Aisha Buhari

Olusegun Adeniyi writes that a politically conscious woman like Mrs Buhari cannot be confined to ‘The Other Room’

Continued from the back page

I find this aspect of Mrs Buhari’s life interesting. Her pursuit of education was purposeful and targeted. She did not go to school to just earn a certificate. She chose technical education that would give her a vocation for which she is now renowned. She was a resource person for the National Board for Technical Education on Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology, and she also participated in the curriculum development of Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (SME). She wrote a training manual, ‘The Essentials of Beauty Therapy: A Complete Guide for Beauty Specialists’. I wish she had used her office and force of personality to lead a national campaign on technical education where we fail so miserably as a nation or for the education of the girl-child, especially in the North.

However, the most revealing aspects of the book are the crucial roles Mrs Aisha Buhari was documented as having played in the emergence of her husband as president of Nigeria. It is in these accounts that one can understand what has become a crisis of expectations. The author, a Senior Special Assistant to the President, is a close relation of the First Lady, a fact which she admitted, and among the many photographs in the book was one she took with a teenage Aisha in 1989. While the First Lady has no direct voice in the book, she spoke through others: Siblings, uncles, aunties, children, friends, former classmates, former teachers, politicians, and other acquaintances. These people of course have only good things to say about her, as to be expected. But her only son, Yusuf, sounded truer than he probably intended. After describing the First Lady with all those superlatives everyone would associate with their mother, Yusuf also added: “She is a fighter whom no one should attempt to disagree with as well. She goes all the way, till she sees the end of issues. She makes her point known and finds a way to make it stick.”

Right from 2003 when Buhari first ran for president, Aisha was said to have been involved in mobilizing women and youths as well as meeting with various stakeholders, including campaigning in her home state of Adamawa in 2007. Against the background that most Nigerians for the first time saw Mrs Buhari in the prelude to the 2015 election, it is quite revealing to read about her efforts in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Let’s take a few words from the book: “The finale of Aisha’s political journey can be seen in the way she ventured, labored and scaled through the rough socio-political terrain dotted with difficult barriers of culture, gender and intrigues, like a woman caught in a political web. The stakes were high against a woman from a highly restrictive, and deeply cultural and religious background married to an opposition candidate who resolved to play politics ethically. First, there was stiff opposition from the home front, to women participating in politics, with attendant social biases, psychological assault, economic restrictions, and political intrigues…the testing ground for her was during the election campaigns of 2003, 2007 and 2011, where the worst incidences occurred, but which ultimately resulted in victory and survival for her.”

Following Buhari’s defeat at the 2003 presidential election, it was Aisha who “gallantly picked everything from the pieces and began to build back the campaign machinery, as if the next elections were around the corner. From trickles to small groups, the crowd began to rise like the moon tides, attracted by her sheer commitment and dedication to long-term goals set for the next election 2007.” But when the court cases were over and Buhari could not reclaim his ‘stolen mandate’, he was abandoned by his supporters. This was when Mrs Aisha Buhari, according to Nana Abu Ali, who spoke to the author, took over the political structure of her husband. “Mrs Buhari proved her capabilities by taking over the campaign activities and by mobilizing women and youths across Nigeria in a very matured and civil way; aligning herself with people from all backgrounds. She was a voice, a powerful voice, and her humility was captivating. Though not known to many people, she played a vital role behind the scenes throughout the 2003, 2007 and 2011 election campaigns. Aisha Buhari is an attestation of the willpower of a woman. Her commitment and determination have proven her to be a woman with a strong head on her shoulders and a mind of her own.”

Since what is candour to someone could be seen as indiscretion to others, the question some have raised about Mrs Aisha Buhari is whether her interventions were motivated by personal interest or the pursuit of public good. If indeed Mrs Buhari played the roles credited to her in all the four attempts by her husband before he was elected president in 2015, was she expecting to play a central role in the government? The author justified the First Lady’s controversial public interventions that seemed to have put her at odds with the current administration headed by her husband. Aisha Buhari’s motive in sharing those critical views, according to Hajo Sani, is two-fold. “The first is that she is moved by her humanitarian nature to identify with the general feelings of the people. Secondly, she desires to draw the attention of policy makers to the issues of the day”, wrote the author who then added: “If your house is burning and you admit it, even the critic might lift a bucket of water to help drown the flames.”

To be sure, Buhari’s ‘house’ has been in flames for a while and whatever may have been her motivation, Aisha has had to call out people she described as “cabal” who had “hijacked power” from her husband, once threatened not to campaign for his second term (although she eventually did) and was critical of the nomination process of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Aisha has also publicly imputed corruption in the management of the State House clinic aside the allegory of hyenas, jackals, and weaker animals. The author says Aisha Buhari is a non-conformist and goes ahead to explain why: “Established structures are usually difficult to break from, and it is wisdom to extract from the old to bring about a more informed and useful innovation. One distinct feature of the personality of Aisha Buhari is her ability to break free of established structures.”

Regardless of whatever role Mrs Buhari may have played in the elections contested by her husband before he got to Aso Rock at the fourth attempt, she was only supporting her spouse. That, for critics, is not a license to have vaunted expectations or to be engaging in public criticism of a government headed by her husband. I know from my own experience at the Villa that as First Lady, Mrs Buhari has channels to pass on her messages either to the president or his appointees. What her varied interventions have done is to enable Nigerians see the dysfunctionality of the administration and Buhari’s hands-off approach to governance.

Overall, ‘The Making of the Nigerian Flagship: The Story of The Guardian’ by Aaron Ukodie and O’seun Ogunseitan and ‘Aisha Buhari: Being Different’, by Dr Hajo Sani are two difficult books. One is a Herculean undertaking in the history of Nigerian journalism. No matter its encyclopedic sweep, a book on a massive media undertaking at a contentious phase in Nigerian history can only evoke more controversy mostly among journalists. But it also fills an important conceptual gap: newspapers should go beyond telling the story of others. One can only hope that other leading Nigerian media houses will be challenged to write their corporate and editorial histories. The book on Mrs Buhari is also unique. She evokes curiosity as the first Nigerian First Lady who has disagreed openly on policy and political issues with her incumbent husband. While some people will celebrate the book as providing insights into the making of a frank and outspoken First Lady, some will also see the effort as a thinly veiled PR attempt.

For me, the main takeaway from the book is that a politically conscious woman like Mrs Aisha Buhari is not someone anybody would consign to ‘The Other Room’ without consequences!