation industry. It explored the adequacy of our disaster management regime with the intention of developing and providing a holistic approach. The Foundation has since developed a draft Disaster Management Act. In addition, a robust disaster management framework on which the Act can function has been developed. We believe the Act and the Framework will set the stage for disaster risk reduction, risk assessment and vulnerability reduction as well as better support systems during and after disasters.
The Foundation provided relief materials to the victims of the EAS plane crash, which occurred in the Gwammaja area of Kanoon on 4 May 2002. The northern coordinator of the Foundation supervised the distribution of bags of rice, salt, sugar, praying materials and water for over thirty days. The impact of the disaster caused untold damage, killed hundreds and rendered many homeless. In a bid to promote its medium-term disaster relief efforts and to improve the standard of living of the inhabitants of the Gwammaja, the Foundation has provided a borehole.
Sequel to the 27 January 2002 Lagos bomb explosions, the Foundation commenced short-term intervention for the victims within the cantonment. Meals were served to the victims twice daily at each point, and counseling was given to women especially. As part of its medium-term relief efforts, the Foundation also built a school, comprising 38 classrooms, ten administrative offices with toilet facilities and adequate playing grounds.
We also achieve our policy and advocacy drive through research, issue selection and prioritisation, stakeholder consultation, influencing government policy, annual lecture and conference, and agriculture-related business development. The journey has been tough. The major problem Nigeria currently faces is infrastructural decay. For a Foundation like ours, the only means of survival is through funding, and we are grateful that our donors have always been generous.
The Vocation Pathway
After concluding my primary education at the Lebanese School, I gained admission into Queen’s College, Yaba, in 1974. Life at Queen’s College was fun until the death of my father in 1976 punctured my innocence. His death signalled a different period in my life and made me question the rationale behind my being shielded all the while. Life became rough, or perhaps I just saw it so. A major character that stood tall in my memory of my Queen’s College years was our principal, Mrs. Efunjoke Coker. She was the archetypal educationist and took a genuine interest in her students. As a teenager, I learnt a lot from her and was especially moved by the way she conducted one assembly morning to commiserate the death of my father. But even when she knew I was the daughter of the Head of State, I can’t recall being unduly favoured for anything. I had to get anything from the school like any other student. I finished from the school in 1979.
Unbelievably, there were suggestions from my paternal family in Kano about me getting married, which Mother sought a way to quickly put an end. Before it escalated, she got admission for me at Queen Anne’s School, Caversham, Reading in the United Kingdom, where I did my A levels preparatory for further studies in the legal profession. However, my journey into law was never intentional. It happened during one of my interactions with Mother, who simply asked what profession I wanted to go in to. I told her I had not thought about it. But when she suggested law, it just stuck. Indeed, after several years in practice I don’t believe I would have derived the kind of satisfaction I have in any other vocation.
I was at the University of Buckingham, UK, for my LLB (Hons) degree between 1984 and1986, and followed it with a BL (Barrister at Law) at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos in 1987. During this period I was at the chambers of late Chief Rotimi Williams on attachment. However, I would say I enjoyed law more as a postgraduate student than as an undergraduate. I did my LLM in Public International Law at King’s College, University of London.
I returned to Nigeria immediately to participate in the mandatory one-year NYSC service to the nation. I was posted to the Ministry of External Affairs as a solicitor whose responsibilities generally centred on writing legal briefs on international issues and consular disputes. We also reviewed international contracts and treaties in accordance with regional and international regulations. Although I did well there, I was not satisfied with writing briefs only – I wanted to be at the forefront, to be a barrister. I believe my being opinionated was a gift I should not neglect and therefore, I left the ministry after the service year.
A case for women
I believe that people’s upbringing affects their outlook on women. Ours is a society where women are more restrained. When I was pregnant with child, I feared it would be a girl and would face the same constraints. Now, I have two girls and a boy and I can see the girls are more outgoing. My fears were baseless.
The bias against women is generic. Sometimes people make judgments based solely on one’s sex. Personally, I have had instances where people refer to me as just a woman and, worse still, one from the north! It is as if anyone from the north couldn’t do well – which is a myth. In most cases, I usually topped my class and it is something my children now emulate. I am also a hard working person, even though I am very relaxed in my work. I don’t have patience for people who don’t like to work. There are instances where some people claim they have nothing to do but still won’t work when it is offered to them.
One way I have been able to improve the lives of women is by hiring them as staff of the Foundation. The most important thing I believe women need is to have a voice in whatever life’s circumstances may bring. With the aid of the Foundation, we have been able to touch more women through conferences. Other times, I employ personal counsel. I try to mentor people and reach them on a personal level. We also have a scholarship scheme through which we encourage them.
