It is a phenomenon in the public space that is not exclusive to Nigeria. But like everything Nigeria, it has assumed its own hue. Colourful and brilliant or gaudy and repulsive, depending on which side of the divide you are on; first ladies have become a permanent fixture of Nigerian governance. Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Lanre Alfred and Funke Olaode take a critical look at Nigerian first ladies past and present
Once upon a time. The story began like all other favourite African folk tales. It continues with all the foxy twists of that ubiquitous character, the tortoise; but it is far from either a happy-ever-after or a gruesome end. The story enters a continuum with chapters in anti-climax that whets the appetite for the next page.
To be sure, each episode provides lots of exhilarating instances; such that there is never a dull moment. Even back in the days when suspense to the blockbuster now called 'office of the first lady' was building up with dainty fancies, the days when 'oga madam' was no more than an exquisite appendage to 'oga patapata's' office, many who knew where their bread was buttered understood how to court 'oga madam's' friendship.
It could not have been otherwise; for among the Nigerian delegation to the 1957 Constitutional Conference, there were only three women-Chief (Mrs) Magaret Ekpo, Chief (Mrs) Wura Esan and Chief (Mrs) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Nigerian politics of yesteryears (and largely today) was dominated by men. Women only fulfilled nuptial functions, for there appeared to be an unwritten code that specified that a man who sought elective office must have a wife. Many male politicians surpassed their counterpart in this all-important matter of matrimonial criteria by marrying more than one wife.
The concept of having a First Lady in Nigeria should be rightly penciled to the period of Lady Flora Lugard, the wife of Lord Frederick Lugard (the man, who in 1914 unified the northern and southern protectorate of Nigeria into one country), who was the first colonial Governor-General of Nigeria. It is to her credit that the country got her name, Nigeria. With her 36 states, the Federal Capital Territory and 774 local government areas, Nigeria is believed to have over 800 women who enjoy this position of eminence as 'first among equals'. Although there is no constitutional provision for the office of the first lady, resources of the state and personnel have been deployed to service it with impunity. Rights groups and journalists have continued to point out this anomaly without getting the listening ears of the legislative arm of government to correct it. Often, the pet projects of the first ladies are registered as Non-governmental organizations allowing them to enjoy a live after Her Excellency leaves the state house.
At Nigeria's independence, Mrs. Flora Azikiwe was known as Nigeria's First Lady. She frequently attended state functions with her husband, but there was no office set aside for her. This was the pattern with her compatriot that followed. As lovely and graceful as Mrs. Victoria Gowon was, she had no state duties allotted to her. Mrs. Victoria Aguyi-Ironsi and Mrs. Ajoke Murtala Muhammad both suffered similar fate. Their husbands were assassinated after six months in office. Also history records Mrs. Tafawa Balewa, Mrs. Shehu Shagari, and Mrs. Muhammadu Buhari as keeping a low profile.
Wives of Nigeria's First Prime Minister
Nigeria started her journey in self-governance with the Prime Ministerial system of government at independence. Alhaji (Sir) Tafawa Balewa supervised the day-to-day running of government as Prime Minister; whereas Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe held office as the ceremonial President of the country. Largely due to the cultural and religious considerations, Balewa's wives were hardly seen in public. He had four wives: Jummai, Umma, Zainab and Laraba. Perhaps, the first time many Nigerians would set eyes on them was the sad circumstance when two of his wives Laraba and Jummai accompanied his body from Lagos for burial in Bauchi. Two of these women-Hajiya Zainab and Hajiya Hadiza Umma-have passed on. Two other wives of Nigeria's first Prime Minister are still living. None of them was given to publicity.
Mrs. Flora Azikiwe
Mrs. Flora Azikiwe was one of the wives of the country's first, albeit, post independence ceremonial head of state, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. It was in this context that late Mrs. Flora Azikiwe became well known in the years that preceded the 1966 intrusion of the military into governance. She was adored for her dignified comportment and sartorial elegance. Unarguably, she was the first to bring glamour to the office of the First Lady. Though she didn't have any pet project that could be ascribed to her tenure as first lady, she still made appearances in functions.
For instance, late Mrs. Flora Azikiwe became the first Patron of Home Science Association, (HSA) an association founded at the instance of Mrs. Flornece Ajumogobia in 1961, from which many women acquired knowledge and skills in various Home Economics Courses. The HSA initiated and organized the campaign titled "Better Living for Nigeria" through mounting of weekly demonstration lessons on Food and Nutrition. She was also a member of the Eastern Working Committee of the NCNC. The Flora Azikiwe Secondary School Neni is named after her.
