TUESDAY WITH REUBENA BATI [email protected]
In the lead up to the May 29, 2019 Inauguration Day, after the general elections in Nigeria – the end of a four-year term (2015 – 2019) and the beginning of another cycle of four years – as constitutionally prescribed -certain notable developments have occurred in the last few days, involving places, events and personalities which require a quick review, lest they are overtaken by time or sheer serendipity.
I begin with the report that Aisha Buhari, the First Lady of Nigeria, the wife of President Muhammadu Buhari has come out openly to tell Nigerians that the Social Investment Programme (SIP) initiated by her husband’s administration is nothing but a scam. I have watched the video that is available online, and I am not aware that the First Lady of Nigeria has denied making the statements attributed to her. In summary, she raised questions about the management of the N500 billion set aside for the administration’s much-touted Social Investment Programme (SIP), which indeed the Buhari administration promoted as one of the flagship initiatives under the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) designed to bring government closer to the people, and to alleviate poverty.
Anchored majorly by the Office of the Vice President, the Buhari administration made a song and dance out of what is called TraderMoni and School Feeding Programme. We have seen Vice President Yemi Osinbajo talking about loans and grants of N10, 000 for owners of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises. We have also seen him in photos and videos, from one school to the other, eating from plates with young Nigerian students. The optics is good, the messaging strategy is smart: a humble Vice President, a government that cares and a government that helps the poor. Nigeria’s largest opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of course cried foul, alleging that the entire SIP package was a vote-buying scheme and that TraderMoni in particular amounted to illegal, extra-budgetary spending. The PDP was asked to shut up by the Buhari propaganda machinery.
However, if the PDP’s catcalls about the Social Investment Programme could be dismissed as partisan, Mrs. Aisha Buhari’s latest outburst cannot be so dismissed. At an interactive session with Nigerian women ahead of May 29, Mrs Buhari pointed out that she has never asked how the money is being used (Madam, that is not your call!). She then added: “I do not want to raise the alarm that my state does not benefit from it …” – (and that is Adamawa State), the state of the SGF and the wife of the President. We may well say that the First lady should not worry so much about her personal interest. But she is a Nigerian isn’t she? We all know the sentiments: “My husband will approve N500 billion for a project and my state, Adamawa will not benefit from it?” She then quickly corrected herself: “Maybe it worked in some states…In my own state, only a local government benefitted out of the 22. I didn’t ask what happened and I don’t want to know but it failed woefully in Kano, it’s not a good sign and it’s not a good thing…Most Northern women are not benefitting from it.”
At this point in the video posted on YouTube by Channels TV, the narrative gets even more interesting. Mrs Buhari says the method adopted in the South may not be the best suitable method for the North “because most Northern women do not belong to market associations”. She talked about the need to use a different method in the North but apparently her advice was ignored. She said: ‘the method may differ in the North, and to use different methods…Most of the Northern states did not get the money.”
The First Lady would also go on to complain about a certain $16 million approved for the purchase of mosquito nets. She is not too sure that the money has been properly spent. “I have heard about mosquito nets. Nigeria paid its counterpart fund, $16m. I asked them to give my own share of the net to send to my village people. I didn’t get it. They have spent $16m on buying mosquito nets. I did not get it, maybe some people have gotten it…”
These allegations and revelations by the wife of the President of Nigeria are serious indeed and should not be swept under the carpet. She is practically accusing the Vice President’s office of wrong-doing. Because funds are involved, the allegations are damning. She is not just defending the interest of her state and the entire North, the video even showed her calling up potential witnesses: “How many of you get it in your state? My state did not get it.?.” Coming shortly after the 2019 Presidential election, the wife of the President openly pointing accusing fingers at the Vice President’s office is an open indication that something may have gone wrong in Aso Rock. There may well be an on-going battle within the Presidency, the nature and depth of which we may not yet know. Coming to the surface, more or less on the eve of the Inauguration of President Buhari’s second term, we may be permitted to say that something is fishy.
This is a perfectly reasonable deduction considering the fact that Mrs. Aisha Buhari has a reputation for speaking her mind no matter whose ox is gored. Just before she threw the bombshell about the SIP and mosquito nets, she also reportedly posted a Julius Malema (EFF leader, South Africa) video on twitter warning about the menace of “bad advisers”, which has been interpreted to mean that her husband, President Buhari should stay away from bad advisers and those who turn Presidents into “prisoners.” Before now, she had complained that her husband’s government had been hijacked by “a few persons”. She and her daughter, also once protested publicly about the mismanagement of the State House Clinic. I wrote once in the face of all that, about what I thought was an unusual development: the spectacle of a wife of the President as a whistle-blower.
I suggested that Mrs Buhari was breaking every known norm and convention about the position she occupies. Before her, every Nigerian First lady either supported their husbands (Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi, Victoria Gowon, Ajoke Muhammed, Stella Obasanjo, Maryam Babangida, Maryam Abacha, Turai Yar’Adua, Patience Jonathan), or they were unknown (Tafawa Balewa’s wife, Shagari’s wife) or they just faced their own careers (Chief Shonekan’s wife, Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar’s wife). I argued further that the doctrine of the unity of spouse requires Mrs Buhari to support the President at all times. As I see it, today, however, Mrs. Aisha Buhari falls into the category of Presidential wives who are interested in power and are determined to get involved. She once threatened that if her husband went beyond a first term in office, she would not campaign for him. She ate her words on that score. She campaigned for him. She clearly loves power and the glamour of it, and she clearly wants more. Where is Chinweizu, please? Anatomy of female power?
