Viewing Nigerian politics through Aisha Buhari’s conflicting lenses

[FILE PHOTO] Aisha Buhari

The office of the first lady is more of a ceremonial one that has no constitutional role assigned to it. But some wives of presidents had reinvented the position and made it a significant part of government business, sometimes to embarrassing levels. It was Maryam Babagida who first brought a lot of spark to the office. She was glamour personified, and had various pet projects, which won the hearts of many across the country. Her Better Life for Rural Women was another name for attracting a lot of political patronage to herself.

Since the return to civil rule in 1999, Nigeria has witnessed four first ladies, spouses of first citizens, namely late Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua, Dame Patience Jonathan, and currently Hajia Aisha Buhari.

Stella Obasanjo’s time in Aso Rock as first lady was not quite a remarkable one. This was probably due to the fact that her husband, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was himself overbearing; so, there was no space for any first lady to take any stage, let alone the centre stage. But Stella managed to make herself heard and seen, what with her shinny Afro-hair style that framed her petite face.

One thing that stood Stella out of all the first ladies Nigeria has had since the return of democracy was the near-absence of controversy around her personality. Although the tummy-tuck that allegedly killed her soiled that personality. Not that she did not wield political power, but she did so with an aura of elegance that was appreciated by all.

Hajai Turai Yar Adua’s time was not quiet though; she wielded state power that was far larger than her small frame. Even when Yar’Adua’s health was in bad shape, she carried on with business as usual. Many accused her of heading a cabal that shielded people from the president. At a point some even alleged that she was running the country by proxy. Yar’Adua’s near-commando-style of being returned to the country dead at night and being passed off as alive was part of her ruse to cling to power. She reportedly realised huge sums from an appeal fund for a cancer centre or foundation that ended with her abrupt exit from Aso Villa.

Also, Dame Patience Jonathan’s reign as first lady opened yet another near-ugly chapter in the first ladyship saga. She was not one of those that went unnoticed. She has been accused of a lot of things, from cutting business deals with businessmen and lobbyists to actually interfering in appointment processes of offices as high as ministerial positions and even dictating who got Peoples Democratic Party’s governorship tickets in a few states. In fact, Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi’s inability to install a preferred successor in Rivers State is partly attributed to her.

Then came Mrs. Aisha Buhari. Her first major appearance was during the campaign at Ogun State presidential campaign rally of All Progressives Congress (APC). It was gathered that Buhari was reluctant to release his wife to join the campaign, perhaps due to cultural prejudice, but she has done well so far.

As the wife of a presidential aspirant in July 2014, Aisha’s call on the then incumbent president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to resign from office following a suicide bombing and an alleged assassination attempt on her husband made her voice resonate, although all is fair in love and war.

Aisha once said, “I was brought up to stand by the truth and this is how I have always been.”

True to her claims, ever since All Progressives Congress (APC) administration came on stream in 2015, the charge of impunity and injustice in the party has been persistent and one of the prominent voices belongs to the wife of the president. However, it is intriguing that she became a major critic of her husband’s government.

Aisha has almost been a lone but strong voice resonating across the Nigerian political landscape regarding what most Nigerians suspect about her husband’s government. Not given to trivialities, her status as the country’s first lady lends credence to every issue she raises. However, her recent moves have changed the narrative, with many believing that it is either the wife of the president has been forced to eat the humble pie or the glamour that comes with her office is way too enticing to let go.

Recently, Aisha has been canvassing for a party she vowed never to support, which has caused many Nigerians to raise eyebrows and even ask whether the first lady has been insincere in her claims about a cabal being in control of her husband’s administration or whether things have finally changed in the government.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 2016, Aisha had threatened to withdraw support for her husband in the 2019 election, though she said the president had not told her then if he had a second term ambition, because of his unfamiliarity with a larger number of his appointees.

She alleged that the president does not know 45 out of 50 of the people he appointed, adding, “I don’t know them either, despite being his wife of 27 years… He is yet to tell me – if he’ll seek re-election, but I have decided as his wife that if things continue like this up to 2019, I will not go out and campaign again and ask any woman to vote like I did before.

“Some people are sitting down in their homes, folding their arms only for them to be called to come and head an agency or a ministerial position,” she had said.

The outburst suggested that she was disappointed with the ruling party and in how the party and its officers had steered the ship of state in just 17 months in office. Also at a conference organised by Project 4+4 in Abuja last December, Mrs. Buhari disclosed to a shocked nation that two powerful personalities have constituted themselves as cogs in the wheel of speedy development of the country.

Aisha explained that the government had achieved a lot, and could have achieved more, but for two people in government who will never allow things to move fast. The president’s wife said she was disappointed in Nigerian men who rather than fight these two men would go to them (the two-man cabal) in the night to beg for favours.

