Since the return to democratic governance in 1999, Nigeria has had four first ladies who gave ample support to their husbands as presidents of the country.
From May 29, 1999, Stella Obasanjo held sway as the country’s first lady before her death on October 23, 2005. It was the turn of Turai Yar’Adua between May 29, 2007, and February 9, 2010. Patience Jonathan came into the saddle from February 2010 and completed her tenure as the first lady on May 29, 2015, when her husband, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, lost in the presidential election.
Although Aisha, the wife of President Muhammadu Buhari, rejected the title of First Lady, she acts as one, making her the fourth since 1999. Out of these four first ladies, whose tenures have been marred by controversies, the one that Nigerians are currently grappling with is Patience Jonathan, the wife of former President Jonathan.
Patience Jonathan arguably remains the most controversial first lady owing to her perceived lack of sophistication and bluntness. She kept Nigerians entertained for many years with her assent and blunders and became the crooner of “There is God o,” a clause that has become the butt of jokes on social media.
Mama Peace, as she is fondly called by her admirers, wielded significant influence in the former Peoples Democratic Party-led Federal Government. Her influence traversed the length and breadth of Aso Rock to her home state, Rivers, where she assumed a ‘godmother’ role, giving immense support to the election of Governor Nyesom Wike.
It will be recalled that the 59-year-old locked horns with the former Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, in a battle of supremacy over the political structure of the state. Two years ago, she took on Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, over his comments on the political crisis in Rivers State. Patience said Soyinka had become an embarrassment to his admirers with his diatribe against her.
Mrs. Jonathan attended the University of Port Harcourt, where she obtained a B.Ed in Biology and Psychology; she was an employee of the Bayelsa State Ministry of Education until 1999 when her husband became the deputy governor of the state.
One of the landmarks of her tenure as the first lady was on July 12, 2012, when she was appointed as a permanent secretary in Bayelsa State by Governor Seriake Dickson. The appointment sparked outrage because she had been on leave from the civil service for over 13 years since her husband became the deputy governor in 1999.
After the defeat of her husband in the 2015 presidential election, she maintained a quiet posture, making a few public appearances and refusing to make public comments, unlike before. But last week, the former first lady made a dramatic comeback into public discourse when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission traced $20m to her Skye Bank account.
The discovery of the funds was a product of investigations into a money laundering case against a former Special Adviser on Domestic Affairs to ex-President Jonathan, Waripamowei Dudafa, to whom the EFCC had traced four company accounts which were frozen.
A houseboy, driver and other domestic workers of Dudafa were named as directors, but Patience’s $15m was lodged in the accounts.
She was reportedly given a special card with which she reportedly made withdrawals from the accounts across the world.
Outrage greeted the news that Patience had such an amount of money, which analysts claimed she could not make in all her civil service career. Many civil society organisations, human rights lawyers and anti-corruption groups such as the Coalition against Corrupt Leaders, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, and Professor Itse Sagay (SAN), have since called for a further probe of the former first lady over her recent confessions and the huge funds stashed in her accounts.
But in a swift reaction, Patience Jonathan said she was using the $15m, which was frozen in the four companies’ accounts, to settle medical bills while she was out of the country.
Patience said this in a letter written by her lawyers, Granville Abibo (SAN) and Co, which was addressed to the acting Chairman of the EFCC, Mr. Ibrahim Magu.
Observers, who had expected that she would deny a link to the funds, were surprised when she laid claim to the funds and urged the EFCC and Skye Bank to lift the restriction on the accounts.
The reappearance of Patience Jonathan in public discourse reopened debates on the abuse of the office of the first lady, which had generated concern in the country. A comparative study of Nigeria’s first ladies has become a salutary reminder of the dangers of corruption, Nigeria’s failing health system fuelling medical tourism, and bad leadership in general.
While some critics consider the late Stella Obasanjo as the most refined of the four first ladies, the circumstances surrounding her death on October 23, 2005, put a question mark on the country’s health system.
