What’s the point of a first lady?

Renaming the “First Lady” the “Wife of the President” is a subtle change which shows a shift in the principles guiding public thinking. Indeed, “First Ladies” in Nigeria have previously wielded virtually as much power as their husbands if not more.
The era of First Ladies allocating oil wells, shaming and insulting governors isn’t so far away. However, Nigerians are glad to see the end of it, with a clear return to sanity: first ladies aren’t elected officials.
Plus, as Nigeria isn’t a monarchy, the president’s spouse can’t act as either her husband’s aide or replacement, in the way first ladies from Maryam Babangida, to Turai Yar’Adua or Patience Jonathan have done. The “wife of the president” is something else entirely.

Ironically, this new nomenclature conforms more to the Western and original idea of what a first lady should be: her husband’s support system, rather than a loose cannon, or free-agent. “The First Lady is, first of all, a wife”, Nancy Reagan famously said.

The office is extra-constitutional in most if not all countries, meaning the Constitution doesn’t outline any role for the first lady to play. There is no pay and no real power attached to the position, which can be filled by a niece, sister or daughter of the President if his wife is incapacitated or otherwise unable to fulfill her highly scrutinised duties.

Unlike her Nigerian counterparts, the American first lady’s role is mostly ceremonial as she is chief hostess at state dinners and is meant to make the President’s official residence (it is also a tourist attraction) open and welcoming to guests, both high and low. Nigerian first ladies are very different.

Woman of the people Some might remember rumours of first ladies re-selling free donor vaccines to hospitals. Who can really say what became of Mrs. Babangida’s pet projects, or Mrs. Obasanjo’s? Is it possible to quantify their impact? Who were the beneficiaries? What is Mrs. Jonathan’s legacy as a first lady? Who has she empowered? Nigerians remain convinced that many first ladies merely use their pet projects as a means to appear effective while they engage in the very real business of laundering funds.

Beyond being a “woman of the people”, a “mother of the nation” with a ludicrous nickname (I am yet to understand why serious journalists indulged Patience Jonathan by calling her “Mama Peace”), or making donations to charitable causes seen as some sort of patronage (the channels via which non-governmental organisations and churches receive funds are too murky to be taken seriously or to be corruption-free in Nigeria), as was done in the past, Mrs. Buhari must have a real impact. Let me start off by saying there is nothing wrong with her having an office.

It is what she does with it that matters. Typically, in politics, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Hilary Clinton was a powerful and effective first lady, in the proud tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, possibly one of America’s most famous first ladies due to her work during the poverty filled era of the Great Depression. Yet, many initially criticised Mrs. Clinton. They criticised Laura Bush for not being outspoken enough on policy issues.

Unlike their American counterparts, first ladies in Nigeria typically don’t continue advocacy after their terms end: it is only a cover after all for more lucrative (and illegal) activities. So, most Nigerians don’t know what they want from a first lady but undoubtedly, they want something different. Unlike in the US, how much of taxpayers’ money first ladies spend or what their family life is like, is unknown to Nigerians: they are far from the people, like queens and goddesses, they tower above the very people whose votes keep them comfortable.

Mrs. Buhari should humanise governance in Nigeria: that is, help make our elected officials accessible by promoting openness and putting people-oriented policy first.
For social progress to occur, both laws and mindsets must change and Mrs. Buhari should be at the forefront of that battle, pushing for more allocation of resources for education and healthcare, in order for us to change the way the Nigerian system operates, whereby the basic needs of the poor are not met.

How do we create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them? Social policy isn’t about handouts but enabling people to find dignity in labour. Nigeria is an unjust country, the land of the blind, where the talented have no hope. Mrs. Buhari must keep her husband grounded in the reality of daily life in Nigeria and offer an alternative to the testosterone- led minefield of Nigerian politics by enabling women rise and seek public office. I am worried by the Presidential spokesman’s pronouncements about her office not being funded by government. Unfortunately, due to the past abuse of power, our answer in Nigeria is often to be draconian. Mrs. Obama is given a budget to carry out her work because her projects are well monitored and defined.

US President Lyndon Johnson in the ’60s declared a “War on Poverty”. For me, this is the next chapter for our war against indiscipline: our greed and corruption are the root cause of poverty in Nigeria. “Head Start”, an early learning programme for poor children, anchored by the President’s wife and the office of socio-economic opportunity, was jump-started by a White House tea hosted by the first lady: the programme’s initial 200,000 volunteers more than tripled.

Its educational activities, free meals and medical care have served over 32 million children. No Nigerian first lady can boast of such an impact. Will Mrs. Buhari develop a comprehensive mother and child development programme to meet community needs? With over 10 million children out of school in the North alone, it is vital that she does.
With the help of experts and well-meaning Nigerians anxious for change, nothing is beyond her reach if she opens herself up to new, fresh voices and talents.

Any activities she engages in should work towards breaking the cycle of poverty: education, we all know, plays a key role in doing so. So what is the role of our president’s wife? She is, quite simply, the bride of change, like many young women across Nigeria, who might seem unimportant to the powerful but are themselves “first ladies” in God’s eyes.

Special courts
The Federal Government is apparently setting up special courts to try corruption cases due to the long delays which have become typical of ordinary courts where the accused have a direct line to judges and visit them in the dead of night. Can the President find 36 incorruptible judges to do, not his bidding as the misguided opposition calls it, but Nigeria’s? Is there anyone out there who isn’t corrupt? Like the President’s search for untainted ministers, this also amounts to looking for the Golden Fleece. But I (still) have faith in Nigerians.

We know what is right: it just isn’t in some people’s interest. But their luck has run out, their time is over. As for those waiting for judicial reforms which will fix the “regular” courts, capacity building, I’m sure, will be on the agenda as soon as ministers are announced. We just don’t have time for endless trials: funds must be recovered. Moreover, everyone must answer their father’s   name: let justice be done.

Solomon Arase, IGP of Police
If he is able to carry out the Presidential directive reducing police officers permanently attached to private persons, it would be a big step in the direction of change. Do the rich deserve more security than the poor? If they believe they do, let them hire guards from private firms rather than take from public resources which belong to all, regardless of social class. We definitely need to re-train ourselves in this country to regard all men as equal, then, change really will be here.

Report By,

Tabia Princewill


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