by Wilfred Okiche
When you hang with politicians, everything is political.
Aisha Buhari, wife of President Muhammadu Buhari, mother of five, and unofficial first lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for some reasons hasn’t gotten the memo. Or she has, but couldn’t care less anyway.
Since the start of the Buhari administration, Aisha Buhari has maintained a stately disposition, bringing back a certain modesty to the office of the first lady, a feature that was all but missing while Patience Jonathan held sway in Aso Villa.
Where Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) made crony capitalism an unofficial policy thrus and shared the spoils of government freely among the favoured elite, the All Progressive Congress (APC) government which Buhari fronts, has managed to be non-selective with those it has chosen to marginalise and disappoint. It isn’t just the masses that have been left to deal with the worst economic recession in almost thirty years. In Buhari’s Nigeria, the rich and powerful also cry.
Senate President, Bukola Saraki, the country’s number three citizen had this to say about the APC in a recent interview with Daily Trust newspaper, ‘’I think there is no APC member that will tell you he is happy with the state of affairs of the party. There is a lot of work that we need to do.’’
Aisha Jummai Alhassan, a serving minister in Buhari’s cabinet led party members in her state to the APC national headquarters to protest perceived non-inclusion on the part of the federal government. Alhassan would later go on record to express support for former vice president, Atiku Abubakar ahead of the 2019 presidential polls, regardless of Buhari’s interest in the race. Abubakar himself, an APC chieftain has been a serial complainant, nagging constantly about being increasingly sidelined since APC came to power.
Every administration deals with disgruntled politicians and these lack of inclusivity complains would normally be waved aside as part of the political process, the inevitable inability to reach out to every bloc of the electorate. But when the first lady lends credence to these allegations by amplifying them, even going as far as hinting of withdrawing her support in the next electoral cycle, then things may no longer be at ease.
Before 2015, Aisha Buhari was largely unknown to the majority of Nigerians. The public lives of wives of world leaders tend to mirror those of their hubbies and Mrs Buhari’s public image was that of the cheery partner to the taciturn former head of state. She shunned the public glare, playing minimal roles in Buhari’s three previous attempts at clinching the presidency.
As the race for 2015 got extra heated, Buhari finally embraced a campaign that was more mainstream in outlook. Aisha Buhari was drafted in by the campaign team to help soften his hard-edged image. All of a sudden, Aisha who had previously carried herself as a tantalising unknown, began to make herself more visible, attending women rallies in a bid to get out the vote and partaking in strategic photoshoots with bean cake sellers.
In print and television interviews, Aisha Buhari’s eloquence was certainly nowhere near the Michelle Obama-Hillary Clinton spectrum, but she had her charms. Even for the ceremonial office of the first lady, Nigerians were thirsting for a change from Patience Jonathan’s brash, divisive campaign rhetoric and Aisha Buhari, with her cherubic smile and composed mien represented a break from the old ways.
On moving into the Villa, Aisha Buhari began to make all the right noises. At an appreciation dinner held at the State House shortly after the swearing-in ceremony, Mrs Buhari publicly decided to discontinue the first lady title, ‘’I am not the first Lady, I am the wife of the President and will be addressed as such going forward” she declared. She has also attempted to control the circus around that comes with her position by asking politely that Nigerians stop bringing her gifts during visits or courtesy calls.
Nevertheless, Mrs Buhari wasted no time in casting herself, as most first ladies would, as an ally of women and children, arguing early enough for increased participation of women and young people in politics. “This is not fair; we are not asking for equal representation but fair representation in governance.’’ She pleaded to the APC leadership at an event in Abuja.
If the president was moved by her exhortations, he gave no sign of it. When he unveiled his much delayed ministerial list, only six women made the list. Gombe state’s Amina Mohammed would later leave for the United Nations when she was appointed Deputy Secretary-General, bringing the number down to five.
Aisha Buhari may not embrace the title of first lady, but she has busied herself with various projects set up to empower women and children. The poor and underprivileged remain a particular focus of hers and through her projects like Future Assured and the Aisha Buhari Foundation as well as her alignment with the Rochas Foundation, Buhari has done considerable work helping to speak out for and rehabilitate internally displaced persons and victims of natural disasters.
She began to speak out during an August 2016 official trip to the United States, it was reported that the wife of the president urged international aid bodies working in Nigeria and distributing food items, to consider setting up plants in country to provide jobs for the local communities and reduce the time invested in shipping the commodities.
In 2016, Buhari caught some flak for launching her new book, The Essentials of Beauty Therapy: A Complete Guide for Beauty Specialists on the second year anniversary of the 276 girls kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno state. She made amends when she donated 30million Naira out of the proceeds from the launch to representatives of the parents of the abducted Chibok girls. The remaining 25 million Naira was presented to parents of the boys murdered in Buni Yadi, also in Borno state.
She may not fancy the title but Aisha Buhari is not unaware of the power she commands as wife of the president. She confirmed in an interview with the ladies of TVC’s Your View that she makes good advantage of this clout by getting wealthy and powerful persons to donate to her various pet projects now that she has their ears.
Can’t be tamed
The first sign that the soft-spoken Aisha Buhari could roar like a lioness came last year via a now-deleted Twitter rant directed at Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti state. The colourful governor who won elections on the platform of the PDP appointed himself the nemesis of the first family. In a series of bad mannered attacks, some of which started during the 2015 campaign cycle, Fayose repudiated the Buhari administration at every turn, calling the president and his officials out for every perceived wrong turn – and they have been many.
