Against the intention of the initiators of the office of first lady, the concept has been redefined such that the first lady now performs executive functions, while making unbudgeted expenditures. In this analysis, OSBY ISIBOR, CHIBUNMA UKWU and UCHE UDUMA examine the controversy surrounding the office and sound out the views of some Nigerians
The concept of First Ladyship, coined from Western democracies, is terribly abused in Nigeria and now a common practice at the three tiers of government. The conduct and sheer display of arrogance 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 who lives in grinding poverty are forced to watch the ostentatious lifestyle of these privileged wives of men of power.
The wife of the president otherwise known as the First Lady is neither an elected officer nor an official of government, but she moves in a convoy of government vehicles. 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 of the federation.
The First Lady also undertakes ambitious projects. People have wondered where the votes are coming from. The most worrisome aspect of the whole issue is the sustainability of such gigantic projects. Most times such projects are abandoned midway to become white elephant projects.
Worst still, there is discontinuity in their implementation, with each first lady embarking on fresh projects that may have little or no impact or benefit for the masses. That clearly brings to the fore the insensitivity of the first ladies about the judicious use of public funds.
Each of the first ladies comes to office with her pet project that is hardly sustained. For instance, Maryam Babaginda came with her Better Life for Rural Women; Mariam Abacha, the Family Support Programme; Stella Obasanjo’s Child Care Trust; Turai Yar’dua’s Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation and Dame Patience Goodluck’s Women For Change Initiative.
These “Pet Projects” have spanned over a decade and keep changing names with little or no impact on the lives of the people.
They have all promised change, women empowerment, better life, fresh air and everything imaginable.
While the first ladies are basking in the warmth and comfort of their offices, deriving great satisfaction and pleasure by savouring their spoils, there is a growing disquiet about their integrity and the legality of their actions.
In an effort to institutionalise the office of the first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan is now nursing the idea of legalising the office in the current effort to amend the constitution. Many Nigerians have expressed divergent views about the idea.
According to Barr. Kayode Ajuloh, an Abuja based legal practitioner, the first lady must have had her own reasons for making such a demand. “Because it is he who wears the shoes that knows where it is pinching.
The demand may have come from the expectations that go with the office of the first lady, which is why she felt that the office has to be included in the constitution. But if you ask me, it is as good as my demanding that as a fellow lawyer that my office should be included in the constitution”.
Another legal practitioner, Tochukwu Eziukwu said such proposal was ridiculous. “The first lady said the reason for such proposition is to enable presidents’ wives get retirement benefits along with their spouses when they leave office.
Such line of reasoning is nothing but ridiculous. In fact, such reasoning is a mirror to the intent of majority of people aspiring for leadership position in Nigeria; and that explains why our nation is where it is today. More is expected from an occupant of such a position, than some egotistic proposal as this”.
Speaking in the same vein, another legal practitioner - based in Lagos, Eze Christopher, said it is uncalled for and Nigerians should consider motives behind such propositions.
According to him, “the question on the minds of Nigerians is the motive behind such call; altruism or patriotism? Apparently, Mrs. Jonathan’s call for constitutional recognition affirms the position that First Lady’s office in Nigeria is self-serving. Successive First Ladies since the Babangida military era are merely utilising their positions to mobilise and rally support for their husbands in power”.
For Aisha Ahmed, a civil servant, the call to give the office a constitutional backing is worthwhile. “I agree with the first lady on that demand. I work with the department of gender statistics. I feel that constitutionalising the office of the first lady will open more doors for job creation, especially for the female folks. So I really support the call”.
Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, Chairman, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria said it is a very interesting dimension in the national conversation.
“I think that the first lady as a Nigerian has her rights to exercise her views. Some of us were in the forefronts of the group that have actually called for a legal framework to be introduced that will serve as a guide to the operations of the office of the first lady. The expenditures, way and manner the office of the first lady is operated should be streamlined”, he stated.
A business man, Joe Ameh thinks that the office of the first lady should be recognised. “As the wife of the president of our nation, she should have her own ways of contributing to the development of the nation, because as the wife of the president, she should do things to impact the nation”.
Uche Akunebu, a lecturer with the International Institute of Journalism (IIJ), Abuja said the proposal is preposterous, in the sense that the office of the first lady is the least problem of Nigeria right now. “As regard the first lady’s proposal, I want to say that the proposal is preposterous as that cannot put food on the tables of Nigerians.
We are starving on daily basis and it will equally contribute to the bloated government that we have always criticised. We cannot afford to have that office created and people would be working there and they will be paid money for nothing. That will be a drain on the resources of Nigeria’’.
Barr. Esther Uzoma, national coordinator Pro-Active Gender Initiative said there is no legislation in place in Nigeria that will integrate and mainstream women into political offices.
“Unlike in South Africa, there is a legislation to consciously integrate women into all political offices; we don’t have such legislation. So the only and easy way to mainstream the women gender and achieve gender equality is to make a constitutional provision for the offices of the first spouse not necessarily first lady. Just in case a woman emerges as the president so that the husband is also the first spouse”.
In the view of Ezenwa Nwagwu, the Executive Director, Team Nigeria, he can’t imagine where such constitutional provisions exist in the world.
“I do not know the part of the world where the office of the first lady is enshrined in the constitution. And looking at the reason for that, her own reason for such debate is to be pensionable, that is ridiculous. That is not her office but her husband’s. Nigerians voted for Goodluck Jonathan, not the wife. Thus, I do not think constitutionalising the office is a good thing to do”.
Umesi Marcel, African Regional Representative, International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE), holds that such opinion was not a product of deep thinking. “I don’t think that such opinion was a product of deep thinking or even patriotism.