By Ugoji Egbujo
Ordinarily, the office of a first lady should ooze nobility , embody philanthropy, exude meekness and espouse virtue . And like any other agency for charity should generate no controversy by its very existence or by its interventions. So why has that office become suddenly contentious in Nigeria?
Why has the retention or otherwise of that office, which in any case should be trivia, become arguably the only topical issue on which the two main parties openly disagree. The campaigns, unfortunately, have been about inanities and profanities so the opportunity offered by this controversy must be milked.
In many developed democracies with functional public institutional infrastructure and social welfare schemes for delivery of services to the ordinary people, first ladies have continued to play invaluable charitable and social roles. Some even help in giving expression to particular government policies of special interest. Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalyn Carter played active roles in the government of the United states .
A reasonable presumption would be that the office of the first lady is relevant and helpful in Nigeria. Even without statutory grounding, any intervention aimed at delivering succor to the poor especially in a weak society will be welcome. The grim circumstances that have led to a proliferation or rather mushrooming of NGOs justifies that office .
In Nigeria, however, many incorrigibly selfish and greedy people set up NGOs to seek funds and fame , to cater more for themselves than anyone else. International donors have been scammed severally by these phoney set ups and this malady has adversely affected international support flowing to those in need. Ordinarily, this anomaly necessitates establishment of efficient charities that can gather and channel funds and energies altruistically. The office of the first lady should be such an agency.
Its widely assumed that the spouse of a president anywhere wields power and influence. She will wield even more power in jurisdictions where democratic checks and balances are weak and where democratic institutions are almost non existent. The office should then be able to circumvent bureaucracy and meet disadvantaged groups or push policy.
So why does Buhari want the office abolished? Buhari views the office of the first lady as an extra constitutional profligate agency. He posits that the office has come to be a symbol of vanity , ostentatious living and perhaps political meddlesomeness.
A man reputed for probity and frugality who seeks to run on strict anti corruption stance and public discipline can be expected to touch that office . Buhari is a man of few words, he doesn’t give details. His sentiments are shared by many .It is unconscionable to engage in a supposed philanthropic enterprise for personal aggrandizement. And nothing points to this tendency more than that every first lady ushered into office in Nigeria abandons projects initiated by her predecessor and engages in new projects . Their sense of philanthropy is never self effacing, it is nearly always geared towards vain glory.
They mobilise funds , they mobilise other women into subservience , and they become empresses. They revel in extravagant gatherings of cronies , embracing frivolities in furtherance of their class distinction. They pay lip service to the poor and the marginalized through shameless tokenisms, like sharing bags of rice in Abuja. Lavish ostentation inherent in the processes usually adopted to give expression to charity only buttresses suspicions of crass opportunism.
Funds are wasted inviting all manner of people from all over Africa and beyond. In promoting tastes that are manifestly sybaritic and hedonistic they reveal an inner contempt for the poor and make a mockery of moderation and contentment the very values they should espouse. The hidden motive of these projects is to massage their swollen egos and they do it in a manner so coarse that it irks and disconcerts. Since the constitution was ’ daft’ enough not to provide official trappings for the presidents’ spouses they would exploit charity and appropriate officialdom, create their own empire and reign supreme.
Before long the first lady will extend her influence into government and party structures to cajole , harass , intimidate and subdue government and party officials. Often operating in the shadows. They facilitate high profile appointments , procure mouth watering contracts, make and unmake people. Always dispensing patronage and often taking commissions. In a country where people believe that no one can afford to be in the bad books of a president and where presidents love sycophancy and have a penchant for vendetta, having the ear of a president is a seen as an asset of unquantifiable value. Little wonder then that those who have access to a president always seek to monopolise that access by literally cordoning off the president and astronomically raising their worth and their fees. Prebendalism. So first ladies are courted and revered.
Apart from disrupting normal structures and protocols and exacerbating arbitrariness, these first ladies in being generally contemptuous of decorum have tended to become poor role models for other women. In their poor choice of values and parvenu life styles they weaken an already worn societal moral fabric.. Taking Chieftaincy titles, purchasing foreign and local doctorate degrees and stretching self indulgence to limits by literally organizing regular naming and re-naming ceremonies – mother of the nation, mama prosperity, Chair Lady of earths women conference and the like. Most of them have succeeded in locating themselves in the moral proximity of Imelda marcos.
So why does the president want to retain the office? The president says that the office promotes women and empowers them. And that its scrapping would amount to sending women back to the kitchen. He debunked the suggestion that the office and its activities have been a drain pipe on the nation’s resources, noting that the office gets nothing from the public treasury. Not many believe the assertion . He touted programmes the current first lady has initiated and their benefits to women, children and the poor as evidence to support the utility and retention of that office. A president who regularly lays claim to women empowerment and liberty and who is generally easy- going would be expected to retain the office.
Some may argue that in a male dominated society where women suffer grave , widespread, socio -cultural , systemically structured limitations and disadvantages, any opportunity, whether tokenistic or substantive, that throws power or influence the way of women, in some sense and to some degree , alleviates gender inequality .
However, even moderate feminists would counter that any empowerment of women that flows from a kind political gesture of men to their ‘appendages’ or ‘ornamental objects’ perpetuates rather than alleviates gender inequality and discrimination. If women are in the kitchen they will not come out of it until definitive processes and policies that will correct societal structures and conceptions that impair gender equality are consciously and diligently entrenched. While the suggestion that the scrapping of the office furthers the subjugation of women can be labeled mere political gimmickry, it can be argued that , if occupied by a truly self effacing lady, imbued with sense of philanthropy and patriotism, the office will immensely benefit the society.
So in a sense regulation can cure the mischief? But how do we identify a potential president? And if we do how do we vet his choice of partner? Haven’t ambitious and intelligent people surprised many with their choice of spouses? Some exceptionally gifted women have bewildered not a few in choosing queer men. The office cannot be regulated in any case by law since its existence in Nigeria is unknown to law.
Hilary Clinton may become America’s next president. Her high profile political career was birthed by her first ladyship. During her time as first lady she engaged in routine charity but she also helped in giving expression to government policies, chaired the healthcare reform task force. We haven’t been that lucky but I guess President Jonathan envisions an Eleanor Roosevelt Hilary Clinton scenario. Imelda Marcos was notorious too. As first lady she set a record in the number of shoes she amassed, impunity she promoted and vanity she embraced. Buhari must be out to protect us from a similar affliction.
One may wonder if the our president has , despite his posturing, addressed his mind to the seemingly general negative public perception of that office in Nigeria. If the office has been abused , as many believe, why is he insistent on retaining it? Does he intend to effect a reformation to make it useful? On the other hand , is Buhari’s ‘away with you’ stance a manifestation of a impatient and spontaneous approach to complex issues of governance ? Or is it borne of his dislike for wastefulness that he has often received praise for?
Unfortunately in Nigeria it’s been more crass than class. That saying – one man’s meat is another man’s ‘kpanla’- must be true for communities too.
Dr Ugoji Egbujo, MBBS, LLB, LLm (Medical Doctor and Criminology