Arrow FIRST LADIES ON THE LOOSE: From TELL Magazine

Stella Obasanjo led the way, and the governors' wives took their cue from her. Now the Office of First Lady is thriving in one big national jamboree

First Ladies On The LooseShe is always resplendently dressed and bedecked in expensive jewelry. She is neither an elected officer nor an official of government but she moves in a convoy of government vehicles, led by a siren-blasting pilot car meandering menacingly through clogged traffic to ensure the smooth passage of Madam's convoy. She has a retinue of aides and press crew and a good number of security details waiting on her in the office and at home, distinct from those of the elected chief executive.

Just like a governor, she enjoys almost all the paraphernalia of office. What qualifies her for all this is her marriage to the President or governor. The amazons have come and appear to have taken over. And they are not just riding in convoys of flashy cars, they are also undertaking ambitious projects. You wonder where the votes are coming from. Most of them insist that they are raising the money through personal efforts. But the bottom line is the propagation of the office of the First Lady. No thanks to Stella Obasanjo, wife of President Olusegun Obasanjo. This is, without contest, a negation of the seemingly firm pledge of the President when he assumed office in 1999.

The conduct and sheer display of vanity by the present crop of first ladies has earned the office public distaste. It has become a source of worry and concern. This is because the public, a huge proportion of which lives in grinding poverty, is forced to watch the ostentatious lifestyle of these privileged wives of men of power. A particularly remarkable example was the 40th birthday party of the wife of the governor of Lagos State, Remi Tinubu. The event was attended by Stella Obasanjo and Titi Abubakar, wives of the President and Vice President respectively. Each lady came to Lagos from Abuja in a presidential jet complete with a retinue of assistants.

This was surprising, given Obasanjo's initial statement that there would be no first lady in the sense that the military had abused that office. Early in the life of this administration, Obasanjo, in response to the question on the role his wife would play in government, said that "Stella is just going to be my wife". He had given the impression that he planned to do away with the meddlesomeness of first ladies in the affairs of governance. For a few months, Stella was referred to as the wife of the president of Nigeria. But that soon changed and she began to be addressed as Her Excellency, the First Lady. Thereafter, she wasted no time in launching an elaborate programme, the Child Care Trust Programme, CTP. The trust is said to be a special children-empowerment programme designed to assist in bringing up children who have suffered various forms of disabilities, abuse, discrimination and neglect to become useful and responsible citizens, using state-of-the-art facilities and methods of international standards.



This was the cue wives of state governors were probably waiting for. At the state level as well as the local government, other `first ladies' emerged. There are now nearly 800 women bearing the titles of first lady in Nigeria. Having had the stage set by Stella, there began a race by the other first ladies to outshine one another. Almost all the first ladies have one pet project or the other being executed through their non-governmental organisations, NGOs. A sample: Remi Tinubu has New Era Foundation, and Zainab Kure of Niger State, Youth Empowerment Scheme.

Eki Igbinedion of Edo State established Idia Renaissance, her pet project. Idia Renaissance, since the inception of this administration, has championed the campaign against the destructive trade of prostitution by Edo State girls within and outside the country. Having identified the peculiar problem of her people, Eki's effort has recorded some considerable amount of success. Through Idia Renaissance, she has been able to sensitise her people and young girls to the evils of prostitution. She has also succeeded in getting the girls arrested by security agents at border towns on their way to Italy and other European countries where they usually prostitute to earn a living. 

Perhaps, it was this modicum of success achieved so far by Eki's Idia Renaissance that spurred Titi Abubakar into establishing a similar project. Titi's Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation, WOTCLEF, may be just an expanded version of Idia Renaissance. Their focus and targets are basically the same. But Titi has used her vantage position, as wife of the Vice President, to give it a national focus. Last month, she took her campaign to the National Assembly, presenting a bill to criminalise prostitution and child trafficking. The leaders of the National Assembly gave her a rousing reception and promised to work quickly to pass the bill into law.

Observers of the `first lady' phenomenon say that there is a subtle scramble among the new `Maryams and Maryams' for public attention for themselves and their programmes. Maryam and Maryam are wives of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, under whom the Office of First Lady became a profligate and obscene passions. And they would not hesitate to upstage one another in their quest for publicity and relevance. For instance, they argue, having pinched Eki's idea, Titi's WOTCLEF has seemingly overshadowed Idia Renaissance. This is, in spite of the fact that Eki was first to breast the legislative tape by working with her husband to get the Edo State House of Assembly to pass a law banning prostitution in the state. Recently, a pan-African conference on human trafficking organised by WOTCLEF was held in Abuja. The conference's theme was "Evolving an African Regional Initiative Against Human Trafficking." It was part of WOTCLEF's contribution to the battle against prostitution.

