Maryam Babangida: the Woman Behind the Name

B.Y Muhammad

MARYAM BABANGIDA  (1st November 1948 – 27th December 2009), was Nigeria’s First Lady between 1985 – 1993, who combined the roles of housewife, mother and public figure almost from the year she married Ibrahim Babangida, then a Major in the Nigerian Army, in September, 1969.

As Babangida rose through the military hierarchy, and later to the political apex as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Mrs Babangida took on an ever increasing array of public responsibilities. First, in 1983 when her husband was appointed Chief of Army Staff, Mrs Babangida became the National President of the Nigerian Army Officer’s Wives Association (NAOWA) the traditional post of the Army Chief’s wife. Maryam Babangida’s tenure gave her a unique insight into the life of army officers and their families, especially the private realities often masked by the stern face of discipline and duty.

As the wife of the President and Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Mrs Babangida became something of the First Lady among Africa’s First Ladies through her immense qualities of care and compassion for, commitment and sensitivity to, the situation of the less privileged in society. She was widely praised for her single-minded determination to bring the plight of rural women, often neglected in the urban domination of national issues, to the forefront of public concern. Similarly, her vigorous campaigns on behalf of the disabled, and against the use of drugs among Nigeria’s younger generation, became a testimony that the position of First Lady could be transformed from one of comfort and complacency to a platform for active participation in nation-building. Maryam was unrivalled as the first to venture beyond the traditional role of patron of charities and women’s organizations, into the more challenging field of active campaigns and advocacy on behalf of society’s less fortunate.

When Mrs Maryam Babangida became Nigeria’s eighth First Lady on August 27, 1985, probably only a few had any inkling that she would be revolutionizing the institution of the First Ladyship to unfold its enormous potential for public good. After eight years of her tenure, Mrs. Babangida did just that, to the pleasant surprise of Nigerians and with a charm and grace that was exclusively hers.

Surely and steadily she applied the gentle strokes of a peaceful, persuasive advocate to that sector of society which she aptly described as “the domestic side of the polity”. Her most ingenious master stroke was the Better Life for Rural Women Program, which, by any stretch of the imagination, was a quiet revolution that redefined the entire spectrum of life for Nigerian women and those who dwelled in the rural areas. Under this program, the vast majority of rural women and, indeed men, voluntarily mobilized themselves into functional co-operatives to pursue the benefits of communal joint-effort and self-help.

Practically, every field of human endeavor in agriculture, craft and art was covered by the co-operatives; and with easier access to soft loans and grants as well as the goodwill of the First Lady, they increasingly acquired simple new technologies – gari friers, corn and rice mills, cassava graters, fish smoking devices, etc – and building, training and leisure facilities such as communal health centers, women resource centres and day-care centres to improve their lot. The entire countryside was awash in a new awareness as a result of the Better Life Program. It was indeed remarkable that Mrs. Babangida still found time besides her challenging domestic and public responsibilities, first, as a housewife and secondly, as First Lady of the most populous and complex country in Africa to cultivate her literary appetites. In September 1988, she made her debut in the hallowed world of authors with The Home Front, a candid profile of the life of army officers’ wives. The book, the first by any First Lady before her, was acclaimed by critics and the public alike as a work of exemplary sensitivity.

Her second book: Nigeria’s First Ladies – Life in the State House, published in 1990 was a historical tribute to previous Nigerian First Ladies whose valuable roles as the stabilizing force behind the nation’s most powerful citizen had hitherto been ignored by writers and historians alike.

For her relentless services to humanity Maryam was recognized with the prestigious Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger in London on 19th September, 1991.