By Magnus Onyibe
Former prime minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, lost her position in 1993 after she made snide remarks during re-election campaign about her opponent, John Chretien’s deformed mouth which was as a result of Bell’s Palsy disease which he suffered when he was young. In the USA, first lady, Michelle Obama’s approval rating ranks only next to that of former US President Bill Clinton who is currently the most popular and respected former president alive. While Michelle’s popularity lies in her humanity and simplicity reflected in her middle class values which represent the 'American dream' of becoming great from humble beginnings is rubbing off positively on her husband’s fortunes in the forthcoming polls, the uncharitable and insensitive comment about an opponent cost Campbell her exalted job as prime minister of Canada.
Now, l went into the above preamble to highlight the critical role that health issues could play in the life of public servants and the position that first ladies occupy in the political and private lives of those who lead or aspire to lead us.
Uncharacteristic of the African spirit of being our brother’s keeper, the first lady of Nigeria, Patience Jonathan, who was always wooing and cajoling Nigerians to support her husband in the arduous task of governance has remained the butt of many jokes in the social media even while in the hospital in far away Germany, which is a travesty. In a true African spirit, l believe the hearts of men and women of goodwill go out to her for speedy recovery.
Surely, this is not the first time that an ailing occupant of Aso Rock Villa would be parodied instead of empathised within the social media as late President Umaru Musa Ya'Adua was a victim. Such irreverent attitude towards the ill was the justification for the article 'Killing President Yar'Adua ' which l wrote and published in major national daily newspapers in the wee days of his tenure. In the late Yar’Adua’s case as it is in the present situation with Patience, the media and by extension Nigerians were not properly apprised of the status of their president and in this instance their first lady which perhaps explains the apparent public apathy.
Comparatively, former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, while in Aso Rock had suffered from what was referred to as 'radiculopathy' a sort of foot disease for which there was outpouring of sympathy from Nigerians when he was hospitalised in Germany. It seems to me that the difference between IBB’s good fortune of receiving outpouring of love and the late Yar'Adua and Patience’s experience of a seeming cold shoulder is poor communication or lack of it because Duro Onabule, Babangida’s image maker at that time, duly informed Nigerians of the head of state’s ailment and updated them constantly on how he was responding to treatment. On the contrary, Patience’s hospitalisation and the nature of her ailment have been shrouded in secrecy as neither the presidential spokesman nor Patience’s media aide has cleared the foggy air surrounding her infirmity.
One of the most loved women in the world, Queen Elizabeth II of England, recently celebrated her 75th year as queen and leader of the Commonwealth without her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was hospitalised at that time. Britons showered their queen with love and saved some for her husband whom they were informed upfront of his ill health. Just before the recently concluded summer Olympics in London, the Duke took ill again compelling the queen to attend the opening and closing ceremonies without her beau and as they were updated daily, Britons once again sent their love to him via flowers that he received in hospital.
So you may ask, why such an approach if successfully applied in Nigeria and the UK has become so unattractive to present Aso Rock ‘apparachik’? Unlike Caucasians, Asians or people in the socially and economically advanced societies, Africans revere the dead and empathise with the infirm and weak either because as traditionalists, we worship deities which are essentially dead ancestors or as people of faith, we have the vision of the good Samaritan who helped the weak as we are reminded of the Bible stories of pilgrims who encountered angels disguised as infirm needing help. For these and many other reasons, Africans and indeed Nigerians give alms to the infirm and pray for the sick freely in consonance with the biblical injunction 'be your brother's keeper'.
With such an African disposition, I experienced a rude culture shock while attempting to help a professor who is a paraplegic into an elevator when l was studying for a master’s degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, USA. Professor Swatskowski rejected my help by telling me in clear terms to steer clear of his path because he was capable of doing whatever he wanted to accomplish without help. Little did l know then that the disabled in the western society preferred to prove that there is ability in disability through independence as opposed to the pity we have for them and a justification for the handouts we give or toss at them when accosted on the roads or places of worship. As such, Patience should be enjoying our sympathy and goodwill in this period of ill health irrespective of the communication gap in Aso Rock that may be eliciting negative vibes and angst against her.
Before she dropped out of the public scene, she had successfully mobilised wives of African heads of state to Abuja where a foundation for an edifice in their honour was laid. Prior to the Abuja gathering, she had rallied Nigerian women in government and spouses of top officials in authority to Uyo, Akwa Ibom State where she charged them not to demure from vying and fighting for the topmost positions in government or private sectors of Nigerian economy.
She has been 'walking the talk' because under her watch, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) has recorded the highest number of women holding some of the most strategic portfolios ranging from Finance, Petroleum, Education, Aviation, Housing, Communications, Environment and of course Women Affairs. Additionally, women are also junior ministers in Defence, the FCT and Foreign Affairs bringing the total number to 11 female ministers.
Patience does not claim to speak English language like the Queen of England because it is not her mother tongue and she does not pretend to possess the wisdom of Socrates because she was just a school teacher before divine forces propelled her husband to the dizzying heights of Aso Rock where as a good housewife she keeps our president company, but what both her friends and foes cannot deny is that she is passionate about the cause of women and proud of her humble beginning. Some Nigerians are offended by her recent elevation to the rank of permanent secretary in Bayelsa State civil service, arguing that she does not merit it. Again, people are not taking into cognisance the fact that she was a school teacher in Rivers State from where she transferred her service to Bayelsa State about 14 years ago when her husband was elected deputy governor, then governor, later vice-president and now president.
Being on leave of absence or on secondment is not an anathema in the civil service of our country, so allegations that she has not been at her duty post as a teacher are untenable because as the wife of a deputy governor, governor, vice-president and president in these past 14 years, she has been rendering more strategic service to this nation than as a school teacher. At this critical time of constitution review by the National Assembly, the controversies thrown up by her civil service job as opposed to public service duties should be resolved through the creation of well defined constitutional roles for our first ladies. If that happens, she would have been the catalyst for another landmark accomplishment for the fairer sex in Nigeria.
Strikingly, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the presidency of USA (1933-1945), Eleanor, his wife, was reluctant in assuming the role of first lady but she proved herself to be a good innovator when she became the first activist-first lady by calling press conferences and keeping the public up to date on government policies, in particular," the new deal". She is also on record to have persuaded her husband to create the National Youth Administration (NYA) which provided financial aid to students and job training to young men and women amongst other great accomplishments.
Mr. Onyibe, a development strategist and futurologist, writes from Abuja.