ByÂ Kunle Oyatomi, Deputy Editor
The first ever glamorous First Lady to burst into the political firmament of Nigeria, Mariam Babangida, is gone at the early age of 61. Before her, that position of First Lady was virtually unrecognized because those who were there before her chose to withdraw under the shadows of their husbands.
But when her husband, former first military President of Nigeria shot his way to power, the beautiful and bright Mariam Babangida likewise shot out of the shadows of her husband to give prominence to that position of First Lady, and also make it powerful enough to extract official recognition from the state.
She became a super star and the women were so full of admiration for her and they gave her phenomenon, added impetus that even the husband was pleasantly surprised not only to acknowledge but also to defend her even if up until her emergence there was no precedence as to what position, power or state funding an â€œactivistâ€ wife of a Nigerian President should get.
She took everybody by such storm and surprise, it was as if the experience will never fade, especially when she swept the country practically off its feet with her â€œBetter Lifeâ€ project. The instant success of that project led to other things which engaged not just women but a good number of men to the bargain.
At a point, it wasnâ€™t out of line to see her as the de-facto Vice President even if she would deny exercising such powers. Then came the disaster of 1993 when her husband was caught in a deadly fix as to what to do with the June 12, 1993 electoral victory of Chief M.K.O Abiola. At the end, it made sense for IBB to â€œstep asideâ€ to save both his and Mariamâ€™s lives.
That was the beginning of the slow but irreversible decline of this wonderful woman, who had brought glamour and fame, as well as power and recognition to the status of Nigeriaâ€™s first ladies. But there was to develop a tragic twist to this decline; our ebullient First Lady began to fade under ill-health.
And when the inevitable announcement had to be made that she had cancer, the cold brutal hand of death showed itself on the firmament. The journey home had begun. Mariam Babangida faded not only from the front pages, she also disappeared from the newslines.
The pangs of the â€œdeath-knellâ€ had no respect for the beauty and intelligence of this daring pacesetter of a former First Lady. It took a hold on her with the vice grip of a relentless killer who would have no mercy for the pleading eyes of a lady loved by friends, and respected by foes alike.
Death would take no thought of the kind disposition of this woman and give her the chance for a longer life. The time was up, but she just as well stepped up the battle to survive, when sometime last month the rumour gained currency that Mariam was dead â€“ it was a false alarm!!!
Yes, she was sick, pale and sad when I spoke to her last, in very subdued and sublime circumstance, to find out how she felt about the rumours of her death. Her response was philosophical: â€œGod giveth and takethâ€, she said, obviously resigned to her fate in the hands of death. However, she was sad that anyone could have wished her dead even in the midst of her gallant battle for life.
But it was something she had little control over. It is the way of the world with an erstwhile powerful and compelling personality like Mariam. The rumour of death starts so mysteriously whilst the person is yet alive, it is usually hard to put a finger to why anyone would start such fib as if wishing the worst for a person whose back is desperately against the wall.
For Mariam Babangida, it was a very painful experience, especially when you contrast that indiscretion with the personality of a former First Lady whose love for the women folk, and passion for a comfortable family life gave to so many what they never had before, and which â€“ since her fall from power and fame â€“ they have never had again. Her death brings to a pathetic end an era in the lives of Nigerian women that will take a pretty long time to re-enact.
Another â€œFirst Ladyâ€ like Mariam? Not in the horizon of a distant future!!!
Maryam: Friend of rural women â€”NLC
With a deep sense of sorrow, the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, hereby commiserates with the immediate and extended family members of the Late Mrs. Maryam Babangida, on her passage this morning in a hospital in the United States of America.
We mourn her death along with millions of rural dwellers who were touched by her pet project, Better Life for Rural Women when she was First Lady and wife of former military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida from 1985 to 1993.
While the Late Mrs. Maryam Babangida operated in era of dictatorship, we would like to associate with the philosophy of the Better Life Programme that brought tremendous national and global attention to the life of deprivation and neglect under which millions of our people especially women and children lived in our rural communities and semi urban centres.
She therefore remains a symbol of the first genuine attempt at recognizing that development should percolate down to every community and not the exclusive preserve of city dwellers. In doing that, Mrs. Babangida did not only make history as the first wife of any Nigerian leader to be publicly involved in governance, she as well packaged herself as a creative, dynamic and charismatic lady whose vision made her a key national figure years after her husband had left office.
The NLC believes that Mrs. Babangidaâ€™s life will forever remain indelible in the minds of many rural folks for whom she dedicated her public life. That she inserted in our national consciousness and in the realm of governance a drive for rural development no doubt sets her apart.
Even though Congress participated in the push to end military dictatorship through which she became involved in governance, we equally recognize that as a historical reality, she in many ways impacted positively on the lives of millions of the masses who before then knew nothing about the responsibility of government to the people. For that we celebrate her life. We therefore extend our condolences to all her family members, especially her husband and children.