By MAHMOON BABA-AHMED
The concept of First Ladyship, imported from Western democracies, is awfully abused in this country, and from all indications it is an ill-wind that blows nobody any good. Its practice is making everyone ill at ease. Initially the idea was to enable the wife of a President or governor accompany him to any state function where her presence will add colour and glamour, but in Nigeria First Ladies have redefined that role by usurping the authority of their hubbies, performing executive functions, making unbudgeted expenditure and expropriating public property for their personal aggrandisement.
They have systematically liberated themselves from the control of their spouses, exerting themselves as independent partners that could do and undo. They emerged overnight as larger than life consorts, dwarfing the political stature of their men. They do not have anybody’s mandate to act as they wish, but are more powerful than their so-called elected mates. That was an unfortunate development that terribly negates the notion of governance and which also projects our leaders as totally hopeless in curbing their wives’ extravagant immoderation in the affairs of the state.
God in his infinite wisdom has cautioned us about showing excessive love for women and children who could be harmful to our security and welfare. However, our leaders remained heedless, always trusting their women and over pampering their children. Needless to say, such actions have now brought reproach upon them. Although Nigerians love and respect the basic rights of their womenfolk, they do not sanction their indulgence in activities that go beyond what is morally or socially acceptable that may pour scorn on their status and bring shame to the community. Although most Nigerian women are vociferous and unconstrained, always at liberty to pursue their legitimate interests, they are still firmly placed under the guidance and supervision of their male partners for effective control.
Nowadays such vital control is terribly relaxed and women are on the loose, ensnaring men into their devious designs. Consequently Nigeria’s elected leaders are the worst victims having lost their bearing with their women, unwittingly endorsing their involvement in all aspects of governance. By so doing they are causing great confusion by meddling into the affairs of the civil service by hook or by crook, pushing officers around and issuing orders that counteract the objectives of the establishment.
Their selfish and weird wishes are always deemed by their complacent husbands as directives which could not be contravened. To all intent and purpose they had succeeded in setting up a parallel authority comparable to that of their husbands. The era of first ladyship was thus established in all the three tiers of governance in the country. Its influence has subsequently permeated into the security institutions where the wives of service chiefs are ardent adherents. A personality cult is built around them with immense power and influence to direct, shape or manoeuvre men and materials to gain advantage.
Maryam Babangida was the forerunner of First Ladyship and her daring escapades made her Better Life Programme a focus of attention. It was later tacitly endorsed by the bureaucrats. Maryam Abacha consolidated it with her own version, The Family Support, which was a complete departure from the aims and objectives of the pioneering scheme. Subsequently each first lady came with her own agenda, different in content and meaning from that of her predecessors.
The sad aspect of the whole affair was that it produced risky and daring enterprises with no guarantee of success. They were therefore abandoned midway to become white elephants projects. Worst still, there was discontinuity in their implementation, with each lady commencing on fresh projects that may have little or no benefit to the welfare of masses. That clearly brought to the fore the insensitivity of the First ladies about the judicious use of public funds, an indication of their recklessness which fuelled the corruption their husbands failed to curtail.
Dame Patience Jonathan has stretched that concept too far by taking the demands of the office of a First Lady and that of a permanent secretary, in a state civil service, in a single stride. She is now crowning it up with the position of the Chairperson of the African First Ladies Peace Mission AFLPM which earned her the sobriquet of the First Lady of Africa. The apogee of Dame Patience’s reign as Africa’s foremost dame came recently with a parley and lavish banquet for all Africa’s first ladies hosted at a staggering cost which almost drained the nation’s purse. That was indeed an ironical misadventure undertaken to promote peace on the continent when a substantial portion of Nigeria is gripped by a reign of terror. Somebody should please tell Mrs Jonathan that charity begins at home. She should counsel her husband on the need to be more practical in repressing the insurgency that could destabilise his administration and render his Dame a damsel in distress.
While the first ladies are basking in the warmth and comfort of their offices, deriving great satisfaction and pleasure by savouring their spoils, there is a growing disquiet about their integrity and the legality of their actions. It has been argued that the actions of the first ladies are not backed by any authority and consequently any money expended for that purpose is acquired through illegitimate means. It therefore goes without saying that the first ladies and their other halves are partners in illegal acts, perpetrating immorality and corruption. While a governor or a president is immune to interrogation and subsequent litigation while in office, his wife is not and could be liable to grilling to account for the money improperly entrusted to her for the pursuit of her pet project and pleasure-seeking exploits
Despite all these, the primus inter pares of Africa’s most flamboyant ladies, Dame Patience Jonathan, is completely dissatisfied with her role as Nigeria’s matriarch. She is now toying with the idea of legalising the offices of first ladies in the current effort to amend the statute book. That may be a plausible contention, but how could that be done without involving the electorates whose mandate is vital for the crystallisation of that idea? In that case it is suggested that the constitution be amended to allow a triumvirate arrangement involving the president, his vice and the first lady as the second vice president, all to run on a single ticket. In that way the three of them could share some responsibility, authority or power. The same should also apply to state governors.
By so doing deputy governors, and to a large extend the vice president, will be allotted a degree of responsibility to make them more effective and relevant in governance. Anything short of that will amount to an infringement of constitutional provisions, making the office of first ladies redundant, superfluous, unessential and unnecessary.