If President Muhammadu Buhari’s wife, Aisha, devotes half of the energy invested in fighting the cabal in Aso Rock to pressing for the welfare of the Nigerian child, perhaps, there could have been a significant reduction in the number of the over 13 million out-of-school children in the country. This could also have probably led to a drastic reduction in the number of child brides in the country- the highest in Africa. I am not saying this out of spite but in recognition of the First Lady’s strong convictions and immense political sagacity. She knows how to grab Nigerians’ attention at will. She knows what to say when to talk and the appropriate channel to utilize in passing her message across. She was, for instance, the first to tell Nigerians that her husband was not in control of his government. She also threatened that she might not support him for a second term in office if things continued the way they were. Somehow, she succeeds in attracting some sympathy from Nigerians even when it is glaring that her complaints are centered around herself, family and personal interests. Some of us can still remember how the All Progressives Congress set up a parallel campaign body with the First Lady being in charge of one prior to the 2019 presidential election and how Aisha recently went to Kogi State to beg the people to re-elect a governor that had not paid workers’ salaries for years.
For those who have taken the time to study the First Lady, her own special modus operandi is maximizing a public speaking engagement to her advantage. When Mrs. Buhari hinted last week that her husband’s spokespersons were not doing their job well, I knew she was about to release another bombshell. She did not disappoint. Part of the statement she personally signed on Wednesday indicted Garba Shehu, a presidential spokesperson, who she accused of telling Nigerians that there would be no office of the First Lady in 2015 without her husband’s instruction. She claimed Shehu took orders from Mamman Daura, her husband’s influential nephew, who does not hold any official position in this administration. For that reason and many others more, she thinks Shehu is no longer fit to be her husband’s spokesperson.
I, however, find the First Lady’s latest outburst on scrapping the position of the First Lady amusing. Isn’t that what her husband and party promised to do ahead of the presidential election in 2015? This was a major selling point during the “Change campaign” that ushered in Buhari’s administration. The President clearly stated that the office of the First Lady was not in the constitution. Buhari, in an interview he granted to Weekly Trust in December 2014 (though the web page is no longer available) had categorically stated that he would not have an office of the first lady. He said the Ministry for Women Affairs should be allowed to play its role unhindered.
In another interview with the Premium Times in 2014, Aisha had also promised to adhere to what the constitution stipulates, saying, “When my husband is elected as the president of this country, he will rule the country within the rule of law based on the constitution of the country. If the office of the first lady is constitutionally recognized, he will not tamper with it, but if it is not that’s okay.
“For me, I will perform my duties and role as the wife of the President of Nigeria traditionally. Wives of presidents have some traditional roles, like receiving guests, visiting orphanages, helping the less privileged people. They also lead in the fight for the right of women and malnourished children, infant mortality rate, kidnapping, and girl-child trafficking.’’
We all know that going by the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, there is no mention of the office of the First Lady or Wife of the President as the case may be in the constitution. Yet, this government never scrapped the office. Rather, President Buhari merely changed the title of the office from the First Lady to Wife of the President, the Federal Republic of Nigeria in his first term. Just as under other administrations, Aisha’s office has always been occupied by staff members, aides, security details and protocol officials, attached to her. In 2019, the office was officially designated as the Office of the First Lady through the pronouncement of Aisha herself. While changing her title, she said it was her choice not to be called the First Lady and that she had changed her mind. That’s governance in Nigeria for you!
After all, said and done, I find it confusing that Mrs. Buhari could still publicly accuse her husband’s aide of scrapping the office of the First Lady through someone, other than her husband’s instruction. That sounds like an insult to the collective intelligence of Nigerians. From Aisha’s latest statement, it seems most things she and her husband said before the 2015 elections were carefully crafted to deceive gullible Nigerians for electoral gains. For me, I don’t see a big deal in retaining or scrapping the office of a first lady. Neither does the absence of such office distress any reasonable Nigerian woman as claimed by Aisha. I think Nigerian women are more interested in seeing a President’s wife that can use her influence to touch the lives of the downtrodden, the oppressed and the forgotten in the society. Wife of one of Nigeria’s former vice presidents, Mrs. Titilayo Atiku, once used her Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication project to wage war against forced prostitution and other forms of human trafficking in the country. Her pet project was more popular than that of the late First Lady, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo because it touched on a core problem in the Nigerian society then.
When will Mrs. Buhari begin to talk passionately about child marriage, the burgeoning out-of-school children population in the country and other plights of the Nigerian child as she does about the activities of her husband’s kinsmen in Aso Rock? We need a strong voice like hers to draw national and global attention to the plight of these kids on a continuous basis. This goes beyond making political statements once in a while. Instead of the unending drama of bringing her family’s battle to the court of Nigerians all the time, Mrs. Buhari should use her power and position to draw the attention of wealthy Nigerians to the problem of school children still learning under trees in Nigeria. The honest truth is that the disloyalty of a presidential aide to his boss cannot pass for Nigeria’s problem? The President elected the aide and he has the power to sack him. Aisha should know how to get her husband to do that. If she cannot, too bad! Some of us are tired of the endless drama coming from the first family’s abode. It is no longer entertaining. It is becoming increasingly boring. Nigerians need some breathing space. We want something more refreshing from the office of the First Lady.
Going forward, I expect Mrs. Buhari to use the resources at her disposal to influence policies that will stop child marriage in Nigeria and improve learning environments for children. She could use her privileged position as a Northerner, who is educated, to push for girl-child education in the North. The region harbors the highest number of child brides in the country. She can work with state governments towards domesticating the Child Rights Act passed by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 2003. Currently, 11 states, mainly in the North, are yet to domesticate this law. Interestingly, Adamawa, the home state of Mrs. Buhari, is one of such states. Others are Sokoto, Kano, Zamfara, Kaduna, Jigawa, Katsina, Bauchi, Yobe, Borno and Gombe.
It would be unfortunate if after spending eight years in office as the First Lady; Mrs. Buhari fails to influence these 11 Northern States to domesticate the Child Rights Act. The Child Rights Convention was adopted 30 years ago by the UN General Assembly. This is just a human right treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. This is something that every state government should be interested in. I challenge Mrs. Buhari to take this up.
I know that the First Lady has a pet project known as Future Assured aimed at empowering Nigerians. She needs to do more to enhance the survival of the Nigerian child. There is a need for serious advocacy towards the development of the girl child and the right of Nigerian children in general to a better life, education and empowerment so that they can reach their full potential. This will be an enviable legacy in the eyes of the public!
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: email@example.com