Aloma Mukhtar, Patience Jonathan and affirmative action By Zainab Suleiman Okino

Justice Aloma Mukhtar

Last week the women folk had cheery news to celebrate. It’s a break from the past, and it’s the appointment to the highest judicial office in the land of Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar as the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria.  This well-deserved appointment was quickly followed by a “well- influenced” and “highly nepotised” appointment of First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan as a permanent secretary in Bayelsa state.

Over the years, women have been advocating 35 per cent affirmative action in political appointments in accordance with the letter and spirit of the 1995 Beijing Conference. Since the advent of civil rule in Nigeria in 1999, there have also been conscious efforts to meet this target, and the Jonathan government has tried to build on the strides of his predecessors in this direction. However it’s doubtful if these two appointments have anything to do with the much vaunted affirmative action.

Given the historical injustices and cultural biases against women who have had to surmount various obstacles to rise to the top, Justice Mukhtar’s is uniquely outstanding. In other words, there are women who do not need affirmative action to rise. Justice Aloma Mukhtar, a lawyer and jurist of repute, is one of such few women. She worked her way to the top. She is therefore celebrated for her earned-achievement, not because of affirmative action, but in spite of it. It is the celebration of a woman who has broken a glass ceiling. When Hilary Clinton lost the Democratic Party nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, she said she might not have broken the glass ceiling, but she surely made a lot of cracks on it, which means she was half way through in blaze-trailing for women to get to the top, someday.

Now, it is instructive to note that even the U.S, whose form of democratic institutions we copy, has never produced a  female chief judge of the Supreme Court since its independence in 1776. So, Justice Aloma Mukhtar’s accomplishment is a national pride, not just women’s pride.

On the other hand, Mrs Jonathan may not even qualify for affirmative action, especially if the idea is to prop up women with at least the minimal qualification to compete (and catch up) with men who may have the maximum qualification.

Her appointment is therefore a disgrace and a setback in “catching up” with men, which affirmative action is all about. It’s a set back because the government of Bayelsa state did not have to bend over backwards to appoint someone whose civil service record is questionable or at best shrouded in controversy.

As a matter of fact, the two women are poles apart and couldn’t have been more different. One did not need affirmative action to get the job and the other is not even qualified for it. In a way, Patience Jonathan’s appointment could stagnate the civil service structure and kill people’s morals.  The civil service could not have got a worse battering. Its politicisation would bring it down completely. Except for the buzz in town that Patience is being prepared for the higher office of governor and for a soft landing, it is unimaginable that the first lady who should be in Abuja with her husband will henceforth operate from Abuja or shuttle to and from Abuja.

She said she would not collect salaries and doesn’t have to be resident in Yenogoa. But if she would not live in Bayelsa and does not need the salary, of what purpose is the appointment anyway? Instead, her appointment has prevented and blocked the chances of qualified women who need the salary and deserve the promotion from enjoying those benefits. It may be argued that the position of permanent secretary is political and at the discretion of the governor anyway, so he was merely exercising his powers. But why does he have to do this at the expense of the good people of Bayelsa who are being taken for a ride. Paying political IOUs as Governor Seriake Dikcson is doing with Mrs Jonathan’s appointment definitely is not what the people bargained for when he was voted into office, although we also reckon with the fact that he was imposed on Bayelsa.

Yet, up to this moment, the president has not even spoken up. Do Nigerians still need any other evidence to prove the level of degeneration of the Jonathan government? The president has no respect for Nigerians and Bayelsan people, otherwise he won’t be throwing nonesense at us the way he did with the appointment of his wife.

In its defence, the Bayela state government in a statement by the Senior Special Assistant (Media and Public Affairs) Daniel Iworiso-Marson said the president’s wife is a staff of the state’s civil service and was appointed into the directorate cadre as a level 15 officer in 2005. She was said to have joined the service in the 1990s, (some said precisely in 1999). So where is the evidence that Mrs Jonathan had(s) an unblemished civil service career path? How is it possible for a woman who joined the service in 1990s to become a director in 2005? Her appointment to the directorate cadre in 2005 as claimed must have been contrived as a favour for the acting governor’s wife that she was then. If she was a civil servant who followed a diligent career route, was it ever announced that she was on leave of absence or secondment? I have friends from our university days who have been in the service since 1988/89, yet none of them has become a director at their different ministries.

The governor was also said to have been ” convinced that wives of governors, vice president and president and all other spouses whose positions are not recognised by laws of the country and are not funded by the government should be encouraged and supported to pursue and maintain their independent careers”. The governor’s position amounts to abuse of power. In Nigeria, wives of president, governors, etc, wield enormous power that some cabinet office holders such as vice president and deputy governors do not have.

Meanwhile, like Oliver Twist, Mrs Jonathan is not done yet. During her swearing-in last week, she canvassed for a constitutional role for wives of political office holders like her in the ongoing constitution review. I’ll not be surprised if the Senate acquiesces to her demands.

Zainab is an editor and columnist with Blueprint Newspapers

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