ON THE ‘UNCONSTITUTIONAL’ OFFICE OF THE FIRST LADY ACROSS THE NATION
By Zik Gbemre
We are often baffled with the way some issues of lawlessness, shameful public shows have been practiced in Nigeria as if such actions are enshrined in the laws of the country. It has gotten to the point where the Nigerian citizenry have been made to swallow and accept whatever rubbish being dished out by the Executive government, to be accepted as a norm, and therefore, nobody should question its relevance or importance. This is the exact problem with the title; “First Lady,” with its flashy trend and public show, that is ascribed to the wives of the Presidents, State Governors, Local Government Chairmen and even wives of Speakers and Councilors. What started as a way of exuding influence to Nigerian women and power beside the man on the Executive hot seat has over the years, been turned into an avenue of fiscal recklessness, abuse of power, wealth accumulation and waste of public funds. That has been the story of the Office of The First Lady across the length and breadth of Nigeria.
The rate at which the Office Of The First Lady, that has no iota of constitutional backing, was used by past governments’ (at all levels), to carry out some “sensitive government function,” and wield unimaginable political power and influence, has been a serious source of concern. In fact, we have in countless occasions called on the Presidency of the past administrations to scrap the said Office of The First Lady, owing to the number one fact that it has no place in the Nigerian Constitution (as amended).
We are however glad that before his inauguration as President, President Muhammadu Buhari is muted to have said that his administration may not create or retain the Office of The First Lady; a statement given credence by the President’s wife, Hajia Aisha Buhari, who expressed the preference to be addressed as “Wife of the President.” Whether this means Hajia Aisha Buhari will not maintain the Office of The First Lady is still too early in time to tell. But so far, the wife of the President, Hajia Aisha Buhari, has been able to maintain a calm and low profile, especially when it comes to ‘public appearances’ when compared to what we witnessed with her immediate past predecessor, Mrs. (Dame) Patience Jonathan.
As a matter of fact, few would have believed that the taciturn, austere President Buhari (as a former General in the Nigerian Army), had a soft, smiling and calm woman at home. When we actually examine this; Aisha Buhari remained in the shadows for most of the election campaign that brought her husband into power,
hence, many believe that she could now impose a “very different style” from the Nigeria’s immediate past First Lady. In fact, little is known for now about the wife of President Buhari other than a few details in the Nigerian media: she is 44, married her 72-year-old husband in 1989 after he divorced his first wife the previous year, and they have five children together.
When President Muhammadu was sworn in as President and Commander in chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; and Vice-President Yemi Osibanjo into office, speculation was rife on what becomes of the Office of The First Lady under the new government since the country now has a new First Lady, Hajiya Aisha Buhari. This is obviously because many past wives of Nigerian Presidents as well as Heads of State, had grossly abused and bastardized that so called Office Of the First Lady.
However, regardless of the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is muted to have said that his administration may not create or retain the Office Of The First Lady, the crux of the matter is that there is need for President Buhari to officially and publicly make it known that the said Office Of The First Lady (and whatever that is left of it by the immediate past administration), both at the Presidency, State and Local Government levels, should be scrapped in its totality. Not that there will not be a ‘First Lady’ anymore at the Executive Government levels, but the ‘Office’ it habours and all the retinue of ‘public office aides’ that go with it, is what we are asking to be scrapped since it has not Constitutional backing. The said Office of The First Lady is the bone of contention and not the ‘person’ that is referred to as the Wife of the President, Governor, Council Chairman etc. The wives of the Executive Government at both the Federal and State levels across the country, can still wield ‘positive influence’ in the lives of other Nigerian women and the children of the nation without having to flaunt the said Office of The First Lady with its retinue of aides like Special Assistants, Senior Special Advisers, Special Advisers, Chief Protocol Officers, etc.
Maintaining the so called Office of the First Lady is not a child’s play. They have been known to wield much power, wealth, and influence and access to them could open the door to unimaginable rewards. Although unelected and without any role in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, they have been known to strut the landscape with large convoys/entourage complete with a retinue of aides. They are usually accompanied by officials on the payroll of government, and they have unfettered access to State funds, property such as presidential jets, vehicles, buildings furniture etc, and perks like overseas travel and what have. Virtually all of them in the past governments have used one pet project, NGO or the other to exhibit this recklessness and wastage of public resources.
