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By: Onike Rahaman  
 Published  August 16th, 2012

As the National Assembly begins constitutional amendment process, the call for more definite roles in the constitution for the first ladies becomes a subject of public discourse. The ceaseless debate over whether or not the first ladies be assigned constitutional roles does not begin now, it has become recurrent national issue.

Despite the fact that the idea of First lady-ism is a constitutional aberration, it has long been adapted and introduced into the nation’s political system by most successive administrations. There is no doubt that the personality and the style of Dame Patience Jonathan, the wife of the current Nigerian President have generated renewed interest in the position of First Lady both in the governance process and the polity generally.

From the past experiences, the first ladies undeniably play highly influential supportive roles that can not be simply wished away even though the office is alien to the nation’s constitution. We can thus agree that first ladies one way or the other exert tremendous influence by virtue of their husbands’ offices.

The present First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan in her contribution to the ongoing debate on the proposed constitutional amendment has advocated that the role of First Lady be enshrined in the constitution so that they can receive retirement benefits like their husbands and enjoy their careers. It seems Dame Patience Jonathan lacked clear understanding of the semantic import of the word career in the situational context. Without missing words, neither the presidency nor the First Lady roles are careers. It is my considered opinion that career is a long-term or life long job.

Of equal importance is the recommendation of the presidential committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution under the eminent chairmanship of former Justice of Nigeria, Justice Alfa Madibbo Belgore that the office of the First Lady be abolished at all levels of government. The Committee in its report which it has since submitted to President Goodluck Jonathan has also noted that the office of First Lady does not operate under any legal framework and the operation (both in kind and cash) of such offices at all levels be discouraged and abolished forthwith.

If the First Ladies think they could not confine themselves to taking care of the home front and completely distance themselves from the affairs of state, their initiatives and private projects should henceforth not be funded with the tax payers money.

In more developed countries, first ladies are allowed to play supportive roles without necessarily constituting any form of financial burden on the nation. In essence, First Ladies can make impact and contribute to national development without their roles necessarily enshrined in the constitution.

Given the American experiences, the First Ladies were never excluded from state governance but their roles were advisory and supportive. The sources of the project finance by United States First Ladies are usually devoid of public suspicion unlike ours where private initiatives of the First Ladies are funded from public treasury. Without doubts, most initiatives in which Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton were involved as United States private First Ladies at different times in American history were well thought out and designed to add value to the society.

Contrarily, the Nigerian First Ladies are known for extravagance and they often wield greater power and influence than the serving ministers. A good example in mind was the summit of African First Ladies recently held in Abuja where over 200 brand new vehicles were hired for the event. Even with the government explanation that the vehicles would be returned to the company from which they were leased, the action was largely condemned by the vast majority of Nigerians as a form of national waste.

Again, the ongoing face-off between the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan and her predecessor Hajia Turai Yar’Adua over a choice land allocation in Abuja, the land meant to be used for their enduring legacy projects has culminated into litigation. Whoever wins the media propagandas war or court litigation between the First Ladies, both of them in the eye of public are parasites eating deep into the fabric of the nation.

Of course, it can be seen already that the office of the First Lady even without constitutional empowerment has power and influence considering the circumstance under which the disputed Abuja land between Turai and Dame was revoked. In my own view, the issue is not about who wins and who loses in the court but it is more or less a shame on the nation and show the nature of power play at the presidency.

While acknowledging the successes Dame Patience Jonathan had made as the current leader of African First Ladies Peace Mission, financial recklessness associated with her leadership roles calls for serious national concern.

From all indications, Nigerians are tired of First Lady Initiatives which are being financed for ego trips with little or no public value. It is disheartening that most African First Ladies are guilty of exploiting their proximity to power to enrich their family, friends and close associates. Indeed, the office has constantly been an object of gross abuse.

It is also worthy of note, the underlying malady of blazing sirens and moving with rampaging convoys even when going for shopping; this had indeed fuelled the discontent against First Lady-ism. And the odds usually faced by commuters or better still the traffic chaos associated with unofficial movement of First Ladies has really contributed to the opposition against the call for the constitutional roles for the office of the First Ladies.

Above all, the office of the First Lady has its social relevance but lacks the legal framework to reposition and justify its existence within the constitutional order.

Onike Rahaman
Academic Planning Unit
Oyo State College of Agriculture, P.M.B. 10, Igboora

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