Frankly Speaking

December 15, 2019

Maryam Babangida (Nov. 1948-Dec. 2009): The first of our first ladies

Our land soaked in blood, gloom, South-East Bishops wail

“They never really die who live evergreen in our hearts.”

By Dele Sobowale

Simplicity. Sincerity. Strength. Splendour. Those four words summarise the life and times of Nigeria’s most remarkable First Lady. When Maryam Babangida (nee Okogwu), born on November 1, 1948, passed away on December 27, 2009, at the Jonson Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California, Los Angeles, USA, her death served as a reminder to all of us of our mortality. But, the public life she lived in the span of eight years during which she was Nigeria’s First Lady re-echoed the words of the poet: “Lives of great men [and women] remind us/ that we also can make our lives sublime/ and departing leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time.”

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She left behind several legacies. The most enduring was the Better Life for Rural Women Programme which sought to empower rural women, who actually produced and still produce the vast majority of food consumed by Nigerians without receiving the credit for their contributions. Cynics and critics observed only the contrast between the well-dressed wives of Governors and Local Government Chairmen dragged to various rural communities and the rural folks in thread-bear apparels. They failed to notice that it was the first and last time in Nigeria’s history when “The Queen” stooped so low as to visit poor rural fellow citizens in their domains and undertook the arduous task of helping them by urging the government headed by His Excellency to open the national purse and distribute wealth so far down the income bracket.

Such audacities and initiatives have always proved risky. They are fraught with dangers apart from the threat to life. The closest Biblical example was Queen Esther defying palace protocols to visit the King without prior appointment and uninvited and intercede on behalf of her people. Her words “and if I perish, I perish” demonstrate the strength of character required to successfully pull off such adventures and enter world history for ever.

“Nobody is a total failure if he [she] dares to do something worthwhile” – Robert H Schuller, 1983,
Her Better Life for Rural Women was, by any definition, known to social scientists a success for three reasons. First, it forced the Nigerian state to address two of the factors breeding poverty among rural women – lack of capital and land. State governments were suddenly forced to open the space for millions of rural women to acquire land in their own right and to exclusively benefit from the fruits of their labour. I was a witness. As the Chief Operating Officer of Haske Rice Mill Sokoto, I bought paddy rice from thousands of the women so empowered in Bakolori dam area near Talata Mafara, Zamfara State, Yelwa Yauri and Koko wetlands of Kebbi State. Some of those farms still operate.

Second, other food items benefited from the intervention – including yams, cassava, tomatoes and vegetables. Nigeria’s emergence as the world’s largest producer of cassava, first and yams later, was partly the result of agricultural research and the supply of better yielding varieties. But, the success would not have been achieved without the rural women accepting the new varieties and doing the back-breaking job of planting, nurturing and harvesting them.

From that success started the weekly Better Life markets which sprang up nationwide as the women brought their farm produce to the markets of Nigeria for sale. They operate in Lagos till today. On a good day, two of such women still come to Tafawa Balewa Complex at Onikan in Lagos Island as well as Luther Street by Bamgbose and, on Sundays, at Anthony Village on the mainland. Few programmes started by any government can boast of such sustainability long after the founder had passed on.

“He gave it for his opinion that, whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together” – Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745, in the book IBRAHIM B BABANGIDA 1985-1992: LETTING A THOUSAND FLOWERS BLOOM, P 85.

Thirdly, until bad belle officials of the Central Bank of Nigeria changed the artwork on the N50 currency note, it was called Better Life nationally. It is still called that in many places by those old enough to remember that the N50 note was launched as a tribute to the contributions of rural folks, especially women, towards bringing Nigeria closer to food self-sufficiency. Like it or not, “Food first” remains the enduring cry of mankind throughout the ages. That Maryam Babangida helped us to eat better as a result of her work is beyond dispute.

“All of us are not born giants, with silver spoons in our mouths and gold slippers our feet…..But, somebody has got to measure their greatness not by leaping up but by reaching back and reaching out and loving and caring and sharing” – Reverend Jesse Jackson, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, p 81.