Like we have emphasized before, the Office of the First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has no place within the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) but has however over the years, become so ingrained in the country’s political process that it can almost be considered a norm. The country has since independence on October 1, 1960, had a total of 13 indigenous leaders. Before 1985, Nigeria had presidents and Heads of State whose wives engaged in one form of charity project or the other, though not under the formal office structure as seen today.
For those of us who do not know, the so-called Office of the First Lady was made popular and known in the late 1960’s when Gen. Yakubu Gowon was Head of State. His wife, Mrs. Victoria Gowon, who was a trained Nurse, portrayed a lot of influence beside her husband, the General. This made her noticeable in the public eye; coupled with her various disguised philanthropic activities. Then came Gen.Murtala Mohammed (late), who had no time for the frivolous activities of the ‘Office of the First Lady,’ but was more interested in the acts of good governance. Gen. Murtala Mohammed, a no-nonsense brave soldier with the passion of improving the standard of living of the ordinary citizens paid no attention to the ‘Office of the First Lady’ and this relegated it to the background, making it nothing to write home about. Upon his calculated death, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd) took over from his then boss and never gave impetus to the ‘Office of the First Lady,’ but rather strictly followed the footsteps of his predecessor, and ultimately handed power to a civilian, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Shagari, being the first Executive President on 1st October 1979, did not take note of the ‘Office of the First Lady.’ Although some say this is as a result of his having many wives to contend with, however, the ‘Office of the First Lady’ remained dormant throughout his stay in office.
Then during the time of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari (rtd), who toppled the civilian government, there was nothing like the Office of the First Lady with its attendant ceremonious activities. It was all military affairs. But everything concerning the so called Office of the First Lady was revitalized and given more muscles to operate (much more than Gowon’s regime), when Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) came into power in August 27. 1985. The glamorous structure now known as Office of The First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was birthed by late Maryam Babangida. It was with her as First Lady that Nigerian women learned to identify the term ‘Better Life for Rural Women’ (BLRW) program with an office created by the wife of the then Nigeria’s Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida.
Maryam Babangida’s pet project, BLRW had national structure that managed to ripple down and be replicated at state levels by wives of State Military Administrators. During that period, project activities, staff and logistics were all funded by government through the public purse. Through her project, Late Maryam Babangida gave a face to problems rural women faced while trying to effectively manage their “reproductive and productive roles in the family.” It was however said that the media hyped program never truly managed to alleviate the plight of rural women within the period it existed.
With the exit of the Ibrahim Babangida’s administration on August 26, 1993, ‘Better Life for Rural women program’ faded into oblivion but the Office of the First Lady magically survived and was inherited by Maryam Abacha who initiated her own pet projects in 1994 called Family Support Program (FSP) and Family Economic Advancement Program (FEAP). With Honourable Justice Fati Lami Abubakar in 1998, the story was different. The term ‘First Lady’ was legitimately hers to answer during her husband’s tenure as Head of State but culture of loads of staff and logistics almost collapsed. Many would argue that the office was not visible because General Abdusalami Abubakar had one of the shortest tenures as Head of State. But it may not be wrong however to assume that Justice Fati Lami Abubakar, being first, a lawyer and then a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria understood the unconstitutionality of the office and did not want to uphold a legacy of impunity. Notwithstanding, the Learned Justice Abubakar also had her pet project called Women Rights Advancement and Protection
Alternative (WRAPA), a project that has continued to promote women rights in the country.
General Olusegun Obasanjo’s second coming as Nigeria’s President on May 29, 1999 re-grew the Office of The First Lady with his amiable wife, Stella Obasanjo creating a fresh pet project called Child Care Trust (CCT); a program that ended with Stella’s unfortunate death. Then came Hajia Turai Yar’Adua, who also had her pet project called Women and Youth Empowerment Program (WYEP) and with the swearing into office of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, in 2010, Mrs. Patience Jonathan (Dame), was not left out of the pet project cycle as she initiated her own project called Women for Change Initiative (WCI).
