Pat Utomi, a former Delta State governorship and presidential candidate and his wife, a Consultant Orthodontist at LUTH, Dr. Ifeoma, in an interview with PUNCH talk about their marriage, careers, and family.
Despite their career path and tight schedule, the couple who have been married for 35 years disclosed that their family comes first.
Read excerpts below…
Over the years, you have given so much of yourself to public discourse. That must have taken a toll on the time you were able to spend with your family. What role has your wife played in all that?
Firstly, my wife is not a public oriented person. And I am not a socialite. It might seem strange because I’m in the public eye but I am not a socialite. She welcomes anything that can take us off the public eye. She has had to develop coping mechanism to adapt to my sense of citizenship and my sense of duty to society which is what pushes me, even against my personal preference for myself.
Can you imagine if I decided sometime early in my career that I didn’t want to have anything to do with politics and that I would never speak my mind in public? I would just go from the office of one minister to the office of the president. They all know me and love to associate with me; if they can manage it. Can you imagine how much money I would have made?
I have risked everything; I have risked not making money just because God put a certain kind of conscience in me. Obviously, my children and wife ask from time to time, ‘What kind of wahala (trouble) is this’?
Have your children ever asked you to give up all the engagements so you could have more time with them?
Though I have been very active with public engagements, I am a deliberate parent who deliberately structures to spend time with his family. The biggest challenge I have had is not even time spent in canvassing issues; the biggest challenge I have had is that as I grow older, there has been a global demand for my time. I have been travelling a lot around the world.
I am not a night person. On any given day, unless something extraordinary is happening, you would find me at home by 7pm. I don’t go out at night. If there is any event that I really feel I need to honour a friend, I would show up and ‘escape’ 30 minutes later. I would go back home.
So my family is used to having me at home every night. I even have a formula that one day of every week, I sit down with the family and everyone talks about their issues. I have had the good fortune of being able to combine an active life with being a present parent.
Are any of your children following your footsteps in terms of public activism?
The youngest is in the university. She is the one that shows more of that inclination. But the older four have not, to the best of my knowledge, shown any orientation towards activism.
Would you encourage or discourage them to do that considering your experience?
I will like everybody to be a ‘citizen’. I have invested so much to create an atmosphere for rational public conversations. That is why I find the current situation in Nigeria tragic.
Everything is done by people in government to prevent a rational public conversation. We talk about fake news; yet, the biggest source of fake news in Nigeria is the government. I see the things they generate from time to time, even about me. They don’t know I know they are the source of the fake news. But Judgment Day will come.
You have been married for 35 years. What is the secret?
Utomi: Is there a secret? I think that marriage is first and foremost a gift from God. If you accept this fact, it makes it easy to sail through. Marriage is a covenant, not an agreement. God is the third party. His spirit is one of love and sharing. That is fundamentally what there is to marriage.
What exactly has kept your marriage going?
Ifeoma: If a woman knows what she wants in a man, her choice would be streamlined based on her principles. I always tell young ladies that they have to accept the package (man) they started out with. After you wed a man, whatever personality or character he displays in marriage, is yours.
Women have to learn to deal with things. Marriage is about self-giving and being tolerant. It is about ‘us’ and not ‘I.’ Sometimes, we need to subsume our ambitions and ideals for the other person. One needs to be accommodating; one has to do certain things out of love, not necessarily because one wants to do them.
How did you propose to her?
Utomi: There are romantic western ideals (proposals) that are nice. But I think for us, we just connected. We both knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. In terms of the formal ‘will you marry me proposal,’ that eventually happened but it was clear from the outset of our courtship that the proposal already took place before the formal proposal happened. I keep celebrating the fact that she agreed to be my wife.
Why do you do that?
Utomi: Marriage is a gift to your partner when you agree to be his or her wife or husband. You give up so many things. I think people do not realise how important that ‘value’ is. Being a young lady, she could have chosen to travel abroad or pursue something else, but here she is. It is definitely a gift.
Gratitude is the most important thing in a relationship. We recently celebrated her birthday in a unique way. People thought it was her 40th or 50th birthday. Every year comes with one type of game, which keeps our marriage fresh. We love playing games.
Would you describe yourself as a romantic?
Yes, I am. I’m a romantic bush man.
What are some of the ways you have been able to rekindle the love in your marriage over time?
Family events are huge things for us. There is no birthday that is like any other. Every birthday is a huge event not in terms of public parties but in terms of family surprises. The idea is that for every birthday, one has to plan something nobody has thought of and take everyone by surprise.
We are a family of faith, so traditionally, the family worships together. Sunday mornings, after church, we continue with the family brunch and time of prayers together. That culture has grown through the years.
Who is the first to apologise when you have misunderstandings?
