I can’t be sure now of how Aisha Buhari prefers to be identified. Is it as the First Lady or wife of the president? At present, she’s more often identified as the First Lady than as wife of the president which was the Muhammadu Buhari presidency’s own way of distancing itself from the abuse and overbearing tendencies of previous occupants of the “office” of First Lady. But things seem to have unraveled and the hairsplitting is being or has been exposed for what it is- a mere academic exercise.
With no constitutional provision many Nigerians have in the past questioned the manner some so-called first ladies had gone about their duty that was often characterized by misuse of public funds and resources.
While she was no Eleanor Roosevelt who redefined the office of First Lady in America or Hillary Clinton who modelled herself on Eleanor and more or less saw herself as the female version of her husband, rivalling and trying to better his record in certain areas of life, Patience Jonathan didn’t think she was less entitled to act in the manner the constitution allowed her husband, Goodluck, in certain respect. Some of the bad blood her husband’s presidency generated came directly from her mishandling of what she saw as the demands of her office as First Lady. She probably caused and aggravated the breakdown in the relationship between her husband and Rotimi Ameachi at the time the latter was governor of Rivers State.
She was in the category of first ladies that didn’t mind thrusting their hands in and shaking things up a bit in what many would think is their husbands’ portfolio.
While the likes of Victoria Gowon and Mariam Babangida, whose husbands managed different military dictatorships, did it smoothly, with some style and panache, they were more in the mold of Imelda Marcos than Eva Peron. But the same can hardly be said for Patience who went about her remit with as much sophistication as a bulldozer. She was simply in her own class and at a point became both a major character in and target of comedy skits. She’s still a favourite of many skit makers. The better for us now that an undergraduate can suddenly be manhandled and hurled into jail for making fun jokes about a First Lady.
Turai, wife of Umar Yar’ Adua, was quiet, effacing and distant. But she was no novice when it came to wielding power even if unearned, as is and was the case with all other first ladies. Turai, the story went, was both at the front and centre of the life of Umar long before he found himself in Aso Rock Villa. She was the power behind the throne and if anyone was in doubt of the extent of her influence on her husband and, perhaps, his presidency such doubts should have been erased by the cold calculation and skullduggery that marked the last months of the Yar’Adua presidency. At the centre of the conspirators that sought to keep a dying President Yar’Adua in office was Turai. Silent as when night creeps on the unsuspecting traveller, she stayed her course as the fate of the nation hung on a thread and the likes of Michael Aondoakaa, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, egged her on.
These were a few of the more memorable occupants of the unconstitutional but conventional office of First Lady that Nigeria has known.
After the debacle of the Turai interlude and the boorish episode of Patience, Nigerians had had their fill and clamoured for a shut-down of the office of First Lady. A would-be President Muhammadu Buhari gave off hints that he would do things differently. There was no point doubting him. He had been Head of State and during the short twenty months of his dictatorship, Safinatu, his first wife, had been relatively unknown, very rarely seen in public. Nigerians were told and they obviously believed the yarn that Muhammadu Buhari had no place for a first lady in his presidency. It was no surprise that as soon as he was inaugurated his minders let it out that rather than first lady Aisha, his wife, would simply be identified as the wife of the president. Aisha herself appeared to share this take of things.
At what point things changed and the narrative took a different course is probably a matter presidential historians and insiders of the Buhari kitchen cabinet can explain. But at some point, Aisha became increasingly visible and her activities as a player in the Buhari presidency got more pronounced. She was casting her net wide and reaching far offshore. The transformation from wife of the president to first lady had taken off in earnest. It’s no use asking of what good, if any, that has been and could be for Nigerians.
We can see this in the manner a mere tweet can cost an Aminu Muhammed his freedom.
As a compulsive and, perhaps, irreverent tweep, he had twitted what could have easily passed as an innocuous joke about the rather ample looks of the president’s wife. Let’s be clear: “The President’s wife” should be differentiated from “wife of the president” which is something of a title or a “trade mark”, whether registered or not. But anyhow, Aminu made this disdainful joke about Aisha Buhari. He may not know this but he is clearly walking a terrain that has held fascination for and agitated scholars and theorists of power and the appurtenances of dictatorships in Africa in the last three decades, from Cameroon’s Achille Mbembe to, more nearer home, Ebenezer Obadare. His tweet is a textbook example of how abuse or insults could be used to decapitate the structures of power, something very common in many communities across precolonial Africa.
Posting a photograph of a rather bloated Aisha, Aminu attributed the first lady’s capacious figure to the proceeds of corruption, literally eating what belongs to the majority of ordinary people. What I cannot understand is what riled Aisha so much about this post. Was it the use of Hausa which brought the message nearer home or the unflattering picture nobody has said was photoshopped? How come Mrs. Buhari couldn’t overlook this little irritation? Was she misadvised to take the steps she took? At what point did she take the court option- weeks after Aminu, a twenty-four-year-old undergraduate (younger than Yusuf, her own son) of Federal University, Dutse, had been physically assaulted and hurled into detention, allegedly, on her orders? Or after she was outed before Nigerians? A writer said Aminu Muhammed must have been idle twitting but in this case, it is Aisha Buhari, the thin-skinned first lady, who seems the idle and power-drunk one. Let us give praise to Patience Jonathan!