Life with two mothers
In the Fulani tradition, a child is usually given to a member of his or her father’s family. One finds that most children are not brought up by their real mothers, but by another woman in the family as a sign of respect. This was especially my own case – I was taken to live with my uncle’s wife in Kano and I grew to appreciate her. Living with her was such a wonderful experience. Indeed, I have yet to meet somebody else with her kind of temperament. She was so gentle, so loving and so warm. I say this without any exaggeration. People generally testified to her behaviour.
As a child, I frequently visited Kano to spend some time with my uncle and his adorable wife – my second mother. Whenever I was to travel, Mother would pack my luggage, usually filled with mostly Western dresses and a few wrappers. But as I got to Kano and began to wear them, it would become inevitable to tie a wrapper on a different top, which often made me an object of ridicule from the people in the compound. They called the style of dressing “cut, cut and join, join”. As a result; I would recoil into my shell and start to cry. Most times, my Kano mother would intervene by getting me a complete set from one of her wrappers. Indeed, those people knew how to mock one. They would tease that I had come to Kano in the boot of a car, when I expected them to mention the aeroplane! It was a memorable time, living and learning as I grew amongst my father’s family then.
My adopted mother was such a wonderful person. She had a strong capacity for endurance. With her, everything I did was okay. She taught me through reasoning. She believed in giving a child the necessary guidance that would help him or her make the best decision. Because of her approach one naturally wanted to do the right thing. Whenever I offended her I would sense the disappointment in her and apologize. I rarely repeated the same mistake.
She was a very traditional woman. She hardly left the home. She had four children – all boys – but I couldn’t relate much to any of them because they usually weren’t around. They were with relatives in other parts of the country. Some of them were with my parents in Lagos.
My real mother was a different kind of person– a typical Yoruba woman, which is what we continuously tell her. She loved to enjoy herself and often brought parties to the house. Through her we got to know about Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey. She had a lot of friends even though she was a tough disciplinarian. She is a dental therapist by profession but she is a business woman as well. She trades in clothes. She is also a real estate developer as well as an environmentalist. Indeed, she is a lot of things packed in one. I am very proud of her.
Growing up was very tough because she was such a disciplinarian. She never spared the rod. On the other hand, Dad was more tolerant. For instance, if Father gave one of us money to buy comics and he or she bought more than was necessary, Mother would request for the balance. Even if one had given them out to friends, Mom would want one to get them back! I remember how embarrassing that could be. As a teenager, I became rebellious and began to assert myself. I saw that, being the quiet one in the house, I had been neglected and shown the least respect. This also made me hold on firmly to personal opinions, which people saw as stubbornness. I also had grudges with a number of people – even when they didn’t know it!
Despite my strained relationship with Mother, I had great growing years with my family, especially being the first child. I was generally well behaved, my major concern being to be the best in my class. I read a lot, with a bias for the classics. As a result, I was always among the best in my class. I remember I used to steal in to my father’s cupboard to read some of his journals. Physically, there were so many things I detested about my body as a growing person. I was skinny, I had protruding eyes and I was very dark– indeed, the darkest in my family. I remember people used to call me ‘Eyes Kongba’ in reference to my eyes, comparing them to those of a crab! Also, they used to mock that they couldn’t see me when in the dark because I would merge with the environment. However, I later met people in Britain who appreciated my attributes. I grew up to appreciate myself the way I am.
My parents had five other children besides me. My immediate younger brother (now deceased) was followed by a girl, Fatima, who was followed by another boy, Musbau (now in Abuja), and two girls, Zainab and Jumai, in that order. While we were still youngsters, I was more or less a mother to all of my siblings, and that I think, had to do with our culture. However, my immediate younger brother and I were usually at loggerheads, because he wouldn’t want to accept my authority as the senior. We were really close, which made his death in 1994 such a sad experience for all the family. It was more painful due to the inexplicable circumstances surrounding it. Although we queried and questioned at the time, we eventually accepted it as the will of God.
The soldier’s daughter
I had a fantastic childhood. I was born on 24 December 1963 at the Lagos Island Maternity Hospital, the first child of my parents. My father was particularly excited because I was a girl. I was lucky to be in that family and life then was almost a bed of roses. It was such a secure childhood; we were never exposed to life outside the home. Both my maternal grandparents were still alive then, as was my paternal grandmother. So were several aunties and uncles, extended family members and relatives whom we frequently visited in Kano.
In those days, our average day consisted of the normal things: we woke up, got dressed, went to school and returned in the evening to attend Islamic lessons, after which we went to bed. During the holidays we usually travelled to Kano. This was especially pleasant for my father, who loved to travel by road.
I was so shielded as a child that I could not go out without permission. Indeed, I knew little about life outside our home until the time I went for my secondary education in a boarding school. Then I began to wonder why my people had shielded me so much from the reality, which I was going to face any way. I thought, since childhood was such a short period, they should have allowed me to explore the different shades of life. In fact, the way I was raised later developed a kind of subtle rebellion in me. At a time, I wanted to start exerting myself, which many misconstrued.