Utomi: It depends on the issue. Typically, if I am upset, I walk away. But three minutes later, I have forgotten about everything and we continue talking as if nothing happened. We do not allow ourselves to be caught in misunderstandings.
Some men are of the view that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. What is you view about this?
Utomi: If I had that view, I would not have gone to medical school to meet my wife; I would have gone to my village. But my joy is that from the start, she has been a super performer in the kitchen. After I returned from the United States, my house was a meeting point for young professionals.
She used to come and cook various delicious meals. My friends loved her meals. Perhaps, if she could not cook, I might have adjusted somehow. But it was never an issue for us. I found it interesting she could cook, because I too was famous for my cooking skills in graduate school. I used to enjoy cooking.
Would your marriage have lasted this long if your wife earned more than you?
Utomi: In fact, I have been praying for her to have money so I can retire and be pampered. But on a serious note, this mentality of men feeling inferior because their wives have more money than they do is a silly, new phenomenon. My father had a job that had an impressive title; he worked with an oil company.
He earned a decent amount. My mother who was a textile merchant had more money than he did. No one outside our family knew who was bringing in the most money. When I wanted to attend graduate school, because I did not want to disturb my father, I told my mother.
She immediately walked into her room, tore out a sheet from her cheque book and wrote out an amount that could cover my one-year expenses. It was not an issue in my family. Today, things are different and it is wrong.
Do you operate joint accounts?
Utomi: Yes we do. We also have separate accounts.
What do you think is the cause of divorce among celebrity couples?
Utomi: I believe pride is one of them. There is a lot of quarrel over material things. I think patience and tolerance are increasingly in short supply. Everybody is on the go. We do not get enough time to reflect on little misunderstandings. Very sad, I see many marriages that have broken up and the couples cannot figure out why they broke up.
Ifeoma: I think it also has to do with the value system and the cultural transition we are facing. As there are human rights, there are also women’s rights. Our young ladies sometimes get emerged in these rights. In the past, we were brought up to be submissive. The whole ‘women’s right hype’ has brought about less tolerance and impatience. The term ‘equal right’ is affecting some homes negatively.
Do you disagree on how to discipline your children?
Utomi: Once either of us is disciplining any of our children, the other does not interfere. We do not disagree on how to discipline them. Children are very clever; they can play on their parents’ mentality.
What is the most valuable gift you bought for your wife?
Utomi: We buy ourselves gifts all the time. The most valuable gift we give each other is laughter. We always joke about the term ‘Be My Wife,’ because every couple of her birthday, I buy her the latest BMW as a gift.
Ifeoma: My friends say I am a shareholder in BMW. This year, he gets me a series, the following year, it is another series.
Do you sometimes get carried with the wealth your husband has?
Ifeoma: I do not get carried away with anything; people that know me describe me as being down-to-earth. I do not get carried away with material things.
Is it true you buy BMW vehicles for your wife on her birthdays?
That was taken out of context and has haunted me for years. It’s not all her birthdays; It’s just a number of them.
Is love the only ingredient to sustain a marriage?
Ifeoma: Yes, if one truly understands what loves means. The problem is that many people do not understand what love means. Patience, tolerance and self-giving describe love.
Utomi: The truth of the matter is that it is not only with marriage. I say to love is to lead and to lead is to love. A person who does not love his people cannot lead his people. Love is the most important ingredient in the social context. Many couples have their foundation built on attraction. Either of them gets attracted to the material things the other partner possesses. When the partner stops being that person or having those things, love dies.
What was the impression you had when you first met your husband?
I recall that he came in with the boyfriend of a roommate when I was in medical school. I saw this handsome young man coming and it was interesting. I think there were certain ‘vibes’. When he came into the room, there was a kind of ‘connect’. They said they were hungry and I offered them food. I guess the feeling was mutual since he asked me for food.
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What made you sure that you could spend the rest of your life with him?
Several things. Before that, I had male and female friends and I wouldn’t say that I was unattractive. There were people who approached one because of certain qualities that stood one out. I have always admired smart people and I like to associate with those that are smarter than me.
A person that is caring and smart. That was one of the attributes that stood him out. He took me to many restaurants and everyone were so envious and wondering what kind of man it was that was taking me to all the best Chinese restaurants, which was a big deal back in those days. I was really swept off my feet.
How have you been able to keep your love alive?
Our foundation was based on attraction, admiration, love and the fact that we had faith in each other. I think my husband has done a lot in the area of keeping the fire burning because he is the more adventurous type. I am happy to be be caring along in the adventure.
Over the years, has taken me to practically everywhere. He always thinks of something different for us to do. The fact that we also connect at the intellectual level counts too. Though we are from different backgrounds, we have a common ground for association. The fact is that I have also built myself to be at that level. Still, it is a work in progress.
