Aisha and Muhammadu Buhari: Discerning the Politics of the Message

There must be multiple messages embedded in Aisha Buhari’s recent interview with the BBC. If the wife of our President felt the need to send her husband and the Nation a message through an international radio station, the first message might be that she is concerned about a break in transmission between the President and his people that require urgent response. The second message might be that there is inertia in the pinnacle of power and citizen action is required to jumpstart the process of governance. Thirdly, we might be hearing a call for assistance to resolve a conjugal or family problem.

Whatever the message might be, the President’s response from Germany that: “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room” misses the point. My understanding is that if the President had ensured his wife did her bachelors and masters degrees under his sponsorship and encouraged her to open a business a long time ago, then his comments are demeaning to his own history and actions. Thanks to Reuben Abati and Femi Fani-Kayode, we now know that Nigerian presidents live in a haunted house full of demons and high-level stress. If this is indeed true, then the president’s handlers have a responsibility to draw his attention to where the demons might be pushing him to and return him to the path of his own virtues and high standards. I however do not believe the issue in the Villa is demons, we might just be seeing mundane politics at play.

The office of the “First Lady” is a fascinating school that teaches us that the power of husbands relative to their wives is often greatly exaggerated. Former President Obasanjo had announced to the world following his inauguration in 1999 that he is an African man and would have no “first lady”. When Stella Obasanjo opened her office of first lady and all the “powerful” Obasanjo could do is swear under him breath and grumble, I realized immediately that like so many of us, he had an exaggerated notion of his powers over his wife. My classmates WhatsApp network has often discussed the theme of how many of us thought we were the bosses in our households in the first phase of marriage only to realize decades later that it was a combined lie we told ourselves and our wives told us to massage our egos while they were effectively in charge of the household.

My suspicion is that when men become the president of Nigeria, our leaders imagine that an excellent definition of First Lady would be a Victoria Gowon model. A woman that would completely stay out of the power game and make herself available, with smiles, to accompany the spouses of visiting presidents for photographs and dinner. Some of our presidents may even have preferred the Shehu Shagari (non) model in which Nigerians never saw a spouse, or even knew whether he was married or not. The world has since moved on and first ladyship has become part of the dynamics of the seat of power for decades. As is well known to specialists, one of the most effective elements of the 2015 APC presidential campaign was when Buhari’s wife and daughters hit the campaign trail. By putting his family on campaign, Buhari reassured people outside his cultural zone that he was not a reactionary conservative hiding his wife in Purdah. That he was a progressive and open-minded Nigerian. The fact that his wife and daughters were highly educated, intelligent and articulate boosted Buhari’s progressive image and increased the love Nigerians from other parts of the country had for him. It also increased the self-esteem and real power of his wife and children.

The expansion of the powers of first ladies embarked on its globalization trend when a certain Hillary Clinton read her feminist speech: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” in Beijing on 5th September 1995.” The State Department had tried to stop her reading the speech, arguing that she was crossing the line by raising issues that would cause diplomatic and political controversies. She ignored the State Department, settled the matter in the “other room” and made her speech. What was even more interesting about Hillary Clinton as First Lady was her argument that she did not marry a politician but that she and Bill as a young couple decided to go into politics together. She therefore rejected the role of a First Lady being one of dressing up for dinners alone. It was on that basis that she carved out a policy domain for herself – health policy – and devoted her energies to improving American health policy. Her position also had negative consequences as most Americans were of the view that she was not elected and had no right to engage directly in the policy arena.

Coming back to Nigeria, in her acceptance speech after being sworn in as a permanent secretary in the Bayelsa State civil service in 2012, Dame Patience Jonathan had made a passionate appeal that First Ladies should be given a constitutional role in our political system. She was promoting the concept of “joint presidency” that Maryam Babangida had articulated during her own reign. The week of Patience Jonathan’s swearing in also provided the occasion for the bitter conflict between her and the previous occupant of the position, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua over land allocation for their “pet projects”. This is the arena of concern we all have about the First Lady Syndrome when spouses of men in power use their position for personal gratification. Over the past three decades, the First Lady phenomenon has created a dynamic in which political space has being appropriated and used by the wives of the men in power, for their personal aggrandisement, rather than for furthering the interests of women and the wider society.

The 1995 Clinton speech was famous but even before that, the First Lady syndrome had hit the globalization track following the 1992 World Summit for the Economic Advancement of Rural Women hosted in Geneva at the initiative of six First Ladies, three of whom, Maryam Babangida, Elizabeth Diouf and Suzanne Mubarak, were Africans. For the first time, wives of heads of states sought to play an autonomous and co-ordinated role in international and national politics in their capacities as wives.