It will be recalled that Stella died a few weeks before her 60th birthday from complications due to a cosmetic surgery which she underwent at a private health clinic in Puerto Banús, Marbella, Spain. Like Stella, Patience Jonathan and other past first ladies have also made foreign medical trips to the chagrin of Nigerians. Patience Jonathan’s bluntness that $15m was for her medical bill has become the subject of anger and raging debate on social media.
During the tenure of the now deceased former President Umaru Yar’Adua, his wife, Turai, rarely made public comments. One of the controversies that rocked the tenure of Turai, however, was the allegation that she made most of the decisions for her husband. Although ex-President Yar’Adua denied this, Turai’s insistence that former President Jonathan should not be sworn in as acting President when her husband was hospitalised abroad, made her a subject of criticism.
Aisha Buhari received public commendation when her husband reportedly rejected the office of the first lady but her alleged ostentatious lifestyle contrasts sharply with the modest lifestyle of her husband, President Buhari.
She has also been operating from the Office of the First Lady located inside the Presidential Villa in Abuja. Recent reports also showed that nothing had changed about the fact that she rejected the title of the first lady. Aisha Buhari, like her predecessor, has personal aides, security details and protocol officers, among other paraphernalia of public office.
Critics of the All Progressives Congress-led Federal Government did not take her recent altercation with Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State lightly.
In terms of public appearance and popularity, Patience Jonathan, however, stands out. The latest revelation by the EFCC about the funds found in her accounts is the subject of a raging debate on the conduct of Nigeria’s first ladies and whether they deserve the largese of their offices.
While reacting to the abuse of the office of the first lady in Nigeria, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Jonah Onuoha, said it was unfortunate that some first ladies had fallen short of public expectation.
Comparing the behaviour of Nigeria’s first ladies with their counterparts abroad, Onuoha urged Nigeria to borrow a leaf from developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom in conduct, speech and appearance.
The don described the office of the first lady as a constitutional aberration, adding that it had become an opportunity to siphon public funds.
He said, “The duty of the wife of the president is to support her husband. The office of the first lady in Nigeria is an aberration. During the tenure of the late President Yar’Adua, many people didn’t really know much about his wife, Turai. Also, President Buhari’s wife, Aisha, has been able to comport herself well. Patience Jonathan seems to be the worst we have had owing to her behaviour. My advice is that these women should realise their roles is to support their husbands and not to disgrace them.”
Also reacting to the matter, a political scientist at the University of Ibadan, Dr. Idowu Johnson, said there was nothing wrong in the office of the first lady but that since it had become an avenue for corruption, it should be scrapped through an enabling act of parliament.
Johnson noted that the military government of the maximum ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, “popularised” the corruption of the office of the first lady.
“Aguiyi Ironsi was a Head of State; people barely knew his wife. Victoria Gowon was a nurse and during her husband’s tenure, she only performed the function of attending to children. It was the military government of Ibrahim Babangida that popularised the corruption in the office of the first lady. Since then, with the recession in the 1980s, they used the office of the first lady to siphon public funds, enrich themselves and their families through irrelevant programmes.
“Since it is not a constitutional provision, it should be scrapped. The National Assembly should pass a law that the office is irrelevant. The Minister of Women Affairs or the special advisers to the President should be designated to handle anything relating to women. Let the wife of the president take care of her children and president,” he told SUNDAY PUNCH.
Reacting to Mrs. Jonathan’s defence that the money traced to her account was for her medical bills, a former Secretary of the Yoruba Unity Forum, Femi Okurounmu, described her defence as unacceptable.
According to him, medical trips by Nigerian leaders abroad has become an embarrassment to the country, adding that the $15m stashed in Patience Jonathan could be used to establish hospitals in Nigeria.
Okurounmu said the calls for her prosecution was in the right direction but noted that the probe should be extended to other first ladies.
He said, “I think the other first ladies should be probed since they held the office of the first lady. If they are proven guilty, they should be made to face the law. The investigation and prosecution should not be limited to Patience Jonathan alone. Going abroad for medical treatment is a disgrace to our country.”