The impetus for this piece is not the recent well-publicized spat between the ‘First Lady’ of Nigeria, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, and the daughter of the President’s nephew, Fatima Mamman Daura. No (although, this does not deny it’s value as a side-show of sorts, if not comic relief, for an increasingly beleaguered and uninspired populace). Its motivation is the announcement that President Buhari has approved the appointment of new aides for the First Lady.
The news has raised not a few eye-brows, not least because of the notorious fact that, not only is the position or office of ‘First Lady’ unknown to Nigerian law (including the Constitution), manning it at the expense of the State is a clear case of a constitutional delict. To the extent that the National Assembly appears to be complicit in it (by appropriating funds for running the office of First Lady, including personnel costs), it is very worrisome, as it is akin to a conspiracy for State-capture, albeit by two out of the three arms of government, the Legislature and the Executive.
Will the third arm – the Judiciary – call them to order? That remains to be seen. Suffice it to say, that it is imperative to remind ourselves that the drama which played out between Aisha and Fatima transcends a clash of egos between two temperamental women: it raises profound questions about the role of first ladies in our polity and the limits of their power, if any.
Meaning and origin of ‘First Lady’
According to Wikipedia, the online data source, “First Lady is an unofficial title, used for the wife of a non-monarchical Head of State or Chief Executive. It is also used to describe a woman seen to be at the top of her profession or art. The designation of ‘First Lady’ seems to have originated in the United States, where one of the earliest (recorded) uses was in 1838 in reference to Martha Washington”.
First Ladyship in Nigeria
As noted by Okon-Ekong, Alfred and Olaode (2010) even though the phenomenon of First Ladyship is neither indigenous nor exclusive to Nigeria, as is usual with everything that berths on these shores, it has assumed its own peculiarly Nigerian hue – from the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between. They ascribe its origins to Lady Flora Lugard, the wife (mistress?) of Lord Lugard, who is credited with unifying the erstwhile Northern and Southern Protectorate of Nigeria into what we now call Nigeria (some accounts even suggest that she gave the ‘new’ entity its name).
The post-independence political history of Nigeria is replete with wives of our heads of state who – either officially or not – played the role of ‘first among equals’ by virtue of being married to the “First Man”. Blazing the trail in this regard was Mrs. Flora Azikiwe, the wife of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, our first post-independence head of state and president. She was reputedly officially known as ‘First Lady’. The wives of four of her husband’s successors as Heads of State – Generals Aguiyi Ironsi, Gowon, Murtala Mohammed and Obasanjo – all kept relatively low public profiles while their husbands were in office: none of them was officially recognized or addressed as ‘First Lady’. This trend continued during the tenure of the first democratically elected civilian President, the polygamous Alhaji Shehu Shagari (1979–1983), and was sustained during the first incarnation of the then General Muhammadu Buhari, who replaced Shagari as Head of State, between 1983 and 1985.
All this changed during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, our self-styled military President, between 1985 and 1993. His wife, Maryam Babangida assumed a stature that can only be described as larger-than-life. Mrs. Babangida’s successor as First Lady, her name-sake, Maryam Abacha, continued where her predecessor stopped, with both women apparently determined to leave a record as “the First Lady with the greatest pet projects”, which they controversially packaged as “Better Life for Rural Women” and Family Support Programme/Family Economic Advancement Programme (FEAP), respectively.
Unfortunately, the legacy of both of these first ladies leaves much to be desired. In the words of Jibrin Ibrahim (2005?): “These two First Ladies generated a great deal of negative publicity for women in general and struggle for gender equality in particular, because of their activities and high-handed(ness). They were showy and arrogant . . . in a society that expected women to be self-effacing, shy and modest. Many men, and indeed, women would never forgive them for this . . .They also became obscenely wealthy, using their positions to (acquire) public money (for) them(selves) and their causes”.
Return to Democracy (1999 – Present)
In the aftermath of the demise of Gen. Abacha in 1998, the regime of Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar which mid-wifed the present civilian dispensation, is generally highly-regarded by historians, not least because his wife, the then Hon. Justice Fati Abubakar, shunned the ostentation and vanity which earned her immediate two predecessors such public resentment. She did not use her pet project, the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) to corral State funds into its purse, or to acquire land by political fiat.
Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, who replaced her as First Lady between 1999 until her tragic death (on a surgeon’s table in Spain, in 2005), defied her husband, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s directive that the Office of the First Lady be closed down, as she reportedly began writing letters using the First Lady’s letterhead. This was, however, child’s play compared to what was to follow, as she subsequently told a gathering of wives of state governors “there is only one First Lady in Nigeria. Period”. She, therefore, directed them – with military-style fiat – to revert to their proper title of governors’ wives – all on national television.
Who can forget the immediate past occupant of that office, Dame Patience Jonathan? The butt of many a rude joke, her gaffes were legendary. She was widely derided on account of her perceived mediocrity, outright buffoonery and shenanigans. She was grammatically-challenged, error-prone, mean-spirited and spiteful – all, seemingly in equal measure. Indeed, compared to her, Aisha Buhari is a saint of sorts.
Given the foregoing background, it is hardly surprising that the latter has chosen to assert herself in the way she is reportedly doing: she is in eminent company, as she is merely following in the footsteps of her predecessors. Unfortunately, in her own case, she seems determined to out-do all the rest (combined?). This is because, she comes across as something of a loose cannon, who wears her feelings on her sleeves and lacks discretion. Otherwise, how else can one explain her repeated public outbursts, condemning everything and everyone in sight, including her husband and his programmes (such as the Social Investment Programme)?
It is a sad reflection on our national values that a position, which is legally as fictional as anything else is also the source of so much collective national embarrassment. Ad nauseam. I believe that Aisha Buhari’s tantrums are but symptoms of the many negative tendencies of the First Lady phenomenon, some of which Jibrin Ibrahim (2005?) identified as the promotion of autocratic practices, personal aggrandizement and cronyism. It ought not to be so, of course.
I agree with him that First Ladies ought to see themselves as privileged change-agents and real champions of women’s causes. This, is because, to use his words, First Ladies who “encourage the promotion of women into positions of power, no matter how dubious their motives might be, are providing access to political skills and resources that will enable the pool of women politicians to become more competitive in the cut-and-thrust of campaigning”.
That remains an ideal to be pursued. Perhaps, an Eva Peron of Nigeria? We shall see; only time will tell. In the immediate-to-near term, however, it is up to us to insist that, henceforth, those who deign to lord it over us must earn our respect by being seen to be above board, not just in terms of integrity (as important as that undoubtedly is) but, in their public display of comportment, refinement, grace, class and every other edifying feature. Surely, that is not too much to ask.
By Abubakar Sani, a lawyer writes from Kano.