This is not the best of times to be a First Lady in a country where those powerful matriarchs are the de facto number twos in all their spheres of influence. This is the change era that emphasises reticence, thrift and sobriety. We are in a revolution that calls for meekness, ascetic living and a rejection of all ostentation.
And these traits are an antithesis to the concept of the First Lady in its classical sense in third world countries. The woman who runs the man that runs the show in developing countries is the very reincarnation of all the tyrannical queens of history books. In looks, mannerisms, words and purchases, wives of powerful men have maintained a lifestyle that makes them both scary and appealing. From the Imelda Marcos of this world to all of the others, the pattern has been the same – pretty women who struck fears in the hearts of all. In most cases, they could even surpass their tough husbands in the brutality department. Whatever it is, no one trifles with them. And Nigeria has had its own fair share of the gimmick with many First Ladies playing this traditional role. Our own First Ladies actually took it to new heights.
Spouses of councillors and chairmen; commissioners and legislators; ministers and Directors-General; all the women acquired the appellation, cloned it and gave it new meanings. But one common denominator was discernable: They were all powerful in their small corners. It’s in the midst of all this that Mrs. Aisha Buhari seeks to change the concept and give it a new meaning. She has to because many critics of her husband would be watching to see how she brings the change mantra to bear on the conduct of that office. Her husband, the president, is already doing that.
The first thing he did was to change the name of the office. Critics weren’t impressed. A change of name hasn’t helped anything in this country, they reasoned. NEPA has changed its name several times and yet no light. Besides, it is difficult not to view Mrs. Buhari as the First Lady because folks just can’t see her differently.
With a change of name, no one was sure what may happen next. Was it that Aisha won’t be seen in public? Would there not be budgets to the office? Would there even be an office? Would ministers and other appointees not be lining up to be blessed? Would smart aides not be collecting fees to book appointments to see the land lady? What about the famous Governor’s Wives Forum? What would change? Aisha herself did not leave anyone in doubt.
In time, she demonstrated she was not going to sit back and watch the world go past her. Her top friends must have spoken to her in the fashion only women can muster. Something like: “My sister, you better be wise o. This is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We know oga is a tough man but it won’t hurt to showcase yourself a bit. Please, we also want a piece of the action o!” With that, madam swung into action. A picture of her in her office emerged with all the trappings of an executive office. In time, she began to comment on national matters, especially those to do with the human conditions. Ultimately, she wrote and launched a book on beauty.
Many of my friends were dismayed that at the time the nation was reeling under all sort of crisis, Aisha Buhari wrote a book on beauty, of all the subjects in the world. They expected her to write on Chibok girls, fuel scarcity or the fall of the naira, perhaps. I disagreed with them. I would rather have a First Lady who reads and writes book, any book, than one whose greatest claim to intelligence was selling crayfish. Besides, there is something about Aisha Buhari I find interesting. She is making an attempt at simplicity.
Now, that is something most wives of strong men don’t know about. And the more I look at it, the more I find that the leadership of all developing societies strives to be simple. We are all enthralled by that simplicity yet we just can’t emulate it. We love to see leaders of other climes eating by the roadsides, getting gas at the stations, mingling with the common folks and keeping it simple. Who is not fascinated with the US First Lady, Michelle Obama, who, apart from simple apparels (they could be expensive o. I don’t know. But they appear simple), did a hit with a rap artiste recently. We all loved it, didn’t we? At the annual Washington Correspondents Dinner, US leaders make fun of one another across the party lines. We enjoy it but don’t even make the attempt to enact that here. We can’t even pull off debates.
For a people who like to make America their standard, we sure know how to make our picks of what we like. Everyone here tries too hard to push their self-importance down people’s throat. A councillor proudly announces himself as honourable and promptly gets himself a personal assistant; a special adviser who is neither special nor whose advice is needed, struts around; a commissioner thinks he owns half the world; the governor is not even human. He is god!
So, when are we going to see some simplicity? What are our people even proud of: The hunger in the land? The degradations of institutions? The impoverished constituencies? Leaders of societies where light is constant, where clean water is taken for granted, where the public transport system works, where everything works; leaders of these places don’t behave like tin gods. Rather, they encourage free Press, allow themselves to be pilloried, are soft on the opposition, agree to debates and are not ashamed to showcase their human sides.
I think Aisha Buhari looks set to bring back the simple days. And she is in the pantheon of great First Ladies in the nation’s history, who made simplicity the watchwords. Who can forget the humble nurse, Mrs. Victoria Gowon, who still exudes the grace of a goodly woman, even in old age? Or the iconic Mrs. Fati Abubakar, who continued in her legal practice while in power. In that realm, Mrs. Odili also gave us a good example. She still drove to work, as wife of the then Rivers State governor. Today, she is at the Supreme Court, still exhibiting those sterling marks of simplicity that makes for greatness.
This in a world where some First Ladies, especially in the last dispensation, ran their states like their kitchen. One powerful madam actually ran the state. And, almost with all of them, the name is “mummy” to all appointees. A top appointee old enough to be her father ends up calling the First Lady “mummy”. She in turn has an office that is a replica of her husband’s with all the paraphernalia of power: Chief of Staff, SA, PA and full security details. In one state, the wife’s convoy competed favourably with that of the state’s helmsman. Most times, folks in the state capital can’t even tell who was coming to town in terms of the similarity in speed and sirens.
Aisha’s biggest task might be to encourage a simpler lifestyle, a return to days when First Ladies could still be working and bring back some decorum in the whole game. Already, her personal example is reassuring. I have never met her but those who did attest to her humility and down to earth disposition. Media footages of her also show a genial lady full of smiles and who seems to be a lover of humanity. This is infectious, as it would percolate down to the current set of First Ladies from the states to the wards levels. She would have to find a way to start a revolution amidst the “new kids on the block”.