12 Mar 2015

A Word For President Jonathan And His Wife - by Niran Adedokun

In the course of the past five years, Dame Patience Jonathan has transformed from the unheard, supporting wife of a former vice-president, into possibly the most talked about wife of any Nigerian leader in history. You may like her, or dislike her, but it has become impossible to ignore this Okrika, Rivers State born “mother of the nation.”

In some sense, I admire Mama Peace. To begin with, I find her to be a woman who is at home in her own skin. There are no pretences about Mama Peace as her admirers call her. But for the heavy, expensive organza laces and jewellery that may have come into her wardrobe, I am tempted to assume that not much has changed about this woman since her husband became President five years ago.

When you accuse her of deficiency in the accurate usage of the English language, she joins Afro Juju maestro, Sir Shina Peters, in reminding you that “grammar no be money, grammar no be success… grammar no be my language.” She speaks what comes to her mind, when it comes and how it comes, not minding the headache that grammarians could suffer from her generous verbiage. The First Lady talks her walk and walks her talk, without regard to whose ox is gored.

Devoid of the hypocrisy of Intellectualism which makes a lot of us pretend, Mrs Jonathan soldiers on, unperturbed, not discouraged, not allowing the ball to drop in spite of how much we have ridiculed and mocked her. She seems to have concluded in her mind that the joke is on the majority of us, as she goes on proving to us to be a better mobiliser of men than the husband on whose ticket she has the privilege of our attention.

A corollary to this down-to-earth nature is the power that the Dame wields. Now, I do not mean power over her husband, although that would not be far-fetched, after all every woman has a measure of leverage over her spouse. But I will return to that issue in a bit.

So this lady is powerful. While lovers of sophisticated speech grumble and complain about how she brings ridicule to them and the country that they love, the Dame is busy at ministering to those who hear her, to a constituency too glad to see a president’s wife who is able to come down to their level, sing their songs and dance to their type of music. As a result, this First Lady has formed a band of loyalists who understands her language and would do anything to ensure that the woman who communicates with them retains office for another four years by electing her husband when the time comes.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss this theory as the ranting of a naïve writer, but truth be told, within the seemingly endless banality of the offerings of the President’s wife, hides a formidable communication tool, which resonates with the ordinary woman, the woman who represents those who go to the voting field while we are pontificating in our living rooms on the utopian state that we desire.

But with the benefit of hindsight, Nigerians’ disgust and impatience with First Ladies did not start today. Since the late Mrs. Maryam Babangida gave life to the position in the late 1980s, there has been one reason or the other to get at every incumbent President’s wife.

For example, people felt that Maryam Babangida controlled her husband, in addition to being too flamboyant. Mrs Mariam Abacha was disparaged for being the power being the throne. Justice Fati Abubakar escaped public scrutiny because she kept herself busy in the courts without much time to court at the Aso Rock Villa.

The late Mrs Stella Obasanjo was too flamboyant and overbearing, some will say, for the appetite of many of us while Hajia Turai Yar’Adua controlled not just her husband but was alleged to have held the nation to ransom during her husband’s illness and eventual transition. And now, Patience Jonathan! In essence, no Nigerian First Lady has passed through that duty without one infraction or the other being held against her at least during the pendency of the office.

Although we make the perceived excesses of First Ladies appear exclusively Nigerian, this is not necessarily so. For decades, wives of American presidents have displayed a variety of these traits that upset us.

For instance, it is said that former President Bill Clinton would possibly have never made it to office but for his wife, Hillary, who had predicted 20 years earlier that her husband would one day rule America and then helped work his way up to it.

When her husband eventually became president, Mrs Clinton directed state policy and was put on the head of the Task Force on National Health Care reform even as she espoused a number of key legislation. She was the first president’s wife who operated from the West Wing instead of the customary East Wing. She also went on to contribute substantially to some foreign policy thrusts of the US including the appointment of Madeleine Albright as the first female Secretary of State.

But American first ladies started the gradual process of holding their own years before Hillary Clinton. Sarah Polk who was First Lady from 1845 to 1849 was said to have assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters and played an active role in his campaign even as she reached across party lines. Edith Wilson who is cheekily referred to by some people as America’s first female president was reputed to have taken control of states’ affairs, deciding what came to the notice of her husband and what did not when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first spouse of a president to hold press conferences, write a syndicated newspaper column, and speak at a national convention.

On her part, Rosalyn Carter sat on the cabinet and policy meetings and was one of her husband, Jimmy Carter’s closest advisers. She was even named as an envoy at some point!

Laura Bush was noted to have broached controversial issues like gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion. She was also in the forefront of the fight for the enforcement of the rights of women in Afghanistan among others.

From the American experience therefore, it is obvious that the sphere of influence of each First Lady is related to the value that the husband places on her. And that brings me to the question of what value President Jonathan places on his wife.

Unlike current American First Lady, Michelle Obama, who is a fashion icon in addition to her work on healthy eating and kid exercising, Patience in spite of her expensive wardrobe has not made any remark fashion statement neither has she made much out of her peace for Africa initiative.

And as preparations for the next elections heat up, it is obvious that President Jonathan desires to put his wife’s political mobliisation skills to use. And I do not see anything conventionally wrong with this as it is allowed even in the best of democratic traditions. Some political historians in the United States indeed agree that “a spouse can make an impassioned and defensive attack on a political rival or the media with less controversy because it is seen as the emotional prerogative of a spouse to do so” Something that the Jonathans or their handlers may have studied.

However, a First Lady who wants the respect and seeks the survival of a country must gauge her speech and work towards protecting the values of that society. Lately, Nigeria’s First Lady has thrown caution to the winds on more than one occasion. She has uttered statements that have at different times seemed to suggest violence, denigrated other parts of the country and directly insulted the person of her husband’s main rival in the forthcoming election.

It is alright for Mrs. Jonathan to work for the return of her husband to office, there is however the need for more tact and decorum in her outings. No matter how tough the campaigns get, there are things that must not be heard from either the President or his wife as they will send negative signals to supporters on either side. It is time for the man and lady of the moment to apply some caution for their own sake and the sake of the nation.

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