The constitutionality, or lack thereof, of the office of Nigerian First Lady has remained a subject of intense debate since democracy returned to the country in 1999, and the office is viewed by many as hopelessly redundant. From our independence till date, the Constitution has never made any provision for the office of a First Lady. Yet, a lot of pomp and pageantry attend the office. With each succeeding First Lady, the office becomes even more powerful.
These special reports set to examine some of the contentious issues surrounding the legality of the first Lady’s office as well as reprimand the current holder of that position..
Historically the concept of the title of “First Lady” originated from the United States of America. Linguistically, the term “Lady” originated in England. The title “First Lady” was first used in the United States of America in 1849 when President Zachary Taylor called Dolley Madison “First Lady” at her State Funeral while reciting a eulogy written by him. The title gained nationwide recognition in the United States of America in 1877, when Mary C. Ames wrote an article in the New York City Independent Newspaper describing the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. She used the term, to describe his wife, Mrs. Lucy Webb Hayes. Since then all wives of the Presidents of the United States of America are described as “First Lady”.
The military took over the reins of government on the 15th January, 1966. From 15th January, 1966 to the 1st October, 1979, when the military held the levers of power in the country the concept of First Lady did not assume larger than life image. It later did under the subsequent military dictatorships of Generals: Babangida, Abacha and Abdul Salami Abubukar. The military handed over power to a democratically elected President on the 1st October, 1979. The First democratically elected President was Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari. Between 1st October, 1979 to 31st December, 1983, when President Shagari was in office there was no designated First Lady. President Shagari had three wives. None of them was designated the First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Country had several First Ladies since she became a Republic on 1st October, 1963. Thus Country’s First, First Lady was Mrs. Flora Azikiwe (1st October, 1963 – 15th January, 1966); the Second First Lady was Mrs. Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi (15th January, 1966 – 29th July, 1966); the Third First Lady was Mrs. Victoria Gowon (21st August, 1966 – 29th July, 1975); the Fourth First Lady was Mrs Ajoke Mohammed (29th July, 1975 – 13th February, 1976); the Fifth First Lady was Mrs. Esther Oluremi Obasanjo (13th February, 1976 – 1st October, 1979); the Sixth First Lady should have been the wife of General Muhammadu Buhari (1st January, 1984 – 27th August, 1985), however, Mrs. Safinatu Buhari was not officially designated a First Lady of the Country.
The Sixth First Lady thus became Mrs. Maryam Babangida (27th August, 1985 – 26th August, 1993). The Seventh First Lady was Mrs. Margaret Shonekan (26th August, 1993 – 17th November, 1993); the Eighth First Lady was Mrs. Maryam Abacha (17th November, 1993 – 8th June, 1998). The Ninth First Lady was Mrs. Fati Lami Abubukar (8th June, 1998 – 29th May, 1998); the Tenth First Lady was Mrs. Stella Obasanjo (29th May 1999 – 23rd October, 2005. After the death of Stella Obasanjo there was no First Lady from 23rd October, 2005, till the 29th May, 2007. The Eleventh First Lady was Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua (29th May, 2007 – 6th May, 2010). The Twelfth First Lady is Dame Patience Jonathan, the incumbent First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is pertinent to state that all the First Ladies before Mrs. Maryam Babangida had always maintained very low profile. However, Mrs. Maryam Babangida brought a lot of pomp, style and glamour to the Office of the First Lady.
As First Lady of Nigeria between 1985 and 1993, she turned the ceremonial post into a champion for women’s rural development. She founded the Better Life Programme for Rural Women in 1987 which launched many co-operatives, cottage industries, farms and gardens, shops and markets, women’s centres and social welfare programs. The Maryam Babangida National Centre for Women’s Development was established in 1993 for research, training, and to mobilize women towards self-emancipation. She championed women issues vigorously. She reached out to the first ladies of other African countries to emphasize the effective role they can play in improving the lives of their people. Working with the National Council for Women’s Societies (NCWS) she had significant influence, helping gain support for programmes such as the unpopular SFEM (Special Foreign Exchange Market) program to cut subsidies, and champion the devaluation of capacity of the first Lady of Bayelsa State. During this period, she founded many philanthropic and women empowerment programs, among them are the A-Aruere, Reach out Foundation (AARF), which she set up to improve the status and earning capacity of Nigerian women and youths. The foundation already has its focus on supporting and assisting children with heart-related problems.
Apart from many of these, many would agree that Maryam Babangida was able to inspire and build many women in business across the country. It is believed that the Forbes Magazine’s richest woman in Nigeria Mrs Folorunsho Alakija owes the success she achieved to Maryam Babangida.
Instead of building on the legacies of Mariam, the wife of President Jonathan has destroyed the finesse associated with her office. Patience Jonathan is seen by many as a loquacious uneducated power drunk woman who sees herself as a queen on a throne. The controversies surrounding the office of the first lady has never been louder than in Madam Patience’s regime. She has embarked on her own campaigns, damaging every effort of her husband with careless statements and insinuations laced with abuse of power and disrespect for any dictate of morals. First, it was Seriake Dickson appointing her as a permanent secretary in Bayelsa State when she’s already a first lady. The appointment threw up issues but Patience was unperturbed.
Quite unlike her two glamorous predecessors, she has used her powerful office to sour many a relationship that would have bettered her husband’s political fortunes. For instance, she was said to have ignited the Rivers State House of Assembly, where chaos that ensued almost cost a man’s life. In the confusion the controversial originator of the crisis, Evan Bipi called her his Jesus Christ!
At the peak of the heat generated by the kidnap of almost 230 girls from Chibok town in Born State Mrs Jonathan was in another show of power having felt slighted by the mothers of the girls who sent only one woman, Ms Naomi Mutah, it was reported that at the end of the meeting. Mrs Jonathan ordered Mutah to be detained by the police, a situation a community leader of the Chibok community, Mr Pogo Bitrus described as unfortunate.
Recently the first lady has been having her own parallel campaign rallies and using the occasions to insult and denigrate real and perceived political enemies. In one of her outings she pronounced Buhari brain dead, which is very uncouth of the wife of the president.
It would be nice if the President and his advisers could curb the excesses of the first lady because her actions do not just serve as a blight on the image of the president, they are calling for the permanent abolition of the office.
If anything, madam Patience is working against the reelection of her husband by her flagrant display of unrestrained abuse of office which had made many long for the days of Maryam Babangida when lifes were really touched and people made