In Africa, the first “First Ladies Summit” was hosted in Yaoundé, Cameroon, by Paul Biya’s wife, Chantal Biya, during the 1996 OAU Summit. The communiqué of the meeting of spouses, which focused on strategies to improve the lives of rural women, was incorporated into the official communiqué of the OAU meeting. Nana Rawlings was the first great African First Lady. During her husband’s rule, she had no official position in government but was all the same playing a major role in formulating and implementing policies relating to women. The main organisational structure that Nana Rawlings developed was the 31st December Women’s Movement (DWM), named after the second coming to power of her husband in 1981. The DWM was a huge organisation with a membership of over two million members.

Nigeria is the country where the phenomenon has flourished the most. The late Maryam Babangida was the pioneer when her husband became president and she opened a First Lady office for herself in the presidency and became a prominent figure in Nigeria’s public life. This would be the first time that the wife of a Nigerian head of state would use her spousal position as a basis to play a prominent role in the nation’s public life. In 1987, Mrs Babangida launched the Better Life for Rural Women Programme (BLP). The wives of all senior state officials were incorporated into the organisation. The wives of military governors in the states became chairpersons of the state BLP and wives of local government chairpersons acted likewise at their level. A lot of state resources were directly channelled to the BLP.

In 1993, General Sani Abacha took over power and his wife; Mariam Abacha occupied the office established by her predecessor. Her eldest daughter, Zainab, then had the brilliant idea of also opening her office of the First Daughter in the Presidency. Mariam Abacha was sufficiently confident of her powers to openly declare in a BBC interview that although she was not taking decisions herself, ministers and even foreign diplomats who are seeking for an appointment to see her husband should come to see her and she has the capacity to fix their problems (Punch, 4/11/99). In their “professional careers” as wives of army officers, Mariam Abacha had developed an apparent rivalry with Maryam Babangida. Having got her turn, she set out to dismantle the work of Mrs Babangida. The BLP was dissolved and a “new” similar organisation, the Family Support Programme (FSP) was established. A state instrument to implement it, the Family Economic Advancement Programme, was also set in motion and significant state funds were devoted to it. State officials were incorporated into the structure, just as Maryam Babangida had done. The Maryam Babangida Centre for Women and Development was taken over by the state and renamed the Women’s Centre. Power is ephemeral. Maryam Abacha for her own posterity established the Maryam Abacha Hospital for Women, which was also subsequently taken over by Government and converted into the National Hospital. When Patience Jonathan set out to dismantle the legacy of Turai Yar’Adua, she was clearly drawing from the rich history of that office embedded in the Villa.

There is of course an exception that proves the rule. Justice Fati Abubakar, whose husband was Head of State in the one-year interregnum following the death of Sani Abacha, consciously avoided playing the power game. She established a real NGO, Women’s’ Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA). Unlike the two previous First Ladies, she started by formally registering the organisation at the Corporate Affairs Commission and refused to use her husband’s position to make state governors and government departments contribute to WRAPA’s purse. WRAPA today is generally recognised as one of the most serious and most effective non-governmental organisations fighting for the advancement of women’s human rights in Nigeria.

The syndrome, however, returned after Mrs Abubakar. On 24 June 2003, the late Stella Obasanjo called the wives of state governors to Abuja and publicly declared that: “There is only one First Lady in Nigeria. Period.” (Africa Woman no 4, 2003:1). She warned them in front of television cameras that henceforth, she alone was entitled to be called “First Lady” and they should be addressed as governor’s wives. When President Buhari therefore announced that he had no First Lady and Aisha is simply the President’s wife, while wives of Governors were being called first ladies, he introduced a protocol problem. In addition, since Maryam Babangida, a First Lady infrastructure exists in the Villa with dedicated staff and offices. Even more important is the tradition that had been established in which public officials believe, wrongly or rightly, that the First Lady can “facilitate” things. Aisha Buhari therefore moved into a situation with a 30-year history and it must have been difficult to stay outside that history.

I have listened carefully to the Aisha Buhari interview and there is nothing that she said that is not common conversation in the country today. I have myself raised many of the said issues in this column. The problem posed was not about content but about tone and loyalty. Many people were shocked at the idea of a wife publicly criticizing her husband. The tone is then projected into loyalty, or rather the lack of it – that the criticism is an indication of disloyalty. The problem with loyalty is that it is only sustained when it is mutual and goes both ways. Her core message was that the President has not shown loyalty to those who fought for him to get into power and the consequence might be an internal revolt that might push the first family out of power. It could be read therefore as a “technical” approach to ensure long-term mutual loyalty within the party and within the family. Moving forward, we must all continue to wish and pray that the first family has satisfaction, longevity and happiness in conjugal and national political life.

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