Lady Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi had a short six-month stay in State House. Her husband former Nigerian Head of State Gen. Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi was assassinated in a coup in Ibadan. She had lived with her husband for 13 years, having been married in 1953.
Mrs. Victoria Gowon
Then there was Victoria, wife of the then youthful General Yakubu Gowon. Yakubu Gowon, then a colonel who succeeded the late Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, a general, was unmarried when he assumed power. He later married Victoria, a nurse. Mrs. Gowon automatically became the first lady, the youngest ever in the history of Nigeria. She assumed roles that were thought flamboyant but ceremonial. Mrs. Victoria Gowon took the glamour of office where late Flora Azikiwe left it a bit further with a demeanor that complemented her husband's humble disposition while in office. Her more frequent public appearance was owed to the fact that her husband as head of State combined both executive and ceremonial duties. There was no pet project in her name throughout her husband's eight year reign.
Dark- skinned Ajoke Mohammed is the widow of Nigeria's one time military Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed who was assassinated in a bloody military coup d'état in February 1976, a development that paved the way for General Olusegun Obasanjo (the former Nigeria President) to mount the saddle. Ajoke was then in her late twenties, nursing two little children she had for the Kano-born General. Ajoke Mohammed was forced to start almost from the scratch again, as it is a common knowledge that the late Murtala Mohammed, apart from the fact that he died in state, left virtually nothing as inheritance, save for a dilapidated one-storey building in Kano. She did a lot of honourable things, including horticulture, landscaping and petty trading to fend for her children and send them to school. Her most popular enterprise is the Murtala Mohammed Memorial Botanical Garden along the Lekki-Epe Road.
A purebred and hard-working woman Ajoke carries herself with a lot of dignity in the public place. And whenever she has any cause to make a speech in public. She avoids controversies, ensuring that every word she says is carefully chosen. A virtuous woman of adorable personage, Ajoke possesses the right attitude to life.
Esther Oluremi Obasanjo
This is the former President Olusegun Obasanjo's youth. They got married on Saturday, June 22, 1963 at Canberwell Green Registry, SE London. She was his wife when in February, 1976, he became the Head of State following the death of Gen. Murtala Mohammed in a coup. She was hardly known in public until later years when the couple had left the State House and the relationship had become very sour with gory details thrown everywhere in the public space.
Quiet, humble, unassuming and peaceful. Those are the best words to describe Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the country's first executive president under a constitution fashioned after that of the United States of America. Shehu Shagari is a polygamist and did not embrace the idea of having a first lady. Until 2001 when the town of Shagari in Sokoto State was thrown into a mourning mood as Alhaji Shehu Shagari's wife was laid to rest , the public at large did not know any of his wives.
The duo of Mohammadu Buhari and late Tunde Idiagbon were the most disciplined heads of state Nigeria ever had. Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power after Shagari's ouster was too austere and strict to tango with the office of first lady. Shortly after they successfully outsted the democratically elected president Shehu Shagari for a second term, they swung into action, clamping perceived corrupt politicians in detention, introduced War Against indiscipline, the monthly environmental sanitation. Like Shagari, it was when his first wife Safinatu died that many encountered her.
To her credit, Hajia Maryam Babangida, the dark-skinned beautiful wife of Nigeria's military president, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida was the one who took the role of First Ladyship beyond the shadow of the number one man. With a combination of panache, visibility where it mattered and a well-oiled publicity blitzkrieg, Maryam shone like porcelain in the sun. In spite of her aristocratic posturing, she was not blinded to the sufferings of rural women. Thus, she established the Better Life for Rural Women programme which endeared her immensely to the generality of womenfolk across every stratum of the society.
The song of her glamour and style, which she brought to bear on the Office of the First Lady, has been sung over and over again. Maryam's indelible mark on the socio-political space can never be overemphasized.
Maryam's fetish for glamour, style and humanity may have been well documented but her penchant for expensive jewelries hardly enjoyed media mention. According to a report, Maryam was once reported by some influential women of Northern Nigerian origin to have been in possession of the highest, most exclusive and most expensive Diamond collection in Nigeria.
Margaret Shonekan is the wife of Chief Ernest Shonekan, the former interim president. She did not do anything while in power because their government lasted only 84 days.
This ageless fair complexioned mother of eight is the widow of late General Sani Abacha. Nigeria's former military Head of State. Those close to her say, she is intelligent, alluring and very willing to help. In her time, she established the Family Support Programme (FSP).