Aisha, who urged Nigerian women to rise and fight, said at the event, which had in attendance some key government functionaries, said, “I have realised that Senator Babafemi Ojodu, Special Adviser, political to the President, and Dr. Hajo Sani, and wife of the Vice-President, Mrs. Osinbajo, are not comfortable with my saying this and want me to confine myself to my prepared speech but we must say the truth. Our votes were 15.4 million in the last elections and after that only for us to be dominated by two people… this is totally unacceptable.”

“If 15.4 million people can bring in a government and only for the government to be dominated by two people or three people, where are the men of Nigeria? Where are the Nigerian men? What are you doing? Instead of them to come together and fight them, they keep visiting them one after the other, licking their shoes (I’m sorry to use those words).”

But in one of the early reactions to her comments, which he made in Germany to an outraged international community, Buhari had said, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”

Buhari also denied claims that two persons were controlling the affairs of his government. In an interview with the Hausa service of the Voice of America (VOA), Buhari had stressed that no one or group of persons was dictating the affairs of his government as being claimed. Reminded in the interview that his wife and others had consistently claimed the existence of a cabal running his government, Buhari had simply said: “That is her business. This shows I am a democrat. What they are saying is different from what is happening. They should come out and say those things they feel were staged-managed by the cabal, what the cabal forced me to do. They should mention just one thing.”

Despite all these allegations and criticism from the first lady, unusual in any Nigerian government, it was surprising to see her raising eight fingers and campaigning for the same man, whose government she alleged to have been taken over by cabals. She has been made to head the youth and women campaign wing of Buhari’s re-election bid. Aisha has been seen appealing to women to ensure the return of APC administration in the coming election.

According to Aisha, she observed that during the last election, women participated fully in the voting process and ensured that APC was elected, noting that it was why the government of Buhari came up with social investment programmes targeted at them and their children in order to engage them and reduce the level of poverty among them.

The first lady, in a statement by her Director of Information, Suleiman Haruna, called on women to spread the good news of the accomplishments of her husband’s administration.

She said women had been at the receiving end of the struggles for a better society, especially soldiers who have been fighting insurgency, and called on government to ensure speedy release of their entitlements so their families do not suffer.

However, the apparent double-face Aisha has presented so far has confused a lot of Nigerians. This prompted a former Governor of Ekiti State, Mr. Ayodele Fayose, to query the first lady, and urged her to tell Nigerians what had happened to the cabal that she alleged had hijacked her husband and prevented him from performing in office.

Fayose, who is the South-West Coordinator of Peoples Democratic Party Presidential Campaign Council, said Aisha was insulting the sensibilities of Nigerians by asking them to re-elect the same man she asked them to help her rescue from a cabal. In a statement issued by his media aide, Lere Olayinka, Fayose said Nigerians would take Aisha’s campaign for the re-election of her husband seriously only if she could explain what had happened to the cabal that she said caused Buhari’s administration’s failure.

Fayose said, “In October 2016, the first lady told Nigerians the truth about the incapacitation of her husband and went on to say that should things continue till 2019 like they were in 2016, she would not go out to campaign for him and ask any woman to vote like she did before.

“In December last year, she reinforced this position by claiming that a cabal controlling her husband’s government made it to fail. This is January 2019, and the question the first lady must be asked is, what positive change has Buhari’s government made on Nigeria and its people between 2016 and now?

“Is the first lady going to be campaigning to Nigerians to subject themselves to another four years of the country under the same cabal that she had accused of running her husband’s government aground?

“Most importantly, what will Aisha Buhari be telling those women whose husbands and children were killed by rampaging herdsmen? What will she tell the women whose husbands are among the over 12 million Nigerians that lost their jobs in the last three years? What will be her message to the women who can no longer feed their children owing to over 300 per cent increment in the prices of food items?

“Rather than wasting public fund jumping up and down to seek the votes of Nigerians for a husband that is not in charge of his government, what the first lady should do is to assist Buhari to pack his things in readiness for his exit from the Presidential Villa this year.”

This is not the first time that the issue of a cabal hijacking the presidency would be raised in the country, previous administrations had also allegedly been controlled by some political clique. However, what makes this one more worrisome is that the allegation is coming from an insider, the first lady and wife of the president. Was she double-dealing in order to curry the sympathy of Nigerians to vote for her husband? Turning around in so short of a time to ask for the continuity of the same government held hostage by a cabal would amount to toying with the emotions of Nigerians.

More importantly, will Nigerians buy into what Fayose obviously calls Aisha’s political trick? February 16 closely beckons.

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