The official status of the office of the wife of president in Nigeria has been a subject of controversy over the years. Observers posit that none of the country’s constitutions since independence in 1960 has created or recognised the office of the First Lady as a formal governmental institution. Political pundits, however, insist that in spite of this, successive administrations have recognised the office.
The recommendations for the scrapping of the First Lady offices at all levels of government by the Justice Alfa Belgore’s Presidential Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution also generated controversies among Nigerians.
Observers note that the controversies, perhaps, motivated President Muhammadu Buhari to refrain from giving recognition to office of the first lady.
They recall that Buhari told journalists in Kaduna before his election on March 28 that “there is no office of the first lady in the Nigerian constitution’’ and as such no official role for presidents’ wives. According to him, there are ministries which are constitutional like the Ministry of Women Affairs and it should be allowed to promote women’s roles in governance.
He, however, assured Nigerians that in spite of this, women would play important roles in his administration because he knew what women could do if given the opportunity. “I was raised by my mother, as I lost my father when I was under six years, so I know what a woman can do if given the chance,’’ Buhari said. He explained that although he had respect for women, the provisions of the country’s constitution must be respected.
However, Buhari’s wife, Mrs Aisha Muhammadu Buhari had expressed support for her husband’s position. She opined that the president would not meddle with the office of the office if it was constitutionally recognised. According to her, where such does not exist constitutionally, she will limit her roles to the traditional functions of visiting orphanages and caring for society’s down-trodden as the first lady.
“My husband as the president of this country will rule the country within the rule of law based on the constitution of the country. “If the office of the first lady is constitutionally recognised, he will not tamper with it, but if it is not, that’s okay,’’ she said. Aisha, the wife of the president, as she would prefer to be called, said that she would perform her duties as the president’s wife.
“Wives of presidents have some traditional roles, such as receiving guests, visiting orphanages, helping the less privileged people. “They also lead in the fight for the right of women and malnourished children, infant mortality rate, kidnapping and girl-child trafficking,’’ she said.
She, however, explained that not being addressed as “First Lady’’ would not stop her from performing her duties and roles as the wife of the president. Explaining what should be the roles of women in governance, especially the wives of leaders, Mrs Oludolapo Osinbajo, the wife of vice-president, stressed the need to “encourage other women so that we all can be mothers of Nigeria.
“Mothers heal, comfort, nurture, provide and sacrifice. We have this virtue in us and by the grace of God; we will be given the opportunity to express who we are as women. “We are the ones who set the standard in the family and we decide whether our children will be honest or dishonest.
“We have this opportunity to effect change, not only to change the things that are happening in this nation, we have the opportunity to change ourselves.’’ Corroborating the opinion of Mrs Buhari, various professional women groups, including those in the Diaspora, solicit specific roles for the wife of the president.
According to them, playing specific roles by the wife of the president and wives of state governors will validate the popular adage that behind every successful man, there is a wise woman behind him. They stress the need to encourage Mrs Buhari to embark on tangible humanitarian programmes, especially in the rural areas as part of efforts to empower more rural women.
Ms Jenny Okafor, the President of Nigerian Women in Diaspora Leadership Forum in United Kingdom, noted that Buhari’s wife had the ability to play the role of the mother of the nation in view of her academic background. “I believe that she will do well by concentrating on women empowerment, especially in the northern part of the country.
“My advice to Mrs Buhari is to concentrate in designing adult education programmes for women and girls in disadvantaged states in the country. “The girl-child education issue in the northern part of the country should also be her top priority as the wife of the president. “The phenomenon of early-child marriage and the need to involve more women in leadership after due consultations with her husband is also a necessity,’’ she said.
Irrespective of Mrs Buhari’s insistence to be called the wife of the president, observers note that many wives of state governors still prefer to be called first ladies. Whether or not the wives of political leaders should bear the title of first lady, concerned citizens insist that the wife of the president and the wives of state governors should be encouraged to play their roles without contravening the constitution.