December 7, 2022

Aisha Buhari, from Wife of the President to First Lady

Rotimi Fasan

By Rotimi Fasan

I CAN’T be sure now how Aisha Buhari prefers to be identified. Is it as the First Lady or as the President’s wife? At present, she’s more often identified as the First Lady than as the wife of the president, which was the Muhammadu Buhari presidency’s own way of distancing itself from the abuse and overbearing tendencies of previous occupants of the “office” of First Lady.

But things seem to have unravelled, and the hairsplitting is being or has been exposed for what it is – a mere academic exercise. With no constitutional provision, many Nigerians have in the past questioned the manner in which some so-called first ladies had gone about their duty, which was often characterised by misuse of public funds and resources. 

While she was no Eleanor Roosevelt, who redefined the office of First Lady in America, or Hillary Clinton, who saw herself as the female version of her husband, rivalling and trying to better his record in certain areas of life, Patience was a virtue. Jonathan didn’t think she was less entitled to act in the manner in which the Constitution allowed her husband, Goodluck, to act in a certain respect.

Some of the bad blood her husband’s presidency generated came directly from her mishandling of what she saw as the demands of her office as First Lady. She probably caused and aggravated the breakdown in the relationship between her husband and Rotimi Amaechi at the time the latter was governor of Rivers State. 

She was one of those first ladies who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty and shaking things up in what many people assumed was their husband’s portfolio. While the likes of Victoria Gowon and Mariam Babangida, whose husbands managed different military dictatorships, did it smoothly, with some style and panache, they were more in the mould of Imelda Marcos than Eva Peron.

But the same cannot be said for Patience, who approached her task with the zeal of a bulldozer. She was simply in her own class, and at some point she became both a major character in and the target of comedy skits. She’s still a favourite of many skitmakers. The better for us now that an undergraduate can be manhandled and thrown in jail for making light of a First Lady.

Turai, wife of Umaru Yar’Adua, was quiet, effacing and distant. But she was no newcomer to wielding power, even if it was unearned, as it is and was with all other first ladies. Turai, the story went, had been at the forefront and centre of Umaru’s life long before he arrived at Aso Rock Villa.

She was the power behind the throne and if anyone was in doubt of the extent of her influence on her husband and, perhaps, his presidency such doubts should have been erased by the cold calculation and skulduggery that marked the last months of the Yar’Adua presidency. At the centre of the conspirators that sought to keep a dying President Yar’Adua in office was Turai.

Silent as when night creeps on the unsuspecting traveller, she stayed her course as the fate of the nation hung on a thread and the likes of Michael Aondoakaa, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, egged her on. These were a few of the more memorable occupants of the unconstitutional but conventional office of First Lady that Nigeria has known. 

Nigerians had had enough of the Turai interlude and the obnoxious episode of Patience, and demanded that the First Lady’s office be closed down. A would-be President Muhammadu Buhari gave off hints that he would do things differently. There was no point in doubting him. He had been Head of State, and during the short 20 months of his dictatorship, Safinatu, his first wife, had been relatively unknown, rarely seen in public.

Nigerians were told, and they obviously believed the yarn, that Muhammadu Buhari had no place for a first lady in his presidency. It was no surprise that as soon as he was inaugurated, his handlers announced that instead of first lady Aisha, his wife would simply be referred to as the president’s wife. Aisha herself appeared to share this take of things. 

At what point things changed, and the narrative took a different course is probably a matter that presidential historians and insiders of the Buhari kitchen cabinet can explain. But at some point, Aisha became increasingly visible and her activities as a player in the Buhari presidency got more pronounced.

She was casting her net wide and reaching far offshore. The transformation from wife of the president to first lady had taken off in earnest. It’s no use asking of what good, if any, that has been and could be for Nigerians. We can see this in the manner a mere tweet can cost an Aminu Muhammed his freedom. 

As a compulsive and, perhaps, irreverent tweet, he had twitted what could have easily passed as an innocuous joke about the rather ample looks of the president’s wife. Let’s be clear: “The President’s wife” should be differentiated from “wife of the president” which is something of a title or a “trademark”, whether registered or not. But anyhow, Aminu made this disdainful joke about Aisha Buhari.

He may not know this, but he is clearly walking a terrain that has held fascination for and agitated scholars and theorists of power and the appurtenances of dictatorships in Africa in the last three decades, from Cameroon’s Achille Mbembe to, nearer home, Ebenezer Obadare. His tweet is a textbook example of how abuse or insults could be used to decapitate the structures of power, something very common in many communities across precolonial Africa. 

Aminu attributed the first lady’s bloated figure to the proceeds of corruption, literally eating what belongs to the majority of ordinary people, in a photo of a rather bloated Aisha. What I cannot understand is what riled Aisha so much about this post. Was it the use of Hausa that brought the message home, or the unflattering picture nobody has said was photoshopped?

How come Mrs. Buhari couldn’t overlook this little irritation? Was she misadvised to take the steps she did? At what point did she take the court option – weeks after Aminu, a 24-old undergraduate (younger than Yusuf, her own son) of the Federal University, Dutse, had been physically assaulted and hurled into detention, allegedly, on her orders?

Or after she was exposed in front of Nigerians? According to one writer, Aminu Muhammad must have been idle twitting, but in this case, it appears that Aisha Buhari, the thin-skinned first lady, is the idle and power-drunk one. Let us give praise to Patience Jonathan!

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