29 July 2012

Nigeria: Continent First Ladies in Hollywood

This article was first published on May 4, 2009 in, among other places the Sunday Trust, Gamji and Nigerian Village Square. It is reproduced here as a "tribute" to the just concluded "African First Ladies Peace Mission Summit" hosted by Dame Patience Jonathan in Abuja last week. Read on.

Thirteen African women travelled to Los Angeles, USA, last week (April 20-21) for a two-day conference on something that had to do with health matters. Imagine going to a 21st century hospital to seek cure for 17th century ailments! It would make sense if those ladies went to Hollywood to learn the latest art in make-up, the latest breast implant technique, or similar cosmetic stuff; but how on earth does anybody expect Los Angeles to know anything about Malaria, child and maternal mortality, malnutrition etc? Mungo Park was Scottish, so nobody in LA would care that malaria, the disease that killed his son Thomas, almost 200 years ago is still killing the people he helped to enslave.

Even the local newspaper (The Los Angeles Times, no less) was understandably suspicious of such senseless incongruity. Its edition of 22/04/2009 carried the story of the arrival of thirteen wives of African leaders with a very telling headline: "For African First Ladies, health issues are a chance to remake their image". Or in African English, "A chance to show off". Alexandra Zavis, the LA Times reporter described them as dressed in sleek suits, eye-catching robes, spiky shoes and designer glasses.

And inside their heads they carried enough ignorance to turn Harvard into a zoo. Oh, there were some smart ones among them such as Queen LaMbikiza of Swaziland who defied tradition and qualified as a lawyer, but you need more than degrees to be educated; otherwise why should Sia Nyama Koroma, the Sierra Leonean first lady and a London-trained psychiatrist nurse at that, assume that African first ladies are loved, adored and even respected by Africans? Hear her: "As First Ladies, people listen to us, people want to see us, the crowd goes with us" Really? In my country many people will describe that statement as very, very stupid. But Koroma, 51, did come close to something more factual. She said: "We are very close to these Presidents...whatever we tell them sticks in their heads". Now that is something, in my country, that we can all understand.

So ladies, how about telling them this simple message: Stop stealing our money, stop rigging elections, and we won't have malaria, malnutrition and other scourges no more. About the roll call that you must no doubt be itching to hear, our own Turai was there, as well as other elegant names such as Chantal Biya (Cameroun), Adelcia Pires (Cape Verde), Hadija Tanja (Niger Republic), Ana Dos Santo (Angola), etc, etc. But then in spite of their powerful marital positions, they still needed the presence of Holly power ladies like Sharon Stone and Diane Lane to attract the press. See? One other thing: Michelle Obama didn't even know they were in town. African First Ladies indeed.

I think it is unfair to keep hurling invectives at women simply because they behave like women. They have no vote, no veto power and are not even recognized by the constitution. So in which way are they responsible for what they do? They didn't just walk into the palace, they followed their men in. Is that an offense? Very often the behavior of a woman is a correct reflection of the character of the man.

How many historians and researchers can remember the name of the wife of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria's first prime minister? Who was first lady when former President Shehu Shagari was president? How many public appearances did Nafisa, General Buhari's late wife make while her husband was head of state? These three former leaders might have (had) other flaws, but letting their wives lose on the nation they were privileged to lead wasn't one of those flaws.

Oh no, please let the first ladies have their fun. If they could go to Hollywood in search of cure for kwashiorkor, why shouldn't they come to Nigeria in search of peace? How are the first ladies to know that we don't have it? And, anyway, even if they knew they were being sold a dummy, how many women, whether first or last, can turn down an all expenses paid trip that may well be capped with bundles of dollars?

So carry-go Patience; those brand new cars, whether 20 or 200, will come handy for going to the office now that you are a permanent secretary in your state civil service. Or you can wait a week or two and quietly ship them out to your guests.

And finally guys let's face it, those first ladies have something most of us don't have: Great vision; they knew how to pick their men, which is more than you can say for most men when it comes to picking their women.

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