The First Lady Syndrome and all that By Mohammed Haruna

So the Presidential Committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution under the eminent chairmanship of former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Alfa Modibbo Belgore, wants the Office of the First Lady abolished at all levels of government.

“The Committee,” it said in its report which it has since submitted to President Goodluck Jonathan, “noted the from the State House on the First Lady and recommends that since the office does operate under any legal framework that the operation and the funding (both in kind and cash) of such offices at all levels should be discouraged and abolished forthwith.”

This sentiment is probably shared the vast majority of Nigerians, given the abuse to which the office has been subjected their occupants at all levels of government, all in the name philanthropy and what have . And as if to further deepen this popular anti-first lady sentiment, the spectacle of a most unedifying land tussle Dame Patience and her immediate predecessor, Turai Yar’adua, has been playing out lately.

The land in question is in the choice location of Abuja’s business district. As the original story goes, it belonged to Turai’s Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation (WYEF) but was revoked recently and given to African First Ladies Peace Mission (AFLPM) currently chaired Dame Patience. The revocation apparently prompted Turai to head for the courts. This in turn prompted an obviously embarrassed Federal Government to seek an out of court settlement through the intervention of the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Bello Adoke. The intervention has failed, at least for now.

The Office of the First Lady (OFL) has since disputed this version of the story which has clearly cast Dame Patience in the image of a power-hungry and mean-spirited bitch, given the well-known tragic circumstances of Turai’s widowhood.

“Of course, it can be seen already,” said the OFL in a full page advert in Thisday (August 1), among other newspapers, “that there is an on-going deliberate effort to mislead the public misrepresenting the facts, towards the ultimate aim of demonising the First Lady as a power abuser.”

The facts, said the OFL, was that the land in question belonged to the AFLPM, in the first place. So if anyone abused her office at all, the OFL insinuated, it was Turai who, as First Lady, got then minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Senator Adamu Aliero, to change the ownership of the land from AFLPM’s to her NGO’s.

“In our view,” the OFL said, “the legal and the moral hues of this whole trend are obvious. But that is a matter the Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation and the FCT Administration” because, according to the OFL, “the title of the Africa First Ladies Peace Centre was yet subsisting and unrevoked.”

The AFLPM, established in 1997 to foster peace on the continent following the widely publicised 1995 UN Beijing Conference on Women, said the OFL, had agreed to locate its headquarters in Nigeria during its 2008 Summit in Congo Brazzaville at which Turai was elected president – a second time for Nigeria, the first being in 1997 when Maryam, General Sani Abacha’s , hosted the organisation’s first summit in Abuja.

On the same day the OFL advert appeared in Thisday another full page advert signed by one, Dr. Samuel Dagogo, on behalf of “CONCERNED NIGERIANS” appeared in Daily Trust – incidentally the newspaper that broke the story – in support of Dame Patience. The , “as usual in every matter that concerns the first ,” Dagogo said, was maliciously muddling the facts of the case just to give a dog a bad name to justify hanging it.

Last Friday, another full page advert, this time unsigned, appeared in Thisday captioned “Attention! Pipers of Turai’s Land Orchestra. The advert was a reproduction of Daily Trust’s story on August 2 of an interview Aliero’s predecessor, Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar, had with the Hausa Service of Voice of America the day before. In the interview the former minister said he it was who, in the first place, suggested the idea of building the AFLPM secretariat to Turai’s husband, “as a legacy (she) would leave behind…just like the Women Centre built by late Maryam Babangida and the National Hospital built by Maryam Abacha.”

The late President Umaru Yar’adua, Umar said, agreed and told him to look for land. He found one and duly allocated it to the AFLPM.

I am sure about any malicious intent on the part of the towards Dame Patience, but from Umar’s seemingly incontrovertible account of the land dispute the current First Lady and her predecessor, it does look, at least to me, that the press has been grossly unfair to the current First Lady, if only for the simple and obvious reason that the AFLPM, unlike Turai’s WYEF, is Dame Patience’s personal NGO.

But that is as far as I will go in defence of the current First Lady; the AFLPM may not be her personal NGO but, stripped of all pretences, it is, like the NGOs of virtually all our First Ladies at the national, state and local government levels, essentially ego trips – very expensive ego trips of little or no public value. The jamboree-like conduct of last month’s AFLPM’s summit in Abuja was hard to beat as a testament of how useless the organization is in the pursuit of its objective of peace on the continent – and for that matter, of anything worthwhile.

Worse, some of these NGOs – to wit Dame Patience’s Women for Change which she could as well have named Women for Jonathan, given the thinly disguised way she deployed state resources in her attempt to mobilise women and youths for her husband in last year’s presidential election – have proved themselves to be sheer abuse of the privilege of being married to power.

Women everywhere have exercised tremendous influence over their men for good or bad. However in Africa, it seems, it has been more for bad than for good if only because, like their husbands, they seem to care more about their own creature comforts than about the greatest good for the greatest number of their people.

As the Christmas double edition of The Economist (December 18,2004) said in a long and rigorous article about “Powerful women in Africa,” the continent stands alone in the way First Ladies have exploited their proximity to power.

“Of course,” the magazine said, “it is not only in Africa that extravagant first ladies can be found. Imelda Marcos tried to turn the Philippines into a giant shoe rack…Yet, for consistent big shopping and big ambitions in the office of the first lady, the poorest continent stand alone. In Africa, chaotic and corrupt, where proximity to power is paramount, first ladies can wield greater influence than any minister.”

And on the continent itself, the magazine picked Nigeria as the worst offender. “Of all Africa’s big ladies – as with so many of the continent’s excesses – none,” it said, “has been bigger than Nigeria’s.”

If think this was an exaggeration, consider the drastic drop from the 80 per cent of child immunisation that the country had achieved under the late Professor Olukoye Ransome-Kuti as health minister, to 20 per cent from 1995 or thereabout when the OFL hijacked the national immunisation programme from the ministry. Consider again how the late Stella Obasanjo dragged this country, kicking and screaming, into hosting what was purely a private sector Miss World contest in November 2002; a contest which tragically led to riots in Kaduna and Abuja that left several innocent people dead and even more maimed.

Consider even the current unedifying land dispute between Dame Patience and her predecessor, the of which would benefit no one but themselves and perhaps a few in their charmed inner circle. Consider again the fact that both of them have, at various times, distinguished themselves in advocating for the inclusion of their office, which comes by happenstance rather than by hard work, in our constitution! And so on and so on.

Chances then are that most Nigerians, as I said at the beginning of this piece, will agree with the Belgore presidential constitutional review committee that the Office of the First Lady should be abolished.

That, I believe, would be wrong. It would, I think, amount to throwing away the baby with the bathwater. True, the office has largely been an object of gross abuse. But then so has every office in the land, and no one in his right mind would suggest abolishing them as a cure.

The OFL is not bad in itself. Just as it has been mainly a force for bad in this country, it can also be a force for good. The difference lies in how the public can effectively express its displeasure at any leader who allows his spouse to abuse her proximity to power.


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