It is said that behind every successful man there is a woman. Often, women are relegated to the background while men take the spotlight as the world celebrates a success they jointly accomplished. However, not all women are satisfied with labouring in obscurity, some chafe at the restraint informed by traditional beliefs and ensure that they take a place in the limelight right beside their men.
Powerful men in history have been reported showering fulsome praises and endearments on their wives. The late Obafemi Awolowo once referred to his wife as "a jewel of inestimable value". Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States of America, made no bones of his faith in his wife's ability when he said during his presidential campaign in 1992, "Buy one, get one free". Such is the affection and bond that undergird conjugal relationship that oftentimes when a man assumes a position of authority it is often his wife that indirectly rules. Men always have their say but it is often women that have their way.
From Maryam Babangida to Aisha Buhari, in this piece, we examined the time of some wives of Nigerian heads of state while occupying the 'office of the first lady' even though the office is not recognized by the Nigerian constitution.
MARYAM BABANGIDA (1985-1993)
The office of the first lady – even though unconstitutional – had been in existence before Maryam Babangida, wife of Gen. (retd.) Ibrahim Babangida who ruled the country from 1985 to 1993, assumed the office.
However, it was the Asaba-born woman with her stately bearing that first brought glamour and panache to the office. Maryam loved the trappings of the exalted office, she was enamoured of the lure of power and she never hid it. She first rose to prominence in 1983 when her husband became the chief of army staff during the regime of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. By virtue of her husband's position, she became the president of the Nigerian Army Officers' Wives Association. When her husband eventually, through a bloodless coup, toppled the regime of his boss and became the Head of states Maryam could not but bask in the reflected glory of her husband. Maryam founded Better Life (for rural women) programme to empower rural women and liberate them from the shackles of poverty.
Maryam would later turn the programme into a conduit pipe for siphoning state funds without restraint. With overweening self-will and self-confidence she took charge of the programme in a manner that was dictatorial and militaristic; Maryam brooked no opposition from the wives of the state governors at the state level. Not only that, she ensured that she was the lone feminine star in the political firmament of the country during her husband's reign.
So that no other woman's shine would put hers in the shade, Maryam Babangida prevailed on her husband not to make a woman, no matter her qualification or competence, a minister during his regime. She even supervised the sack of Francesca Emmanuel, the only female Director-General in the public service .Maryam held court during the administration of her husband and did not allow anyone to challenge her stardom; he fought and consigned to obscurity any woman that tried to share the limelight with her.
During the launch of Maryam’s biography, Ibrahim Babangida, her husband, established the National Commission for Women (NCW) as the official state organ saddled with the duties of handling women's issues. Maryam mistook the sheer coincidence of the two events (launch of her biography and establishment of NCW) for decision by her husband to create another organization for her to preside over. She thought NCW would be a sister organization to BLP. When she realized to her chagrin that NCW was meant to be an independent organization she harassed Bolanle Awe (head of the commission), even got her detained by security officials. She remained aggrieved until her husband at her behest reconstituted the board and placed it under the office of the first lady.
Throughout the eight-year reign, IBB was Maryam's marionette. She pulled the strings to ensure her husband did her bidding. Her display of arrogance of power reached a dizzying and maddening height when she dressed down Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, then-minister of foreign affairs in his husband's cabinet. As reported by The News Magazine of October 25, 1993, Maryam summoned him one night to reprimand him over clashing dates for a cocktail reception she wished to organize for ECOWAS ambassadors and their wives. She apparently informed the minister, in the presence of her husband, that she had a joint-right with the president to appoint a new minister of external affairs.
The minister would be sacked after the incident but there have been many versions to the reason he was given the boot. Akinyemi would later describe the incident as the beginning of “joint imperial presidency”. Maryam Babangida was that influential that many believe till today that her husband endorsed the carving of Delta state out of the old Bendel state and made her hometown Asaba the capital to please his wife.
Maryam's insatiable thirst for power and desire to have a structure that would outlive her husband's regime made her to obtain public money through her husband in order to build a palatial edifice in Abuja. The edifice was valued to be N1.6 billion after completion and named Maryam Babangida Centre for Women Development. Asher husband's reign became imminent in 1992 she made a desperate attempt to scrawl her name indelibly in bold relief over Nigeria's political firmament by registering the centre as a property of MIB(Maryam Babangida) Foundation.