It appeared that with each President, came a pet project that had to be executed through the so called ‘Office of The First Lady’ with the support of political appointees and administrative staff that had to be paid from public purse. These projects were allegedly funded by donations and grants made through processes that were neither open nor transparent so much so that the manner in which most First Ladies operated left a lot to speculation. We have had instances in this country where the office of the First Lady, that has no iota of constitutional backing, was used by the government of the day to carry out some sensitive government function like when the former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan was reported to have commissioned a newly procured warship from the United States of America, by the Nigerian Navy; NNS Thunder, at the Naval Base, Apapa, Lagos. We could not help but ask: Why should the Office of the First Lady be the one to commission a sensitive national asset on Security when there are authorities in government that could readily do so? This is something the current administration under President Buhari will seriously guard against, hence, the need to completely scrap that Office of The First Lady to prevent such things from happening.
Another thing the Office of the First Lady has however showcased is the “personality of each occupant and the effect their attitude and mannerisms have had on Nigerian women in particular and the country in general.” With the creation of that office came expectations from the public on what a Nigerian woman should represent – how she should act, speak and what she could or could not do. Through the lives of past various First Ladies, women in Nigeria were sometimes grouped, assessed and stereotyped into boxes of all shapes and sizes.
If a First Lady always appeared too glamorous on television, women across the nation and in other African countries sometimes mistook the affluence seen on television as good standard of life for every woman in the country. If the First Lady was never seen at public functions or seldomly seen, it was generally assumed that women in Nigeria are not free to express themselves or hold an opinion. Even within the country, it could be said that the glamour associated with various First Ladies spread the erroneous impression that women are wasteful with public funds and therefore inept at holding public offices.
With the neglect of due process by some First Ladies in the manner they purchased government buildings and assets for family members, came another erroneous notion that women when placed in positions of authority never know how to separate public from personal interest. With overzealous protection of what may have been speciously considered personal family information by some First Ladies, another flawed impression was created in the mind of the public that an average Nigerian woman who finds herself as wife of a leader may ill advise or support her partner to hold onto power until forcefully removed.
Some First Ladies have brazenly interfered with governance at Federal and State levels and created a wrong impression of female leaders as power hungry tyrants who should not be allowed to hold decision making positions; through some of them, women have been adjudged emotional, incapable of any sense of control and reasonable judgment. As erroneous as such assumptions are, women are frequently seen in such light in Nigeria. One wonders whether women in leadership have forgotten the duty on them to ensure that unflattering stereotypes about women are not bone out of their individual actions as leaders.
With the change in government since May 29, 2015, expectations are high; Nigerians want to see an end to Boko Haram insurgency, corruption in high and low places, fiscal recklessness and unwarranted waste of public funds and a collapse of wasteful ‘political structures that are unconstitutional’. President Muhammadu Buhari’s inaugural speech had raised hopes everywhere. And like we said above, President Buhari is muted to have said that his administration may not create or retain the Office of the First Lady; a statement given credence by Hajia Aisha Buhari who expressed the preference to be addressed as ‘Wife of the President.’ However, there is need for the Presidency to officially scrap the Office of The First Lady and let this also apply to all the other First Ladies at the various State levels of government.
There is need for the Presidency to set the tune and pace for this across the nation so that in case, if per adventure the so called First Ladies across the nation at the various State levels might decide to gather in the near future to lure Hajia Aisha Buhari to ‘revitalize her Office as First Lady’ like her predecessors did. Agreed that Hajia Aisha Buhari has expressed her preference to be addressed as “Wife of The President”, but other First Ladies across the nation at the State levels could gather to meet with her with the aim of luring her to act like her predecessors that have occupied her position. So there is need for the Presidency to set the pace and tune in this direction by officially scrapping that Office of The First Lady. Let the wives of our Executive Governments at all levels positive influence their women folks and the nation at large, as ‘help-meet’ and supporters of their husbands without all the glamour, affluence and waste of public funds like we have seen in the past. First ladies like Michelle Obama of the United States of America, who happens to be the wife of one of the most powerful Presidents across the world, has been doing this and carrying the role as First Lady with elegance, class, intelligence, humility, respect and supportive of her husband without being seen as ‘interfering with government affairs’ or wasting public funds with her lifestyle. Our Nigerian First Ladies can take a cue and lessons from the US First Lady.