On the other hand, I learnt to appreciate life on a different scale as the over- pampered daughter of a military officer. Although I had issues with the way I was being raised, I found it was with the best intention of my parents and guardians. I have also understood that there may never be a “best” way of raising a child. There are those raised with all the pampering and protection but who still grow up spoilt. There are also those who had a difficult childhood but still did not do any better as an adult. Parents can only do their best and hope for the best for their children.
My dad was a senior officer in the Nigerian Army, our world was full with military activities and peoples. A lot of soldiers lived and worked with my father as orderlies, washermen and other menial jobs. I grew up to know so much about how disciplined these soldiers could be. Anyone who was found wanting in his or her duties were punished. Most times, they were taken to the guard room and had their hair cut. They served their punishment without undue interference or favour. Sometimes, as part of their community service, they would come to mow the lawn. This was during the closing stages of the civil war, so the soldiers were more active than ever. Sometimes they would gather to discuss their individual and collective experiences in the war. I guess this was what made them have such a strong singing culture. They sang about virtually everything that happened around them.
Although I was still very young during this time, I remember it was a delightful thing to be in the army or to be related to those in the army. In fact, this was evident in my family as my younger brother joined the cadets as a youngster. We felt proud of him, especially when I saw him in his uniform. More so, my father later became a prosecutor, and although I didn’t know much of what this implied, I was nonetheless a proud daughter. We left our barracks abode at Point Road, Apapa, first to Bedrock Road and then to Second Avenue, both in Ikoyi. As kids, we usually strolled around Ikoyi. Since most of the place was still swampy then, we occasionally saw reptiles, which the officers often helped us to kill.
Father initially sent me to the Army Primary School in Yaba before an uncle who lived across the road introduced him to the Lebanese school his children attended nearby. When he was convinced of what they offered, my father got me transferred there, where I got to know several children from Lebanon, Syria and several East Asia nations. Indeed, as a child, I used to have odd feelings about the expatriate children. I sometimes wondered if they ever used the toilet!
Irrespective of people’s opinion about my father, I knew him to be kind and gentle. I wouldn’t know how he related with people outside but with his children he was the most desirable father. He believed so much in education and constantly told Mother to take it as a priority, whether he was around or not. He always wanted his children with him and it was difficult to part with me sometimes when I stayed with his family in Kano. The culture, I believed, hindered him from showing affection.
On Sundays, he usually took us out to the club house, and then to Royal Palace Hotel where we enjoyed swimming. Dad got a gramophone for the house and different kinds of toys whenever he was out of the country. There was such a strong camaraderie in my family then. Father was also very loyal and friendly. He was detribalised and had friends from different parts of the country. At all times, there were different kinds of people in our house. Dad just accommodated them. During the war, Father had to arrange to bring Mother’s relatives from Port Harcourt. Father was also very opinionated, which is one trait I took from him.
A blackout and a crisis
On a particular Friday, 13 February 1976, the principal of the Lebanese school, who was also a friend of our father, came to pick us up in a Peugeot car. She took us to one of our uncles who lived in Yaba, where we wouldn’t be able to watch TV. Although, I sensed that something was amiss, there was no way I could confirm. As we got to the house, I saw my uncle’s wife wiping away tears. When I asked she claimed to be removing something in her eye. The puzzle remained until the evening, when I heard in the news that General Murtala Muhammed had been killed. Then I remembered that Father had gone out that day, and the reality that he had indeed been murdered hit me. My immediate reaction, I remembered, was to s-c-r-e-a-m!
Our mother was out of the country at this time, which compounded the situation for us the children. She couldn’t get to us in time due to flight delay. I was already above twelve years old so I could understand what had taken place. My father, who had become the Head of State a few months before, had died! The effect on the entire family was devastating. My mind went blank for a long time afterwards and up until now I can’t remember the subsequent events.
We briefly relocated to Kano. While a lot of people commiserated with us, some others mocked us, saying my father had also been involved in the assassinations of many people during the 1966 coup. My father’s family thence forth decided we were going to be with them, which did not go down well with my mother. She explained to them that it was the agreement of the couple that, whatever happened to any one of them, the children must stay together. She emphasized the fact that it was my father’s wish that we received the best education. My paternal grandmother especially felt slighted by Mother’s insistence. She took it personally and afterwards refused to visit us whenever she came to Lagos. This almost created a crisis in the family. It took the intervention of other family members to quell any ugly incidence. My father’s sisters, Hajia Modajia, who is a home maker, and Alhaja Mona, a prominent writer, were helpful in this instance.
