Remembering Maryam Babangida: The founding mother of Office of First Lady in Nigeria
Although no part of the Nigerian constitution states any official role for spouses of political office holders, in the last three decades, wives of Presidents, Governors and Local Government Chairmen have created a special role for themselves called the Office of the First Lady.
Though unofficial, occupants of this office from the Presidency to the state and local government level, wield so much power that constitutionally recognised public officials fall at their feet, worship and pay homage to them to receive favour from their husbands.
The Office of the First Lady has been part of the Nigerian political system since independence, but it wasn’t relevant and influential until General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari to become the Head of State in 1985.
His wife Maryam Babangida popularised the office, added glamour and poise that made it look attractive for those who would come after her. She transformed it from being just a ceremonial position to a position of power and influence.
Unlike other wives of former Heads of State and Presidents who kept a low profile life, the dark-skinned Maryam, born in Asaba, Delta State in 1948 to Igbo father and Nupe mother, announced her presence as the First Lady with the launch of Better Life Programme for Rural Women in 1987.
The programme was designed to empower and eradicate poverty among rural women. Despite the allure and fanfare that come with public office, Maryam was not blinded by them, the plights of the downtrodden was said to be germaine to her. Those who were privileged to walk that path before her must have envied how Maryam dignified and popularised Office of the First Lady.
It didn’t happen by accident, she had been laying the foundation and preparing herself for such opportunity from her days as President of the Nigerian Army Officers’ Wives Association when Babangida was the Chief of Army Staff under the regime of General Muhammadu Buhari. Becoming the wife of the Head of State gave her a better opportunity to consolidate what she was doing among the officers’ wives.
By November 1993 when her husband left office, the BLPRW was said to have established 9,492 co-operative societies for women to have access to finance and sundry re-sources; founded 1435 cottage industries; 1784 farms and gardens; 495 shops and markets; 1094 multipurpose women centres for skills acquisition and, 135 fish and livestock farms at different locations across the country. She also built the National Women Development Centre in Abuja.
BLPRW endeared Maryam in the heart of many grassroots women and made her more popular than other wives of presidents before her who lived behind the shadows of their husbands as passive spectators and ceremony attendees. She registered the position of the number one woman in the consciousness of the people with the BLPRW and also laid the structure which subsequent First Ladies (federal, state and local government level) have been cueing into nearly 30 years after her husband left office in 1993.
She, however, got intoxicated by the enormous power she wielded and was said to have abused power. One of such cases of her abuse of power was her confrontation against Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, the Minister of External Affairs during Babangida’s regime.
In an interview published in The News magazine on October 25, 1993, Akinyemi said Maryam summoned him one night to scold him over clashing dates for a cocktail reception she had organised for ECOWAS ambassadors and their wives.
So enormous was her highhandedness that, in the presence of her husband, she declared to Akinyemi that she had “a joint-right with the President to appoint a new Minister of External Affairs”. The Minister was said to have been sacked shortly thereafter. Akinyemi claims, the event signaled the beginning of a “joint imperial presidency”.
Maryam Babangida died of ovarian cancer on December 27, 2009 in the United States.
After Maryam Babangida, other Presidents’ wives who have occupied the office have been making remarkable impact through their pet projects geared towards women and children. Prominent among them is Titi Abubakar, though wife of the Vice President Atiku Abubakar, she also made a remarkable impact with her position.
Through her foundation, the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), she initiated and sponsored a bill that midwifed the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) in 2003. 13 years after leaving office, the agency has continued to remain relevant in the fight against human trafficking.
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