First Ladies: An Unnecessary Evil?

by Banjo Odutola

In penning this treatise, I am mindful that a decent and honourable man never criticises wives of other men. However, my objective is not to criticise but to initiate a debate or at least make others to ponder on the conundrum posed by the new fancy we refer to as First Ladies. My desire to encourage others to focus on the subject matter may well be precipitous of my proclivity for disliking vicarious advantage and a difficulty to understand an irrefragable need for these First Ladies to become the cynosure like the persons to whom they are married.

Presidents of nations have enough dilemmas of their own; particularly, in Nigeria, our leaders are not beyond suspicions of sorts: either financial or political. This is understandable. Their problems are consequential of their political vocation. After all, Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy:(Earnest Benn (1875-1954), English publisher and Economist). Accordingly, the antecedents of Nigerian Heads of Government warrant circumspection of the governed and by extension, the voluntary embedment of First Ladies in financial or political arrangements makes them fair game for debate, at least; ridicule and innuendoes at the worst.

In the oral tradition, based on Plutarch, the Roman General and Statesman, Julius Caesar (100-44BC), the position is clear that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. The same advice must apply to First Ladies in the Nigerian politics. When First Ladies are involved in financial or political dimensions, they should be prepared for the consequences of their enterprise.

Let us backtrack in history and contrast the evolving role of the Nigerian First Ladies. Our fathers, who fought for the independence of this nation, did not allow their wives to become posters of questionable publicity, as we find since Maryam Babangida. Contrast Alhadja Tafawa Balewa, Mrs HID Awolowo, Mrs Akintola, Mrs Azikwe …etc to what now obtains in this country; the wives of our past leaders supported their husbands and played good parts in the development of our nation; it was not that the media was not sophisticated adequately to provide insights of these women; it was simply that there was no profligacy to report. Not any more. They were women of substance, who did not involve themselves in such wastrel enterprise as ‘the Office of the First Lady’. They did not need officials or Directors of private companies to defend them against accusations of financial transactions. It is doubtful, if they had other assistance beyond domestics. Now, it is different.

You may well say that I am a male chauvinist and a bigot, who considers the place of women is at home with the children. I resist such labels. I believe in the emancipation and liberation of women; particularly, those women that merit their success have my admiration. I am not generally sold to fine faces. I respect a woman, who is not in a position of authority because of her parents’ or husband’s achievements. Without mincing words, I have little respect for a woman whose claim to riches or success or popularity is benchmarked on her parentage or spouse. For all I care, her success should speak for itself and not ride on the achievements of others.

We must not ignore what obtained in the past, so as to venerate the place of our First Ladies. Right now, the deference of the people is not sincere for this unelected, meaningless and unnecessary ‘Office’. Nonetheless, let us consider, for example, Victoria Gowon as the consort of General Yakubu Gowon, the former Head of State. Victoria was always a step behind Jack whenever he was on his sempiternal commissioning of almost everything in Nigeria. She was elegant and at no time was she accused of financial or political malfeasance. After Victoria Gowon, we had Ajoke Mohammed.

In the days of sanitisation of the Nigerian Society by General Murtala Mohammed, Ajoke was not paraded in the latest expensive designers’ clothes or shoes: a mephitic display of lucre in a country where millions of our citizens are poor and cannot afford cost of opulence displayed by wives of our presidents. Surly, there is a need for a reconstruct in this area of unwonted display of wealth by our First Ladies. It was as if Ajoke did not exist. Her picture did not stifle the oxygen of publicity like what obtains these days. She was the wife of our Head of State and we strived for a glimpse of her. Perhaps, such noble preservation is the reason for the respectability she still enjoys.

After Murtala, we had General Olusegun Obasanjo – the current president. How times have changed. At his first coming, Obasanjo had neither the space nor reverence for the charade in this newly found pastime called First Ladies. He was recalcitrant to the need of displaying a woman as a First Lady. At that time, it was unclear if he was married, even though, it was an open secret that he was an Omo jaye jaye, who was concupiscent; the rumours that the he had his women in tow were rife. Lucky sinner turned to sainthood!

Obasanjo has changed; but has he really? Did he not deny that there was a First Lady earlier in his presidency? Since he has not said anything else to contradict that position, may be, while we all ascribe or accede to an imaginary Fist Lady, he knows that he is wiser than all of us. The question remains, though; why has his Press Office not discouraged the promotion of the concept of a First Lady, if the president is against the idea?

