Chidi Amuta

Published in ThisDay, December 31, 2009

She was waiting at home that morning. An appointment for yet another routine visit with the General had been restructured while I was air borne. When I arrived the residence in Minna, the security personnel directed me to see Madam for a message from Oga. After pleasantries, she said firmly and nicely: ‘My instruction is to make you feel at home even though this is your home… Oga had to rush off to Abuja at very short notice. I am sure he must have been trying to get you on the phone…He says I have to do everything possible to make you spend the night if possible…I have to obey the last order, remember!  Any objections?.’ She led the way while I followed straight in the direction of…? Wait for it… The kitchen!

Beside her fairly elaborate office at the residence, she has another work desk adjacent to the kitchen, a sort of working anteroom.  I mused: ‘Hajia, the kitchen is big enough for an office. Why attach this one to it?’ With a very sophisticated sense of humour, she retorted: ‘The kitchen is the main office. This my desk is the annexe…..oh!’  This was perhaps the same sense of the complementarity of the home front and the public responsibility that informed her activation of the office of First Lady in the days of the Babangida presidency.

While the cooks were busy, she would dash in and out of the kitchen while keeping an eye on my comfort.  Each return trip she made to the kitchen earned me a few more snacks until I began a mild protest. She reminded me that I had taken the first flight out of Lagos and had obviously skipped breakfast. Moreover, it was part of her marching orders from ‘the boss.’

In between general conversation about public issues, she reached for a drawer beside the desk and pulled out a document. She was due to attend a major international conference on women empowerment in Kenya and from there head for a UN round table in New York on the Millennium Development Goals.  In each case, she had been specially invited in a lead role. There seemed to be quite some demand for her experience gathered from initiating the Better Life for Rural Women Programme in Nigeria.  She had a draft address which she wanted me to look at and freely comment on. Like the General, she is an avid listener and beneficiary from a broad consensus of views on any subject.

So keen was her sense of perfection that every word mattered. Nothing important must be left out. No assumptions should be unexamined. That painstaking aspect of her character was just dawning on me as we both quickly went through the editorial part. Then she took the lead in discussing the major issues that unite women’s empowerment programmes around the world.

Active engagement with the women empowerment movement for over two decades had equipped her with so much information, so much anecdotal treasure that I just had to listen and learn.  I listened attentively, asking questions here and there to sharpen the focus of what was obviously an encyclopaedic knowledge of the problems of lowly women everywhere in the world. These were matters like discriminatory customs, unfriendly legislations, lack of access to credit, gender barriers to high public office, overt government policies that were hostile to women empowerment, as well as silly bureaucratic bottlenecks put in the way of under-privileged women. She was particularly emotional when we came to widowhood practices among some of our nationalities.

Moreover, she was very conscious of her anticipated audience and the need to maintain the lead which her Better Life Programme has established around the world in the now universal drive for women empowerment. Over sixteen years after leaving office as First Lady and Chairperson of the Better Life Programme, her commitment to the project had grown. It had become a passion and her contributions to women empowerment had been vastly documented by major international organisations. The invitations kept pouring in just as she kept the programme alive at home through her own resources and a trickle of private donations and meagre institutional support. Instead of the original emphasis on rural women, she had renamed her programme Better Life Programme (BLP) to give it a wider coverage and lend it a more international relevance.

As we drifted from the subject of women empowerment, I began to ponder what would be driving this very privileged woman’s passion for the empowerment of less privileged women. If her interest in the matter was merely to justify the office of First Lady which she gave meaning during her husband’s presidency, she should have quit the diversion after more than one and half decades out of office.  More so, she has El Amin International School and other cottage businesses to worry about. But she remained steadfast, committed and engaged with the cause of a better life for women, unknown to most Nigerians, till the very end.

In between, a staffer came from her school with vouchers and cheques for her signature. She briefly switched off me and the kitchen staff and meticulously went through all the supporting documents, asking questions, issuing instructions and finally signing off before returning to me.  I later managed to negotiate with her to allow me return to Lagos same day against the instructions she had been given. ‘Madam, I am a civilian living in a democracy. If you compel me to sleep in Minna today, I could go to court to press for my rights……!’  She smiled and as she made towards her car, she reminded me: ‘Don’t forget to report that I carried out my instructions but you spoilt it with your democracy…!’ Then she hopped into her car and drove off to take care of other business. In less than one and half hours, the totality of her personality had been in full display: a wife, a mother, an engaging social worker, a business woman, a lively company and a very humane person.

It is not possible to step into the home of the Babangidas without coming face to face with the overwhelming presence, nay, influence of the former First Lady. Her sense of order is everywhere in evidence. Her love for nature as evidenced in the ubiquitous peacocks that roam freely in the landscape. A certain unaffected sense of the aesthetic in the home decor speak to the handiwork of a woman whose commitment to the public good was matched by a rigorous pursuit of order and harmony in the home front. Staffers testify to a woman who was a workaholic and a stickler for excellence and order. Her sense of authority came from a certain personal inner strength of character, not just from a sense of whose wife she was.  Like her husband, her dominance of the space around her was achieved without too many words.

And yet, she was one of the most unassuming women of her class. A natural leader of women, they were drawn naturally to her because of an unmistakeable ability to provide effective leadership as and when necessary without alienating her colleagues.  While her husband’s numerous friends and associates naturally deferred to her partly on account of the General’s awesome followership and expansive influence, she was in her own right a ‘general ‘in the sense that her presence defined the limits. You knew the lines without being shown where they were. In a sense then, Maryam Babangida was largely the force behind the awesome power of the great General. And yet hers was the soft kind of power; subtle, unabrasive and without the usual pomposity of the moneyed class. She was sophisticated without being over adorned, elegant in simple ankara outfits and no makeup and yet stylish without the kind of deliberate adornment that transforms otherwise beautiful women into mannequins and painted idols.

Between the late First Lady and the General, there was a certain utopian love that still defies precise characterisation.  Each time I have stepped into the general’s office, I have never failed to take another count of the number of portraits of Hajiya in that single room. At the last count there were four. Sometimes, it grows to six. Every bathroom in the guest wing of the house has towels with ‘Maryam Babangida’ monograms.  This almost totemic devotion becomes more significant when we realise that General Babangida is unquestionably a devout Muslim.

As we pay our last respects to Mrs. Babangida, here is a hope that Nigerian womanhood will come to treasure her landmark strides  in reminding us all of the vast humanity that lies locked away by poverty in the rural areas.  But most importantly, we are celebrating the life of a woman that married power and privilege with responsibility and commitment to the cause of those that may never taste either power or privilege.