Two years ago when First Lady Aisha Buhari was launching her book on beauty therapy, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo warned her, light-heartedly, not to expect a big donation because he and her husband were on half salaries. Prof. Osinbajo was one of many government dignitaries at the event who supported Mrs Buhari’s authorship with undisclosed transfers. It was not the first time people will put their weight behind the First Lady’s cause but there is little ever known about just how generous these gestures were.
This week, the Department of State Services has confirmed that it has detained Chief Superintendent of Police, Mr Baba-Inna, Mrs Buhari’s Aide De Camp (ADC) over an allegation of N2.5bn fraud. The First Lady is, as at the time of filing this, away with President Buhari at New York for the 73rd United Nations General Assembly. Her office has denied reports that she requested the arrest of Mr Baba-Inna upon discovery that he had kept “huge donations from politicians and businessmen and women” meant for her to himself.
Baba-Inna has been her ADC since 2016, the year of her book publication. He has denied the allegation of collecting money for Mrs. Buhari, and so has the Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris, distancing himself from a claim that he is one of those who passed donations meant for the First Lady through Baba-Inna. Police investigations have found mere thousands of cash in searches of Baba-Inna’s house and bank account, with bank statements showing activity relating only to salary deposits and withdrawals. They may yet find more should they dig in different places, but it has quickly registered with observers that the First Lady could be associated with such a large sum.
Like her predecessors in the ceremonial office, Mrs Buhari’s time as First Lady has featured non-profit charity functions. Through her ‘Future Assured’ platform, she has made the usual rounds expected of wives of Nigerian presidents from women empowerment initiatives to mother and child welfare programmes. Just five weeks ago, 400 women were said to have benefitted from a “Community-based cash transfer intervention” in Katsina, which was “a continuation to a similar event in Daura in which 200 women were assisted with cash to grow their business”. In keeping with Turai Yar’Adua and Patience Jonathan, Mrs Buhari has also been as eager to have her say in her husband’s administration by speaking out on those she deems as working for or against him.
But like both women, Mrs Buhari’s choice of pet projects and source of funding remain an opaque part of public service which remains inaccessible. The Office of the Wife of the President is supported with a tax-payer funded office but the non-profit, charity interventionist nature of the work it does has normally kept it off the raider of social accountability. Same applies for the Second Lady’s office which also embarks on its own projects, sometimes in unison with the First Lady.
Stories of an alleged fraud the size currently in news reports may begin to throw light on both offices, however. This may have prompted recent comments by Titi Abubakar, the wife of former Vice President Atiku, to clarify that she did not use government money to run Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), her own non-profit foundation focused, at the time, on fighting trafficking of women and children. The N2.5bn now associated with Mrs Buhari, a significant portion supposedly from politicians, is a lot and likely to contain funds appropriated for civic expenditures. While it is important to give the First Lady her due as one whose professional networks are capable of providing a pool for her humanitarian ambitions, the Nigerian public must not have reasons to believe there are crevices in state coffers hosing public funds into her foundation.
It remains to be seen what the DSS finds from its investigations into Baba-Inna and how much of the First Lady will be mentioned. For now, what can be imagined is that those undisclosed and anonymous donations by Osinbajo, Tinubu and others at her book launch may not have been so small after all.