Jan 17, 2015

First Ladies and Power Drunkenness

A constitution is a system of fundamental laws and principles that prescribe the nature, function and limits of government, or any institution (the freedictionary.com). In Nigeria, the constitution prescribes the office of the President, but does not prescribe the office of the First Lady.

The need for a president in any country arises because there needs to be a single individual, who should drive the bus of nationhood.  Anything contrary, would amount to confusion, a situation that comes when there are too many drivers on one steering wheel. Thus, the position of a president is that of an individual who is chosen based on merit, in terms of the public’s perception of his abilities to play the sublime role of leadership, adeptly. Since the president is chosen based on the people’s conviction that he has got what it takes to direct a nation, his spouse cannot grab some of these powers, even in his absence, because, she may not have the qualities upon which the election of her husband rested. Instead, there is the Office of the Vice President. Thus, no matter how trivial, taking up part of the powers of the President, by his other half, amounts to a constitutional abuse that can smear the office of the President and the nation, at large.

Hence, Nigerians, and many outside of it, were left wondering when the Nigerian First Lady, Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan, summoned public officials over the issue of abduction of more than 200 girls in a boarding secondary school, in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria, April, 14th.  The Nigerian First Lady summoned the Borno State Commissioner of Education, the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of Chibok town and the Principal of Government Secondary School Chibok, where the girls were abducted. Mrs. Jonathan, also, went ahead to direct the Police in Abuja to arrest a woman, Naomi Mutah, who was leading the #bringbackourgirls campaign. Mrs. Mutah was said to have been detained at the Asokoro Police Station in Abuja. Hours later, she was freed.

The history of power drunkenness, among first ladies in Nigeria, dates back to the era of guns and decrees. It is important to note, however, that even the decrees never gave any powers to any first lady to dip her hands into government coffers for the sake of a pet project, or to act as a sidekick to her husband on state matters. Precisely, it was during the IBB (Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida) military regime that Nigeria witnessed the early stages of first ladies’ intrusions into state matters. Late Mariam Babandiga used public funds to set up the Better Life Program for Rural Women.

Rather than end with the IBB regime however, the revelation of the password into public finances became a trend for late Mrs. Babangida’s successors. We were to see a replay by Maryam Abacha, late Stella Obasanjo, Turai Yar’adua, and, now, Dame Patience Jonathan. However, it was in the case of the last two that Nigerians saw the display of either pure ignorance or brazen audacity. Mrs. Yar’adua virtually assumed the role of the President, while her late husband lay in his sick bed. It was said that she dished out orders to cabinet ministers. Now, Mrs. Jonathan towed the same line, by summoning public officers and giving them orders, which were carried out, apprehensively, by public servants, desperate to secure their jobs.

The idea of first ladies in power corridors has become so established that it is replicated in the lower tiers of government –state governments and local governments.

First ladies have the right to run charity organizations. It is, however, the official font of the finances used to run such organizations that is the sticking point. In military regimes, it was easier for first ladies to get away with it. The hallmark of military regimes is, after all, the disregard to the wishes of the people.

The blemishes of the nation, as seen in the conduct of the First Lady, is, actually, a reflection of a broad gamut of troubles that no one cares to fix, not even persons with a constitutional duty to raise  alarms in such situations. One sees an unraveling trend here, there and everywhere, within the Nigerian space. We see it in the area of health, where traveling outside of the country to treat, merely, flu is more of a fashion show, with the Nigerian cabinet members and the elite in the lead;  in education where the same social strata of the nation considers it groveling to educate their kids within the nation; in the growing incidence of examination crimes within educational institutions across the country; in the bullying of ordinary citizens by Nigeria soldiers and general dormancy of the law;  in the disregard for merit in recruitment into the civil service, a practice which compounds the already dire situation …

As it stands now, there seem to be an unwritten piece of legislation that empowers a Nigerian first lady to intrude into official matters, either in terms of using the nation’s resources to fund a personal project, or by giving orders to public officials. Eventually, a day will come when a first lady will present a budget before parliament, sign it, reject legislative amendments of portions of it, etc.

 Now, every man with a political ambition, whether at the national, state or grassroots level, is careful when choosing a spouse -she has to be presentable to the public, in terms of her appearance, fluency and general conduct, since she would, definitely, get involved in official matters.

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