Sometime ago, a car in the convoy of the wife of a state governor knocked down a commercial motorcyclist who died on the spot while the car was seriously damaged. The first lady in question and the rest of the convoy proceeded with their journey – the blaring sirens and armed policemen clearing the way for them to move on.
That most Nigerians are skeptical of the electoral process is stating the obvious, believing as many do, that we operate the most warped and corrupt electoral system in the world. But when the products of this convoluted process end up ceding power and influence to their wives, the affront on our Constitution is grating. This is further compounded when the so-called first ladies turn out to be dim-witted, vain, petty, conceited and totally disconnected from reality. Worse is when they begin to fritter scarce public resources on pet projects that amount to little more than ego trips.
For a post that is not mentioned anywhere in Nigeria’s Constitution, the position of the first lady must be the best job in the world. It does not require one to stand in any elections and there is no minimum qualification to be first lady. All a candidate needs is the ability to pick a future governor or president – or easier – simply marrying one that is already in office. After which they would have the resources of the entire country, state or local government as the case may be, at their disposal. Being first lady, in flesh and blood, embodies what it means to have power without responsibility.
Most states in Nigeria have the political aberration called ‘Office of the First Lady’. Though lacking formal budgetary provisions, they are very generously funded. Apart from choice office space and virtually unlimited funds, they are allocated vehicles and employ staff at will. First ladies travel at tax payers’ expense, even for shopping trips abroad. In some states, the belief is that no appointments can be made without input from them. In others, it is public knowledge that to get appointed into the cabinet or other important positions, potential appointees must ‘drop’ for the first lady. What is being ‘dropped’ is left to your imagination. Visualize consultancy fees.
So when one sees families struggling frantically and employing every available means to ensure that their daughters, sisters and even distant relatives become first ladies, it must be understood as a life-changing investment strategy. It hardly matters that the governor already has other wives. They say half (or a crumb) of bread is better than none; everyone wants a piece of the action. And so the jostling continues. Some states are so blessed that they have several first ladies, all of whom want to be addressed as First Lady. Unofficial first ladies also exist and wield tremendous influence; any form of liaison with a governor would do.
The first lady distraction began when late Mrs. Maryam Babangida, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s wife introduced the Better Life program in the 1980s. Mrs. Maryam Abacha, Gen. Sani Abacha’s wife, followed suit by introducing the Family Support Program. Abubakar Abdulsalami’s wife, Justice Fati Abubakar whom many thought was much too enlightened to be distracted also introduced her own pet project. The late Mrs. Stella Obasanjo became first lady in 1999, and, unrestrained, practically killed herself with cosmetic surgery. Mrs. Turai Yar’adua took obscene pleasure in inspecting Parade of Guards – an honor usually reserved for visiting heads of state. And today, the fear of Patience Jonathan is the beginning of wisdom…and the passport to incredulous power and wealth.
The crux of the matter is, what have first ladies and their pet projects really contributed by way of national development? Do we not have more pressing demands on our scarce resources? When there is so much poverty, unemployment, decaying infrastructure and security challenges, should we remain silent while billions of naira is being diverted to meaningless pet projects? If these first ladies really need pets, shouldn’t they simply buy themselves dogs or cats?
It is no secret that first ladies make and shape public policies and influence sensitive appointments – and as a result many have become staggeringly wealthy. Nigerians must address this aberration because when people who are hardly literate, grossly insensitive, inordinately corrupt and unable to grasp the consequences of their meddling – when such people begin to exercise unlimited power and influence on state affairs, then the ship of state is headed for the rocks. This is why we must find a way of doing away with ‘Her Excellency, the First Lady’ from protocol lists and state functions.