By Otei Oham
The announcement by President Muhammadu Buhari to scrap the Office of First Lady at the inception of this administration brought mixed feelings of vacillation, cheer and surprise to most Nigerians, particularly women. A good number of them, especially those who have been political watchers prior to 1999 and from then onwards, when democracy returned to Nigeria, are used to the expression and what it represents from one administration to another.
To these ones, though, there is need to sustain and reinforce activities for women, encompassing the adult woman, the aged, girl-child and children, who have been targets and beneficiaries of assorted programmes that have always been churned out by wives of Nigerian Presidents and Heads of State. Whether they candidly served their aims at the time they existed or not, is of no consequence. What matters is that the office served as a rallying point for women and helped in fortifying them for complex and multifarious issues that stared them in the face, at every point of their existence.
President Buhari’s abrogation of the Office of First Lady may be understandable. Neither the office nor that of First Ladyship is an expression that has a foundation in Nigeria. It has its origin in the United States of America. History books recorded that the term First Ladyship originated in 1849, when President Zachary Taylor called Dolley Madison “First Lady” at her funeral, while he was reciting her eulogy.
It gained wider recognition in 1877, however, when Mary C. Amees wrote an article in the New York City newspaper, The Independent, where she described the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. She was said to have used the term, First Lady to describe Lucy Webb Hayes. The term is now used across the globe to describe the wife of president or Head of State.
In Nigeria, besides using it to designate the president’s wife, it is also used for wives of governors and those of Local Government chairmen, paving the way for probable abuse of the term and office; a situation that may have informed President Buhari’s decision. ‘Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water,’ goes a popular saying in Nigeria, which means that in spite of perceived and glaring abuses, the spirit-lifting messages and connotation that resonated from the office remain.
Much was not heard of this term in Nigeria until the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd.) that began in 1985. Before then, wives of the former Prime Minister and Heads of State played ceremonial role of hosting dignitaries; both local and foreign to dinners and chatting with their wives, while the husbands held formal meetings. Mrs. Maryam Babangida changed all of that, however, by establishing the Better Life Programme for Rural Women as her pet project. It was officially launched on September 18, 1987. And by the time her husband was being forced by mass protest to step aside in 1993, Mrs. Babangida had made so much impact among Nigerian women, particularly the rural folk.
At the end of November 1993, the project better known as Better Life Programme had facilitated the establishment of 9,492 cooperatives, 1,435 cottage industries, 1,784 new farms and gardens, 495 new shops and markets, 1,094 multipurpose women’s centres, 135 fish and livestock farms and 163 social welfare programmmes. It was also during this period that the National Centre for Women Development (NCWD), with Mrs. Onyeka Onwenu now as Director General, was built in Abuja. It was inaugurated on October 17, 1992.
Subsequently, Mrs. Maryam Abacha launched her pet project known as the Family Support Programme. In 1995, her FSP influenced the upgrade of the National Commission for Women into a full-fledged Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. She also launched the Family Support Trust Fund in 1994. Through the money realised from this Fund, Mrs. Abacha built the National Women and Children Hospital in Abuja, which was inaugurated on May 22, 1999 by the administration of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. It was, though, renamed National Hospital in 2000.
In 1999, when Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar (rtd.) succeeded Abacha, his wife Hon. Justice Fati Abubakar founded Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) for advocacy, mobilisation, promotion and protection of women’s rights; the elimination of all forms of repugnant practices, as well as violence against women and the enhancement of their living standards. With Hajia Sadautu Mahdi as its Executive Secretary, the pet project is still alive to its aims and objectives.
On return to civil rule in 1999, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo set up her project- Child Care Trust, established to care for the physically and mentally challenged children. One of its major achievements was the establishment of a Special Children Model Centre in Bwari, Abuja.
Mrs. Titi Abubakar, wife of ex-Vice President AtikuAbubakar, also started a pet project known as Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), while her husband was in office. She was able to advocate against child and women trafficking through the project, and to integrate some of the affected women back into normal life. She spearheaded the establishment of National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Person (NAPTIP).
By the time former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua assumed power in 2007, his wife, Turai, also instituted Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation. Its health sector interventions were in five broad categories, including the Vision project aimed at reducing cataract and childhood blindness; maternal and New Born Health Improvement Programme; Screening programme for breast and cervical cancer; HIV/AIDS and STDs intervention programme and Diabetes awareness and education programme. The Foundation also intervened in the areas of poverty reduction, drug abuse and lifelong education, and was used for rehabilitating Katsina’s Vesico Vaginal Vistula Centre, donating grinding machines and a bus to Yangoji Leprosy Village in Kwali Area of the Federal Capital Territory and equipping the Suleja Prison workshop with tools to make inmates skilful and self-reliant after serving their jail terms.
Mrs. Patience Jonathan began her pet project, while she was in Bayelsa State as wife of then Governor Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. The project, a nongovernmental organisation, was then known as A. Areuera Reachout Foundation, established in 2006. It was said to have provided training for over 2,000 women in catering, hat making, beads making, sewing and making of plantain and beans flour. When her husband became the Vice President, then Acting President, and subsequently, President of Nigeria at the death of Yar’Adua, Mrs. Jonathan launched another pet project known as Women for Change Initiative.
These various initiatives, no doubt, emboldened wives of governors as First Ladies at state levels to launch different pet projects. Hardly did any of them fail to institute one programme or the other to empower, sensitise, train or support children and the female gender.
These interventions are generally grouped into six major areas: economic empowerment; educational empowerment; skills acquisition; political empowerment; health and social welfare and social justice for women. In fairness to these women, their projects, as highlighted above, have made a lot of impact in the society, especially in transforming the lives of women and children, and by extension, men, in line with the truism: When you train a woman, you train a nation.
President Buhari’s administration cannot afford to lose sight of this cherished heritage, especially with the contributions of women in peace and nation building, and in consideration of President Buhari’s campaign promise to give women a voice and visibility in the scheme of things. Anything short of this would mean reneging on this promise and unreasonably playing into the hands of opposition that is watching out for loopholes to cash in.
President Buhari cannot forget in a hurry the stigmatisation of gender insensitivity and the ‘women should be in the kitchen’ toga, which Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) hung on his neck during the political campaigns of calumny that was launched against him.
Ahead of his assumption of office, his wife, Aisha and that of Vice President, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo enthusiastically mobilised the women, which translated to effective women participation in the politics that brought in Mr. President. As much as it was welcome, there is increased need to sustain these efforts through a veritable platform for the good of the Nigerian women.
Her Excellency, Mrs. Buhari is currently donating food items and relief materials to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and orphanages across the country, an effort, which requires to be well coordinated and expanded to cover other critical areas like girl-child education, poverty alleviation and intervention in women and children health: under a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
By all standards, the President’s wife, Hajiya Aisha is a woman of worth and has the wherewithal to mobilise women politically, educationally, socially and economically. This is, indeed, the time to clearly manifest her role model posture among girl children in the north, who hitherto are reluctant to seek western and Islamic education, and pursue viable skills and careers to support their families.
Arguments against the institution of Office of First Lady, such as its unconstitutionality, abuse of office and funding concerns should not be allowed to erode away the value of women and children empowerment and emancipation. Whether we like it or not, the institution of the First Lady, though lacking constitutional backing, has become a part and parcel of our national life. Amendment to the constitution for proper recognition and assignment of role to this office is hereby canvassed. That way, there will be enhanced synergy and policy direction between the office and Ministry of Women Affairs at all levels, and women and children given a sense of belonging.
Mr. Oham is the Consulting Editor, SheWorld Magazine