21 October 2016

Nigeria: The Wife

Photo: Daily Trust
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari and First Lady Aisha Buhari

In 2007, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at which I was serving as Permanent Secretary organized the usual training of First Ladies on rudiments of protocol, etiquette, security awareness and general management of matters they may encounter as wives of very powerful people. Officials of the Ministry were thoroughbreds at this, so I left matters pretty much to them, resisting their demands that I closed the training by addressing Their Excellencies. I lost the argument and turned up in a room full of First Ladies. Without a piece of paper in my hand or a prepared line of approach in my mind, I decided to go by gut instinct and offer advice that had little to do with the core issues on the training they received.

I spoke to wives whose husbands were about to experience life in very demanding roles as Chief Executives. A few had some experience, or were veterans in managing husbands who managed lives, welfare and security of millions. I told them that their true friends should sympathize, rather than rejoice with them, given the burden they and their spouses will now bear. I told them to be ready to lose many friends and gain an entire legion of hangers-on, cronies, courtiers, assistants, advisers and fair weather friends. They will make new enemies and substantially lose their husbands to aides and new concerns and interests that will keep them away or awake most of the time, and powerful fixers who will virtually take over their lives. They will exercise new powers designed by bureaucrats and aides who will milk the new outfits designed around their egos, and their husbands will now face new threats and dangers, including the temptation to abuse public trust and resources for which they will be held to account later; and as wives, they could bear the brunt of the bitter experiences of accusations, suspicion, trials and avoidable incarcerations.

Wives will be major conduits for those seeking contracts, appointments, employment and sundry favors, many of which will not stand scrutiny as proper, and they will have to stand in line as influence peddlers, even with the advantage of their intimate access. Their relations with their husbands will go through some turbulence, and children will pay a major price with less attention and looser family bonds. I advised them to be prepared to face a life for which there are no models or blueprints, lives that will benefit from a patient and careful management of relations with husbands who bear the burdens of leadership, and resourceful cultivation of the domestic environment and intimate relationships, so that they become real sources of providing relief and comfort to husbands and allowing wives to remain influential and relevant to husbands and mandates. I advised them to be good wives and companions, sources of comfort and confidence, first and last lines of defence, loyal critics, role models and champions of propriety. When I noticed that I was losing them, I decided to tell them the story of a terrible wife. Most of them sat up. This was the story I told.

A very learned Malam with extraordinary powers turned up in a Kingdom, and, as is the custom, he reported to the Emir to be accommodated. The Emir directed him to be taken to the only guest house available. Unknown to the Malam, no one had survived longer than a day in that house because it was reputed to be possessed by a powerful spirit (Jinn).In the night, the Malam gathered a little pile of firewood to light a fire and keep warm because the night was cold. Every time he lit the fire, it was snuffed out. After the third attempt, he said, "Listen, whoever you are. I know you are putting out my fire and trying to scare me. Stop it. I am cold and I just want to keep warm. I am not scared of you. If you know what chased me away from my home and brought me to this place, you will know that you cannot scare me". He lit his fire again, and immediately a massive and furious Jinn appeared and thundered at the Malam,"You, common human, dare tell me that you have something more frightening than me? What could there be that will scare you more than me"? "Sit down", the Malam, who had the unique power to see Jinn, told him. "It is my wife. I am married to a woman who has made my life so miserable that I had to leave my country entirely for her. I came here after traveling many years. I am confident that she will never find me here".

The Jinn was quiet for a while, then he stretched his hand at the Malam and said, "Shake my hand, my friend. You and I have the same problem. I am also a refugee from my troublesome wife. I have travelled much further than you, and my wife will never find me here". The two then spent the rest of the night comparing notes on how bad their wives were. Every evil mentioned by one was countered by one that was worse. By daybreak when the Jinn had to leave, the two had bonded from their common problems. The Jinn then offered to help the Malam to settle down and be famous and rich in the city. He will cast spells on people and make them sick, and will remove the spell when the Malam intervenes. The Malam was grateful, and the two soon became close friends. One day, the Jinn informed the Malam that he planned to kill the eldest son of the Emir because he was arrogant and cruel to the poor. He asked the Malam not to get involved, or visit the prince even if invited to intervene by the Emir. The Malam tried to appeal against the Jinn's decision, but the Jinn insisted that this matter was not open to appeal. In the end, the Jinn embarked on plans to kill the prince. The Emir ordered the Malam, on pain of death, to treat his son. The Malam had the wisdom to rush to the Jinn and warn him that Madam Jinn had just arrived. The Jinn abandoned plans to kill the prince and left town, never to be heard from again.

I got a smattering of claps for my efforts, and months later, a First Husband told me that his wife had said I had said women could be terrible creatures. It turned out that she ignored my exhortations and some parts of the story, and had gone straight to its end. If I spoke to First Ladies today, I will say more or less the same things. There are no templates to apply in designing relations between two powerful people, one elected, the other or others being organically parts of all that affect him. Women married to powerful people in most cases fight for space around their husbands, and not all are equipped to fight battles that do justice to their own perceptions of their worth. Men marry women without ever knowing that someday they will bear a huge part of their burden, particularly public offices which put massive strains on characters and shoulders. Power changes both, but not enough to alter core personality traits. Some wives adjust better than others to power equations. Some exploit weaknesses of husbands they alone understand, and many powerful people learn that the path to some peace lie in allowing a lot of space for spouses to swim around. All marriage involves constant maneuvers and adjustments around partners. What public office does to marriage is to strip it of that layer that shields it from other influences. Now President Buhari and his wife will have to hope that the nation can focus on the feathers they ruffled in public, so that they can recover, in private, lost ground in the most important relationship in their lives.

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