By Wole Soyinka
I had thought to leave this subject strictly to the discretionary powers of the nation’s women’s organisations, as I did not wish to be obliged to counter the convenient accusations that we, the male chauvinist oppressive of womanhood in society, have merely seized upon a legitimate initiative of ‘public spirited’ women elite to frustrate female advocacy.
However, as scandal surmounts scandal, it is more than likely that a mere “chicken feed” like N4 billion will become subsumed in public consciousness, overawed by egregious affronts such as the recent presidential pardons. The national attention span – in the face of corruption especially – suffers from overload, and there are those who know it, manipulate and profit from it!
It is within this tried and tested tradition that I view a recent government “clarification” on the First Ladies Mission Mansion, offered through the agency of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I refer to a reportage on page 63 of THISDAY, March 18, and in other media on March 19. The minister offers the following explanation for the ‘controversial’ budgetary allocation, and I do quote: “The African First Ladies Peace Mission is similar to any other similar regional or international organisation, it is NOT an NGO. (emphasis mine). It is an African Union-led initiative, it does not belong to any individual, it belongs to the African Union.
“The minister recalled that the mission has been in existence since the time of Mrs. Mariam Abacha… He added that the First Ladies in 2008 requested Nigeria to provide a permanent secretariat for the mission after an intense lobby by Libya to host the secretariat and bankroll its activities…”
The minister goes on to paint a very laudable picture of the purpose of the First Ladies Peace Mission, rounding up with the battle-cry: “Nigeria would continue out its international obligations. (Bravo!) When the secretariat is completed in Abuja…..”
With those two last items, I regret to say that the honorable minister lost me. Alarm bells jangled frantically on reading those words: “When the secretariat is completed in Abuja…” Are we dealing here with a fait accompli, which means we are all simply whistling in the wind? Then there is the claim that goes: “African Union-led”. The nation deserves to know the chapter and verse under which the African First Ladies initiative was adopted, much less led, by the African Union.
Next: since when did the private interests of the of rulers’ wives become an “international obligation”? Even if Sanni Abacha’s First Lady presumed to act for Nigeria, how does this commit a democratic government to the presumptuousness of the mere spousal appendage of the head of a member state?
Again: this time, simply as a matter of curiosity, since I have never heard of a Muammar Qaddafi’s First Lady – who did the lobbying on behalf of Libya? Qaddafi’s rubber stamp parliament, the Jamahiriya? Or his permanently invisible counterpart to Nigeria’s then spousal squatter in Aso Rock? May I ask what legality, in national or international law, the whims and caprices of rulers’ wives exercise upon governments?
Finally, I wish to quote the following entry from the Nigerian media. It was entered during the roforofo fight between one immediate past ‘Lady’, the Spousal Abuser of President Umaru Mus Yar’Adua, and her current successor. They came to blows – well, metaphorically speaking – over the luscious slab of real estate on which the current madame had chosen to erect her own monument to Nigeria’s chronic First Ladyism. I invite you to study closely the ‘clarification’ by the then Minister for the Federal Capital Territory.
He does not cite Africa’s Union resolution or any such international obligation.
He does not cite the imperatives of Nigeria’s moral obligations. He does not even mention Nigeria’s dubious leadership – ‘giant of Africa’ – sentiment – to which we are expected to genuflect, no matter how gratuitous the context. No, his intervention narrates most unambiguously the role of sycophantic public servants in the inducement and servicing of spousal egos. Here is the relevant admission, and – do note – revealed as a matter of pride, not of embarrassment or shamefaced, unavoidable disclosure.
“When I became minister, I brought the idea for the building of the secretariat as a legacy the former First Lady would leave behind. I consulted the former president and advised him on the project after she became leader of the African First Ladies Mission. I told him that the NGO – emphasis mine – needed a secretariat to build an edifice just like the Women Centre built by the late Maryam Babangida and the National Hospital built by Maryam Abacha.”
“He (Yar’Adua) agreed and told me to look for a land. When I eventually found the land, I prepared a Certificate of Occupancy and the structural design of the proposed secretariat before I reported back to him. He appreciated the effort and directed me to meet her with the proposal”
“After a discussion, she accepted the idea and set up a committee comprised of the FCT and Foreign Affairs officials, Maryam Abacha, late Murtala Mohammed’s wife and Patience.”
There you have it in a nutshell. Maryam Abacha’s ‘project’ was a hospital. Sadder still, we have it from the horse’s mouth that First Ladies are entitled to set up committees made up of public servants – Ministry of Federal Capital Territory, Foreign Affairs, etc. – heaven knows how many fell over one another to serve on that committee.
The cult of First Ladyism rose to obscene heights under the former maximum ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, yet it was under the watch of that very general that a female permanent secretary, ordered by the then maximum spouse to report to her office for an assignment, told her, quite politely, “Madam, I only take orders from my minister”. She then returned to her office to write out her resignation letter. That was then!
Today, the obverse obtains. The role which even ministers have played in elevating the culture of groveling sycophancy to the status of governance virtue has contributed in no small measure to the abuse of constitutional provisions and irresponsible budgetary attributions. Instead of remaining a dark, embarrassing secret, it is confidently aired on international media such as the Voice of America, turning this nation into a space of ridicule and self-inflicted disdain. It is not all sycophancy however, it is – projects! Projects with minimal overseeing and accounting, gravy trains with adept practitioners at the controls!
It is time we confronted squarely those unctuous, self-righteous attributions such as “the legacy that the First Lady would leave behind”. Who says a First Lady has to leave a legacy behind?” Was she elected by the people? Is she constitutionally a public official? Does she have an obligation to render account of her “stewardship”? I have taken the trouble to study the Federal Territory Act, and not one paragraph, not one sentence specifies that the FCT minister’s functions include saddling First Ladies with the responsibility of “bequeathing a legacy.”
To summarise: here then are two contrasting expositions – that of the Minister of the FCT, and that of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The FCT Minister even claimed that this mission is an NGO; the Minster for Foreign Affairs insists that it is not, that it is an “international obligation”! Please, spell it out more clearly. Since when? Under what protocols, resolutions or whatever? And of what international organisation?
President Goodluck Johathan must be stoutly applauded for declaring that he cannot grant amnesty to ghosts. Let me add also that you cannot make budgetary allocations to ghosts. Like ghost workers through whose invisible entrails billions have vanished into Nigerian burial grounds, First Ladies are nothing but constitutional ghosts, and that means that their ‘pet projects’, wherever they lay claims on national budgeting – individually or collectively, and however lofty sounding – are nothing but spectral emanations, already dead on arrival.
Lest I am misunderstood: First Ladies have the same right as all citizens to “leave a legacy behind”. They must however work hard to source their funds where the rest of the world does – in the private domain, not dig their hands into public funds on which crying needs, far too numerous and deserving to mention, have prior and – most important – legitimate and constitutional claims. Too bad, Bill Gates has decided to keep away from Nigeria, owing to the latest incontinence of power – Madame should have tried ‘touching’ Mr. Gates for some small change. Then she would have learnt that hard working millionaires are painfully discriminating about what causes they espouse.