You hardly had settled down before you were forced to leave office as minister…
Yes, and that is my regret. It is my biggest regret that certain things happened and that shouldn’t have been blown up in a way to get me out of office. That is my greatest regret.
But why did you share in the unspent budget that should have been returned to the treasury?
It is a lie; I did not share any money. The money that was being spent was for recurrent expenditures. The remaining should have been returned on December 31 and that was done. We got a certificate from the accountant general to prove that.So where did the N300m story come from?
I don’t know.
How much did you share?
I didn’t share anything. That is why I was eventually cleared and exonerated by the court. That is why after I was cleared, nobody cared to make noise about it anymore. The people had moved on to something else. Let me tell you the truth – I didn’t share any money. Other people might have shared money, but I did not share any money. I can’t tell.
You claimed that you were misled by some civil servants working with you. Is it true?
The civil servants were supposed to come up with the budget covering what they were to buy. They brought it to the ministerial level to be headed by the permanent secretary, who would have seen that everything was in place before recommending it to the minister to sign and that was what happened. I got the budget covering three quotations and I signed. After signing, I didn’t hear anything about the issue anymore because I wasn’t supposed to find out whether they bought the things or not. That is a job for the permanent secretary, who is the accounting officer. Whatever I could have had was related to allowances which the civil servants should have. I wrote to the establishments to confirm if they should have allowances and they said yes. But to say that I hid money to share was a height of insult to me. I didn’t go to the office for the money. The money in that place wasn’t attractive to me. It was N10m that I was actually supposed to have taken.
You mean you got N10m out of the N300m?
No, there was no N300m anywhere. The total money to my knowledge was about N84m.
So what about the N300m that was reported stolen?
I don’t know where that came from. The media reported what they had to say without even checking.
Are you saying that the amount you signed was N84m and not N300m?
So, to what can you link the N300m scandal?
All I know is that when I was chosen, the professionals were happy. I don’t know who was unhappy.
After being forced out of office, you must have thought through to know where things went wrong. Haven’t you?
Oh yes. I know why it went that way. It was not supposed to be my trouble. But those who were conspiring came together and felt they had an opportunity to get rid of me. They made it my trouble. It is amazing that the problem started three months after the documents had been audited and certified okay. It was worked on by the internal and external auditors. How did they come up with this after three months?
Did you think you were victimised for being the first female health minister?
That could be part of it. I was discriminated against for being the first female and non-politician, among others. Some people didn’t like the fact that I knew my onions. The bottom line was that those people came together and got me out of office.
It was thought that you probably helped yourself to some money because of accommodation crisis you had in Abuja as minister.
I didn’t have accommodation then but I had goodwill; I had protégés and colleagues who helped out. Initially, we got less than N1m to get a place, but that was insufficient. I stayed in a hotel for some time. I later stayed with one of my wards, who offered me a place to squat. I didn’t want any problem associated with money or linked to my name. I squatted with her for about six weeks. It was on Abuja outskirts. They saw me and refused to do anything; they wondered if I would soon cave in or give up. I later got a house to live in for free from a friend. I later offered her N1m because I couldn’t continue to stay there for free. She hesitated to collect it. I went to the minister of the federal capital territory to ask him if there was an accommodation for me that I could pay for. He promised to help me get one and he did. He said it was being developed and would be completed by December of that year, but up till this moment, the property has not been completed because there was litigation on the land. That is the only property that I would have had and I had taken a loan from United Bank for Africa to get it, which was being deducted monthly. The moment I left office, the bank started asking for its money. So, I went to tell the new Federal Capital Territory minister to get someone else to get the house so that the bank could get its money, but that was when investigation revealed that the land case was in court, so nobody would buy it. I then asked the government to return the money to the bank, because there was a government agency that got the loan on our behalf. So they had to return the bank’s money.
Did you eventually know those who plotted your exit from office?
I didn’t even have to go in search. Reports on what truly happened kept coming to me but there is no way I am going to mention any name. It is okay that it went to court and I was exonerated eventually. When I spoke about discrimination, I remember that around the same time that I suffered that ordeal, someone else committed an offence that was outrageous but she was defended. But there was no one to defend me.
Did your family members believe that you mishandled money in office?
No, they were very upset with the reports. They felt so insulted. I was already 67 years old and I had never cheated anyone I interacted with till then. I told you that I had headed many offices and I was even president of International Paediatrics Association and I still represent them today. I have never cheated anyone. Another problem I had was that when these things were happening, I couldn’t have access to my boss — the late President Umaru Yar’Adua because he was not well. When he heard, he asked me to find out what went wrong and get back to him, but that was the last time I saw him. The case was unfinished, it was not properly explored but it wasn’t something that I could blame him for.
How did your husband react to it?
He was angry; he was sad for me because he knew how passionate I wanted to do something different. He couldn’t believe that such thing should happen to me. One of my daughters came around too. They are still very proud of me.
What went through your mind on the day you wrote the forced resignation letter?
I was not even alive as it were. I was just doing things mechanically. I couldn’t understand what it was all about. I just did what I had to do and then trusted God for my next step. Look, from the time that I was accused to the time I was taken to court was just four days. The only thing that I saw on this issue was an interim report which the late President Yar’Adua also saw.
So, it was President Yar’Adua who wanted you in his cabinet?
Yes, I believe so. He wanted me but I later discovered that it is not enough for the executive to want things done, his men must want the same thing, they must understand why he wanted it and they must share the goal. But in my case, they didn’t share the president’s goal. That was what happened. That is the problem in Nigeria; many of the people around me as a minister didn’t share my passion. These people are the problem in Nigeria; these people should also be profiled.
As a woman, did this incident make you cry?
No, I didn’t cry because I knew God was with me. I knew I didn’t do what I had been accused of. I knew all would be well. The last time I cried was when my father died. I cried because my father spoke with me a day before and the next day, I learnt he had died. I cried, wondering if I could have done something to keep him alive. He was my friend and was fantastic. He educated his five children. He taught us that one cannot sleep in two beds at once or ride two cars at once. He taught us to be contented and to be happy. I am not covetous; I was raised by a man who was well to do. There is still a twin building at Jibowu that my father left in his will for the National Research Council. So, this case didn’t make me cry, but I was annoyed and sad; sad because people who didn’t know me wanted to rubbish me. They didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t doing what they wanted. Another problem was that they were so much in a hurry to get me out.
How did you clean the shame that came with your experience?
My children are abroad and one of the problems I had when the case was in court was that I could not travel out. But as soon as that was over, I travelled out to chill, to use the words of my children.