THE FIRST LADY SPEAKS FOR HERSELF
Reproduced from Maryam Babangida’s second book, Nigeria’s First Ladies, published in 1990 by LOXIA International Limited, London.
My mother, Hajiya Asabe Halima Mohammed had five children, a boy and four girls. After my early childhood days at Asaba, Bendel State* where I attended what is now known as the Asaba Primary School I went to St. Louis Primary School, Zonkwa, before moving to Convent Primary School, Kaduna to join my father Leonard Nwanonye Okogwu who at the time was working in the North. I later attended Queen Amina College and Federal Training Centre, both in Kaduna and, years later, I obtained a Diploma in Secretarial Studies from La Salle University, Chicago in the United States of America.
I first met my husband-to-be, then Captain Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, in 1965 when he visited my parents’ home in Kaduna, in the company of my cousin, Major-General Garba Duba, who, like his friend Ibrahim, was also a Captain in the Nigerian Army at the time.
Our wedding, four years later on September 6, 1969, took place in the thick of the Nigerian civil war in Kaduna according to both Islamic and military traditions. The ceremony, as I vividly remember, was marked by the presence of military officers who were dressed in their ceremonial regalia and mounted the ceremonial guard of honour with crossed swords. The climax for me was when we both rode in an open jeep to the reception venue at the Officers’ Mess, Kaduna. It was, I remember, almost like a state wedding.
After the wedding we settled In Kaduna along Yakubu Avenue. We had hardly finished our honeymoon when my husband had to return to the war front. It was not particularly an exciting period for me because I was newly married and did not want him to leave, at least, not as soon as he did. However, when I remembered his profession as a career soldier, I stoically accepted my new situation and tried to keep myself busy with my new role of full-time housewife. Thus, for the first time in my life, I concentrated my efforts on mastering the science and art of keeping a home as well as taking lessons in Islamic studies; so his absence did not cause as much loneliness as I had expected. Besides, he made sure he paid me periodic visits in Kaduna, especially when we were expecting our first child, Aishatu. She was delivered on the 25th of May 1970. Two other children followed: Muhammadu in 1972 and Muhammad ul-Amin in 1977. A fourth child, Halimatu Sa’adiyya, was born on August 7, 1989.
In 1974, when I returned with my husband from a one-year course in the United States, the family moved to Lagos for the first time, and settled at the Ikeja cantonment. He was at the time the Commander of the 4 Reconnaissance Regiment. We later moved into No.19 Ikoyi Crescent when my husband was appointed commander of the Armoured Corps and moved office to Bonny Camp. However, when my husband became the chief of army staff on December 31, 1983, the family moved into the Flagstaff House, in Ikoyi, (the official residence of the Chief of Army Staff).
As wife of the Chief of Army Staff, I became, following tradition, the National President of the Nigeria Army Officers’ Wives Association (NAOWA) which until then was known as Army Officers’ Wives Association (AWA). Together with my colleagues, we introduced a lot of reforms. Hitherto, people regarded the association as a group of idle women, but during this period the association achieved a lot of tangible and philanthropic goals. For example, the Ojo Nursery School was established and certain facilities like buses and other educational equipment were provided. In addition a piece of land was also bought along the Badagry Express way where a farming project was started. We also formed the Nigerian Soldiers’ Wives Association (NASWA) for wives of other ranks.
In august 1985, my husband became the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria. The family moved into State House, Dodan Barracks after a few months. Before this development, I had always tried to mobilize women to be educationally, economically, and socially aware just as I have been trying to do at the national level through the “mobilization of the rural women” drive, since I became the first lady. I have always felt that any effort to build a self-reliant society must begin with the enlightenment and awakening of the women.
When in1985 my husband became the country’s President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, it was clear that the family would be moving into Dodan Barracks, the official residence of the President. But before the move, I undertook a tour of the accommodation and facilities provided. I was not particularly pleased with the condition of the place since it did not reflect the kind of image one would have expected of a residential and office space meant to serve both as the meeting place for the highest decision-making bodies in the country as well as the base of the foremost image maker for the nation. Although I had paid a visit to Dodan Barracks before, I had not been opportuned to see much of the place other than the main reception rooms. Now, as I went through the private living areas of the President’s official residence, I found that the number and sizes of the rooms, the living and dining areas as well as the kitchen did not measure up to my expectations of what a State House should be. What I saw did not compare favourably with State Houses in other countries.
My immediate reaction at the end of the tour was to remain in Flagstaff House, for I realised that Flagstaff House was in fact more spacious, and had more beautiful and peaceful surroundings. In addition, there was also less human traffic at Flagstaff House.
I still hold the view, as I did then, that the residential and office complex of a Head of State and Government should portray something of the dignity and prestige necessary to give a good impression to the world, especially as most foreign dignitaries visiting the country would, as a matter of courtesy and protocol, call on the Head of State, an experience they carry away with them and upon which some of their lasting impressions of the country may be based.
