By Tunji Olaopa
Most recently, Aisha Buhari, the wife of the Nigerian President, came into the news again. This is not her first time. This is to say that she has been an uncharacteristic first lady whose “tenure” is expected to be as silent and uneventful as her husband’s would be turbulent. In political history, only very few first ladies have been in the eye of the storm—from Edith Wilson who practically ran the presidency when her husband (Woodrow Wilson) suffered a stroke in the US, to Imelda Marcos who assisted her husband (Ferdinand Marcos) to financially incarcerate the Philippines, and Jian Qing, Chairman Mao’s first lady, who fully participated in her husband’s ideological revolution in China. But then, no one expected that the wife of a Moslem President would have a presence, not to talk of a voice in the governance of a country bedeviled by several predicaments. Yet, Aisha Buhari has disappointed all our expectations about her.
Her first appearance in the public sphere was to authoritatively assert what we all suspected — that there were cabals that are holding her husband’s administration to ransom. This shocked the entire nation. It was unexpected that the wife of a stern president would break rank to criticize her husband’s kitchen cabinet and ministerial appointees as cabals who were bent on taking Nigeria in the wrong direction. We all immediately found a kindred spirit in the corridor of power. At least, in Nigeria’s history, we finally find a first lady with a presence, a courageous voice and significant perspective. Unfortunately for Aisha Buhari, it would seem that her travail, which brings her into the public sphere again, is due to the activities of the same cabals she raised the alarm about in 2016. And she had been equally bold to get involved in the understanding of the APC and how it conducts itself under the chairmanship of Adams Oshiomhole, especially during the primaries that produced her husband. And more unfortunately, the battleground now has shifted right into her very home.
I suspect that we will miss the nuanced point of Aisha’s boldness if we see her fight-backs as an endorsement of an undefined feminism that, in my assessment, is often blind to the dynamics of domestic politics. As far as I can tell, all that is ailing Aisha Buhari, her husband and the Aso Rock First Family goes beyond a mere peon to feminism. I have had the longest period in my career as a public servant in the Nigerian Presidency. My residency in the Presidency and in Aso Rock as a permanent secretary opened my eyes to several dynamics of power and of relationships. My understanding is that the relationship between the president, the Dauras and the chief of staff to the president is the stuff of which power relationships are made. And this is definitely not unique to Nigeria. Power breeds strange bedfellows and all sorts. However, these sorts of relationships become worrisome when they breed confusions and dilemmas that undermine the integrity of the governance dynamics in ways that affect the citizens. It is in this light I want to situate the Aisha Buhari incidence.
First, no one will understand the circumstances surrounding being a first lady than a first lady. And no one knows what it means to be a first lady married to Muhammadu Buhari than Mrs Aisha Buhari. Politics does strange things to a marriage, and it is only Aisha Buhari and other wives in the corridors of power that can let us in into the joys and the pains and the power plays involved however uninitiated we presume they are. But I doubt if there is any woman who would allow an arrangement that gives her access to her husband, and her own home, through a third party. And we are talking of a third party that had already been fingered by the first lady as the cabal behind her husband’s lackluster governance performance. Thus, with Aisha Buhari, we arrive boldly at the feminists’ battle cry that the private or the domestic is political. But then, in this case, we do not have a woman just fighting to regain and retake her home and her husband, an objective that is noble in its own right; but rather, we have a woman who seems motivated genuinely by the need for her husband to take hold of the governance ship and regain leadership of the Nigerian state. What more should we expect of a wife and a first lady?
But then, Aisha Buhari is not the type brought up to keep quiet in the face of utmost provocations. The first provocation came from those thinking that kinship could be stretched beyond what is proper or acceptable, especially with regard to the relationship between a man and his wife. Kinship breeds a sense of entitlement. But then, should entitlement not have a limit? Who should be more entitled to a man if not the wife? On the other hand, the second provocation derives from the direction she perceives the Nigerian nation to be heading. The fundamental question here for me is simple: what would the “wife” of a nation do? This question has a deep historical resonance that tallies with my initial snapshot of the first ladies in the eye of the storm. This time around, I will like to interject Aisha Buhari in the midst of two wives of two nations in history and in antiquity.
On the one hand, we have Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the French Revolution toppled her and her husband, Louis XVI. Like Aisha Buhari, she was born into wealth and aristocracy. She was groomed from the beginning to appreciate wealth and position and power. And it is easy to surmise that Marie Antoinette would also have faced the same of power dynamics that Aisha Buhari is currently facing in the twenty first century Nigeria—cabals and powerful interests who would have wanted to drive a wedge between her and her husband and home. But she was smarter and more powerful and was able to ally her husband to herself and her strategies of power. Unfortunately, she became so profligate and power drunk that we lose all resemblance to Aisha Buhari. She became a terrible emblem of all that was wrong with France at the time. She was the very symbol of the ancien regime that an average French citizen had grown to hate. She was the wife of the nation who became rapacious, and who did not care whether her actions and inactions would undermine the integrity of the nation. And she had a willing accomplice in her husband. We all know the story of her end and the success of the French Revolution, oiled by her blood flowing from the guillotine.
On the other hand, the biblical Esther was unlike Aisha Buhari and Marie Antoinette in that she came from a poor and unassuming background. While Antoinette was certain about her ascension to the throne and her position as the queen, and Aisha Buhari, despite the many failings of her husband, was almost certain of continuing wealth and positioning in the corridor of power, Esther had no such illusion. She was not just a stranger in Persia, she was also a Jew. When Vashti, the wife of King Ahasuerus, fell from grace, she who was just a virgin member of the king’s harem came into unexpected favor and became the queen. Like Aisha Buhari and Marie Antoinette, Queen Esther knew the terrible logic of palace politics. Haman was as close to the King Ahasuerus as the Dauras are now close to President Buhari. And when her people, the Jews, were threatened with certain annihilation, she had to take a stand on the path of justice. Her significant commitment to Persia, as the wife of the nation, rings out across all generations: If I perish, I perish!
From these two perspectives, we see in clear light the uniqueness of a woman who has known wealth and power, and who still makes the ultimate decision to commit class suicide by siding with justice and ordinary Nigerians. Her very blunt criticism of some of her husband’s policies and programmes and their lopsidedness puts us not in doubt as to what kind of wife she wants to be. Unlike Marie Antoinette, Aisha Buhari is willing to jeopardize her status and her privileges to become the very conscience of her husband. She is willing to point at the loopholes of governance, and fight off all the jackals, while willing her husband to see what is going on and regain his goodwill among Nigerians. She is willing to speak the truth to her husband in order to regain the man she married and believed in. And even more so, she is willing to stay by his side to reestablish her home as the first step towards reestablishing Nigeria.
First Lady Aisha Buhari is a testament. First, she has been with her husband, President Muhammadu Buhari for so long to learn the virtue of doggedness and integrity. But more importantly, she embodies the unique insight that if you raise a woman according to the tenets of virtues or you have a wife who speaks with a voice of justice, then that constitute already a significant starting point for the emergence of a humane society or a virtuous nation.
*Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration