By Yinka Odumakin
SHORTLY after I started work as General Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman in 2011, Mrs. Aisha Buhari approached me to facilitate some media exposure for her. She didn’t need to spend time to convince me that we needed her face and voice out there.
I saw her as an intelligent, sharp-witted and gutsy woman who could add a lot of value to the campaign, especially in the South where womanhood in the North was largely perceived as purdah. I knew there were some things inside her that must come out.
She had good diction and with no tongue tyranny, and you never had to strain to hear her. She was a clear testimony of the difference between a woman with education and the one without, especially in the North.
I told her I was going to organise a media parley for her; and that a cerebral journalist in Lagos had been asking me about the wife of my principal. We agreed on a date. When it was few days to the appointment, something told me I should clear with my principal what I was about to do. I walked up to him to brief him about the media session for Madam.
His eyes became red. It was the only time he raised his voice against me: “Don’t ever”. I had to call the journalists to cancel the meet.
The genie was kept in the bottle for another four years. But delay is never denial. Her time was coming. Then came 2015 and the APC experiment. Abimbola Adelakun with her versatile pen wrote a classic in The Punch of January 8,2015 titled: “Where is Mrs Buhari?” and referenced the botched 2011 parley with the General’s wife: “For a man who preaches ‘change’ and desires to rule a country made up of men and women in almost equal halves, I wonder why he finds the anomaly of an “invisible wife” wholesome. Interestingly, this is not the first time that Mrs. Aisha Buhari would be left behind in her husband’s aspiration.
“In 2003, she was not prominent when he lost to Olusegun Obasanjo’s ‘moonslide’. Four years later, not much had changed though one could argue that his biggest opponent, Umaru Yar’Adua, did not ‘use’ his wife to campaign either. In 2011, when the presidential election was on, I asked one of Buhari’s closest aides where Mrs. Buhari was and why she was practically unseen in her husband’s various campaign efforts.
“My query sprang from his image: If you are being termed an ogre, furnish reasons why you could not be one. His wife standing side-by-side with him would, I told the aide, soften his unimpressible image. This Buhari’s aide agreed with me that his wife would be strategically invaluable for his persona. He said she was coming to Lagos at that time and he would arrange press interviews to introduce her to the public.
“The aide called shortly after to say Buhari was not sold to the idea. The aide was apologetic while explaining why Buhari did not want his wife displayed like a ware even in the heat of campaigns. He said Buhari himself could be rather reticent; then, I should consider the religious factor, and that the General was too disciplined for such and several, etceteras. I wished him the best and left it at that. By then, Patience Jonathan was criss-crossing the country and canvassing votes for her husband in her peculiar ways. Even though she was being mocked for her lack of sophistication, she was winning some hearts because of her confidence.”
She went on to hazard why Buhari would not want his wife to be seen: “There are several reasons one can adduce for Buhari and his wife’s photo hide-and-seek. One, the culture of lovey-dovey is simply not him. Like the Igbo proverb that says a man cannot learn to be left-handed in old age, I wager that this is a left-handedness that Buhari has not learnt and is probably a far harder lesson than removing his cap during a church service. Two, he probably thinks being seen with a woman will detract from his famed militarist discipline and Spartan image. He has done a lot of bending just to project himself as a non-Islamic fundamentalist pan-Nigerian statesman but the woman aspect just does not resonate well with him – yet. Third, the religion and culture Buhari has known all his life assigns a second-class citizen status to women.”
The APC strategy room at this point must have convinced him the wife could no longer be in the background. She was allowed to mount the podium in Abeokuta. That was coincidentally strategic. She launched out on the soil that razed Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the radical woman who first drove a car in the county and led a revolt that made an Alake to flee the throne. It was the place where Funmilayo trained Sawaba Gambo. Her husband also spent quality time in Abeokuta as a solider. The genie was eventually out of the bottle and no putting it back again.
In her three and a half years as Wife of The President, Mrs. Buhari has shown she is in the mould of a Sawaba Gambo. In a sorry season in our land when we don’t have a Gani Fawehinmi, when many of the voices that railed against injustices in years past are either mute or incoherent, Mrs. Buhari has somewhat become the conscience of the nation in her interjections on national issues. For those who don’t know, Sawaba Gambo was a fearless woman from the North whom Aisha shares some traits with. After Gambo lost her parents in 1943, her education stopped and she was forced into an early marriage at 13 years but separated from her husband over irreconcilable differences.
