Last week, the Nigerian Governors’ Forum organised a one-day seminar for spouses of returning and incoming Governors. It is the first time the forum would organize such an event, and all the participants and observers found it very useful.
Even though it is painful to think of the fact that there is not at least one female Governor in Nigeria, I will not dwell on that today. I have always regarded being a First Lady as just another platform that enables me address my life-long commitment to promoting and protecting women’s rights. It is a platform that has a very specific time-frame, with opportunities to influence change but it is also full of pitfalls. I have written about this topic before, so what I have here is a bit of cut and paste from old articles.
The wives of political leaders in Nigeria (and elsewhere) are often treated with suspicion and disdain. This is mostly because the track record of some political spouses has left a lot to be desired and has turned people against the idea of them being visible. I however believe that a lot of vituperation against political spouses is less about their actual or potential misdeeds, but more about the perceived place of wives.
Wives are supposed to stay at home, looking after the home front, firmly under the control of their husbands. We have had many debates about the roles of political spouses, the danger they present for democratic spaces through their back door manipulations, their use of informal authority for personal gain, their lust for illegal power, and the drain they pose on tax payers’ resources. While most of these concerns might be valid, I would like to have a look at the other side of the story.
The political wife, over time, has become all things to all people. She is a mother to the family and community,prayer warrior, adviser, friend, negotiator, peace maker, hostess, ambassador, role model, advocate, pace-setter, philanthropist. To be able to accomplish all this she has to be an effective strategist, administrator, multi-tasker, networker and much more. There is no substitute for a politician’s wife, no personal aide, ‘Women Leader’ or political appointee can take the place of a spouse.
However, with all these expectations also comes the understanding that political spouses will have character traits such as empathy, humility, courtesy, grace, diplomacy, discretion, tact, restraint and generosity. It is understood that to whom much is given, much is expected, and so spouses are required to carry out their various assignments with all the dignity and grace they can muster at all times, and be above board in most things.
The life of a political spouse is not all about glamour, perks and endless ceremonies. The human cost of public service can be very high and some even have to make the ultimate sacrifice – either experiencing the death of a spouse on the job or being killed themselves – the late Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, the wife of the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola, is an example. Spouses often go through serious hardships due to the nature of politics – long periods of absence, endless working hours, very limited family time, betrayals and treachery due to the insatiable nature of human beings, and abandonment when the tap of political patronage dries up.
A political leader does not need a constitutional provision to tell him whether his wife’s role is important or not. He knows it, everyone around him knows it. When people need favours from a leader, they go to his wife. The same people, who complain about a wife’s overbearing influence over her husband, will be the same to run to her for intervention when they have problems with their boss. It is the political wife, who is left holding her husband’s hand when fortunes change and everyone flies off like birds. She is the one, who picks up the pieces when trusted friends and associates turn against them. And then her phones start ringing again when political fortunes change for the better.
We live in a society that has become rather schizophrenic in its understanding and analysis of local and global trends. On the one hand, we are quick to point out how exemplary democratic systems are in the West, but fail to take into account how those institutions evolved within the context of their own history and values. In the US for example, the Office of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) evolved over time.
It was not in the American Constitution, and for many years the office was not funded, except for use of seconded, temporary staff. All this changed in November 1978 when President Jimmy Carter approved Public Law 95-570, which provided for the First Lady’s budget and staff. In addition, attitudes and expectations have shifted over the years to accommodate different spouses, who bring their own unique contributions as long as they are within established parameters of service to the people and support for the vision of Mr. President.
On the other hand, here in Nigeria, we are unable to allow our institutions grow and learn. Our response is to throw the baby out with the bath water. We do not allow healthy and informed debate on the role of political spouses. We keep personalising the issues by focusing on individual shortcomings rather than taking a more holistic view of how partners do indeed add value to the political process.
We hereby create a black market where everyone knows where to buy something that is supposed to be illegal but they buy it anyway because it is needed and not available elsewhere. When it suits us, we use spouses to support political campaigns or initiatives. When we are done with them, we expect them to disappear quietly to where they came from.
If we have democratic processes that are inclusive enough, the issue of ‘problematic spouses’ that keep being our reference point can be addressed in various ways. No one should have to vote for a saint, who goes home to the warm embrace of a dragon. We should not conflate the issues to do with the importance of spouses on the political scene with the track record of greedy, unscrupulous persons, who have been operating in a context where there is no accountability. This is why I am happy that the Governors’ Spouses Summit last week provided space for analysis and action on this issue.
I was asked to speak on a panel called, ‘The 21st Century First Lady’. In my remarks I called for as many First Ladies as possible to support policy advocacy to ensure lasting change in our communities beyond our individual projects. Many of us are concerned about social issues, such as children’s well-being, women’s livelihoods, health, poverty alleviation and peace, but we find ourselves restricted due to a lack of legal, policy and institutional frameworks to address these issues comprehensively. Without the requisite laws and policies in place, all our efforts will amount to tackling symptoms, as opposed to root causes.
As First Ladies, I believe we should work collaboratively with other stakeholders, particularly civil society organisations, to scale up or sustain our work beyond our terms in office. There is a lot to be done, as we strive to do our best, sometimes under difficult circumstances and within the shortest time possible. Hopefully, we can all use these platforms to listen, learn, grow and share. In Michelle Obama’s words, ‘Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigour. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there is more growing to be done’. Have a great week.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is currently the 1st Lady of Ekiti State. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com