Exit of the black beauty and trailblazer!

By Helen OvbiageleWoman Editor
IT was a sad Monday, December 28, 2009, for many Nigerians when we saw various newspaper headlines announcing the passing away of the most vibrant, attractive and colourful wife of a head of state that Nigeria has had so far. ‘Maryam Babangida is dead,’  Maryam Babangida dies at 61′ etc. 

For many months now, there had been rumours of her ill-health, some sources mentioned one ailment or the other, with further rumour that it was incurable.  Later, we heard that she had been flown abroad for treatment. However, nothing prepared many people for her death, and the fact that her radiant smile,  flashing white teeth, and lovely gait, would be gone forever, as she wouldn’t return to the country alive.   It’s a great loss to women and the nation.

Whatever people may think, feel or say, the name Mrs Maryam Babangida is firmly entrenched in the history of Nigeria, and for many decades to come, it will remain on the list of the eminent Nigerian women who did their best to raise the status of the Nigerian woman. How? For making the elevation of the Nigerian woman her principal project, throughout her tenure as the First Lady of Nigeria.

Before her time, there was just ‘the wife of the president or commander in chief,’ who graced various State functions in her finery, smiling at dignitaries, and at best, going round guests to shake hands and make small talk. If she ever  helped her husband make decisions concerning the nation, it would be behind the scenes, and her contributions to national development would never come to public notice.  She had no pet project and no formal office and staff.

Maryam Babangida changed all that. The title ‘First Lady’ started during her reign and it was something she guarded jealously, but at the same time, she encouraged the wives of the State governors to feel in charge of the women in their domains, and do their best to improve the lives of rural women, in accordance with her own pet project.

Grassroots impact

She initiated the project of the First Lady, and she hit the nail on the head by choosing ‘Better Life For Rural Women’; a programme for which she sought funds to execute, making its impact felt right down to the grassroots.  There were branches in all the states of the federation and these were overseen by the wives of the State governors.  From time to time they would all gather in Abuja at her invitation to give reports of their activities and take further directives from her.

We in the media called it ‘jamboree’.  She and her team sensitized the nation to the plight of the Nigerian woman, particularly those in the rural areas, whose backs are bent from endless toiling of the soil to eke out a living.

This led to the rise of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the cause of women (women’s health, obnoxious practices against women – the FGM, widowhood rites, disinheritance, battering and wife abuse, etc.)  all over the country.

We became conscious of the various declarations of the United Nations concerning women, and we began to attended international conferences on women, beginning with the one in Nairobi, then Beijing, and many others since then. She also interacted with the wives of other African heads of states, and she invited them to her Fairs on the BETTER LIFE programmes.

I think she was the first wife of the head of state to do this as there are no records that I’m aware of,  of her predecessors in office, inviting the wives of even our nearest neighbours, to the country on official visits.   Apart from fostering unity in the sub-region, the interaction helped women’s contribution to national development too, as these First Ladies were able to compare notes on the emancipation of women in their various countries, with the aim of improving their own contribution.

It was during Maryam Babangida’s  time that the late Mrs Maria Sokenu brought the People’s Bank to Nigeria, and women (and men) in groups, were given loans to start a trade, improve their farms, or engage in any money-making venture which would make them financially independent.

This was a great relief to many struggling women, especially the widows, single mothers, rural women, etc. who could not provide the collaterals which banks normally ask for before granting loans.  There was also the fact that most banks wouldn’t give loans to women.  In fact, Nigerian women were marginalized in many areas of life, and life was a nightmare for many of them.

It was Maryam Babangida who fought for a special government ministry for women; following the example in Senegal where there was a ministry for women already.  Ours started off as Commission For Women.  I can still see in my mind’s eye, her jump of joy when her husband, who was head of state then, announced at a news conference, the creation of this Commission.

It was all captured on television for the nation to see, and the women were delighted.  Later, during the time of Mrs. Abacha, the Commission became a full ministry.

Mrs. Maryam Babangida, a beautiful and elegant woman, was a very classy dresser, who knew what to wear and when. A friend, Mrs. Therese Nweke, once told me that Mrs. Babangida had a fine taste in paintings and decor, and was much enlightened in the Arts.

This was confirmed by another friend who had had the privilege of seeing her residence in Minna, and who remarked that the landscape and interior decor ‘were out of this world’.

Mrs Babangida was a delight to the media, and anything about her generated much interest, due to her personality.  I saw her and her husband just once at a party for the media at the State House in  Marina, Lagos,  many years ago when I was on the beat for the Vanguard.

She looked much more elegant in person than in the pictures, and I couldn’t help thinking that her husband was lucky to have such an attractive and enlightened woman in his life.  She was flamboyant and exuded confidence at all times.

Some people may not agree with my perception of her in this write-up, but I’m sure most people will agree that she has left behind, large footprints that would be difficult to match for some time to come. May her soul rest in peace, and may the Lord console all her loved ones.  Amen.

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