Despite being a typical modern woman, Maryam Babangida was never a feminist. She was content being a "full-time housewife". In her acceptance speech when she was awarded the 1991 Africa Prize for Leadership, she said, "The woman is literally the nutritional bedrock of human society. As she feeds the family, she also nurtures mankind, and as she manages the home, she also tends the garden of humanity. If, according to the revered story, Eve spoilt the garden of man, her daughters have made up by bearing the greater part of the burden of making that garden healthy and beautiful again" In fact her book titled 'Home Front': Nigerian Army Officers and Their Wives, published in 1988, emphasized the value of the work that women perform in the home in support of their husbands, and it was savagely criticized by feminists. Maryam Babangida died of ovarian cancer on 27 December 2009 in a Los Angeles, California hospital. Her husband was by her side when she breathed her last.
MARIAM ABACHA (1993-1998)
Nigeria has an uncanny ability to "throw up" events or happenstances that defy rationalization. How do you explain the fact that the name of Aguiyi Ironsi's wife is Victoria and that of Yakubu Gowon-- his successor in office-- is Victoria too? In the same vein, after Babangida relinquished power to an interim government, the wife of Abacha too is known as Maryam. When Mariam Abacha predecessor assumed the office of the first lady glamourized by her predecessor she took wastefulness and recklessness to another height. Her eldest daughter, Zainab, also opened an office for herself in the Presidency – that of the First Daughter.
Mariam Abacha herself took to political intervention at the highest levels. For example, she played a significant role in getting state jobs or contracts for her friends and cronies. She was sufficiently confident of her powers to openly declare in a BBC interview that although she did not make decisions herself, ministers and foreign diplomats seeking appointments with her husband should come to see her, as she had the capacity to fix their problems (Punch, November 4, 1999).
However, it was public knowledge that there was no love lost between Maryam Babangida and Mariam Abacha throughout the tenure of Babangida. Therefore, Mariam Abacha's first task was to clear Nigeria's public space of every vestige of Maryam Babangida's era.
In their "professional careers" as wives of army officers, the two women had developed a bitter rivalry. In the Interview she granted Newswatch on March 10, 1997, Mariam Abacha said, "I was a member of the better life programme and was a very active member. But up to the time I stopped coming to Better Life, there was nothing like a blueprint and by the time I assumed office, there was no handing over note, no documents, no money, nothing was handed over to me." By this, she made a case for the dismantling of her predecessor's legacies while in office.
The BLP was dissolved and a "new" similar organization, the Family Support Programme (FSP) was established in its place. The Family Economic Advancement Programme was also set in motion to implement the FSP and significant state funds were devoted to it. State officials were incorporated into these structures exactly as they had been in the days of Maryam Babangida and the BLP. The Maryam Babangida Centre for Women and Development was taken over by the state, in spite of its registration as a private trust.
Mariam Abacha ‘reigned’ for five years; her reign came to an abrupt end when her husband suddenly died on June 8, 1998.
Justice Fati Abubakar (1998-1999)
After the sudden death of Sani Abacha in 1998. Abdusalami Abubakar took over the reins of power. His wife automatically became the first lady. She, however, refused to use the title of the first lady. Self-effacing and modest Justice Fati Abubakar, a High court Judge brought a modicum of common sense to the office of the first lady. She displayed some measure of frugality where her predecessors showed flamboyance.
Fati established Women's Rights advancement And Protection Alternative (WRAPA). She followed due process in the registration of the organization and the reason it has outlived her husband's reign as head of states. It is often said that she was responsible for the willingness of her husband to hand over power to a democratically elected president.
STELLA OBASANJO (1999-2005)
After sixteen years of the unbroken spell of militarism, Nigeria returned to democracy. At the inception of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration as democratically elected president, he declared publicly that he had no first lady but a wife. It, however, took Stella Obasanjo just six months to do away with the ordinariness of the wife of the president and embrace the title of the 'First Lady'. Stella brought back the ostentation of the two Maryams.
She insisted on having the insignia of the presidency whenever she had cause to address the nation. She would appear on television and even address the nation standing before the national crest, a privilege usually reserved for the President. Her desire for the spotlight became more intense than any first lady before her because she had two of the Atiku’s wives (Titi and Jamila) to contend with. Titi Abubakar launched her own organization, Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF). The organization began to give her both national and international fame. Stella could not stand her rivalry again because her childcare trust paled into nothing beside Titi's WOTCLEF. Stella decided to put her in her rightful place as the wife of the Vice-President.