Could it be that Obasanjo is now different? In a way he is a different man from the military man that governed our nation. He has found religion. He has become a one-man one wife and accordingly, there is a need for a new ratiocination. Whatever the new reasoning, this First Lady business needs tinkering. The sine qua non must be defined by the president himself and he must be prepared to censure his wife, when she deviates from the script.

Alhadja Shehu Shagari and Alhadja Muhammadu Buhari were wives that displayed the good morals of their husbands and the same cannot be said of the wives of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, who became celebrated as First Ladies. They had their pet schemes for which they received accolades from jesters, trollops and any one wishing to slaughter their credence in return for cheap popularity or abhorrent notoriety. In fairness, I admit some of their schemes served good purposes for the intentions of the Ex-First Ladies. But, this is not about intentions. If the works were germane, why do they not subsist? Why were they embroiled in financial transactions that have not been made public?

I trust there is a court-jester willing to defend the schemes of these First Ladies; if it bears repeating, the need for the schemes is not the focus, it is the aftermath of the schemes and the amount of money diverted into them. Someday, someone would be bold enough to request accountability of monies provided from our national coffers (if any) to sponsor these Schemes. Also, where funds were donated by international organisations, it is not wrong to ask for accountability from the Ex-First Ladies. By so doing, we place the incumbent on notice to discharge accounts for her pet good doing schemes. If all these First Ladies’ Schemes were not the ploys of do-gooders, then the schemes will sustain themselves without political patronage.

When First Ladies become involved in financial or political arrangements, there always is the curiosity of the constituents of their husbands to attend. Such inquisitiveness become the vehicle for gossips and ultimately pernicious to their husbands. Take an example of the current difficulties of Mrs. Cherie Blair. As an aside, I recall in 1997 when her husband became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; there were journalists who labelled her as the First Lady. The label became an object of derision and in no time, it disappeared. As you well know, she has had a private financial dealing with a former jailbird and confidence trickster, to purchase two flats in Bristol, England. Her transactions with Mr. Foster are perfectly legitimate and in fact, even if she had also advised him on immigration matters, she could not have perverted the course of justice. At least, as a Recorder in the Crown Court, she knows that much.

Yet, the opinion poll now shows that the popularity of her husband’s Labour Party is dwindling as a result of his wife’s oversight. Can you imagine what would happen if Mrs Blair’s had a financial impropriety of funds donated to a scheme she midwifed? In Nigeria, when First Ladies get involved in financial transactions that have no bearing in walking a pace or two behind their husbands, we ought to be asking questions.

Barbara Bush, wife of George Bush (Snr) and mother of the present US president, once asked why she thought she was a popular First Lady. She said : It was because I threatened no one… (Independent on Sunday 4th December 1994) That is the point. When First Ladies dabble in enterprises that bear a scintilla of threat to one of their husband’s constituents, by extension, they endanger the revered Office of the President.

There are many examples to back this postulation. Imelda Marcus of the Philippines is a stark example of a First Lady whose excessive appetite for foreign clothes and shoes was a bad reflection on her husband. Her inglorious travels to Europe for shopping and diverting national funds for personal use damaged her husband irrevocably.

Elana Ceausescu, the wife of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was a First Lady, who took her office to a different dimension that is unlikely to occur in our country. Despite, what she regarded as the golden years in Romania, it is evident that her works did not outlive her. In fact she was abhorred in her country and it could be said that her husband suffered the result of a reaction to his wife.

In closing, I am not advocating that we discourage the wives of our presidents from their charitable endeavours. If their enterprises are charitable, rather than self-promotion, the charitable organisations must be able to sustain themselves and not disappear as is so common with our previous First Ladies. I advocate either a bouleversement or recidivism of their celebrated positions to the paragon roles as played by Victoria Gowon, Ajoke Mohammed, Alhadja Buhari, Alhadja Shagari, Mrs Balewa, Mrs H.I.D Awolowo and Mrs Akintola. If it is argued that times have changed, then we must define the role of a First Lady; if we fail in doing so, gossips will peddle their trades without hindrance.

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1 comment

Akin February 12, 2005 - 4:10 pm

I agree with you my broda!


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