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Aisha and Muhammadu Buhari: Discerning the politics of the message

President Muhammadu Buhari swearing in ceremony

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 been 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.

Source: Jibrin Ibrahim - Daily Trust