On 24 June 2003, Stella Obasanjo called the wives of the state governors to Abuja –according to Africanwoman – and publicly declared in front of television cameras that: “There is only one First Lady in Nigeria. Period!” She went on to warn them to stop using the title 'First Lady' and to revert to their proper title of governor's wife. They were also directed to stop receiving the wife of the Vice-President when she visited their states.
Wole Soyinka was so shocked by this performance, which was shown on national television that he declared: “Mrs. Obasanjo clearly has an ego that is bigger than those of the two Maryams. She is probably in the same league with Imelda Marcos and … Marie Antoinette, wife of the last French monarch”.
Stella Obasanjo died a few weeks before her 60th birthday from complications of cosmetic surgery at a private health clinic in Puerto Banús, Marbella, Spain, on 23 October 2005 while undergoing elective liposuction.
Turai Yar'Adua (2007-2010)
The seemingly demure wife of Umar Yar'Adua could be mistaken for a pushover because of his demeanour. Her true nature was known in the turbulent days that preceded her husband's death. Turai was said to have played all political cards to ensure, against constitutional stipulations, her emergence as the successor of her husband. She was said to be plotting, together with some power brokers in the North loyal to her husband, to complete her husband's tenure. She established a centre for the treatment of cancer. Her reign as the first lady came to an end on May 5, 2010, when her husband died.
Patience Jonathan (2010-2015)
If other first ladies were accused of ostentation during their years in office, Patience Jonathan, aka Mama Peace, did not show the finesse that suits the office of the first lady. She behaved like a bumptious bumpkin and smeared the office with vulgarity. Patience was a perfect foil for her husband who always cut the image of a meek and mousy man while his tenure lasted. Dame was never tame; she was rather vocal, daring and brassy. She was in control and always gave the impression that her husband was putty in her hand. Many people believed she called the shots during her husband's five-year reign.
Apart from her Women for Change Initiative, many Nigerians will remember her for wilful 'murder’ of the English grammar. Her intervention in Rivers State politics infuriated Wole Soyinka that he had asked his husband to call her to her senses. The Noble Prize winner said Dame “should first be a lady before being a first lady'”. Nigerians will also remember her theatrics and histrionics on TV when in reaction to the abduction of Chibok girls she kept saying, “chai, chai, there is God o!" She was energetic and bold despite all her flaws.
Aisha Buhari (2015- )
While her husband, President Muhammadu Buhari, said he belonged to everyone and to nobody, he was also sure where his wife belongs. Unequivocally, he chose faraway Germany –if you may, ‘West Germany’ –to desecrate not just his woman but Nigerian women when he brashly said Aisha Buhari belonged to the kitchen and –wait for it –in “the other room”.
By all standards, Aisha is a beauty that shouldn’t be reserved for such confines. She is also brainy. On many occasions, she has proved her husband’s kitchen-and-the-other-room statement to be wrong.
No dead or living Nigerian head of state has had an adversarial first lady like Aisha Buhari: she is forceful and deliberate in thoughts and words. She has castigated her husband often publicly. She has lambasted Buhari’s government and his inner circle of advisers. She has never minced words about her utter dislike for the men –the Aso Rock cabal –that President Buhari surrounds himself with. This Nigerian first lady has come with a vengeance. She takes on everybody in the All Progressives Congress at will. She is never apologetic.
To suit her lifestyle to the supposed ascetic lifestyle of her husband she had opted for the title of "Wife of the President" out of her volition but soon realized she was being shunted from the centre of things to the peripheral.
Recently, she sloughed off the wife of the president title and asked the citizens of the country to be addressing her as "First lady".
With her new title and the seeming antagonism, she exhibits against his husband and members of his cabinet it yet to be known what manner of woman she will become.
As her husband begins his second tenure in office and people are beginning to 'distrust' her husband’s supposed integrity, perhaps people might begin to see her true colours. It is not known if she would end up like her namesake, Aisha Hamani Diouri, wife of the former Niger President Hamani Diouri, who became tyrannical during the reign of her husband. She has promised to set up a university in honour of her husband.
There was a time she became an author, launched a book and made a fortune from that. Yet, there is more to First Lady Aisha Buhari than meets the eye.