By Gambo Dori
THE sight of President Muhammadu Buhari recently in a meeting with those dainty ladies, the wives of the 36 state governors, assured us that they have at last won his regard as to their usefulness and their status in the scheme of things.
They were led by the wife of the President. On television, it looked very much a convivial meeting with the President where he was seen lauding their various humanitarian activities especially on the internally displaced persons and the fight against drug abuse in their respective states. He then promised to canvass more moral and financial support for them and even encouraged them to interface with the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture on new and existing opportunities for female farmers and entrepreneurs.
I recall that in the heat of the campaigns, candidate Buhari in an interview published in Weekly Trust of 26/12/2014 had promised to abolish the Office of the First Lady. He said, ‘the (office of the) First Lady is not in the constitution, so there is no official role for them.’ I responded in an article captioned: Rein in the first lady, don’t abolish the office, published in Sunday Trust of 22/2/2015, imploring candidate Muhammadu Buhari to jettison the idea of abolishing the office should he win the election. Agreed that there is no constitution of the presidential system of government anywhere in the world detailing anything about the office of the First Lady, yet, it could be said to be a matter of convention over the years, that the office had become firmly ingrained in our psyche.
First Lady merely evolved
In the United States of America, USA, from where Nigeria and over 60 countries of the world adopted the Presidential system, the office of the First Lady merely evolved over the years, and has today become part and parcel of the US President’s office. In the 19th Century, the wives of the US Presidents were designated variously – Mrs President, Mrs Presidentress, First Lady of the Land, First Lady of the White House – until finally, Harriet Lane, niece of the bachelor President James Buchanan (1857-1861), superintending the White House was addressed formally, for the first time, as First Lady. In recent times, Rosalynn, consort of President Carter (in office 1977-81), was the first to have what is now called Office of the First Lady, situated in the East Wing of the White House. She is credited with the dubious pedigree of being the first to sit, though never spoke, in cabinet meetings.
Subsequent First Ladies merely upped the ante. President Clinton’s First Lady, Hillary, had offices in the West Wing (the President’s side) of the White House and is reputed to have chaired a cabinet committee during his tenure, albeit in controversial circumstances. Her turbulent story is part of these contemporary times. After her husband’s tenure, she ran successfully for the Senate and when the Democrats returned to power in the White House, Hillary became Secretary of State (Minister of) Foreign Affairs in President Obama’s first term. She also ran as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in the 2015 election and nearly won.
The First Lady as the resident consort is usually assumed to be the human side of the President. She takes up roles that would not normally be associated with the President who would usually be attending such masculine matters as cabinet meetings, commissioning projects, presiding at national army meetings surrounded by glowering, sour-faced, heavily-medalled generals, etc. When the First Ladies hug babies at hospitals, hobnob with school-going children at New Year and other events, meet with fellow ladies to confer on health matters, dance at cultural events, it balances the picture and adds value to the President. First Ladies even go side-by-side with their spouses to campaign during elections.
However, the First Ladies who deviate from these accepted tasks risk attracting odium to their consorts, thus greatly affecting their popularity. Where the First Ladies openly interfere in the appointment and deployment of government staff or are seen to be benefitting from contracts and other largesse, the public tend to have a negative view of the spouses. Part of the problems encountered by President Clinton’s Healthcare bill in 1993 was the unusual appointment of his First Lady, Hillary, to chair the taskforce that was to prepare the bill and see it through Congress. The bill never succeeded, despite the fact that President Clinton’s party had the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many observers then opined that Hilary Clinton had no business chairing a committee stacked with ministers and other high ranking government officials.
Simone Gbagbo, the embattled former Ivory Coast First Lady, who was known to be the interfering type, faced charges in Abidjan courts, after her husband was overthrown. She faced charges for ‘attempting to undermine the security of the state’ in the events that led to the bloody 2010-2011 crises that left thousands dead, not only in the country but also in the International Criminal Court. Lately, the nefarious influence of Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady was one of the principal reasons why the Army moved to overthrow President Mugabe. Today, Grace is also facing charges in Zimbabwean court for illegal procurement of a post-graduate degree from the University of Zimbabwe, and for also running an ivory poaching network.
Skirmishes with elected officials
Nearer home, the shenanigans of the former First Lady, Patience Jonathan brought so much opprobrium to the government of that day. The First Lady’s skirmishes with elected officials in Rivers and Bayelsa states were well reported and need not be repeated here. Her intervention during the unfortunate Chibok girls’ abduction saga, where she was seen to be making vain attempt to browbeat elected state officials, was probably the lowest moment. That made her a butt of jokes by stand-up comedians such as Ali Baba and the like. Besides that, she has now also become a permanent feature in the courts answering charges of unlawful enrichment and money laundering.
Now that the President is won over, we expect to see more positive vibes from the ladies’ wing of the State House and other Government Houses. The First Lady is already engaged in the Future Assured Initiative, a project that deals with improving the welfare of women and children and I guess most of the First Ladies in the various Government Houses in the country should be in similar pursuits. Nevertheless, I would advise their consorts to be wary and be on the lookout for untoward signs in the operations of these pursuits that could impinge on the character of their governments. In other words, the President and the Governors must put a tight leash on their wives’ projects, by making them accountable in all respects.
These projects must not be allowed to be on autopilot. Now that money from the Central Bank and Federal Ministry of Agriculture are being associated with the wife’s project, a transparent and accountable system must be established to drive it. As a starter, appointed officials whose functions are guided by rules and regulations and can be held accountable, must be involved in the project to protect its integrity.