Gambo joined politics when she was 17. A branch of NEPU was formed in Sawaba’s Zaria but meetings had to be held in secret for the safety of all involved. Sawaba Gambo joined this party and quickly rose to become the women leader in the branch. Eventually she would leave Zaria for Abeokuta where she was to meet Funmilayo Kuti. Mrs. Kuti had become Gambo’s role model after the latter read about some of the former’s exploits in Abeokuta, especially Funmilayo Kuti’s struggle for the rights of women in tax-related matters which culminated in the brief exile of Oba Ladapo Ademola .
When Gambo returned to Zaria, during a political lecture, many of the attendants (most of whom were male) refused to speak out for fear of political victimisation, Gambo climbed on to the rostrum to speak, challenging everyone present. On that same day and a NEPU leader, Alhaji Gambo was to speak at that event, he was so impressed with her he gave her a nickname Sawabiya, which means the redeemer. Later on, the name was shortened to the more masculine version, Sawaba. And it stuck. Thus, Hajaratu Amarteifo became Sawaba Gambo.
She campaigned against under-aged marriages and forced labour. She also advocated for Western education in the North and organised several meetings with women who were not allowed to attend political activities because of their gender. As a result, Gambo was arrested at age 20 alongside 200 other women for not obtaining a permit before the assembly. They were sentenced to one month imprisonment each. The vibrant woman was sent to jail 16 times in her lifetime and she was often brutalised by the police. Despite her low education and coming from the Northern part of Nigeria where women are least encouraged and their education neglected, Gambo struggled through all these obstacles to emerge as a dynamic, independent political activist helping to educate many people.
Aisha Buhari’s latest outing was at the national women leadership summit organised by Project 4+4 for Buhari and Osinbajo 2019, a political group. She spoke against two men who have dominated a government which emerged through the votes of over 15 million people. “Our votes were 15.4 million in the last elections and after that only for us to be dominated by two people… this is totally unacceptable. If 15.4 million people can bring in a government and only for the government to be dominated by two people or three people, where are the men of Nigeria? Where are the Nigerian men? What are you doing? Instead of them to come together and fight them, they keep visiting them one after the other, licking their shoes (I’m sorry to use those words),” she said.
She emphasized that taking back the country from the impostors was not about people of the ages of her husband and herself but about our children and Nigerians in the diaspora who should have a home to return to and contribute to its building. Quite reminiscent of her interview with BBC Hausa two years ago where she said Buhari’s government had been hijacked by only a “few people.” Her words: “The President does not know 45 out of 50 of the people he appointed and I don’t know them either, despite being his wife of 27 years… some people are sitting down in their homes folding their arms only for them to be called to come and head an agency or a ministerial position.”
If Aisha Buhari were not the wife of the President she probably would be sharing same detention facility with Deji Adeyanju and other prisoners of conscience as she has stirred the polity more than them. Aisha Buhari asked “Where are the men?” Maybe she should have asked “Where are the APC men?” She needed not ask though as the men she was asking after were no longer men but sissies. The man she called out at the event, Mr. Babafemi Ojudu, who was said to have tried stopping her from bursting out, was a fire-eating man in the days of Abacha.
Speaking truth to power
The transformation of yesterday’s real men into “boot lickers”(apology to Aisha) was what made the President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nwodo, to look Chief Bisi Akande straight in the face at Senator Abraham Adesanya 10th anniversary lecture in Lagos months back and declared: “Chief Akande, when we arrived at a point where people like you cannot speak truth to power because of APC card, there is problem in the land.”
Mrs. Buhari should make no mistake about what defines a man. It is not the third leg they work with in the “ozer” room. The artificial of that can now be picked on the shelf for a fee.. What makes a man is the strength of conviction, the ability to speak the truth no matter whose ox is gored and raise your voice when sinful silence is convenient. That quality is in short supply in what she erroneously called “men”, especially the ones that populate the ruling party today. In such a situation, Mrs Aisha Buhari is the man standing.
It reminds me of this this popular Yoruba musician, Odolaye Aremu, who sang about a powerful woman called Amina Abiodun, the Iyalode of Ibadan, who died last Saturday. She was a strong woman who struggled for the same space with Lamidi Adedibu and Arisekola Alao making the most powerful trio of their era, the way Aisha engages the “two men”. She once cracked a hard one on a trio at an encounter with Chief Adisa Akinloye, Chief Richard Akinjide and Dr Omololu Olunloyo in the Second Republic. I will not recount it but the two living will remember it.
Odolaye got to a point and said what was under Amina was masculine. Some women are men! And in a land where men are no longer men some women will always be men. If the maiden of Arewa now resolves to remain in purdah despite Aisha Buhari: