Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Nigerian First Ladies and their Pet Projects

First ladyship has its origin in the United States of America. According to history, it originated in 1849 when US President Zachary Taylor called Dolley Madison ‘First Lady’ at her funeral while reciting her eulogy.  However, it was said to have gained wider recognition in 1877 when Mary C. Amees wrote an article in the New York City newspaper, The Independent describing the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. She was quoted as having used the term to describe his wife, Lucy Webb Hayes. The term is now used all over the world to describe the wife of president or Head of State. In Nigeria, apart from using it to designate President’s wives, it is also used for wives of governors and those of Local Government chairmen.

Much was not heard of this term in Nigeria until the administration of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (Retd.) came to power in 1985. Hitherto, wives of former Prime Minister and Heads of State just play ceremonial role of hosting dignitaries; both local and foreign to dinners and chatting with their wives while the husbands hold formal meetings. However, Mrs. Maryam Babangida changed all of that by establishing Better Life Programme for Rural Women as her pet project. BLPRW was officially launched on September 18, 1987.   By the time her husband stepped aside in 1993, she had made so much impact among Nigerian women particularly the rural folks.

According to a former Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Dr (Mrs.) Hajo Sani in her book: “First Ladyship and Empowerment Programmes in Nigeria”, “The activities of Maryam Babangida with the introduction of BLPRW turned the traditionally ceremonial post  of First Lady into a potent force for women’s rural development in Nigeria. The programme sought to empower women’s social, economic and political status in many areas.” At the end of November 1993, BLPRW had facilitated the establishment of 9,492 cooperatives, 1,435 cottage industries, 1,784 new farms and gardens, 495 new shops and markets, 1,094 multipurpose women’s centres, 135 fish and livestock farms and 163 social welfare programmmes.  It was also during the era of Mrs. Babangida’s BLPRW that the National Centre for Women Development was built in Abuja. It was commissioned on October 17, 1992.

After Maryam Babangida came Mrs. Maryam Abacha. She also launched her pet project, Family Support Programme and an offshoot known as Family Economic Advancement Programme. In 1995, Mrs. Abacha through her FSP was able to influence the upgrade of National Commission for Women into a full-fledged Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. Maryam Abacha also launched Family Support Trust Fund in 1994. Through the monies realized from this Fund, Mrs. Abacha built National Women and Children Hospital in Abuja. This hospital was commissioned on May 22, 1999 by the administration of General Abdulsalami Abubakar and was renamed National Hospital in 2000.

In 1999 when Abdulsalami Abubakar assumed office after the demise of Gen. Sani Abacha, his wife Hon. Justice Fati Abubakar established a Non-Governmental Organisation known as Women’s Right Advancement and Protection Alternative. WRAPA as the organization is better known was set up for “…advocacy, mobilization, promotion and protection of women’s rights; the elimination of all forms of repugnant practices as well as violence against women and the enhancement of their living standards.” On return to civil rule in 1999, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo also set up her own project known as Child Care Trust. CCT was established to care for physically and mentally challenged children. One of the major achievements of CCT was the establishment of a Special Children Model Centre in Bwari, Abuja.  The centre was built at an estimated cost of N600m. Mrs. Titi Abubakar, wife of ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar, also started a pet project known as Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation while her husband was in office. She was able to advocate against child and women trafficking through WOTCLEF. She also was able to integrate some of the affected women back into normal life.

By the time former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua assumed power in 2007, his wife Turai also toed the line of previous First Ladies by setting up Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation.  WAYEF health sector interventions are in five broad categories. They are: The VISION project aimed at reducing cataract and childhood blindness; Maternal and New Born Health Improvement Programme; Screening programme for breast and cervical cancer; HIV/AIDS and STDs intervention programme and Diabetes awareness and education programme. WAYEF also embarked on interventions in the area of poverty reduction, drug abuse and lifelong education. Turai’s WAYEF rehabilitated Katsina’s Vesico Vaginal Vistula Centre, donated grinding machines and a bus  to Yangoji Leprosy Village in Kwaili Area of the Federal Capital Territory and equipped Suleja Prison workshop with working tools to make inmates skillful and self-reliant after serving their jail terms.

Dame Patience Jonathan started her pet project while she was in Bayelsa as wife of Governor of the state. Her NGO then was known as A. Areuera Reachout Foundation. It was established in 2006. The foundation was said to have provided training for over 2,000 women in catering, hat making, beads making, sewing and making of plantain and beans flour. Hajo Sani in her above cited book said “The pet project has taken up the challenge of providing medical support and assistance to people with heart conditions, empowering the youths and women to overcome challenges through skills acquisition and development for productivity and wealth creation as well as rehabilitation of female ex-convicts especially in the Niger Delta. Also the foundation extended its mission of reaching out to the elderly with gift items, such as foodstuffs and provision of drugs.” When her husband became the president of Nigeria at the death of President Yar’Adua, Mrs. Jonathan launched another pet project known as Women for Change Initiative.

So much for wives of presidents. It is noteworthy that at the state level, wives of governors who are first ladies in their states have also been launching different pet projects in the states. I recall that the wife of former governor of Edo State, Mrs. Eki Igbinedion launched Idia Renaissance, an NGO working through research, education and enlightenment towards the restoration of the dignity of women, youths and children in Nigeria.  The foundation was established to combat the disturbing scourge of human trafficking, prostitution, maternal mortality, drug abuse, cultism, youth restiveness, HIV/AIDS and other social and health problems prevalent especially among children, youths and women in the society. Likewise the wife of former Oyo State Governor Mrs. Mutiat Ladoja launched Idera De foundation. Wife of former Lagos governor now a serving Senator, Mrs. Oluremi Tinubu established New Era Foundation under which Spelling Bee competition were held annually across the state with the overall winner becoming a  one day governor of the state. At present, Mrs. Foluso Amosun has set up various initiatives ranging from getting children to be involved in the protection of their environment through tree planting to helping persons with disability with business starter packs for economic empowerment and support to the aged.

A critical look at the various pet projects of first ladies both at the state and national levels will reveal that the interventions are in six major areas. These are: Economic empowerment; Educational empowerment; Skills acquisition; Political empowerment; Health and Social welfare and Social justice for women. In fairness to these amazons, their pet projects, as highlighted above, have made a lot of impacts in the society especially in bettering the lives of women and children. However, the major challenge they face is lack of continuity immediately the tenure of their husbands end. Even for those who registered theirs as NGO they also face funding challenge once their husband is out of power. Many of the government contractors and political appointees who willingly dole out money to support their initiatives turn their back once they know that ‘oga and madam’ no longer wield influence in government. Many of these pet projects also lack professional staff to drive them as appointees are mostly cronies of madam first lady who may not have what it takes to run NGOs successfully.  Another minus to these pet projects is lack of accountability and transparency in their finances. When fund-raisers are held, the public don’t get to know how much was donated and by whom. There is no gainsaying that state and administrative resources are deployed illegally to the Office of the First Lady by their husbands.
Whether we like it or not, the institution of First Lady has become part and parcel of our national life. I hereby suggest amendment to the constitution for proper recognition and assignment of role to this Office. That way, their activities can be subjected to public scrutiny. Better still, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if first ladies are made Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development at the federal level or Commissioner for Women Affairs at the State level. Why? Because that will enhance their interest which is to better the lot of women and children.