What is also not controvertible is the fact that no other First Lady before and after her had reached so far back to help rural women. Black American leader Reverend Jesse Jackson had defined greatness in words that can only apply to Maryam Babangida among our First Ladies. She was to some extent prepared for that role as the following brief recall of her early life would illustrate.
She was born to a Muslim mother, Hajiya Asabe Halima Mohammed, from Niger State and Mr Leonard Nwanonye Okogwu, from Asaba, Delta State. She was thus part Muslim and part Christian at birth. That combination must have helped immensely later as she assumed her role as defender of Nigerian women.

Among other contributions she made was the MARYAM BABAGIDA CENTRE FOR WOMEN’S DEVELOPMENT which was established in 1993. She also opened schools in Minna and Abuja.
On Saturday, December 27, 2019, it will be ten years since the greatest defender of women in Nigeria passed on. I know that she remains ever green in the hearts of her families – Mohammed, Okongwu and Babangida – as well as millions of those whose lives she attempted to improve.

May her gentle soul continue to rest in perfect peace.
“When those in office regard the power vested in them as personal prerogatives, they inevitably enrich themselves, promote their families, favour their friends. The fundamental structures of the modern state are eroded like the supporting
beams of a house after termites have attacked them. Then, the people have to pay dearly for the sins and crimes of their leaders” – Lee Kuan Tew, Singapore’s former Prime Minister in VBQ, p 2.

Two stories are hot in media today – the almost criminal amounts former Governors have forced their spineless state Houses of Assembly to grant as pension entitlements and President Buhari’s request for Senate approval to borrow $30 billion more. Together, they represent some of the reasons Nigeria will never develop like Singapore or the United States. Indeed, if anybody is searching for reasons the black race is the lowest among all races of the world, he only needs to look at African leaders in general and Nigeria in particular. Nigeria being home to about 40 percent of all African black people stands as metaphor for why the black man deserves the contempt he receives worldwide. We are not only lagging behind the other races of the world, we are also doing everything possible to ensure the development gap gets wider. Our leaders can, with a great deal of justification, be described as the dregs of global political leadership. None can be respected anywhere because none deserves any esteem.

Last Sunday, excerpts from Lee Kuan Yew’s book, FROM THIRD TO FIRST WORLD IN ONE GENERATION, were published to explain why there was no doubt in my mind that the $30 billion will be mostly wasted. To begin with, there is no plan in what was sent to the Senate for recovery and repayment. But, with Ahmad Lawan as Senate President, the approval is guaranteed. The Senate President, I believe, will not give a damn if we enter another debt trap which will set Nigeria back even more to please his “Master” in Aso Rock. Unfortunately, northerners will suffer more than anyone else. But, northern leaders don’t have to worry. The almajiris will not soon revolt against their selfish leaders. Permit me to bring back some of the comments by Yew and reveal how Buhari and Presidents before as well as most Governors, past and present, have combined to sell Nigerian into economic slavery.
The President released N10 billion to Kogi State two days to election last month to help pay salary arrears and to influence the outcome of the poll in the state. Under Jonathan, about N4 billion was released to a South-West state just before election.

APC was declared winner in the former; PDP won the latter. In each case, the losing party cried foul; the winning party justified victory. Yet, Jonathan and Buhari acted as they did because we run a bogus federal system. Neither President Trump nor Obama could have sent funds from Washington to states in the US to buy elections because the states have no funds which the Federal Government is keeping on their behalf. Furthermore, the Federal Government cannot bail out any state which cannot pay salaries. The President of America cannot spend money without approval of lawmakers. What Buhari and Jonathan did is symptomatic of our political and ethical backwardness. Our leaders, instead of teaching us the right things, are showing wrong examples. And, they show no remorse. So, how can we develop with leaders like these?

Two comments from Yew’s book require explanation in order for Nigerians to understand why Buhari is not like Yew and can never be.
“CONFUCIAN VALUES. Corruption and nepotism are a debasement of Confucian values. A Confucian gentleman’s duty to family and friends presumes that he helps them from his personal not official resources. Too often officials use public office to do favours for family and friends, undermining the integrity of government…” p 348

Yew’s mind-set favoured development. Buhari’s promotes stagnation at best or rapid decline at worst. Yew abhorred nepotism and the use of public funds to pay debts owed to those who helped him.

Buhari allegedly repays the debts owed to those whose family paid his school fees with appointments – whether qualified or not.
To be continued….

NOTE: The books are available at CSS Bookshops, VANGUARD Abuja Office and MM2 as well as GATT Aviation airports in Lagos.