At times like this it is tempting to take refuge under the tent of Jean de la Bruyere, the French philosopher and moralist who famously said, “We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly.”
I simply believe that it is noble – and compellingly so, to speak truth to power.Some people make a career of cheap flattery, telling those in power that they are the best things to have happened to us since the invention of ice cream. They worship at the altar of successive tenants of power, genuflecting their way through life. They harden the hearts of their temporary bosses against wise counsel and habitually ingest analgesics for other people’s headaches. But it is the duty of the chronicler in the public space to honestly hold a mirror to the face of naked power, even in all its transmogrified grotesqueness.
The epidemic of First Ladyism as known today started with Maryam Babangida who turned what the inimitable Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka has fittingly described as a “mere domestic appendage of power” to an organ of state complete with all the appurtenances of military suzerainty. In my column at the time I did warn that Maryam was starting us on a dangerous road. Before the Babangida era, no first lady insinuated herself forcefully into our consciousness. Cast a backward glance: Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s wives never showed their faces on national television; Mrs. Ironsi stayed in the background; Mrs Victoria Gowon was a model in dignified comportment, showing up only at independence celebrations and charity events; Mrs. Ajoke Murtala Mohammed was self-effacing; Obasanjo did not acknowledge any First Lady during his first coming; President Shagari’s wives kept out of public glare; and Hajiya Buhari kept a low profile.
With hindsight now, it is generally agreed that compared to Maryam Babangida, many of the first ladies we have had could be classified as mere lizards where she was a crocodile. Just as has happened with leadership at various strata of governance, quality has nose-dived and what was considered as sub-par many years ago is now wistfully desired. It would therefore be understandable if the public consider Maryam’s years in the state house as the golden years of first ladyism in Nigeria.
It is important to settle the issue of the role of the spouse of the Nigerian president and state governors once and for all. Although many of the first ladies at state level have their various peccadilloes, it is the brashness of the current presidential spouse, Dame Patience Jonathan, that rankles nationally. When you talk to those who ought to be in a position to counsel her, they balk at the possibility. Their job entails that they see no evil and hear no evil. The result is that Mrs Jonathan seems to have developed a sense of infallibility not being in a position to take advantage of, Von Wolfgang Goethe’s timeless admonition: “Look closely at those who patronize you. Half are unfeeling, half untaught…”
That was how they flattered Hajiya Turai Yar’Adua. That was how they flattered Stella Obasanjo. That is how they will flatter the spouse of the next elected tenant of Aso Rock Villa.
I think the role being played by the Jonathans in Rivers State will backfire. It is no use pretending that the president is not aware of what is happening in Rivers State. In any case his wife has removed whatever doubt anyone had about her involvement in the current crisis when she told a delegation of religious leaders that her problem with Governor Amaechi started four years ago when she begged him to consult her people first before demolishing houses to pave way for a school in her native Okrika. I remember that incident vividly. From what I saw on the television, Dame Jonathan was rudely issuing instructions to the governor not to carry out the planned demolition. Now, even if a governor was just 21 years old, his office deserves respect.
The way Governor Amaechi is being treated and the veiled but sorry attempt to back the minority five Rivers State legislators in their bid to unseat the pro-Amaechi Speaker of the state assembly have merely served to lower the esteem in which the presidency ought to be held. Those of us outside partisan politics can’t see how the present tension in Rivers State would enhance the prospect of President Jonathan’s yet undeclared re-election bid. And the tendentious ethnic dimension the battle has taken is quite unfortunate. I was appalled the other day when a contributor to a phone-in radio programme described Amaechi as a “Hausa slave” who prefers to play second fiddle to a northerner instead of backing his South-South brother to retain the presidency. I asked myself, when did President Jonathan become a zonal president? Why this resort to primordial clannishness?
Since parables have not worked in the past, it is time to put it blandly: Dame Patience Jonathan’s excesses have to be curbed. The man to do that job is the president himself. I say this not because I don’t like the president and his spouse but because I love Nigeria no less. The wind stirred by the mill of contrived crisis is always deadly – if monsoon it rains fire and brimstone; if harmattan it dries up goodwill.
Trust Nigerians to activate their humour mill even in the most tragic of circumstances. The violent eruption at the Rivers State House of Assembly gave rise to this message that is circulating widely as BBMs and text messages: “When your enemies sit in their Assembly today for the impeachment of your blessings the Lord will appear like (name supplied) of Rivers State with a Mace and beat them to coma!”
It would have been funny if it all wasn’t so tragic.