By Nkechi Odoma
Nigeria has had its fair share of first lady drama. Ordinarily the position is more of a ceremonial one that has no constitutional recognition but ever since the late Maryam Babangida stepped in as first lady, there was not going to be a dim in the spotlight on the ‘office of the first lady” as we call it in Nigeria.
Maryam Babangida was glamour personified, her Better Life for Rural Women pet project won the hearts of many rural and even urban women across the country, it was the first time the pet project of the wife of a president or head of state will be so popular. From Maryam Babangida to Maryam Abacha’s Family Support Program (FSP) it was clear to Nigerians that the “office of the first lady” was not going to be a quiet push over any longer.
I for one appreciate the helping hand that first ladies lend to their spouses while in office as long as it is done within the dictates of the law. Apart from the positive impacts these programs have on the lives of the people, it also helps to create more awareness for women empowerment across the country.
Since the return to civil rule in 1999, Nigeria is under the fourth administration and consequently we have had four spouses of the first citizen namely late Mrs Stella Obasanjo, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua, Dame Patience Jonathan and presently, Hajia Aisha Buhari. Stella Obasanjo’s time in Aso Rock as first lady was remarkably tame. This was probably due to the fact that her husband, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, as some will want to put it, was himself overbearing so there was no space for any first lady to take any stage at all let alone the center stage.
Hajia Turai Yar Adua’s time was not quiet though, and I think this was mainly due to the state of her husband’s health. With the then President Umaru Yar’Adua’s health in bad shape I would imagine his wife’s support was needed more. I guess this was why she was accused of several things including heading a cabal, shielding the president away from people to the point where some even accused her of running the country by proxy.
After the demise of President Yar’Adua came the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who obviously was unprepared. Dame Patience Jonathan”s reign as first lady opened another chapter in the first lady episode. She was not one of those that would go unnoticed. She has been accused of a lot, from cutting business deals with businessmen and lobbyists to actually interfering in appointment processes of offices as high as ministerial positions and even dictating who got the People’s Democratic Party, PDP governorship tickets in a few states. She was as visible as the visible. The list of her entourage to foreign trips were points of discussion for several weeks sometimes months. Any state she visited went into lockdown and her influence grew to the point where she could “summon” stakeholders in the Chibok girl abduction to come and “state their problems”.
Patience had a running battle with the then governor of River State, Rotimi Ameachi, which was to eventually result in her husband’s political misfortune. She was indeed very politically active. Her conduct during the initial stage of the missing Chibok girls saga was heavily condemned in some quarters as insensitive, she addressed a gathering on the issue that produced the now popular phrase “Na only you waka come”
This has been the experience of Nigerians with first ladies before now and the expectation was that the position will further grow in influence; hence the displeasure of those who think a position without constitutional backing shouldn’t grow to become that powerful.
Then came Mrs Aisha Buhari, she was a fresh introduction into the mix beginning from the campaign trail, her first major appearance during the campaign was at the Ogun state presidential campaign rally of the All Progressives Congress, APC in Abeokuta, she was an “instant hit”. The news out was that the general was very reluctant to release his wife to join the campaign perhaps due to cultural beliefs. She was graceful throughout the campaign period.
A clear departure from the growing vanity around spouses of presidents was Mrs Buhari’s decision to shelve the appellation of “first lady” for Wife of the President, which to me is quite logical since she is officially Mr President’s wife while the concept of first lady is alien to the laws of the land. The humility in going this route has only boosted her gracefulness in my eyes.
Interestingly, adopting a modest approach as the wife of the president has not in any way affected her ability to touch lives. She has spent her time visiting and donating relief materials to victims of the insurgency and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). She has visited Borno, Nassarawa and Plateau states in pursuit of this objective. Her program and activities largely revolve around helping out IDPs, women and less privileged. I have not heard that she has traveled on any foreign trip with the president; she has held the position and office with decorum and class.
I am therefore amazed at stories on some online media making spurious allegations against Mrs Aisha Buhari. They have futilely tried to accuse her of corruption and have added other fables that cannot withstand the slightest interrogation. More recently there were efforts to make it look like she helped Kogi state governor, Yahaya Bello secure positive outcomes from the Kogi State Election Petition Tribunal by giving bribes to judges. Like previous attempts, this allegation too failed to stick for the simple reason that it was false.
But I only wish those peddling these stories would have realized by now that Mrs Aisha Buhari is a league apart from what they have been used to. Great men marry women that share their vision and our own President Muhammadu Buhari couldn’t have done differently. For a man who constantly strives to do right he would have taken his time to make his wife buy into his vision and the output is what we see Mrs Buhari exhibiting.
Those who are expecting a repeat of the husband losing public trust because of the wife’s excesses in the current government can find a different pastime as the Buharis have convinced me they are above such pettiness. My advice to them and other Nigerians is that we should leave Mrs Buhari alone as she continues to make the position of the spouse of number one citizen an ordinary affair that connects with the average right thinking citizen. I definitely don’t want to return to the days of imperial first ladies.
Odoma is National Coordinator, Africa Arise for Change Network and contributed this piece from Abuja.