President Buhari once told Chancellor Angela Merkel (of Germany, not West Germany!!!), in a historic faux pas, that his wife’s place, that is Aisha Buhari’s place, is in the “sitting room, the kitchen and the other room”. Aisha Buhari is making it clear that she is nobody’s slave. She is showing a determination to assert her stake in the Nigerian power game. She is up against “bad advisers” and those who mismanage resources. Will she prepare a petition against those who have mismanaged the SIP and the mosquito nets? Or is she just sending a signal that this time around, this second term of her husband’s Presidency, she is not prepared to take nonsense from anybody, including the Vice President’s office? It will be useful to watch “the other room” politics of Aso Rock closely beginning from tomorrow. It was, partly, yes, partly, the battle of the wives and of “the other room” that catalyzed the crisis of the Western region in the 60s, but that is beyond the purview of this present commentary.
What we know is that the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Social Investment, Mrs Maryam Uwais, who is directly in charge of the SIP, has replied Mrs Buhari. I was amused watching Mrs Uwais saying “…if she were to check on our data…” Imagine that tone. A Senior Special Assistant to the President working with the Vice President publicly dismissing the wife of the President as uninformed and ignorant. She then delivered the killer-punch – out of the 4.2 million Adamawa state indigenes, 290, 000 – 300, 000 beneficiaries from 12 Local Government Areas have benefitted from loans and cash transfers under the SIP. Maryam Uwais didn’t pull the punches. But what the heck? She is a successful lawyer and a well-known social activist, and the wife of a former Chief Justice of Nigeria. She sounds like: “Aisha, what the hell are you talking about? What do you know about SIP? And mosquito nets? What do you know? Because you are Buhari’s wife?”
I don’t want to get into the battle of the women of Aso Rock under President Buhari, his wife who is probably for all we know reporting pillow talk, Mrs Uwais who is probably speaking as a proxy for the Osinbajos and Mrs Osinbajo who would not dare raise her voice because she doesn’t want trouble for her husband. But I am amused that a staff of the President would have the audacity to challenge the President’s wife and accuse her of ignorance. No staff, I repeat, no staff, could ever have tried that with some of Mrs Buhari’s predecessors. By now, Mrs Uwais’s Villa pass would have been withdrawn with strict instructions that she must never be seen anywhere near the perimeter fence of that seat of power. There would also have been drama “in the other room” to remind the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of where real and sustainable power lies in Nigeria.
This columnist respects other people’s privacy, so in keeping with that principle, let me not thrust my pen into the President’s other room, but I am of the firm belief that we have not yet seen the end of Aisha Buhari’s politics. We intend to take her seriously as she issues commands and comments. She says: “Can you please monitor the money? The Ministers are going very soon and the money is being released” (money for the anti-drug committee and treatment of trauma cases). She also wants the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to refund money to female aspirants who bought nomination forms for the 2019 elections. Hello oh: Aisha-Buhari-is-not-joking!
As the President takes the oath of office on May 29, 2019, we can be certain to see her by his side keeping an eye on him and the future. The Nigerian Constitution does not recognize the wives of elected persons but our constitutional democracy does not consider being married a crime either. In a sense, May 29 is a special day for the families of those who will be taking the oath of office tomorrow. I was at an event on Monday where I introduced myself as a failed Deputy Governorship candidate. Every one laughed but I knew what I was saying. If our party had won, I would have been somewhere in my state double-checking clothes and attending to visitors and well-wishers, preparing to wear the best smile for D-Day. Someone suggested, in consolation, that in Nigeria, losing an election is a good item for the CV, and that a day may well come when defeated political aspirants may be given chieftaincy titles and national honours. I believe: Anything is possible in Nigeria! So whatever may be the difficult situation in which we have found ourselves, we should congratulate all the persons who will be sworn in tomorrow as Governors and Deputy Governors across the country, and that includes Zamfara State where power has descended on candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) like manna from Heaven at the eleventh hour, courtesy of the apex court and the G8-APC.
Tomorrow is a day for winners. It is also a day for losers. Many who have lost power and influence, whose parties have been asked to leave, those who have literally come to the end of the road because they lost, would be very lonely indeed. I have been through that path before. In 2015, immediately after power was won and lost, Aso Villa became ghost town. Those who used to hustle to see the President kept their distance. We watched painfully as power slipped and influence ebbed away. I ran into one of those businessmen who used to hang around the Villa and asked him if he was going to see the President. He told me he was not there to see…which President? I was terrified. “My brother, wake up”, he told me, “I am a businessman. We businessmen don’t have friends. I come here to do business. If your oga can give power away, he is on his own. We will do business with the next man.” Indeed, that was exactly what happened. Many of the people who would book private jets to Abuja tomorrow to celebrate with the Buharis will be there, not because they like President Buhari, but because they are just doing business. If Vice President Atiku Abubakar had won, the same persons will be there too, grinning for ear to ear, breaking fast, doing business. The story will be the same in the states. Everyone, doing business, with the people’s lives.
Those who can tell how it is are the losers whose phones by now would have stopped ringing. Once you lose power in Nigeria, you become very lonely. The bell at your doorstep will go silent. Mrs. Aisha Buhari, complaining about the Social Investment Programme and the cost of mosquito nets is probably not as ignorant as we have been told. She probably knows that everyone around her husband just wants to do business. That is the sad part of the Nigerian story.