Let’s Revisit the Debate on the Role of Nigeria’s First Lady

Nigerian First ladies - Oluremi Tinubu, Aisha Buhari, Patience Jonathan

On the first of June, three days after Bola Ahmed Tinubu was sworn-in as president, social media did not take very kindly to a viral picture of Remi Tinubu, Nigeria’s first lady, in the company of her husband, and Kashim Shettima, the vice president. The picture was reportedly taken from a high-level state meeting in Aso Rock she partook in which was also attended by then-and-now-embattled Central Bank governor, Godwin Emefiele, and the Group Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL), Mele Kyari. If indeed true, no one knows the extent to which Remi participated in the meeting.

That picture revived an agelong debate on the constitutionality of the office of Nigeria’s first lady. Introduced by Maryam Babangida, the office of the first lady has become a tradition both at the federal and state levels. It is a ceremonial role, but it is an office funded by taxpayers nonetheless.

Nigeri'a first lady Remi Tinubu in Aso Rock with the president Bola Ahmed Tinubu and vice president Kashim Shettima

In some ways, one can argue for the relevance of the office of the first lady. Men generally are not known to be empathetic. It’s even worse if you’re president or a governor. Usually, politicians are power-drunk and to succeed, they more often than not possess the infamous Dark Triad Traits – Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Marchavelianism. Those with this personality makeup are hardly the most empathetic people in the world.

As a counterbalance, first ladies make up for the emotional unavailability of their husbands. That explains why you often see them visit women in IDP camps, comfort the downtrodden, organise charity events for orphans, and even inspire legislations against sexual abuse and domestic violence. If sycophants cheekily refer to the president as the father of the nation, I suppose it’s not out of place to refer to the first lady as the mother of the nation (of course, I do not support such grovelling sycophantic honorifics attributed to elected officials and their spouses).

By participating in what must have been a high-level state meeting, Remi Tinubu signalled to her haters that she’s just as power drunk as her husband. To her supporters, there’s no evidence it was an official meeting anyway and the whole fuss was unfounded. It was just another frenzy of tabloid sensationalism peddled by the OBIdient caucus on social media, so they argued.

In all fairness to her, she hasn’t sparked any notoriety since reactions tapered off to that infamous picture. While the picture is now old news, I should say Remi Tinubu has a track record of stirring up the hornet’s nest. Until now, she represented Lagos Central in the 9th National Assembly. But the tact and statesmanship that often comes with serving in the senate didn’t prevent her from making jokes about Igbo residents in Lagos during the 2019 general elections. In a video that went viral at the time, she was captured on the streets of Lagos threatening to invoke the pantheon of Lagos deities to pursue Igbo residents in Lagos who could not speak Yoruba. She went on to say that their property would be inherited.

I like to be fair. My most charitable interpretation of her comment is that she was attempting to foster marital and linguistic cohesion across Igbo and Yoruba nationalities in Lagos. She appeared to be joking, or as we like to say on social media, catching cruise with the Igbo woman she was addressing in the video. But against the backdrop of the 2019 general elections, that was a joke gone too far. In fact, I can’t think of any other context that joke would have been appropriate. I imagine Yoruba people would not take very kindly to such a comment coming from an Igbo senator. While I’m against the culture of ultra-sensitivity that social media is now known for, I do understand that ethnoreligious politics has been used over and over to divide us by the political class (the recent anti-Igbo rhetoric in Lagos state readily comes to mind) and people are justified to see such comments as highly bigoted.

It didn’t stop there. It appears on that same day, she was captured in another video walking up to a physically-challenged Igbo man seated on a median. She asked him whether he voted for Buhari because Igbos could not be trusted. Again, it appeared she was joking with the bloke. But if you’re going to make jokes about ethnicity, you better make a damn good one. The problem is the chances of you succeding at it as a politician, especially during an election, are almost impossible.

Remi also caused quite a stir in 2021 for seemingly scolding her colleague, Smart Adeyemi while he was making his submission on the floor of the Senate about how insecurity had metastasised across the country. While speaking, a faint voice in the background asked; are you in PDP? Are you a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Remi sat beside him but she wore a mask. Based on proximity, she seemed to be the most likely person to have uttered that statement. But I can’t say for certain she indeed asked those questions. But of course, that clip went viral and people felt offended at how she casually dismissed Smart Adeyemi’s sober reflection on insecurity in Nigeria on the grounds that he wasn’t being a good party man. Apparently, as an APC member, it was a crime for Adeyemi to say anything that showed the failures of the Buhari presidency.

Based on instances like these, it’s not out of place for anyone to assume Remi will exude authoritarian tendencies now that she is in the upper echelons of Aso Rock. Just a first lady ago, we saw two examples of gross abuse of power. Last November, one Aminu Muhammed was locked up for three weeks for saying on Twitter that Aisha Buhari had gotten fatter from feeding on public funds. He accompanied the post with an unflattering picture of a thickset Aisha. He was allegedly beaten and maltreated by the men of the State Security Service during his ordeal. Upon his release, he gave a grovelling apology to her not minding how his rights as a citizen were infringed (he called her the mother of the nation – surprise surprise).

Award-winning investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo did an exposè in February on Aisha Buhari’s alleged maltreatment of her former executive assistant, Zainab Kassim. After she had been fired for nine months, despite having served her “with sweat and blood” for seven years, she received phone calls from the first lady’s Aide-De-Camp and other members of her team to meet up. Unbeknownst to her, she was heading to Aisha’s ire and fury. What was supposed to be a simple meet-up turned out to be a gulag. Her offence was deleting some posts from Aisha’s Instagram account without permission. Though she denied it, that didn’t stop her from the misery she went through at the hands of brawny security men in Aso Rock.

This is a woman whose only claim to fame is being the wife of the president and that alone gave her the chance to use and misuse the instrumentality of the state, as she so desired. If the first lady is supposed to be the nurturer-in-chief, certainly, Aisha Buhari didn’t live up to that expectation. She proved true the axiom about absolute power corrupting absolutely. And that is exactly why the office of the first lady (or first gentleman, in the event we have a female president or governor) should never exist. It has no economic justification as that office often comes with an army of administrative staff, aides, security personnel and even special advisers – who knows what these ones do anyway?

Discontinuing that office doesn’t preclude the first lady from advocating for women’s rights. Already we have a Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. The first lady could be the de facto face of that ministry to drive the sensitisation and implementation of certain programmes and initiatives for women and the girl child. First ladyship confers more fame and sometimes more influence than what a ministerial position could. That influence can be better used to drive the projects of the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development without accruing the cost and red-tapism of running a redundant office for the first lady.

By Olayemi Olaniyi

Olayemi is the publisher of The Disaffected Magazine. He also hosts the Disaffected Nigerian Podcast. He enjoys everything from Evolutionary Psychology to the syncopations of Apala music to Fela's discography. He fancies himself as an Amala enthusiast. His dream is to be a travel writer someday. He can be reached on X @LukeOlaniyi.  

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