After a few month, however, I had no choice but to move into Dodan Barracks following mounting pressures with regard to the security of the family. Thereafter, I started effecting some changes aimed at making the place more presentable and to befit the status of the holder of the highest office in the land, without necessarily undertaking extensive reconstruction work. I insisted, for instance, that the living quarters of the President should be refurbished and, where necessary, renovated. I played a significant role in the selection of furnishing and the general décor of the rooms.
Perhaps, one needs to point out that there was no provision made for the office of the First Lady in the State House. I realised that those before me made use of the Head of State’s official reception rooms, whenever they were available, for receiving their own visitors and guests. I found this inconvenient, indeed inappropriate, and I therefore set about converting the old squash court into a reception hall for my guests and for use by future first ladies. In the reception area are now exhibited framed photographs of all first ladies since independence. The new reception hall, serves not only for receiving wives of important dignitaries but also as a venue for consulting with representatives of various women’s organizations and pressure groups. Such meetings go a long way in bridging the communication gap between the government and the people. In this role I see myself assisting my husband to succeed as the country’s eighth Head of State and Government.
It was not long before I realised that being a first lady meant having to accept and observe certain restrictions and protocol associated with the position. This, to say the least, has been a difficult readjustment for me. In any case, in the past few years I have tried to overcome these difficulties especially that of attending public functions in my role as the first lady. For instance, I found out that I had to conform to certain norms in order to satisfy the various ethnic and religious groups of the country, having in mind the plural nature of our society.
Freedom of movement and of association for me and the children have been curtailed. For instance, the children are not able to go out as they used to although they are free to continue with their hobbies and interests within the premises of the State House. I am glad that we have been able to put the children through this adjustment and pray that they succeed in whatever endeavour they find themselves. Let me reiterate from here that to a large extent, we the parents have continued to give them a free hand with regard to their hobbies, interests, and career choice and how they spend their leisure time; we only play on advisory role like most parents.
In the State House, I take a personal interest in the gardens and the mini-zoo which houses some monkeys, tortoises, crocodiles, birds, ostriches, peacocks, ducks, pigeons and guinea fowls, as well as a fish pond. I am certainly not free to pursue my interests as before. I have lost that freedom which once I took for granted. All the same, I believe that I should not complain but must reconcile myself with the dictates of the Almighty with calm submission and with the realities of living a guarded submission and with the realities of living a guarded life which the office of my husband has imposed on me.
State engagements have had a tremendous effect on my relationship with personal friends. They still visit but not as often as they used to. Members of my family also visit only occasionally, spending a few days to discuss family matters. However, I have consistently tried as much as possible to maintain the close, affectionate relationship which has always existed between my husband and myself. Despite the fact that state engagements naturally make new demands on our time, it is the closeness of our relationship and the understanding existing between members of the family that has helped to make these responsibilities less cumbersome. I always wait for my husband to return home for lunch, after which, we have a nap, when we can afford one. As a wife and a mother, I handle as much household problems as I can without making them an additional bother to my husband. Besides, I cook for my family whenever I feel like it despite the fact that there are household and catering staff to do the cooking. I also see to my husband’s and children’s wardrobes.
The ability to cope with everyday problems at state house requires stamina, determination and initiative particularly as there is no set down pattern or rules to guide a first lady.
There is no budgetary provision for the role of the first lady. Here, I am most grateful to my husband for providing all I need to function. I have been an officer’s wife for many years and since officers’ wives are often called upon when their husbands are away officially I have handled thorny issues single-handedly. I presume I have acquired the experience and ability to cope with any situation. Right down the years, the roles and responsibilities of the position of the First Lady have never been fully officially defined nor written records maintained for posterity. Thus, I have found that there were no set down guidelines and patterns to learn from or to follow. I, therefore, had to think and personally work out modalities, programmes and procedures for the execution of certain obligations. Sometimes my efforts have been impeded by the bureaucracy and I have experienced feelings of frustration when things were not done as fast as I wanted. But the fact that my husband gives me his support and is fully aware of all my activities has helped to make the path smoother.
Life in State House for me is never the same: some days may be busy, difficult and tense; others uninteresting and lonely, but I try, always, to make the best of any situation that might arise in any given day. In this way I have succeeded in accepting each day as it comes.
The day for the family begins between 5.30am and 5.45am when every member wakes up for the morning prayers. I recall with nostalgia that when we were at Flagstaff House, I could tell the time, during the early hours, by the chirping of birds, which used to perch on a tree near the window. In Dodan Barracks, I do not have pleasure of such time-tellers any longer except clocks that tick away on the walls.
