The recent altercation between Patience Jonathan and literary icon, Professor Wole Soyinka over the crisis rocking Rivers State, once again brings the office of the nation’s First Lady under the spotlight.
By Olakunle Olafioye
A meeting between 16 Bishops from South-south zone and Dame Patience Jonathan, wife of the President, revealed the First Lady’s bottled-up anger against Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State. The duo had engaged in a bitter but subtle war, which many have interpreted as proxy war between the President and the Rivers State Governor over their individual political ambitions in 2015. Mrs. Jonathan did little to conceal her grudge against the governor, whom she called her son when the clergymen visited her on a truce mission.
“Rivers State issue is one thing I have committed to prayer because I believe there is nothing God cannot do. God restored me and I will do His work without the fear of man. The truth will always remain the truth and what God ordains must come to pass and so Rivers issue is something we have handed over to God,” she declared.
Her account of the gripe presents a different dimension to the problem. According to the First Lady, her grouse against the governor dates back 2010. “This matter started four years ago at Anyugubiri in Okrika when I begged him not to demolish a part of Okrika but that he should dialogue first with the people. After that incident, he called the chairman of Okrika Local Government and sacked him for holding a reception in our honour; that boy was the first victim,” she said. The governor did not stop at that. “He also put my people under curfew for nine months. I called him and pleaded with him but he refused. Then I began to hear all sorts of propaganda in the media against me; this is not the way.”
Her explanation put a lie to the claim that she was prosecuting her husband’s battle against the governor. Opposition parties and some Nigerians have castigated the First Lady over her antagonistic posturing against Governor Amaechi. But among the numerous salvos her critics fired against her, the scathing criticism of literary icon and Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka generated more controversy. Soyinka had, during an event, accused Mrs. Jonathan of being used by her husband to destabilize Rivers State. He went ahead to describe the President’s wife as a mere domestic appendage of power, who depended on state security apparatus to intimidate. “Be a lady before being a First Lady. In fact, you can’t be a First Lady without first being a lady. Is she the first First Lady we have had? The vulgarity has become intolerable. We have now reached the bottom of obscenity,” the celebrated poet and playwright had fumed.
Unlike many of similar criticisms she had taken with a pinch of salt, Mrs. Jonathan’s response to Soyinka’s flak was anything but complimentary. A statement by the spokesperson of First Lady, Ayo Osinlu described Soyinka as an embarrassment to his teeming admirers. “It’s an embarrassment to his throng of admirers and followers, that a sage of Prof. Soyinka’s status, who used to be a gauge of public morality in this nation, would lend himself to a propaganda of high drive, to save a governor who elected to launch into a river without applicable survival skills,” the statement read in parts.
The face-off between Soyinka and the First Lady has continued to attract mixed reactions. While many criticize Soyinka for what they perceived as his taking side with the River State Governor, others insist the literary icon’s advice to the First Lady is not out of place.
Secretary General of Grassroots Development Initiative, Mr. Samuel Nwanosike, opined that the office of the First Lady is a big office and such should not be brought into disrepute. But Jackson Omenazu, Chancellor of a rights group, the International Society for Social Justice and Human Rights, disagreed with Nwanosike on Soyinka’s advice and insists that the President heed the advice of the literary icon.
This development has once again brought the debate about Patience Jonathan perceived excessive interference into political matters of which they claim she lacks both moral and constitutional basis. Some analysts have, however, described this type of thinking as myopic in the sense that it has no place in what is obtained in other part of the world. Gloria Imasuen, coordinator, Nigerian Women Solidarity Forum, said the criticisms trailing the First Lady over her perceived meddlesomeness in the President’s political battle is an indirect call on Nigerian women to stand aloof in matters that affect their husbands. “Women have contract of supporting their husbands in any matter that affect them (men) and this supersedes any other consideration,” she said.
Examples of First Lady who had played vital political role in their spouses’ government abound. The United States seems to blaze the trail in this regard. President Barack Obama was believed to have ridden on the support of his wife, Michele, who mobilized important women groups for his victory in 2008 and recently.
A similar role was played by Hillary Clinton in her husband’s presidency. Before and after President Bill Clinton became President, Hillary, who is seen in America as an equal match for her husband in political matters, played vital roles in Clinton’s electoral triumph. For example, she directed critical aspects of her husband’s campaign.
Another First Lady that stood out in America’s history by her contributions to her husband’s political success was Rosalyn Carter who throughout President Jimmy Carter’s Presidency was one of his closest advisers. The reason for this is not far-fetched. Rosalyn played active role in her husband’s electoral victory.
Unlike some past Nigeria’s first ladies, Patience Jonathan is believed by many to consider her husband’s cabinet as partners in progress. While many would recall instances where some First Ladies were “persecutors” of their spouses’ cabinet members, Mrs. Jonathan is said to be different. “Do you recall during the Babangida regime how the then First Lady, Maryam, allegedly influenced the sack of Professor Bolanle Awe as the head of the National Council for Women, for mere suspicion that the respected Professor was trying to steal the spotlight from her. But Patience Jonathan’s philosophy is the more, the merrier,” Imasuen said.
Imasuen opined that rather than condemn the First Lady, Nigerians should commend her for what she described as the redefinition of the office of the First Lady. “Mrs. Jonathan should be commended for opening our eyes to the fact that the office of the First Lady could be used to advance the cause of the Nigerian masses beyond what we have seen in the past in this country. Nigerian women had never had this level of involvement in the nation polity as we have today. Which of the past First Ladies of this country had ever been at the forefront of pushing the cause of the Nigerian women like Mrs. Jonathan?”
Imasuen shares a similar view with Fayo Williams, first vice president, NECA’s Network of Entrepreneurial Women, who opined that there has been a significant improvement in the level of women involvement in politics and commended the First Lady for her relentless effort in the struggle for the 35 percent affirmative action. “The government of President Jonathan should be commended for encouraging women and Dame Patience Jonathan should also be encouraged for some grassroots activities which enabled her to actually encourage and put forward some women. Now I believe a lot more need to be done. The professional women need to come out because with their initiative, their knowledge and skills we can achieve development faster. I would like to sound out to everybody in Nigeria that we should see gender mainstreaming as something that is essential. For too long there has been a lot of tokenism,” she declared.
Indeed, evidence continues to mount about the significant impact of the 35 per cent appointments drive for women, as Dame Patience, and her lieutenants of the Women for Change Initiative, W4CI, push through several affirmative actions to bolster peace and douse tension in the land. Never in the history of Nigeria, has such a number of women been appointed ministers.