It is our thirty fifth year and we are very comfortable with ourselves and are ready to run the race together even more. There is mutual respect in terms of being able to treat each other kindly. There should be a conducive environment for loving and living together.
Of course, there have been some areas that he ventured into, such as politics, that I always say I didn’t like. But the objective is to make a change in the politics of the country.
Your husband has given a huge part of his life to public service. How has that rubbed off on you?
That’s very interesting because he has been in the public domain since 1982. I knew as far back as 1983 what I was into and what I wanted. Sometimes, it has been challenging but I have come to understand that’s his passion. That’s what he loves to do.
However, his public activities do not take much time away from the family because my husband values family. With that in mind, it gives an understanding of what transpired over the years. He has always given priority to family.
There have been times that he travelled outside the country and immediately the programmes he went for ended, he was ready to jump into the plane to come home. That shows how much he loves family because if it were some other person, he would be so happy to stay for few more days and have a time away from home.
My husband is the opposite of that and sometimes, I’m even the one that begs him to stay the night there and come the next day. He really loves family and anytime he has a free day, he loves spending it with his family.
Have you had any inclination towards public activities or politics?
They say never say never. I have been on this race with him for years and you know that saying that when people have lived together for a long time, they start looking like each other. In a way, I’m an activist because I have always liked to pursue the common good. So, some of that have rubbed off on me.
By the grace of God, I still have a future and if I find myself in a position where I would need to make certain political decisions, I would. Perhaps subconsciously, I didn’t want both of us to be in the limelight. Over the years, I haven’t really been in the public domain.
What other qualities of his have rubbed off on you and made you a better person?
Firstly, the spirituality. He is a man of faith. That is one of the qualities that have robbed off on me and brought me to the brighter side. It has helped in making many decisions in the family. Another one is the fact that he really cares for people and would like to turn things around for this country.
His love for the common good cannot be quantified. If he has the last shirt in his hand, he would give it out. Speaking out against injustice is another thing. He doesn’t shy away from speaking out, especially when people are being denied their rights.
I can go on and on because he has a lot of positive attributes that have helped me to be a better person. He is also good at reading and learning new things. In this lockdown, I have also been trying to catch up on reading.
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What do you do for leisure?
I like to take walks and appreciate nature. I also like to read nice books. If I have a good novel, I could spend the whole day reading it and not do anything else. I like listening to music and watching good movies too.
How do you like to dress?
I like things that I am comfortable in. I like to wear nice things and bright colours such as orange. I could choose to dress African, English or continental.
What stirred your interest in the medical field?
I love children and it has a huge impression on me. I was also good in science subjects and if one was good in the sciences, one had the options of doing medicine, engineering or pharmacy. Since I was science-inclined, that was an obvious breakthrough for me.
What have been the highlights of your career?
My work is on two premises. Firstly, I am a doctor and I’m also a lecturer at the University of Lagos. I work with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital as a consultant— that’s my clinical side— and I can be a professor in the university of Lagos— that is the component. It depends on where you are coming from.
As a physician, I specialise in orthodontics. It deals with the correction of irregularity of the teeth, jaw and the face. For those who want to change their looks, we are there to do that for them. I also train undergraduate and postgraduate students. We teach the people who want to specialise in this area and other specialties of dentistry. I have been doing this since 1999.
In terms of them being undervalued, when it comes to output as regards the number of specialists one has helped to produce, that is a part of it. The corporate environment has been very challenging, to say the least. When one goes down memory lane and remembers the environment one trained in and compares it with what is obtainable now.
Over the years, there has been a decline in the quality of the entire healthcare sector, in the area of infrastructure, materials and equipment. In spite of that, one still has to maintain the standard at the global level.
Now that there is COVID-19, it has shown how poorly prepared we were because we were not properly funded. We should have had institutions ready and set. You can see that in some states, they didn’t even have one ventilator. It is that bad. The healthcare system is a reflection of the entire environment and what the priority of the government is.
It is obvious that there is misplaced priority by the government because a lot of funds go to politicians and politics. As a staff of the University of Lagos and a member of the academic staff at LUTH, we have not been paid for the third month.
Yet, they (leaders) are sitting there in Abuja, talking about trillions and all the huge sums of money they would receive as salary. Meanwhile, those that are truly doing the hard and important work are not well paid. That is the unfortunate part. I always tell my husband that the media has a big role to play in moving society forward. The pressure point is what people hear as feedback and what they also hear at the top.
What are some of the changes that you would like to see in the healthcare sector?
There are quite a lot such as in the area of training the future doctors. We should have more qualified doctors. A lot of money needs to be invested in the training institutions to get the right infrastructure and materials. Even despite the situation, our doctors abroad are some of the best around the world and that fact has been publicly accepted globally.
Tags: Career, Dr Ifeoma Utomi, Family, marriage, Pat Utomi
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