By Dele Sobowale

“All of us are not born great; with silver spoons in our mouths and gold slippers on our feet. Some of us are born short; short of hope, short of opportunity, abandoned, neglected, homeless, motherless, teeth crooked, eyes tangled, dream busted. 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” -Rev. Jesse Jackson, 1992,VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 81.

Last Sunday was the twelfth anniversary of the departure of Her Excellency, Mrs Mariam Babangida (nee Odogwu), from us. I personally think that it is only appropriate to remember the role played by the one I call the First of all First Ladies when compared with others who have occupied the same position since then. My reference point is the impact each of our First Ladies have made on the lives of the poorest group of Nigerians – the rural poor women.

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Before restating some of the accomplishments of the BETTER LIFE FOR RURAL WOMEN PROGRAMME, shortened to BETTER LIFE PROGRAMME, BLP, for posterity, permit me to recall one example to which I was an eye witness.

ROAD FROM GORONYO TO RURAL COMMUNITIES

“The good that men [and women] do lives after them…” That statement by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) rings just as true today in many rural communities in Nigeria as the day it was first published. As I have declared several times before, I spent several years farming and producing food in the North. It all started when the Buhari regime ordered breweries in Nigeria to go into farming to produce alternative grains to malted barley – otherwise there would be no foreign exchange allocations. I worked for North Brewery Limited Kano at the time. Suddenly several Managers, who like me grew up in cities, found ourselves managing farms hastily established by parent companies in the North – where large parcels of land for large scale farming exist.

From planting sorghum, I was managing a rice mill on Kalabina Road, Sokoto. Soon, I was knee-deep in promoting several varieties of rice for different Nigerian geographical zones – in collaboration with the defunct International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, Badeggi, Niger State. It was the quest for the expansion of rice production which took me to Goronyo, Sokoto State. I was one of the agitators for the construction of the Goronyo Dam which now supports the Fadama Project – which has turned Sokoto State to an agricultural powerhouse.

One day, while in Goronyo, I saw about a dozen vehicles with Federal Government, FG, plates and as many from the Sokoto State Government assembled at a point on the Sokoto-Goronyo Road. From experience, I knew that somebody from FG was coming. Selfishly, the fellows with me assumed it was about the dam. Later we discovered we were partly wrong and right. 

Somebody from the FG was coming quite all right. It was the First Lady coming to visit women in a rural community about eight kilometers from Goronyo. There was no road leading to the place; only a narrow footpath. How on earth was she going to get there with her usual entourage? I was naïve. Nigerian government officials can perform miracles if the consequences of failure are serious for them.

By the time Her Excellency landed in Sokoto airport three weeks later, a well-graded two-lane road connecting a dozen rural communities was ready for her. Suddenly, thousands of people who hitherto spent a whole day walking to Goronyo were moving by buses and motor cycles. Whoever said one tree does not make a forest has not experienced a human tree big enough. Go to Kogi State and see how Dangote alone has transformed a village to a town bustling with life 24/7 and then tell me if it is not possible for a tree to make a forest.

WHAT WAS ACHIEVED BY MARYAM BABANGIDA?

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Why waste words when a picture can talk better than you can write? That has always been my personal principle. So, permit me to present a true picture of what was eventually achieved by the BETTER LIFE PROGRAMME, BLP.

The BLP was launched in several states and rural villages in all the six zones of Nigeria. By 1991, the Nigerian map of the Better Life Programme was as shown below. By any measure known to social scientists, it was a phenomenal success story which continued until the Babangidas left office in 1993.

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