At present, women and their welfare are the focal points of my programme. Believing that women, as mothers of the nation and the bedrock of the family unit, play an important part in the ultimate formation of the nation’s character and attitudes, I seek to highlight the need for women to be happy, comfortable, knowledgeable and well catered for, so that they can bring up their children to be responsible citizens. In the belief that knowledge and experience should be shared, I involve women in various segments of the society in order to ensure that as wide a field as possible is covered. Besides, woman, as a mother, is always in close contact with the child during its formative years. She is the torch to lead and to guide, the main factor in the moulding of the character of the child. If therefore, the woman is sad, uneducated, ignorant, deprived or debased, she becomes handicapped and unable to put her God-given gifts to the use in the interest of the nation.
I intend to move further into other philanthropic fields in future. These may be extended to cover areas such as care for the aged, the handicapped, disabled and also motherless or abandoned children. I also hope to make concrete efforts to provide basic services for subsequent First Ladies. Apart from converting the former squash court in Dodan Barracks into a small office-cum-reception for first ladies, staff, security and protocol arrangements have been improved upon.
Another focal point in my programme is the campaign against drug abuse. I have always felt a deep concern for the welfare of our youth and the way some important and ‘big’ persons are using them to achieve their own selfish goal of ‘getting rich quick’. I believed that the solution to any problem is best started from its root cause. Thus, while launching the anti-drug campaign organized by the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Lagos on August 5, 1987, I called on the media to help in the crusade against drug abuse by exposing any known drug baron in the country. I am sure that ignorance has done an incalculable harm to the youth and therefore urge that Nigeria should include in her educational curricula primary preventive education aimed at creating in the youth an awareness of the dangers of drug abuse.
When I launched the two-day workshop ‘’Better Life For Rural Women’’ in Abuja on September 14, 1987, I stressed that ‘’ efforts to build a self-reliant society must begin with the enlightenment and awakening of the rural women.’’ I also called for their full mobilization so that they could be better prepared to contribute to the improvement of their environment and the nation.
Since the launching of this programme in Abuja, several other launchings have taken place in state capitals where I was represented by the wives of certain senior members of the AFRC and State Governors in their official capacities. For instance, I was represented in Anambra state by Mrs. Ngozi Omeruah, wife of the then State Governor who read an address on my behalf. In it, I noted that not only did the excessive work load of women affect their health and babies but it also created the tendency for them to have more problems. ‘’I am deeply convinced that to prepare women for the tasks of building a self-reliant nation, government must lessen the hard and cruel drudgery of rural life, improve living conditions, life styles and the harsh environment to which rural women are subjected.
It has been very up-lifting for me to realise that my efforts at improving the social life and condition of rural women, as well as decrying such evils as child abuse and drug abuse, have been appreciated internationally. This is manifested by the recent award of the 1987 International Recognition by the United States-based New Future Foundation and the message of goodwill sent to me by no less a person than the wife of the then President of the United States, Mrs Nancy Reagan. It needs no saying that these gestures go a long way in encouraging one in the pursuit of greater heights.
At this point, it comes naturally to recall my pioneering efforts in initiating, early in 1987, the start of a campaign for Nigerians to boycott all over-priced goods. During the occasion, I appealed to market women not to arbitrarily hike the prices of their commodities. The resounding effect of that campaign did result in a stock-piling of several goods, both imported and locally manufactured, and, consequently, a fall in their prices to some reasonable levels. It would be highly edifying to see a sustenance of this effort by way of continuous publicity, especially in these times when ends are very difficult to meet.
My overriding concern, however, is to fashion a role for Nigeria’s First Ladies in which they will be seen as a ‘’compliment’’ to their President-husbands. I would thus like my efforts and activities to be viewed as complementary to the Federal Military Government’s drive toward self-reliance, structural adjustment and economic recovery as well as the mobilization of the citizenry for enlightenment. In doing all these things, it must be made clear that one is not unfolding one’s cocoon merely to make one’s presence felt but, rather, the overriding desire is to complement government efforts and, especially, to mobilize the womenfolk and get them to appreciate the country’s problems better and, by so doing, contribute their quota towards solving them. My deep concern for women is not just that I am one of them but, more importantly, I felt that women should not be trampled upon. The practice in some quarters for instance, whereby wives are battered and subjected to all forms of indignities ought to be avoided.
Like all the previous first ladies, I do not receive clothing allowance, an official stipend or any salary. I depend on my husband to provide for my personal needs as he has always done. Besides, I have no lady-in-waiting and I personally take care of my wardrobe. I contribute to the making of my outfits. Apart from the fact that this provides an outlet for my flair for creativity, it also serves to minimise costs particularly with the demands of these austere times.
I would also want to add that once you are placed in a good position you should make use of that position by serving and giving of your very best to the nation; particularly to the less privileged. If you do not use that position to assist your fellow human beings, how happy would you be? How fulfilled would you be?
My advice to our future First Ladies is that they should be as tolerant as possible. The duties of a First Lady can indeed be difficult, time consuming, and sometimes tedious, but the job can certainly be a rewarding experience.
* The Old Bendel State is now what is Edo state from the northern portion; and Delta State from the southern portion.