Actually, the crisis made me grow up to appreciate the Nigerian situation better. This has made me become quite passionate about the country and about issues concerning it. Having lived in both sides of the Niger, I see our diversity as a blessing. Indeed, I am also from the two divides, being a product of a cross-cultural marriage. My father was a typical Hausa, while my mother is a Yoruba, although with a link to Fulani through her mother. She also has links with Rivers State through her mother’s sisters. Initially, my father’s mother didn’t support the marriage and pressured him severely to get another wife who should be Hausa.
The bitter reality
Although I appreciated the sheltered upbringing my parents gave me, I also felt they should have allowed me to have a feel of reality. Childhood is such a short period. Thus, it was a difficult reality I faced after the death of my father. Beyond the reputation as the daughter of a former head of state, there was really nothing much to glory about. The family experienced some scarcity and the situation became really tough. Even to pay our school fees became a major problem, which wouldn’t have been the case if Father were alive.
The family later got a pledge from the federal government that they would hence forth take charge of our education to whatever level. But it wasn’t easy to get the funds. I remember we had to frequently visit the people saddled with the responsibility of disbursing the money. After a while, our means of getting the money was channeled through the ministry, where bureaucracy was renowned. Thus, several times we would have to go from one office to another in a bid to get the money released. We had to meet with several directors who kept referring us to one another. But we never gave up because that seemed the only option. More so, the thought of foregoing education because of the difficulty was never an issue for me – I didn’t think it was a choice.
In essence, while I admit that my infancy and early childhood were rosy, the scenario changed with the death of my father. The period was a real learning process because it taught me how to push through when there is adversity. At that time, the only family car became so old that we dared not take it out because of the embarrassment. We preferred to use public transport instead. At a time, Mother had to sell her jewellery to fend for some of our pressing needs. One major lesson I learnt from her, which came in the form of a statement, was that what couldn’t break one should make one stronger. We learnt never to give up when we faced setbacks.
Although I had always taken life as I found it, while also having the ‘live-and-let live’ mentality, I now understood I needed to show more love and concern for my family and relatives. This has subsisted till today, so much so that the problems of my siblings naturally become mine. In fact, it got to a time my mother reported that some people felt I was policing their lives. I am grateful to my Mother for teaching me the value of being content with whatever I have. This has helped me never to be greedy or envious of another person. I try also to impart these values in my children.
Another valuable lesson I learnt was that people tend to gravitate towards successful people, or those they believe should be able to offer help when they need it. We understood painfully that only when one is relevant would he or she command the love and attention of everybody. In fact, I could say that I receive more now as a relatively comfortable adult than when I really needed assistance. This taught me, and has made me have the mind of reaching out to people around me whom I thought might need my assistance. I try to impact on those I actually see – my hairdresser or any other person doing menial jobs; who I feel should be better opportune.
However, some people were helpful during the turbulent period in my family. One of these was my maternal grandmother, Alhaja Sariyu Langba. She was an entrepreneur and I remember visiting her in what I knew then as ‘fishing village’ and helping her in her trade. She usually visited me in Queen’s College, especially when Mother was out of Lagos, and she brought Cabin biscuits along.
Marriage and family
Motherhood and family life have been fun because I am married to a friend. We were friends a long time before we cemented our relationship, which I believe is crucial to the success of any marriage. The couple should be able to know each other well and understand themselves before getting married. Although he is just four years older, my husband, Gbenga Oyebode, has a matured mind. Sometimes, we mock him that he behaves like an old man even though he is the last child in his family. He is an accomplished businessman and I’m very proud of him.
Although this isn’t my first marriage, I totally savour this experience because of the man I married. He is very outgoing, he is an interesting person to be with. Little wonder why he makes friends easily. He is also very nice and I wouldn’t say this if he were not. We enjoy travelling together. And I remember one of our trips abroad, in Japan, where all we ate was fish! At a time I could no longer bear it. Since my husband is a football enthusiast, I try my best to accompany him to watch matches. But I am not a follower of the game, and therefore the 90 minutes within which it is played seems like an eternity to me. I simply allow my mind to day dream. The success of any marriage, I have learnt, depends more on the woman and I am willing to make a success of my home.
As a sign of being favoured, I have also been blessed with three adorable kids –two girls and a boy. Whereas the two girls are outgoing–a trait they took from their father, the boy is more reserved. He prefers to spend his time in front of a TV set, although we have devised ways to make him partake in more creative play. He is none the less a bright student, like his sisters. My children are leaders in their different classes. In fact, I wouldn’t know between their father and me whose gene is more responsible for their intelligence.
My children and I are friends, although this doesn’t mean they can do whatever they feel like. There should always be boundaries. But I allow them to be children. I am free with them. I implement the upbringing I gained from my two mothers – the soft and the tough – and it works very well. Indeed, I would love to be remembered as a successful mother and wife, and one who contributed to change in her society.