By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, I have never hidden my admiration for our First Lady, Mrs Aisha Buhari. Although we met only once in London during those days of frenetic campaigning for Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) in 2014, I have followed her closely and therefore almost been in a position as if I know her well. Our meeting occurred when some Buharists had gathered at the Crown Plaza Hotel and Mrs Buhari, Mrs Dolapo Osinbajo, Mrs Toyin Saraki, Zahra Buhari, and many others came in to speak and cajole us about why Buhari should be our choice and enjoy our support. I greeted her and took some pictures with her very beautiful and amiable daughter. That was the closest I personally got to her, but I have followed her activities with keen interest.
Please, let me digress a bit before I return to Mrs Buhari. My job as a celebrity reporter had always given me access to women of power, fame and wealth, the way sugar attracts ants. Women like their male counterparts love to be written about and photographed, but the difference is they are not ashamed to flaunt this fact whilst the men typically display false humility even though they probably love it even more. Also, my background as a male feminist gave me an uncommon understanding of women issues. In 1988, I wrote my Master’s thesis on the oppression of women in African literature using the lenses of Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi, Senegal’s Mariama Ba and Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah. What was more, I was solely nurtured by my Mum, after I lost my Dad in 1973.
I landed in Lagos in 1988 and was fortunate to find a job that exposed me to the rich and famous and the high and mighty. My first encounter with First Ladies was with Mrs Maryam Babangida. I wrote several stories on her and there were times I felt I will get into trouble with her because of that sneaky fear that wives of military dictators would most probably be dictatorial. But Mrs Babangida was classy, gorgeous and friendly. She was in the news most times for good reasons than bad ones. She employed very cerebral and intelligent staff. For example, her Spokesperson at a time was Greg Obong-Oshotse, who had bagged a First-Class degree in Political Science, from the University of Ife and had risen to the level of a star writer on the op ed page of Nigeria’s prestigious newspaper, The Guardian, and so on. I knew Greg from our university days at Ife and for this reason had great access to Mrs Babangida and stories concerning her. I got closer to her in London when she received The Hunger Project Award alongside Professor Wangari Mathai of Kenya (they are both of blessed memory). Again we spent ample time together in Monrovia during the inauguration ceremonies of Africa’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
I didn’t meet Mrs Maryam Abacha until after their departure from power. I was stunned when I got a call from Chief Abiola Ogundokun, who informed me the Abachas had extended an invitation to me to attend the simultaneous weddings of Zeynab and Gumsu Abacha. My initial reaction was, “how can, why me?”, after being forced into exile for three years by dear tough Dad. I consulted my close friends and more of them believed I should not display vindictiveness by snubbing them. “After-all Mandela forgave those who wasted 27 years of his adult life!” That really struck a chord in me. But the clincher was the one that said, “If Abacha had not chased you away, may be there would have been no Ovation!” Oh, my God, I soliloquised. Ovation International was God taking revenge on my behalf, positively.
I travelled to Kano, wow, Kano was still innocent then. I met Mrs Abacha, an incredibly beautiful woman. Then I met Zeynab and Gumsu and they are stunning younger versions of their mother. Radiant and ravishing brides to be. Oh yes, I met Rekiya too. And also, their handsome Brothers. Their Mum was too hospitable. It was as if the family was trying to atone for whatever injury they felt they had inflicted on me. But they need not have worried. My Christian faith had taken over. I read in the scriptures that I should forgive 70 times 7 times. Please, relax, I’m leading you somewhere. We covered the wpedding, gratis. It was our way of thanking God for making us victorious. But we got more than money. Nobody ever saw the indescribable “house of gold” Abacha built in pictures until Ovation published it. Not just that. No one ever saw the mausoleum in which General Sani Abacha was buried majestically, until Ovation Photographer, Ajayi Oyebo, sneaked to the back of the house, like a thief in the night and came back with an uncommon scoop. Mind you, that Edition sold out completely. And that story established us as true professionals who rose above personal squabbles to give the world a masterpiece and collector’s edition. Some vilified us, but many congratulated us for our professionalism and revelations.
Haaa, I miss the Mama Ovation herself, Mrs Stella Obasanjo. Our bond must have been from heaven. She liked Ovation so much and even advised me from time to time on how to improve content and form. I make bold to say Ovation International holds the copyright of her best portrait ever with her husband, President Olusegun Obasanjo. They were returning from a trip to Cuba and I got our audaciously brilliant Photographer, Dragan Mikki, to ambush them at their transit hotel in Gatwick Airport. Little did they realise who was behind the coup. Dragan suddenly blocked Baba as he was about strutting out of the hotel. Before he and his bodyguards could recover from the shock and readjust, Dragan had grabbed a chair and tucked Obasanjo into it like a baby. Dragan was barking orders at Baba and his lovely wife. Their spokesman, Dr Doyin Okupe looked bewildered, but Dragan had already succeeded in hypnotizing and mesmerizing the first couple. The pictures were awesome, and it fetched Dragan an invitation from Canterbury to Abuja and Lagos, where he covered the wedding of Gbenga Obasanjo. We also got the wedding of Kofo Obasanjo in London. Mrs Stella Obasanjo already contacted me about her impending 60th birthday celebration before she went on what would eventually become an eternal journey to Spain, never to return.