Today, Mariam is firmly in charge of the stupendous wealth left behind by her late husband. Even though the family may not be enjoying the best of popularity as a result of Abacha's ignominious years as Nigeria's maximum ruler, the wealth under Mariam's control has not in any way shown any sign of thinning. Some say the reason she seems to have slowed down considerably in her public appearances may not be unconnected with the fact that she has seen two sides of life - life as the number one citizen among Nigerian women, and life after the death of her husband.
Be that as it may, there is no gainsaying that Mariam inherited her husband's billion- naira empire including properties in most Nigerian cities. The family is also known to have business interests all over the world as well as fat bank accounts stashed away in several overseas countries going by all the monies recovered from the family by the federal government. Going by the huge wealth amassed by the former military ruler, one can say without mincing words that Mariam Abacha occupies a comfortable position in today's ranking of super rich first ladies in Nigeria.
Hon. Justice Fati Lami Abubakar;
Justice Fati Abubakar shares in the fame of her husband, General Abdussalami Abubakar, who ended military rule in Nigeria by voluntarily handing over power to a civilian president. She got married to General A. Abubakar and they had their second baby while she was in the Lagos Law School. Justice Abubakar therefore stands out as a woman who pursued a career and at the same time raised a family. Her pet project is known as Women Right Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA). Unlike others by her predecessors, WRAPA not only blossomed while she had already left office but was not elevated to a quasi government agency. On the contrary, WRAPA worked and still works as a non governmental organization with far reaching impact.
Although she got married to former President Olusegun Obasanjo during his first outing with the governance of Nigeria in 1976, she hardly occupied the consciousness of Nigerians back then. The events leading to the return of her husband to power in 1999 shot her into limelight. He was imprisoned in 1995 for taking part in a coup to overthrow the government, and while trying to have her husband freed; Stella began to exhibit the activism that many applauded her for. Urging females to be strong and independent is one of the major issues the first lady supported. She once commented that even though her husband had made a commitment to improving living conditions in Nigeria, "things will continue to deteriorate in the country unless more women were allowed to participate in governance." But it was with her pet project, the Child Trust Foundation that she touched the lives of many Nigerians and would be remembered for that. She was the first and so far the only Nigerian First Lady to die while her husband held office.
During her lifetime, she emphasized the importance of being openly aware of the problems facing Africa as a whole, including the AIDS/HIV epidemic and other such things as malaria and violence. She believed that the time had come for violence as a means to an end be abolished, and she punctuated that this must start with the Nigerian youth. Just weeks before her 60th birthday, Stella experienced complications after a routine cosmetic surgery and died. The country mourned openly for the first lady. In her memory, a market and a lake were renamed to honuor her.
Hajia Turai Yar'Adua is the first Nigeria woman to have been First of a state (Katsina) and later that of the federation. She is said to be the most influential First Lady in Nigeria's history. When she launched her pet project on cancer, Nigeria's moneyed men and women and corporate literarily fell over themselves to be seen and to contribute huge sums of money for the project. She got married to late President Umaru Yar'Adua in 1975 and the marriage is blessed with seven children - 5 girls and 2 boys. Her pet project, as the then First Lady of Katsina state was the Women and Youths Empowerment Foundation (WAYEF).
The cancer centre, which was allocated 7.3 hectares of land in the FCT by government, is the grandest of her projects. Shortly after the launching, Turai embarked on a tour of the country to launch the South-west zone of another pet project, the National Women Coalition against AIDS, NAWOCA, in Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State
DAME PATIENCE GOODLUCK
Like Turai, Dame Patience Jonathan was First Lady of Bayelsa state. She is not new to the trappings of this office. Her pet project is the Women for Change Initiative which is making quite some mark. WCI appears to be an amorphous body to those who do not understand what it has set out to achieve. It is the most ambitious project by a Nigerian first lady. That is because the area of engagement she has set out for herself is very wide. Chidinma Uwajumogu, National Coordinator of WCI explains the objectives of WCI to include: Promote women's participation in all areas, including political, economic, social and other fields of endeavour.
Develop a mechanism to monitor and facilitate Nigeria's progress toward achieving and domesticating international agreements to which Nigeria is a signatory (such as the Beijing Platform for Action, MDGs, etc). Advocate for the review and revision of laws that are to the disadvantage of women. E.g Electoral laws, tax laws, Land Use Act, Marriage Act, Inheritance laws, and other laws in the public and private sectors that perpetuate discriminating practices and norms.