By Mahmoon Baba-Ahmed
The concept of First Ladyship, imported from Western democracies, is awfully abused in this country, and from all indications it is an ill-wind that blows nobody any good. Initially, the idea was to enable the wife of a president or governor accompany him to any state function where her presence will add colour and glamour, but in Nigeria, First Ladies have redefined that role by usurping the authority of their hubbies, performing executive functions, making unbudgeted expenditure and expropriating public properties for their personal aggrandisement.
Although Nigerians love and respect the basic rights of their womenfolk, they do not sanction their indulgence in activities that go beyond what is morally or socially acceptable, that may pour scorn on their status and bring shame to the community. Although many Nigerian women are vociferous and unconstrained, always at liberty to pursue their legitimate interests, they are still firmly placed under the guidance and supervision of their male partners for effective control.
Nowadays, such vital control is terribly relaxed and many women are on the loose, ensnaring men into their devious designs. Consequently, Nigeria’s elected leaders have become victims, having lost their bearing with their women, unwittingly endorsing their involvement in all aspects of governance.
The era of first ladyship was thus established in all the three tiers of governance in the country. Its influence has subsequently permeated into the security institutions where the wives of service chiefs are ardent adherents. A personality cult is built around them with immense power and influence to direct, shape or manoeuvre men and materials to gain advantage.
Late Maryam Babangida was the forerunner of First Ladyship and her moves made her Better Life Programme a focus of attention. It was later tacitly endorsed by the bureaucrats. Maryam Abacha consolidated it with her own version, The Family Support Programme, which was a complete departure from the aims and objectives of the pioneering scheme. Subsequently, each first lady came with her own agenda, different in content and meaning from that of her predecessors.
The sad aspect of the whole affair was that it produced risky and daring enterprises with no guarantee of success. They were therefore abandoned midway to become white elephants projects. Worst still, there was discontinuity in their implementation, with each lady commencing on fresh projects that may have little or no benefit to the welfare of the masses. That clearly brought to the fore the insensitivity of the first ladies about the judicious use of public funds.
Dame Patience Jonathan has stretched that concept too far by taking the demands of the office of a First Lady and that of a permanent secretary, in a state civil service, in a single stride. She is now crowning it up with the position of the Chairperson of the African First Ladies Peace Mission (AFLPM) which earned her the sobriquet of the First Lady of Africa. The apogee of Dame Patience’s reign as Africa’s foremost dame came recently with a parley and lavish banquet for all Africa’s first ladies hosted at a staggering cost. That was indeed an ironical misadventure undertaken to promote peace on the continent when a substantial portion of Nigeria is gripped by a reign of terror. Somebody should please tell Mrs Jonathan that charity begins at home. She should counsel her husband on the need to be more practical in repressing the insurgency that could destabilise his administration and render his Dame a damsel in distress.
While the first ladies are basking in the warmth and comfort of their offices, deriving great satisfaction and pleasure by savouring their spoils, there is a growing disquiet about their integrity and the legality of their actions.
Despite all these, Dame Patience Jonathan is dissatisfied with her role as Nigeria’s matriarch. She is now toying with the idea of legalising the offices of first ladies in the current effort to amend the statute book. That may be a plausible contention, but how could that be done without involving the electorates whose mandate is vital for the crystallisation of that idea? In that case, it is suggested that the constitution be amended to allow a triumvirate arrangement involving the president, his vice and the first lady as the second vice president, all to run on a single ticket. In that way the three of them could share some responsibility, authority or power. The same should also apply to state governors.
By so doing deputy governors, and to a large extend the vice president, will be allotted a degree of responsibility to make them more effective and relevant in governance. Anything short of that will amount to an infringement of constitutional provisions, making the office of first ladies redundant, superfluous, inessential and unnecessary.
By Mahmoon Baba-Ahmed