Dame Patience Jonathan, wife of the president and, by convention Nigeria’s First Lady, was reported the other day to have been represented by a federal minister at the launch of a book in honour of former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, at his presidential library in Abeokuta. That Mrs. Jonathan was unable to attend but sent a representative is quite normal and understandable. What is however an anomaly is her representation by, in the words of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, in Chapter VI (147) a ‘minister of the Government of the Federation’ to whom the president may assign ‘responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation…’ (148)(1).
As clearly stated above, only the president, the vice-president, or any other person duly authorised and empowered by the relevant sections of the constitution may assign roles and responsibilities to a minister – so long as it pertains to government business. This being so, and in full knowledge that the extant constitution has absolutely no provision for the position of First Lady, in what capacity, by what authority, and in the exercise of which powers did Mrs. Jonathan delegate the Minister of Water Resources, Mrs. Serah Ochekpe, to attend the Obasanjo function on her behalf? This is a question both of law and of ethics in governance.
It is granted that by convention, the spouse of the head of state is, as the case may be, the first lady or first gentleman of the country. This role obviously implies public visibility and activeness in support of the elected partner. But all must be done within the confines of the law. The point is not lost on Nigerians that ‘first-ladyism’ assumed somewhat obscene dimension in the profligate years of the military rule when the whims and desires of the maximum ruler was law, not to be questioned. And, since old and bad habits tend to die hard, especially if it is convenient to sustain it, democratically elected officers of the state have chosen to not correct an anomaly that violates the spirit and the letter of the constitution that they are on oath to uphold. And here is the point: If the first lady acted in ignorance of the limits of her authority and powers under a constitutional democracy, she may be pardoned. But, if the president had prior
knowledge (and it would be absurd if he hadn’t), it is unpardonable that he allowed such impropriety. Besides, where was the horde of advisers in the Presidency to advise against Mrs. Jonathan’s decision? And lastly, Mrs. Ockekpe should have known better on what the law allows her to do and not do. But of course, in an environment that public office is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make good for oneself, is it not too much to expect the courage to advise against the capriciousness of the one’s benefactor? The first lady went beyond her role to assign a minister of the federal republic to represent her.
It bears repeating: the office of the first lady in Nigeria’s constitutional democracy is not known in law; it derives from a convention that dates back to the late 1800s in the United States. To the extent that it is used by the lucky occupant to serve some public good – charity work, humanitarian causes. It is tolerated and supported with material and other resources by the state, albeit strictly in an accountable manner. But even where the idea comes from, first ladies observe rules and decorum that save them and their spouses embarrassing goofs. Alas, not so here. Mrs. Jonathan has so often been in the news for reasons not quite becoming of the position and the role of the first lady of the nation. When she is not challenging the governing style, and therefore authority of the elected governor of a state, she is accepting a promotion as permanent secretary that raise eyebrows. She is currently involved in litigation against her immediate
predecessor, Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua over land allocation of sorts in Abuja. Acts such as these are demeaning; they diminish the exalted office of the president of this federal republic. With due respect to the many worthy causes that Dame Patience Jonathan so energetically pursues, she should carefully keep in view, or seek guidance on the limits of the authority and powers – if any – available in law, to the position of a first lady. This applies too to other self-styled ‘first ladies’ in the states and the local councils.