Thursday 22 September 2016

A Tribute to Patience Jonathan and Nigeria's Other First Ladies

First Ladies in Nigerian have played crucial roles in our national lives in times past. In this piece, Azu Ishiekwene, examines the place of the first lady in Nigeria. 

Patience Jonathan
It's not nice to speak badly of first ladies. Not nice at all. Not because they will send you to jail or castrate you as a few of them could some time ago, but I guess there's a quiet social taboo that just restrains us from throwing the kitchen sink at the mothers of the nation.
Once in a while though, the gloves come off. It did for Turai Yar'Adua, widow of Nigeria’s former President, Umaru. 
Turai was not Hillary Clinton who annoyed US voters during Bill's campaign by telling them that by voting her husband they will get two for the price of one.
Turai stayed in her place. Things began to get complicated when Yar’Adua took ill months into his presidency. Out of the "maternal" instinct to save her husband from those she thought were taking advantage of his illness, Turai grabbed power one lever at a time until she transformed into the single most formidable powerhouse in and outside government.
Famously called and revered as the head of The Cabal, she chased many men out of town, among whom some mischievous persons even named Nasir El-Rufai a former minister and now governor of Kaduna State Governor, considered by many as a terror in his own right.
Well, if you could not mess with Turai, Maryam Abacha was another matter. Perhaps because she had a husband who was more than enough trouble for one country, she did not need to wield her power to use it. But it was unmistakably there. It was said in some circles that "trespassers" of her conjugal space did not get a second chance. Those who knew her as first lady told me that not only was she the steely matriarch of the home front, you prayed not to cross her path or for her to even suspect you could. 
That was where Maryam Babangida was different. Nigeria’s first lady between 1985 and 1993 courted power, embraced it and used it like a goddess. In a report, one journalist said, “she was like a Roman empress on a throne, regal and resplendent in a stone-studded flowing outfit that defied description.” That was at one outing alone. For eight years when she reigned, she redefined trend and fashion before haute couture discovered the real meaning of the words.
The glam she brought to the office of first lady, which sometimes gave the impression that she was on a mission to rescue Nigerian women from bondage at any cost, would later become her nemesis. 
She was liked as much as she was despised for her charm offensive. Human rights lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, challenged Maryam Babangida’s massive spending on a slew of pet projects and the glamorisation of the office of first lady. But whatever Gani and public opinion did to rein in the first lady, she had already set a bar in wasteful public spending, which her successors only tried to overcome by copying. 
In 1999, former president Olusegun Obasanjo entered office vowing there would be no place for the office of first lady. His late wife, Stella, did not waste her time arguing. What’s the point? Every smart woman knows that the man may have his say, but she will have her way. And every smart first lady also knows, to paraphrase Jackie Kennedy, that you deal first with the chase, and later, the conquest. 
Stella kept her peace. One fight at a time, she would later secure a place in the presidency for her pet projects beyond Obasanjo’s wildest dream. With that accomplishment also came a huge share of public controversy, over her role in the N38billion 8th All African Games (COJA); the $21million contracts for broadcast equipment, and not a few other less visible but no less troubling matters.
It would seem that as controversies go, however, no first lady in recent times could compete with the immediate past first lady, Patience Fakabelema Jonathan. She appears to combine the best and worst of all former first ladies put together and still brings to the table a touch of her own.
As we say in my neck of the woods, di woman pass me!
After observing her years in the presidential villa from a safe distance, I could have sworn that her greatest gifts were her language repertoire, her overdone fashion sense, and of course, her incredible talent for drama.
But from what is coming out of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission today, it would seem that I had missed the best part of the former first lady's gifts - she is possessed of suicidal courage.
If any former Nigerian first lady had been remotely mentioned in a $15m (N6.3billion) money laundering case - an amount that could clear the salary arrears of a few distressed states - I imagine that they would buy acres of newspaper pages to distance themselves from it. 
When it was reported, for example, that Maryam Abacha filled 38 suitcases with $66million cash, which she allegedly planned to move out of the country after her husband’s fall, she issued a furious denial. And when TELL magazine published an expose on Stella’s alleged multimillion dollar COJA contracts in 2003, the Villa used the SSS to mop up every copy in town.
Not even Imelda Marcos, the matriarch of wayward first ladies wanted to be publicly named for her shenanigans. 
Why did Patience do it? Why is she taking on the EFCC, even threatening to sue the agency over a matter that she was not a party to in court? I can only think of suicidal courage as her motivation, a gift, which appears to be at odds with her husband’s meekness. 
Di woman pass me.
If her Special Adviser for Domestic Affairs, Waripamowei Dudafa, fraudulently opened five accounts, which he filled with dollars all the time and she was not a signatory to the accounts being investigated and the companies in whose names the accounts were opened have admitted the crime, why is she making a fuss about it?
OK, she says part of the money caught up in the mess is for her medical treatment. If that is the case, she will have to explain to the authorities how many years salary, allowance, pension, bonus, gratuity and padding of first ladyship adds up to $15million. 
And since it is obviously a time to settle accounts, a good place to start would be the N104million, which the EFCC seized from her in 2006, when she was the “first lady” of Bayelsa State.
As Patience would have said to any first lady who finds herself in her untidy predicament, "trouble dey sleep…"
Azu Ishiekwene is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and a board member of the Global Editors Network.
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