MAKING OUR FIRST LADIES CONSTITUTIONALLY RELEVANT: A CASE FOR THE INCLUSION OF THE ROLE OF THE FIRST LADY IN THE NIGERIAN CONSTITUTION



1.       Introduction
Over the years in this country and other countries, the wives of Heads of Governments have played major roles in the governments of their various countries. These ladies of style and flamboyance have become so visible in the governments of their countries, yet no person can point to any law specifically creating roles for them save the fact that they are wives of the sitting Head of State, such as President or Prime Minister as the case may be. Some of these women have done so well in their countries in charity works and other spheres of life that they are internationally acclaimed, while some, like in the case of Philippines turned themselves into Jezebels of modern times.  Therefore, there is the need to give legal framework to this position particularly in Nigeria where wives of Governors of the States and Local Government Chairmen also go by the title of “First Lady” in their various jurisdictions. It is our thinking that if the roles of the First Lady are itemized in a section of the constitution or any other law, they will be more focused and the country will be better for it.

            Consequently, this paper attempts to look at who is a First Lady i.e. the meaning of First Lady; the origins of the title; notable roles played by First Ladies in the past, before we conclude with a case for the First Lady by way of legislation given them powers and functions so that they can be accountable at the end of their tenure unlike what is happening in Nigeria today where First Lady projects are personalized.


2.       The Meaning and Origins

The word “First Lady” refers to the wife of a sitting Head of State in the United State of America. The acronym is “Flotus” meaning First Lady of the United States.[1] The title, which was first used in the United State of America, was associated with Marta Washington who was referred to as The Inaugural Holder of the title on the 30th of April, 1789. She was addressed as “Lady Washington”. According to legend, the title “First Lady” in written form was used in 1849 to describe Dolley Madison at her funeral in an eulogy delivered by President Zachary Taylor. The words also appeared in a diary where William Horward Russel made an entry dated November 3, 1863 referring to the “First Lady in the Land”. The title gained nationwide recognition in the United States in 1877 when a Newspaper Journalist Marcy C. Ames referred to Lucy Web Hayes as the “First Lady of the Land” while reporting the inauguration of the husband Rudaford B. Hayes as the President of United States of America. By 1930s, the title had spread from the United States to other countries of the world.
            It is instructive to note that in the US, the wife of the Vice President is sometimes referred as the “Second Lady” of the United States. It is also instructive to note that several women who were not presidents’ wives have served as First Lady in the United States of America, and this occurs where the President was a Bachelor or a Widower or where the wife of the President was unable to fulfill the duty herself. In such situations, female relatives or friends of the President used to occupy such position. Such was the case of Marta Jefferson Randoff during Jefferson’s Presidency; Mary Harrison Mckee during Harrison’s Presidency upon her mother’s death and lately Chelsea Clinton when the mother was too busy as a Senator of the United State.[2]
            It is noteworthy to say that in Nigeria, the concept of First Ladyism was part of our colonial history where the wives of our colonial officials such as Lady Lugard and others performed as the hostesses of the State House from 1914 to September 30 1960 when Lady Robertson quit the stage. On her quitting stage, Flora Azikiwe played the role and handed over to Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi. The wife of General Gowon who took over from Ironsi’s wife was a little visible. Other First Ladies from General Murtala Mohammed’s wife to the Obasanjo years as a Military Head of State to Alhaji Shehu Shagari and General Buhari were not very visible and remarkable. It could be said that it was from 1985 when Maryam Babangida became the wife of Military President Babangida that the position became alluring, vibrant and very purposeful as the woman traversed all aspects of social life of the common woman and in fact women in general by the introduction of “Better Life for Rural Women”.[3] Ever since that time, the position has been held by Mrs Maryam Abacha, Justice Fatima Abubakar, Late Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, Mrs. Turai Yar`Adua and now Dame (Dr.) Patience Goodluck Jonathan.