Having identified projects to execute, the first ladies, in the usual rat race to outshine one another, organised elaborate launchings of their pet projects. Launched with fanfare before an assemblage of top businessmen, government officials, party stalwarts, many of these first ladies have been able to raise substantial amounts of money. But a larger chunk of the monies raised from the launching usually comes from state governments and their parastatals and the local governments. This is contrary to what Obasanjo made the public to believe that funds for the first ladies' projects would be sourced outside government. In other words, no public funds would be wasted on the supposedly private initiatives of the first ladies. But when Stella launched her Child Care Trust, she reportedly raised over N200 million. Each state governor is said to have donated N4.5 million, monies that obviously came from public funds. Many corporate bodies and individuals also donated generously.

Abdulazeez Arisekola, politician, businessman, and a controversial acolyte of the Abacha regime, donated N22.5 million, while Prince Sunny Obi, the Igiligi of Nnewi, gave N20 million to the trust.

It is an open secret that governors donate huge sums of money from government coffers to their wives' projects. For example, the Ogun State government donated N25 million to Derin Osoba's project, Royal Advancement for admits that she gets some help from companies like Shell Petroleum. She had written Shell to assist her with N100,000. (See our current edition for more details)

People Will Accept Us If…

Zainab Kure, wife of the governor of Niger State, talks about her Youth Empowerment Scheme

What is the philosophy behind the Youth Empowerment
Scheme, YES?

It is a non-governmental organisation meant to empower the youth. The NGO started when my husband became the governor of Niger State. Prior to that, I have been opportuned to assist groups of people but the focus has always been on the youth. So, the main philosophy is to empower them.

What are the various segments of the programme and in what ways are they empowering the youth?

We have economic, social and political empowerment. But primarily, it has to do with social and economic empowerment. We have vocational training programmes _ teaching the youth to be computer literate, tailors, caterers, shoe-makers, vulcanisers, motor mechanics and photographers. We want to ensure that they have the skills to be useful to the society.



How involved are the wives of local government chairmen in the programme?

We are in a democratic set-up. If from above they don't network with the wives of governors, I don't see any reason why wives of governors should compulsorily network with the wives of local government chairmen. But wives of local government chairmen who appreciate what we are doing and want to come in, we shall welcome them.

How do you source fund for the programme?

We make so much noise to attract people to donate. We have not launched the programme, we want to set a point so that people who want to come for the launching will see some of the things we say we want to do with whatever fund we want to collect. At the moment, we have a lot of individuals who are assisting us. The structure that we are in now (the programme's office) was given to us by the state government. All the materials here: computers, tailoring and knitting machine, and so many other things belong to the state government.

Do you get direct funding from the state government?

We don't.

What plans are you putting in place to ensure that the NGO does not die with the end of the tenure of your husband?

With the advocacy we have put in place and the response we are getting, it will outlive the administration. We are still going to put up our own structure. The response from the youth will allow us to continue.

Why are first ladies into one scheme or the other?

I see it as part of contributing our quota to the development of the society. With the opportunity being given by God, we should use the position to leave some mark so that when we are not there again, people will see what we have done to better the lot of the society. Before my husband came to power, I had been thinking along this line and when my husband was sworn in, I said, "let me see if answering somebody's name will make the vision to succeed."

How would you react to criticisms that most of the programmes of the first ladies are for political gains and mere waste of public fund?

I don't get distracted by such comments. I believe that if one is true to herself, even the critics would come around to say we now support what you are doing. If we, the first ladies, live up to our responsibilities, there will be a change in the perception of our ventures by the society.

In what ways can the so-called marginalisation of women be addressed?

I am not into this women marginalisation or empowerment thing. I believe that nature must take its proper course. It is only enlightenment that would make men to work with women for the development of the country. But to make too much noise about it, I am not in support of that and I don't believe in that school of thought. Women should support our men genuinely and make the society a conducive place. We should always support our fellow women who are in politics. In that way, democracy will be sustained.

Do you foresee a Nigerian woman becoming a governor or the president in the future?

Zainab _ YES will outlive this administration

 


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