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By: Emmanuel Yawe  
 Published  June 26th, 2012

In 1787, the French Revolution broke out. As the mob roamed the streets of Paris menacingly, a rumour started spreading about the Queen, Marie Antoinette.

According to it, the Queen was woken up from her siesta by the commotion and she asked one of her servants what the noise was all about. Upon hearing that the commoners were revolting because the high cost of bread, she retorted that the commoners should have made do with cakes!

Nobody could swear that he heard this strange callous conversation but the rumour spread like wide fire. Her husband, Louis XV1 was executed on 21 January 1793, partly on the strength of the unconfirmed indiscretion of his wife. The former queen was plunged into deep mourning. She refused to eat or do any exercise and her health rapidly deteriorated in the following months leading to tuberculosis and uterine cancer.

Despite her condition, she was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October. Unlike the king, who had been given time to prepare a defence, the queen's trial was far more of a sham. She was given less than one day to defend herself. She was accused of orchestrating orgies in Versailles, sending millions of livres of treasury money to Austria, plotting to kill the Duke of Orléans, and incest with her son, declaring her son to be the new king of France, and orchestrating the massacre of the Swiss Guards in 1792.

The accusations were untrue but the outcome of the trial was decided by the Committee of Public Safety after two days of proceedings. On the same day, she was driven through Paris in an open cart, wearing a simple white dress. At 12:15 p.m., she was beheaded!

Nearer home in Nigeria and not too long ago, a Nigerian first lady was subjected to a similar but not so tragic public ridicule on the basis of unconfirmed rumour. In the wake of the hardship brought to Nigerians after the introduction of Structural Adjustment Program by President Babangida, a rumour emerged about his wife Mariam having unlimited wealth with assets all over the world. Nobody could confirm the veracity of this rumour. Tai Solarin, the self proclaimed ‘social critic’ – whatever that means – issued a pamphlet claiming that an edition of Ebony Magazine which he claimed falsely was impounded by the Nigerian government had published the story.

Arrested and confronted on National Television with the said edition of the Magazine, the man went blank! But a lot of damage had been done to the image of the lady, her family, the government with a lot of properties destroyed by rioters on the basis of palpable falsehood.

Last week, a Dana aircraft crashed in Lagos killing all passengers and crew on board as well as some people on ground. Soon controversy broke out over the alleged closure of the nation’s airspace for a Presidential jet carrying the wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, Patience, to land in Lagos on Sunday.

The closure was said to have prevented the pilot of the distressed Dana Air’s plane from making an emergency landing at the airport. Reports circulated through Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger claimed that although the Dana plane had an engine failure, the distressed aircraft could have made it to the airport if it was not delayed by the VIP movement. Dame Patience Jonathan was therefore held responsible for the tragedy.

In a statement by her Special Assistant, Mr. Ayo Osinlu, the wife of the president described the report as an orchestrated plan to politicise the Sunday crash. She said it was “callous, inhuman and devilish” for anyone to have thought of wrapping such national calamity in political garb by insinuating that the plane crashed because the airspace was closed for her movement in Lagos.

“It is surprising that some mischievous persons will see this moment of national mourning as an opportunity to blackmail and impugn the First Lady’s integrity.

“This is the time for all Nigerians to be sober and pray for the repose of the souls of the victims and not a time to subordinate the interests of our nation to narrow self-serving interests.”
So far nobody has contradicted the information given out by the first lady’s office. Still, I wish to observe that the statement, a mixture of truth and anger however missed the point. More of this later.

A few months back on April 12 the visit of Dame Patience to Lagos State paralysed social and commercial activities on Lagos Island for over nine hours. Traffic congestion was caused by overzealous security agents who cordoned off some areas because the President’s wife was attending an event on Victoria Island.

People working in offices located within the area, groaned as they had to make a detour. Even the Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola expressed his displeasure at the First lady’s visit.

‘Lagosians were terribly discomforted with the traffic jam, needlessly, if I must say. There is the need for public officers generally to be more sensitive to the people we serve…It is particularly worrisome because this is not an elected person. And I think we all, including the security agencies, must know how they pander to our high officers, especially VIP movement, at the risk and expense of citizens and taxpayers whose money was used to fuel all the vehicles that we used to block the roads against those who pay those money’, Fashola stressed.

Not bothered, the first lady repeated the same show in Makurdi the Benue State capital the following month. Most streets were shut to traffic on 7th May following the visit of the First Lady to the town. Commercial motorcyclists, motorists and commuters had a hectic time reaching their destinations, as there was traffic jam. Students of some schools were unable to attend classes due to the visit.

When people are frustrated, hungry and angry, they embark on mob judgment that may take leave of facts and reason. In Julius Ceaser, we read about the story of Cinna who was cornered by an angry mob and mistaken for one of the conspirators who assassinated Ceaser. Having identified himself correctly as Cinna the poet and not Cinna the conspirator, somebody observed that he has been writing bad poetry of late. The mob went ahead to kill him for his “bad verses.”

Mob actors are particularly cruel to first ladies who refuse to stay in the home front and dominate public space. Try as Ayo Osinlu did to disprove the fact that there was a closure of the airport for her, he could not deny the fact that she was in Lagos at the time.

If Patience visits Makurdi today and snow starts falling, residents of the extremely hot town will immediately blame her - given the antecedent of her May visit - for the inclement weather.

The image makers of our first lady have done a good job on her of late by improving her spoken English. They can still do better if they change her body language.

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