3.       The Role of First Ladies

It is important to state from the onset that the position of the First Lady is not an elective one, carries no statutory duties and no salary equally, but they have been visible in the governments of their countries. In the government of United States of America where it started, some of the First Ladies have been known for one project or the other which touched the life of the people. Lady Dolley Madison, who popularized the First Ladyship in America was said to have engaged in assisting orphans and women to better their lot. Many orphans and destitute women of her time received benefits of numerous dimensions. She was said to have risked her life saving iconic treasures during the war of 1812. Another lady of note, Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s virtually took over the government of the United States of America because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt illness which kept him paralyzed. Lady Bird Johnson was involved in environmental protection and beautification. Pat Nixon encouraged volunteerism and traveled extensively abroad just as Betty Ford supported Women’s right in all its ramifications. In the same vein, Roseline Carter aided people with mental disabilities just as Nancy Reagan founded the “Just Say No to Drug” awareness campaign and only lately, Mitchelle Obama is concerned with tackling obesity among children. In Nigeria, particularly from 1985, Maryam Babangida used her “Better Life for Rural Women” programme to fight for the social needs of rural women and children in Nigeria. Such programmes as National Programme on Immunization for all child killer diseases, soft loans for rural women to farm, girl -child education and campaign for women to take part in political activities such as elections and representation in government and appointive basis (ratio) became frequent features of the Nigerian government at all levels. Wives of local government Chairmen and Governors became visible and took up offices in local government headquarters and State Capitals. It became compulsory for the Minister of Women Affairs to be a woman who must relate directly with the First Lady for the execution of programmes involving women and children. Maryam Babangida so dressed elegantly that she was loved by every person though she was wife of a military Head of State.
            After Mrs. Babangida, came Miriam Abacha in 1993 who floated her own outfit and did her best to reach the much she could. Following Mrs. Abacha was Hon. Justice Fati Lami Abubakar who established WRAPA of the Women Right initiative, then Mrs. Stella Obasanjo from 1999 to 2005, established the Health Care Trust which was aimed at taking care of the health needs of abnormal children and of course their mothers. In the year 2007, Turai YarAdua stepped in and introduced her own brand of programme which was aimed at uplifting women and children. In the year 2010 precisely by May, Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan floated her Women for Change Initiative which was/is aimed at ensuring greater women participation in politics. She went to all parts of the country, making a case for women to be elected as Councillors, into the State Assemblies, as National Parliamentarians, Governors and if possible President. Women were given cash and supported with goodwill to take part in especially the 2011 election.
            The wives of state governors have not fared less. For example, the wife of the former Edo State Governor Mrs. Eki Igbinedion introduced Ida Renaissance which was aimed at discouraging young girls from going to Europe where they go to prostitute in Italy and other European nations. The programme was so successful that many ladies have been brought back to the country and rehabilitated to take up genuine businesses. Skill acquisition centres were established in all parts of the State to prevent the young girls from leaving the state for the so-called greener pastures.
            In Ebonyi State, the wife of the first executive governor, Mrs. Eunice Ukamaka Egwu established the Widow Care Centre which was aimed at taking care of widows, widowers and their children. Currently, the Governor’s wife in Ebonyi State, Chief Mrs. Josephine Nwuzor Elechi has established her own pet project called MCCI, meaning Mother and Child Care Initiative, which has made Ebonyi State International Centre of VVF treatment. Here women who have had tearing of their organs during abnormal childbirth have been treated, repaired, rehabilitated and sent home. At the last count, over 1500 women have been so treated irrespective of state of origin.[4]
            In similar vein, other state governors’ wives and local government chairmen have one programme or the other touching on the lives of women and children and even men.


4.       Way Forward

               In the light of the above, and particularly of the fact that these First Ladies have operated at their whims and caprices without legal co-ordination, we hereby propose that a legal framework be put in place to harmonize this useful institution. Consequently, we propose as follows:
            First, the constitution should be amended to recognize the position of the First Lady at the Federal and State levels with their duties and or functions itemized. This will enable us to have accountability in this institution. A situation where the wife of the President comes on board and decides to pick whatever programme that tickles her fancy is quite wasteful. In some situations, these Ladies particularly at State levels establish their ‘pet projects’ as private enterprise outside government control thereby converting indirectly the funds of the State. Examples of these are everywhere to be seen starting with the Child Care Trust which is established at Bwari Abuja and Widow Care Abakaliki to mention but a few.
            Secondly, as a fallout from the above, if the functions of the First Lady are captured within the law, it will not be easy for a new First Lady to start thinking of a new programme. Only God knows what could have been the case if each President or Governor is given chance to adopt his own pet project instead of taking over and governing the State as provided in the constitution and the laws made by various State Houses of Assembly nationwide.
            Thirdly, a legal framework for the operation of First Ladies will outline the sources of revenue which the First Lady should use while in office. A situation whereby the First Lady uses her position to coerce private businessmen and contractors and top civil servants to contribute money for the said pet project is one of the engines of corruption. This is because contractors to government and top public officers who want to retain their positions are coerced into making donations which are never accounted for and which is only known to the First Lady. No wonder most of these programmes particularly at the States die as soon as the originator leaves office hence legal framework will ensure continuity and act as a check against corruption.


5.       Conclusion

The position of First Lady appears to be covered by constitutional convention, but the position seems to have grown in relevance and should no longer be left as a matter of convention. A specific constitutional provision or some sort of legal recognition for the position and roles will strengthen the First Family and become more useful to the Nigerian State. In this sense, Nigeria will be breaking the ground by being the first country to formally recognize legally the office of the First Lady with its attendant advantages.


[1]First Ladies of United States” – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia http..//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_United_States_of_America (assessed 22/4/2012).
[2] Ibid.
[3] K. Ajayi, The Concept of First Lady and Politics in Nigeria, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) 4th March, 2010 www.codesria.org
[4] Culled from FRCN programme of 21st April, 2012.
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