After Lady Stella came Mrs Turai Yar’Adua, very pleasant and a bit taciturn. Her husband tried his best for Nigeria, but his health meant that the country never got the best of him. I first met both at the wedding of their daughter to the Governor of Bauchi State, Issa Yuguda and Ovation produced a classic edition to mark the occasion. Everything seemed to be going right for them and the nation until she allowed the Aso Rock cabal of the time to take over the life of her fatally ill husband. It remains a mystery what they promised that got her to play along dangerously with them and practically subvert the Nigerian constitution until things fell apart and the centre could no longer hold. But I believe that unfortunate saga left her in the reclusive state she has found herself today.
Step forward Mama Peace, the unstoppable, the irrepressible, the indomitable, the inimitable Dame Dr Patience Jonathan. She provided her own drama and fanciful lexicon as far as First Ladies go. She really coveted and enjoyed power and could easily have been the de facto President, but she lost power eventually alongside her husband, a perfect gentleman. She remains one of the most controversial First Ladies. Despite having a few mutual friends, we did not meet until after her departure from office. It is unimaginable that the powerful Dame is quietly in this country, although she seems to have embarked on a strange ⁰mission in Bayelsa State by openly working against her Party. The lesson is, time is everything and nobody has absolute control of it. I hope she and others will learn from her experience.
I have gone through this long preamble to show my familiarity with First Ladies. We remember how some made their husbands while others marred theirs. A First Lady is never an accessory of a President but an integral part of the President. As the saying goes, “behind every successful man is a strong, powerful woman”. No President can be happy outside if he is unhappy at home. I think President Buhari started losing a lot of his esteem and popularity when he made that unfortunate statement that his wife belongs in the other room. He upset and antagonised a lot of women and their male supporters and admirers. A good leader must be good at public relations stunts. This was, to put it mildly, a public relations disaster and I am not sure the President has really recovered from it in the public estimation. It is not an act of valour or gallantry to put down your wife in public. Those who disrespected and continue to disrespect our First Lady did and do so because her husband dissed her first. I was always happy whenever I saw them and their children on the Presidential jet travelling abroad. They portrayed the vision of a happy, united and contented family.
The job of a President is too heavy and tedious and requires the support of your closest friends and family. Most hangers on will move on when it is all over and leave the leader to carry his cross alone. Those shouting Hosanna today will scream “crucify him” tomorrow. Lady Aisha’s only offence is her independent mindedness. Those profiting from her husband’s absenteeism and occasional derailments are behind the many difficulties she has faced in trying to be part of the government and give candid advice to her husband. Her detractors and enemies in the government realising her popularity and intelligence needed to separate her and her husband in order to have maximum grip on power. This she would not accept without a fight. It is the reason she has stridently cried for help and ensured that she airs her concerns in the public space.
The same way the Vice President is now being craftily set up to look so bad in the public eye, the First Lady’s own started in a jiffy. Nigeria is a special country where real time movies are staged permanently. Sometimes, I believe our Nollywood is child’s play compared to the reality drama and debacle that our politicians serve up on a daily basis. Thank God, Lady Aisha came back home speedily. Whatever led her to stay away and whatever made her to return, it is clear that she has been greatly missed. Those holding her husband hostage of sorts will now be uneasy. This certainly wasn’t the denouement they plotted. Another example of man proposing and God disposing. Like joke like joke, a wedding may truly happen, by fire by force, but that is immaterial for now. I must confess though that I have learnt not to take anything for granted or to dismiss anything as ludicrous in our country.
Now that she’s back, she should map out an action plan. Her enemies may have retreated, but they are likely to strike again. Those who eye power as they do will not relent merely on account of a simple setback. All she needs is to keep herself busy and pamper her husband more. One of the reasons I will forever love, and support Hilary Clinton is the way she stoutly stood by her man as he was buffeted and savaged by the Monica Lewinsky affair. She was rewarded many times over by this singular feat. Loyalty will always be repaid and both Hilary and Bill Clinton were the winners. I beseech Mrs Buhari to learn from such an experience. Only the President and the First Lady will benefit from such an approach. It will give instant headache, nay migraine to the stupefied foes. I’m happy about the synergy between Lady Aisha and wife of the Vice President, Lady Dolapo Osinbajo. That combination is lethal and they need each other.
Before their very eyes, the years will fly away at supersonic speed. Lady Aisha needs to worry about their Legacy. Walahi, Baba needs all the help he can get because the situation right now is dire, but there is nothing stopping him from achieving those heydays if he listens to the counsel of his obviously smart and cosmopolitan wife. When tomorrow comes, everyone will vamoose, but Lady Aisha and her children have nowhere to go. They must remain steadfast now! As Margaret Thatcher said on another occasion, “the Lady’s not for turning”!
Thank God she’s back to re-energise Baba. They will be in our thoughts and prayers as we all pray for their success and, by implication, our success.