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Adieu, Nigeria’s First Lady

By  Ikeddy Isiguzo, Chairman, Editorial Board
MARYAM Babangida was not someone anyone could forget, not in a hurry, if ever. You either liked her or disliked her. You never had a choice of being indifferent to this woman, whose  spell-bound beauty came in that dark hue that left few doubts that black is beautiful.

She was the one who made something out of the office of First Lady. She did not invent the office, but more than anyone else she made us still realise how under-rated women were in a society that paraded itself – without any convincing  facts – of being male driven.

The Office of the First Lady seemed meant for Maryam. It was waiting for her poise, her states(wo)manship and her mesmerising looks to take captive of a country that was adrift.

Protests that her adeptness at using her first ladyship was a drain on public purposes failed to impressed. Her argument was simple – there was no official budget for the office. There is still no proof that there was.

It was as if Nigerian leaders, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Tafawa Balewa, General Yakubu Gowon, General Murtala Muhammed, General Olusegun Obasanjo, Alhaji Aliyu Usman Shehu Shagari, General Muhammadu Buhari, and Chief Ernest Sonekan had no wives.

Well, Victoria Gowon tried to make an impact, but she was frightened into a corner by the circumstances of the Civil War and the fact that her marriage to General Gowon at the height of the war was with pageantry that some said even at peace time would have been obscene.

The other Mariam (Sani Abacha’s) launched out at the office with a vivacity that failed to make the same marks because many thought her Family Support Programme was a continuation of the rivalry between the two top army generals – and their wives.

Incidentally, Maryam’s rise to fame began too, though quietly, during the Civil War. She married Captain Ibrahim Babangida in Kaduna on 6 September 1969, a marriage that produced four children, the last Halimatu, born 7 August 1989, being recorded as the only member of Nigeria’ first family to be born while the parents were in office.

From August 1985 when her husband shoved his way to power to his harried departure in 1993, Maryam bestrode the nation’s politics in a manner that not even Stella Obasanjo could under a democratic government. Only a few dared her.

She was blamed for most of the things people thought went wrong. There were even insinuations that she wanted to succeed her husband, while comparisons with former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos were common.

The comparison with Marcos was belittling, unless we were only interested in inspecting wardrobes. Maryam was much more. There are no definite parameters for measuring the powers she wielded.

Yet none of those who loved to hate her would deny the importance she brought to the office. She spread her wings, made wives of State Governors develop their own offices, pet projects and with time first ladies spawned throughout the federation like overnight mushrooms.

Wives of local government chairmen, councillors, legislators, chiefs, chieftains, touts, and thugs all grabbed the opportunity. The country now has enough first ladies to fill 25,000-seater auditorium. The numbers are growing.

Military Governors then were said to be in such dread of Maryam that they never knew which of their wives(?) would be the first lady when they were appointed. It was reported that Maryam would usually decide the woman who occupies the Government House with the appointees.

The Military Governors did not appear to have a choice in an area that Maryam annexed. The impressions were that she got whatever she wanted, or the closest alternative.

An example many give is the creation of Delta State. The story was that when she could not get a state specifically for her people, she guaranteed a future state by getting a capital, Asaba. All the protests about the choice of Asaba over Warri or another place counted for nothing.

On leaving office, she must have discovered the hatred that hit her family, especially with the under-estimation of the bile at the annulment of the June 12 election that family friend Chief Moshood Abiola won.

She retired to running highbrow schools in Minna and Abuja, shielded herself from the public, moreso, when the news of her illness started filtering out.

Rumours of her death have become regular, no longer out of ill-will, but out of concerns over her continuous absence from public view. The unflinching loyalists her husband cultivated over the years have done their best to keep the family name in the headlines for good, ensuring that family events like weddings of her children remained class A events, and occasions to display loyalty.

News of her death yesterday closed a distinct chapter in the history of Nigerian rulers and the role of the women in it.

Born Maryam Okogwu  to Hajiya Asabe Halima Mohammed from the present Niger State and Mr. Leonard Nwanonye Okogwu from Asaba in Delta State, her schooling was in Kaduna, Queen Amina College, and the Federal Training Centre, both in Kaduna. She also studied Secretarial Studies at LaSalle University Chicago, USA.

Adieu our first First Lady. You were phenomenal, so much so, most debates on the office of the First Lady are referenced on her. We would all be left to wonder what President Babangida would have been without your First Ladyship.


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