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She made the difference

….The curtain falls for Maryam

By Funmi Komolafe, Asst.  Editor and Charles Kumolu
Former first lady of Nigeria,  Mrs. Maryam Babangida  (nee Okogwu) was born a Christian.  She was then known as Maria. She converted to Islam following  her marriage to General Ibrahim  Babangida.  The duo reportedly met in Kaduna.

As first lady of Nigeria between 1985 and 1993,  Maryam made the difference.  She introduced the Better Life for Women programme which was aimed at economic  empowerment of Nigerian  women.

Through this programme,  she touched the lives of many women especially in the rural areas.

She also used her position  to ensure that qualified women got quality  appointment in banks, the university  and in other spheres of life.

It is to  her credit that the Ministry of Women Affairs was created during her husband’s tenure as head  of state.

She was also credited with the location  of the capital of Delta State in Asaba.  Maryam’s father , Mr. Okogwu was from Asaba, Delta State.

Maryam Babangida took pride in African beauty.  She caused the Federal Government to place a ban on  the importation of bleaching creams.  Before then, many women and men who engaged in skin bleaching were confronted with medical challenges.

A strong believer in family ties,  unofficially, it was learnt that Maryam insisted that military administrators must be in office with their first wives.

To her, limited education  or lack of  social exposure was not enough for any military officer to jettison his first wife for any other woman.   She believed that those who sowed must reap.

Consequently, many military officers who became administrators of states were re-united with their estranged wives.

Maryam  was not just a wife to General Ibrahim Babangida, she was his soul mate.

Though a Muslim, she cherised a monogamous marriage.

Once a reporter asked her, what  would be her reaction if the General took  another wife, she told the reporter“  you want to give him another wife, I will kill you “.   She reacted the way any other woman would.

Affirming that she has been of tremendous influence in his life, General  Ibrahim Babangida once said of his wife when she wants something, she doesn’t waiver. As first lady, she took pride in being African. She brought colour and and glamour to the  office of First Lady of Nigeria.

As any mortal she had her shortcomings .

May her soul rest in peace.

The curtain falls for Maryam

THOUGH remarkably unknown before the coup of December 31, 1983, the end of Second Republic gave her a pinch of national recognition.

Being the wife of  the Chief of Army Staff, made her to be rarely known among Nigerians.

But the real Mrs Babangida was unveiled by events after August 27, 1985.

Her husband’s emergence as the beneficiary of the coup that ousted Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, sure was a curtain raiser for Mrs. Babangida.

With her, the relatively unknown office of the first lady became so loud.

The elegance and flamboyancy of that office then, speaks much about the Asaba born ex-first lady.

Besides, her personality transcended beyond beauty and elegance.

Like many inspiring figures, who transformed from obscurity to fame, Maryam became synonymous to power and glitz.

Her foot prints came to define some government policies for eight years.

However, some attributed this feat to her amiable and magnetic personality.

Regardless of that, the public support she commands today, was achieved through Better Life Programme.

As a pet project, the late First Lady displayed passion for BLP.

Given the fate of rural Nigeria, Mrs. Babangida’s rise to fame with the project was unarguably easy.

The curtain raiser

The recognisition that rural Nigeria got during General Ibrahim Babangida’s administration, seems unquantifiable.

The introduction of Directorate for Foods, Roads and Rural Infrastructure,DFFRI, says much about that.

But it also signposted the birth of BLP.

With an entourage of the DFFRI, the Lagos State government, Mrs. Babangida toured two obscure villages of Ilado-Odo and Igbologun in Lagos State.

That trip, however, gave her the pathetic picture of rural Nigeria. Then in an effort to boost the life of rural dwellers, that trip crystalised in the BLP.

In September 1987, BLP was launched in Abuja.

It was aimed at evolving ways of improving the lots of women within the context of their cultural and religious environment.

Funds were pumped into projects like  rice milling, garri processing, pottery and weaving to help the  women attain economic independence.

Instructively, most states benefitted from this programme.

For instance in the old Oyo State, no fewer than 28 projects were commissioned as at 1991.

They included garri processing, palm oil processing and corn milling, Also several rural markets were opened in all the local government areas of the state.

As a brand, the activities of BLP were also acknowledged internationally.

In 1991 the programme gained international recognition.

African First Ladies came to Nigeria to study the programme with the view of establishing a similar thing in their countries.

For her effort in uplifting the condition of rural women through BLP, Mrs. Babangida won  several national and international awards.

She was a joint recipient of the African Prize for Leadership for sustainable End of Hunger in 1991.

The award was also conferred on Kenya’s Professor Wangari Muta Maathai.

A misunderstood crusader/activist

Like her contemporaries before and after her, the ex-first lady was largely misunderstood. Being a wife of a military ruler increased the misconception about her.

Whether she was doing a good job or not, never mattered.  Despite being in the eye of the storm, most section of the public could not stop loving her.

Critiques have argued over time that BLP was a big fraud, adding that the eight years of the initiative, the real target of the programme did not feel its impact.

Even with the mixed feelings towards her, sadness was never part of her.

She lived her life with glamour and style.

However, many still see her as a woman, who genuinely felt for the underprivileged people and was determined to help the in every way.

And the result is that she seceded in bringing the issue of  rural women to limelight.

Words from the marble

“The programme was not initiated by the government. It was initiated by my very self. it was my idea that was translated into practical terms. of course we had problem of funding. being a new progarmme everyone was just watching us. What we do was to tax ourselves in some cases we pay for our involvements. That is the sincere source of funding for better life. If I say that hundred times people will not believe. They think government is funding the programme.

“It is the concern for the welfare of women in general and of rural women in particular I do not want to be telling long stories but as a woman I know where it pinches.

On her illness

“Any human being, who has blood running in his veins must one day fall sick. I was ill no doubt . After all I am not an extra terrestrial body or angel. I must have pains and aches and fall ill like any mortal. But I don’t think my falling ill should be source of happiness to many people.”


Like Williams Shakespeare, who saw death as “ a necessary end that will come when it will come,” death came for the former first lady yesterday.

Her death of cancer, no doubt has put to bed rumours of her death.

It would be recalled that the nation was abuzz with the rumours of her death last month.

But the amiable ex chairperson of BLP, dismissed it in an exclusive. interview with Vanguard.

Sure this is a big loss to the nation, as it would take generation to have another glamourous and large hearted first lady…


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