Patience Jonathan, aka Dame Patience, aka First Lady, aka Dr. Chief (Mrs.), aka Mama Peace, has emerged as the standard for Nigeria’s current political season—with all the consequences and implications of that designation.
Nigeria has had its share of attention-grabbing “First Ladies,” but none anywhere quite as remarkable as Mrs. Jonathan. She has no peers in the department of loquaciousness. She leaves the impression that she is endowed, if not quite by the constitution, then by the superior instrument of divinity, with executive powers. It’s as if, in selecting her husband as president, Nigerians had also acquired her as a co-executive, if not the co-executive-in-chief. Perhaps she imagines herself—or so her carriage suggests—as a kind of two-in-one deal, God’s buy one, get one free gift to Nigerians. Sometimes, in fact, Mrs. Jonathan comes across as believing that she runs both her husband and Nigeria.
Her capacity for inserting herself in the affairs of state played out before the world’s astonished eye three weeks after Boko Haram insurgents snatched more than 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, a town in Borno State. With some government officials and friends of the Jonathans questioning the reality of the abductions, Mrs. Jonathan decided to hold court in one of the halls of Aso Rock. She had law enforcement agencies haul Asabe Kwambura, the principal of the Government Girls High School in Chibok, before her august presence for a dose of “First Lady” grilling. Then, as the world watched, Mrs. Jonathan delivered her “diaris god o!” sermon in the Villa.
The video of that faux comedic performance became a global sensation. Various versions of it were watched by hundreds of thousands of people. Professional and amateur comedians had a field day adapting, mimicking and ridiculing it. One BBC presenter who interviewed me on the abduction noted in a wry, understated tone, “Now, that was a rather interesting performance by the wife of the president.” In the build-up to her staged tearful climax, Mrs. Jonathan asked rhetorically, “Now the First Lady is calling you, come I want to help you, come to find your child, your missing child, will you keep quiet?” The assembly in her court chorused, “No!” Seemingly moved by the pathos of the moment, the dame swayed from side to side and declaimed, “Chaye, chaye, diaris god o, diaris god o! De bloods we’re sharing, diaris god o! Diaris god o!”
An excerpt of Mrs. Jonathan’s emotional outburst, reproduced above, exemplifies another significant feature of her personality. She is a one-woman factory of malapropisms. On one occasion, she exhorted women on raising their children. “The children are our future leaders of tomorrow,” she said in her colorful English. Then, in a seamless follow-up, she informed her audience: “Mr. President was once a child.” No kidding! Until that amazing revelation, perhaps some had imagined that the president was born a full adult!
The president’s wife, it turns out, is irrepressible. Few other people in Nigeria would endure the scorn poured on the venerable dame’s spoken English and yet continue to disdain prepared speeches, preferring the certain risk of speaking off-the-cuff. It’s either that she has not made any trips to youtube.com, where she ranks among the most lampooned figures in the world, or she derives curious (perhaps perverse) pleasure from being mercilessly roasted.
In a country where life can be—is—often too grim, Mrs. Jonathan provides much needed service. Her linguistic novelties and adventures are fodder for jokes at the bars where Nigerians gather to relish pepper soups and quaff away their sorrows. In a sense, then, she is—to invoke Milan Kundera—the First Lady of laughter and forgetting.
Yet, Mrs. Jonathan is not always—or even mostly—laughing matter. Her interventions in Nigerian politics are often ominous. Often crudely schoolmarmish, she once famously issued a very public scolding of Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, her home state. As if that was not provocation enough, on another occasion, her security detail restricted the same governor’s movement in the capital city of Port Harcourt—because the imperious First Lady and her retinue were about.
Her forage into the Chibok abduction issue provided more heat than light, sheer theater where serious action was imperative. Her ostentatious style frequently rakes open the sores of millions of Nigerians crippled by poverty. In a country with deepening rates of misery, her taste for opulence is a calculated way of pouring salt on bleeding injuries.
In the past week or two, Mrs. Jonathan has proved herself an adept master of the ideologically arid and substantively pallid game of Nigerian politics. In a way, she has set the agenda for the tone and tenor of Nigeria’s elongated electioneering season. Attributing near-divine powers to her husband, she told an audience of artistes that Mr. Jonathan made them—indeed, that he engineered the shift of cultural power from LA (yes, Los Angeles) to Nigeria. She then urged Nigerians to stone anybody who calls for “Change”—the mantra of Nigeria’s main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). On a different outing, in Sokoto, a minister read Mrs. Jonathan’s speech. In it, the First Lady served us notice that her husband’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) would run and rule for another sixty years!
On yet another occasion, she told a campaign rally—this time with her mouth—that the APC’s presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, was “brain-dead.” Perhaps the flinging of that epithet was a deliberate verbal slingshot from a woman whose husband has been called all manner of unflattering names.
It’s safe to say that the First Lady, far more so than her husband, is one of the standard-setters in Nigerian-style politicking. In a way, her last week’s “brain-dead” remark set the agenda for Nigeria. The remark invited a caustic response from the APC. And then the PDP echoed Mrs. Jonathan, justifying her rhetoric.
I can’t quite shake off the feeling that Mrs. Jonathan, in showing off such virtuoso skills in the art of mudslinging, epitomizes both her husband’s shortcomings as a leader as well as the diseased state of Nigerian politics. Even if it served any purpose to declare the president’s opponent mentally dead, was that the place of the president’s wife to do that filthy job? And how has Mrs. Jonathan advanced our knowledge of her husband’s marvelous policies or his main opponent’s deficient proposals by such inelegant, sickening and unladylike descent into the gutter?