Patience Jonathan as a first lady made a difference, writes Azibola Omekwe

If there was anything that endeared Nigerians to the person and character of President Muhammadu Buhari, it is his austere life; an evidence of incorruptibility. Another character trait is his perceived disdain for corrupt Nigerians and his bravery to frontally tackle people that steal public money. This was his cloud way back in the mid-80s as a young president.

Those were in the days when the judiciary was yet to be fully activated; when Nigerians talk less about the Nigerian state; when a slight misdemeanor could earn one a beating by his foot soldiers. Probably, if the scenario had endured till now, no one knows where corrupt leaders of Nigeria would have been. In a mere allegation of stealing public money, Buhari took extra measures alien to governance in an attempt to kidnap late Umaru Dikko in London and bring him back to Nigeria. Remember some Nigerians were shot dead, back in those days by his government for crimes that were yet to have statutory prohibitions. The case of Bartholomew Owoh and two others readily come to mind. These narratives in his life earned him victory over an incumbent president. And when he was sworn in, the anti-corruption war took the fast lane.

This anti-corruption war has taken a special gaze on no other than Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan, the former First Lady of Nigeria, popularly called Mama Peace. But she is a wrong pick. Mama Peace is “untouchable” because she is thorough in her financial dealings – at least says the court. In her encounter with EFCC, the media was abuzz with tales of having hard evidence that would put her away. It was a bad case. It involved money laundering and her aides corroborated it. The companies connected to her smell of dollars. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, a former first lady would pay back money to the government. But what became of it? She was discharged by a competent court of law.

EFCC needs to be advised because they rely so much on media trial. Mama Peace had by their own mediocre act of commission suffered derision and defamation. This is just not how to prosecute corruption cases. When they get their prey, they call a hyena-like press conference, and convict the person on the pages of newspapers and other electronic news media. That same week, EFCC lost three other high profile cases. How they would walk out of this quagmire remains to be seen. At the instance, the government and people of Nigeria are being subjected to intense embarrassment. To say the least, we have become a laughing stock in the comity of prosecutorial bodies, not because we lack the institutions but that we lack the one with procedures and updates. The country’s recent suspension by the Egmont Group attests to some of the anomalies. And to think that this government came to power for EFCC to win the war on corruption while we see otherwise is to surreptitiously declare to Nigeria that this government is incapable of doing its primary objective that propelled it to power.

It is curious to note why Mama Peace larger-than-life cloud has refused to go years even after leaving the revered first lady position. She has refused to go into oblivion after her first lady life. Her predecessors disappeared into thin air despite much more government funds and patronage when they assumed that role. She became a first lady when opinion was high that such office was unknown to the constitution. Yet she seems to have had the greatest impact. She was probably the only first lady to have gotten global recognition on her ability to touch lives of women, children and the vulnerable.

Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan has always worked for money, and by that could afford to give to the needy in those days when she and her husband were relatively unknown. She is reputed to be the first to have owned a community bank in a big and sophisticated city like Port Harcourt, which was supposed to have had that facility before a teacher like her could dream of it. Climbing the ladder of success via the political attainment of the family, an ambitious character of impacting on the community like hers would not sit back. She was first lady twice; first as a governor’s wife and then wife of the president. And when she became the first lady her relentless efforts to reach out to the needy made her a crowd wagon. Her handset number was made available for women to put a call to her. Incidentally, the government then had again the highest female participation in government. Nigeria could be said to have been handed to the womenfolk. Perhaps what endeared her to top government functionaries then was her zero interference on official matters. The last point was unknown to other first ladies before her and even immediately after her. Some of her predecessors were reputed to have nominated ministers for the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the same simple reason that they were the presidents’ wives.

What is the amount involved here? Some $5.9 million. That amount is made big because of the present state of the naira. In her days as a first lady, that amount was maybe slightly above a billion naira. Nigeria’s first ladies are rich by the imprimatur of their ‘office’. They can afford more than that. In fact, they are worth more than that through legitimate earnings. Nigerian president is arguably the most coveted in terms of financial opportunities on the planet. And anyone who wishes to see him has limitless opportunities to become rich too. A first lady sees him every day and even sleeps on the same bed with him. Is that the kind of wife who cannot afford a billion? One who had the courage to run a tough business like a community bank can seize the opportunity to do business, especially with the desire to reach out to the needy.

Recall there was a first lady in Nigeria who boasted that she was richer than Dangote, who was already on the Forbes list. She had on a particular occasion addressed military generals in their full regalia as the military might of Nigeria and indeed the first in Africa with a global reckoning. That occasion was even beamed live on the NTA network when it was practically the only station people could watch in Nigeria. A first lady in Nigeria is that powerful and rich.

Mama Peace has refused to leave the Nigeria socio-political firmament. She still pulls a lot of crowd because she has not forgotten her age-long dance. Remember people are wont to go to where they would be watered. It would also not be out of place for other first ladies to come out and impact positively on the society just like Mama Peace had dedicated herself to doing. To the credit of Mama Peace, for her worthy contribution of improving society, she received the ‘Beyond The Tears’ International Humanitarian Award in 2008, for her fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. Her foundation, A-Aruera Foundation (AARF), has served as a vehicle in empowering women and youths. She is also in the health sector supporting and assisting the poor on heart related problems.

The issue of anti-corruption is a holy war in Nigeria, no doubt, but care must be taken, as it must not be vindictive or used as a witch-hunt venture. As was confirmed by Mama Peace, through her petition to the lower chambers of the National Assembly, the EFCC has been carrying out deliberate plots to undermine and embarrass the former first lady – ridiculing and exposing her to public odium. Acting in desperation, the commission had gone as far as trying to stop her from renewing her travel documents. Going as far as seizing her properties and other valuables. Going as far as bugging her phones. Very pathetic. And the most disgusting of all, to get as far as claims of her life being threatened by unknown persons. This is unacceptable and has to stop. Of course, a fallout of the continued hounding of the first family was the incident that happened a few weeks back where their home was burgled and properties carted away. I can bet that the burglar-policemen only leveraged on past incidents. Their actions against her call for deep questions to be raised. Well, let me not go there but rather remain open-minded.

For us to progress in this country, EFCC and other related agencies need to be circumspect and thorough in their activities. They need to resist the urge to rush to the press before even starting their investigation. They need to demonstrate high level of professionalism lest they would end up begging or making public apology to their perceived accused persons as in this case that the court had said ‘touch not my anointed’. That is one of the cardinal points that make Dame Patience Jonathan untouchable.

When would Mama Peace even go away?

Hon. Omekwe is a former member of Bayelsa State House of Assembly