Speaking of lessons, has the Office of the First Lady unveiled valuable lessons for women in Nigeria? As Jane-Frances Odinukwe, a Legal Practitioner and Gender Activist based in Abuja has noted: “From the person of Late Maryam Babangida to Dame Patience Jonathan, women should be able to learn a lot about being in the limelight. From some of our first ladies, women have seen what it means to be graceful. We have equally seen how easy it is to be wasteful with public funds. From some of them, we have learned what it means for a woman to face constructive or disparaging criticism. From some, we have learned how dreadful excessive quest for power and control of others can be. From others like the Learned Justice Fati Lami Abubakar, we have learned how a woman’s reproductive and productive roles could be juggled while at the same time supporting a husband in political office; still from her, we have learned how modesty and respect for rule of law could play a vital role in political decisions our partner takes as a leader. Some first ladies have taught Nigerian women how truly, power intoxicates. The lessons are many but have not been all bad.
“Ironically, one lesson every woman should learn perhaps comes from recent personalities that have served as First Ladies. For the women in question, it may be said that their personality may not have in any way endeared them to Nigerians because of the manner in which they unduly interfered in government affairs using unconstitutional structure of the First Lady’s office. As expected, public criticisms and ridicule frequently trailed their actions. Most statements allegedly credited to them almost always went viral and became the butt of jokes at comedy live shows (like we have seen with the immediate past First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan). For most women, being the object of so much comic relief and caustic criticism would have had the effect of driving us back into our shell and out of public eye but the persons in question were not fazed. It appeared that as public ridicule of their speeches grew, these plucky ladies increased their public appearances. For one of our first ladies, criticisms apparently gave her an inner strength and spirit to make more public speeches using local languages and pidgin English. The lady in question showed that as much as a good command of English language is of value to a public figure, a woman’s command of any language should not be a deterrent to speaking out in public especially where your audience understands your choice of language. She showed that by speaking out in public, we gain courage and learn even amid mistakes. We now know that all a woman needs to communicate her message in public is courage and self-confidence,” Nkechi noted.
After all said and done, the crux of the matter is that we believe the wives of our Executive leaders can still be very powerful and influential at the home background of their husbands as leaders. There are Ministries and Commissions like that of Women Affairs, that are doing what the so-called “First Ladies’ are doing today; hence it is all duplication of duties. We believe whatever public services that are intended by the wives of the various Heads of government; such public services should be handled by these Ministries or done through the ‘Head of government,’ as long as the office is constitutionally recognized. The best place that the wife of Mr. President and the wives of State governors and local government Chairmen should be seen and heard are during ceremonies and occasions that requires their presence beside their husbands. Mr. President should not hesitate to have the so-called Office of the First Lady scrapped in its entirety, including their NGOs, Pet Projects and whatever Foundations (that are funded with public funds) under these offices.
Nigerians were not happy at the flamboyance often displayed by the wives of past Mr. Presidents and other holders of such offices at the State and Local Government levels. They are even given ample airtime on State-owned television and radio stations, at the expense of Nigerian tax payers. On our roads, the convoys/entourage of the so-called ‘First Ladies’ cause agonies for other road users. We all recall how horrified people were at the extravagance displayed by the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Due to the absence of public records in Nigeria, it is difficult to know if the extravagance of our so-called first ladies is at per or has surpassed the record left by Imelda.
Conclusively, we urgently call on President Muhammadu Buhari to consider it expedient to officially scrap the Office of the First Lady and withdraw all paraphernalia attached to this illegal office, as left by the past Jonathan government. The President should also ensure that this directive is adhered by the Vice President’s wife and the wives of governors and their deputies and local government Chairmen as well. If the President should feel a compelling need for such an office, which we doubt, it should be subjected to public hearing by the National Assembly where Nigerians will offer their views on the desirability of such at a time of competing needs and scarce resources.
Niger Delta Peace Coalition (NDPC)