The First Lady Syndrome in Nigeria


To refresh memories of the past, in her acceptance speech after being sworn-in as a permanent secretary in Bayelsa State Civil Service, Dame Patience Jonathan had the temerity to appeal that First Ladies should be given constitutional role in our political system. If she was ignorant as usual, it was the lack of the constitutional role that catapulted her to being a permanent secretary without function. The week for her swearing-in provided the occasion for the bitter conflict of interest between her and her previous boss, Hajia Turai Yar Adu’a over an already allocated parcel of land in the Central Business District of Abuja for their “pet projects as First Ladies”.

Over 30 years, the First Lady phenomenon has created a dynamic in which political space is being appropriated and used by the wives of men in power, for their personal aggrandizement, rather than furthering the interests of the women folk and the wider society. The First Lady syndrome is a new international political phenomenon that has been traced to the 1992 World Summit for the Economic Advancement of Rural Women hosted in Geneva, Switzerland at the initiative of six First Ladies, three of whom, Maryam Babangida (Nigeria), Elizabeth Diouf (Senegal) and Suzanne Moubarak (Egypt), were Africans. For the first time, wives of Heads of States sought to play an autonomous and coordinated role in international politics in their capacities as wives. The First Lady syndrome, however, first hit the international limelight in the 1995 Beijing Conference when large group of First Ladies met in a context of a major world event and took the limelight. In Africa, the First Ladies Summit was hosted in Younde, Cameroon by Chantal Biya, wife of President Paul Biya during the 1996 OAU Summit. The communiqué of the meeting, which focused on strategies to improve the lives of rural women, was incorporated into the official communiqué of the OAU meeting.

Nana Rawlings was the first great African First Lady. During her husband’s rule, she had no official position in government but was all the same playing a major role in formulating and even implementing policies relating to women. The main organizational that Nana developed was the 31st December Women’s Movement (DWM), named after the second coming to power of her husband in 1981. The DWM was a huge organization with about 30 affiliate organizations with about 2 million members rooted in the countryside. Nana Rawlings was able to appropriate concerns that were current in the international development community about the necessity of focusing on rural and poor women.

While Ghana was the first African country that gave institutional prominence to the First Lady syndrome, Nigeria is the country where it flourishes the most. The late Maryam Babangida was the pioneer when her husband was a military president and she opened a First Lady office for herself in the presidency and became a prominent figure in Nigeria’s public life. This would be the first time that the wife of a Nigerian Head of State would use her spousal position as a basis to play a prominent role in the nation’s public life.

In 1987, Mrs Babangida launched her pet project, Better Life for Rural Women (BLP). The wives of all senior government officials were incorporated into the organization. The wives of military governors in the states automatically became chairpersons of the state chapter of BLP and wives of Local Government Chairmen acted likewise at their levels. A lot of state resources were unofficially channeled to the BLP and major fairs that got a lot of publicity were organized. The BLP claimed to have made a major contribution to improving the lot of rural women. The claims include the organization of 10,000 co-operatives, 1,793 cottage industries, 2, 397 farms, 470 women centres and 233 health centres. Most serious observers are of the view that those figures enumerated were merely concocted in the absence of any tangible result. It was for deceit.

In 1990, the National Commission for Women (NCW) was established as the official state organ charged with handling women’s issues. The establishment of the NCW was in fact first announced in President Babangida’s message to the launching of Maryam’s biography, The Home Front, on September 19, 1988. Maryam Babangida therefore must have had the belief that NCW was created for her. When, however, the NCW under the leadership of Professor Bolanle Awe tried to establish the organization as an autonomous body with full competence in handling all issues relating to women, Maryam got upset. Her baby was trying to become a rival organization. She directed security officials to arrest and bundle our Professor Bolanle Awe from NCW.

Dame Patience Jonathan and Hajia Turai Yar Adu’a  could have recalled what happened subsequently. To establish a permanent place for herself in history, Maryam Babangida obtained public money through her husband whom she used to establish a huge edifice in Abuja which she named The Maryam Babangida Centre for Women and Development. In 1992 when it appeared that they might have to vacate office soon, Maryam applied to the Corporate Affairs Commission to register the centre as a Trust, with her and her eldest son, Muhammed as Trustees for life. The application was queried by the Commission because they had not gone through the due process of advertizing the Trust in at least three National Newspapers and obtaining a security clearance. The centre was registered as she wished anyway as a property of MIB (Maryam Ibrahim Babangida) Foundation.

In 1993, General Sani Abacha took over power and his wife, Mariam Abacha automatically became the First Lady and occupied the office established by her predecessor. Her eldest daughter, Zainab, then had the brilliant idea of also opening her office of the First Daughter in the Presidency. Mariam Abacha was sufficiently confident of her powers to openly declare in a BBC interview that although she was not taking decisions herself, ministers and even foreign diplomats who were seeking for an appointment with her husband trooped to see her and she had the capacity to fix their problems. In their “professional careers” as wives of military officers, Maryam Abacha had developed an apparent rivalry with Maryam Babangida. Having got her turn, she set out to dismantle the works of Mrs Babangida. The BLP was dissolved and a “new” similar organization, The Family Support Programme (FSP) was established in place. A state instrument to implement it, the Family Economic Advancement Programme (FEAP) was also set in motion and significant state resources were devoted to it. State officials were incorporated into the structure, just as Maryam Babangida had done. The Maryam Babangida Centre for Women Development was taken over by the state and renamed the National Women’s Centre. Power is ephemeral. Maryam Abacha for her own posterity, established the Maryam Abacha Hospital for Women which was also taken over and converted into the National Hospital.

There is one positive narrative of a Nigerian First Lady, Justice Fati Abubakar, whose husband was Head of state in the one-year interregnum following the death of Sani abacha. General Abdulsalam Abubakar’s wife, a Federal High Court judge, established Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA). Unlike the two previous First Ladies, she started by formally registering the organization. She also refused to use her husband’s position to make state governors and government departments contribute to WRAPA’s purse or acquire public land by political fiat. WRAPA today is generally recognized as one of the most serious and most effective non-governmental organizations fighting for the advancement of women’s rights in Nigeria.

The syndrome, however, returned after Mrs. Abubakar. On June 24, 2003, the late Stella Obasanjo had the guts to summon wives of state governors to Abuja and publicly declared that: “There is only one First Lady in Nigeria and Period”. She warned them in front of television cameras that there was only one First Lady in the country and her name was Stella Obasanjo. She directed them to henceforth stop using the title First Lady of their husband’s states and revert to their proper title of governor’s wives. That was a typical case of legalizing illegality with authority or best, with BOTTOM POWER. As Turai Yar Adu’a and Patience Jonathan fought over the future legacies, other First Ladies should take their time to reflect on the past. The office of First Lady at the national, state or local government level is unconstitutional, illegal and criminal and a direct pipe of cleverly draining and stealing public funds under different guises. Those so called First Ladies should better look for legitimate sources of income than masquerading as supporters to their husband’s efforts. Most of them were jobless and lacking ideas to source legitimate income. What a pitiful gang of fraud and tricksters under the cover of husband’s position.


By Sanusi Muhammad


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here