President Buhari’s response to Fayose has been a cool indifference but Aisha finally fired back, after Fayose repeatedly accused her of money laundering activities, as hinted at in the Halliburton scandal papers. She tweeted, ‘’ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. FAYOSE IS AN UNCHAINED MAD DOG. If Buhari is 73 years old, I have more than enough energy to face you.’’ She would later go on to institute a court case against Fayose.
It was the first time Aisha Buhari had appeared unhinged in public, but it wouldn’t be the last. Her own husband would feel the Aisha burn when she gave a controversial interview to the BBC Hausa service that appeared as though she were threatening to withdraw support from her husband ahead of the next cycle of elections.
Aisha Buhari exploded, in a strange, sometimes hard-to-understand rant that lacked the bland finesse of a PR/communications person. She admitted the president wasn’t doing a satisfactory job on inclusivity and appeared to have let the government be hijacked from him. Hear her, ‘’Yes I agree. Because of those appointed, apart from Fashola, Amaechi and some others, not much, I don’t know them, most of us too don’t know them, and he too (Buhari) does not know them’’
Responding to a direct question on whether the president had expressed his intentions of contesting for a second term, Aisha Buhari answered with a message that was as loaded as it was cryptic. ‘’He didn’t tell me, but I have made up my mind.’’
First ladies aren’t supposed to make statements as independent as that, no matter how advanced the level of democracy the country is practising. They are supposed to smile and sway like props while nodding approvingly at the president’s every move, content to take advantage of their unique position to raise funds and support for their charity projects.
Buhari, obviously hit hard by the revelations of Aisha’s interview tried to downplay her influence in his cabinet.
Responding to the comments on a state visit to Germany, he unleashed the full weight of the misogyny within him, embarrassing every Nigerian citizen the world over when he said, perhaps jokingly “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” This, while seated next to the most powerful female politician in the world, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.
The Buhari administration to the utter disappointment of millions of voting Nigerians has not exactly delivered what was promised on the campaign trail. While Buhari as a retired General was fiery and forceful with promises of curbing corruption and improving security, his leadership style has been distant and uninspiring.
Plagued by ill health, long stays abroad on the instruction of his doctors have forced rumours of some sort of state capture back home. Mamman Daura, the little-seen but highly influential close relative of president Buhari has been rumoured to be heading a powerful clique intent on directing national affairs.
According to Aso Rock insiders, Aisha Buhari has been uncomfortable with this level of influence and has sought to undermine Daura and his acolytes at every turn. In a leaked telephone conversation (not verified) made available by Sahara Reporters between Mamman Daura and Mahmud Tukur, an academic and former minister during Buhari’s military regime, both men expressed their frustrations with a certain ‘’suicide bomber from Yola,’’ code for the wife of the president who has reportedly battled to whittle the extent of such external influence on the presidency.
Those who expected Mrs Buhari to cower and hide after being shamed publicly by her own husband did not quite get their wish as months later, Aisha Buhari was in the news again, and this time, her gaze was directed at the State House Medical Centre in Aso Rock.
Long emblematic of the rot in the public sector, the State House Medical Centre which was set up to attend to health needs of the first family as well as staff of the presidency has for many years now been a mere consulting clinic. Presidents as well as political appointees with means, prefer to attend to their medical needs abroad.
Mrs Buhari had cause to use the medical centre for a health scare but to her surprise, the place was not fit for purpose. She was ultimately required to visit a foreign-run medical centre in Abuja for her needs.
Aisha Buhari narrated this experience at a public event in Abuja. Hear her, ‘’If the budget is N100 million, we need to know how the budget is spent. Along the line, I insisted they call Aso Clinic to find out if the X-ray machine is working, they said it is not working. They didn’t know I am the one that was supposed to be in that hospital at that very time.’’
Not done, Aisha Buhari queried the medical director of the medical centre who was present at the event, a stakeholders meeting convened by her pet project, ‘Future Assured. ’There is a budget for the hospital and if you go there now, you will see a number of constructions going on but they don’t have a single syringe there. What is the purpose of the buildings if there are no equipment there to work with?” she demanded.
Galvanised by Aisha Buhari’s complaints, the House of Representatives commissioned an ad-hoc committee to investigate the dismal condition of the State House Medical Centre. The managing authority of the clinic, flustered by Mrs Buhari’s sudden interest put out a statement explaining details of fund appropriation and management.
The fair lady
Born Aisha Halilu on 17, February 1971 in Adamawa State to a civil engineer father, himself a scion of Muhammadu Ribadu, the first Nigerian minister of defence. Her mother hails from a family renowned for its textile merchants. After her secondary school in Adamawa, the eighteen-year-old Aisha was wedded to General Muhammadu Buhari following his divorce from his first wife, Safinatu whom he had wedded the same year Aisha was born.
Aisha Buhari qualified with a first degree from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria as well as a Master’s in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, but proved to be adept at business. She set up the Hanzy Beauty Institute, a beauty salon with branches in Kaduna and Abuja, which she had to close down upon the first family’s move to Aso Rock.
A mother of five, Aisha Buhari also adopted the child of Zulia, Buhari’s first daughter who passed away at childbirth in 2012 due to complications from Sickle Cell Disease.
An astute businesswoman and power dresser, Aisha Buhari has been criticised for her fashionable tastes in clothing and jewellery, considered at odds with the Spartan lifestyle the president has projected for much of his public service career.
Aisha Buhari is just as likely to rock a Salvatore Ferragamo multicoloured zig zag cape – same as Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope from the ABC television soap, Scandal – as she is to be spotted in accessories from elite fashion houses like Hermes and Chopard.
Mrs Buhari has discovered in real time, that all is fair in love and war. And politics. Every facet of her life, from her style to choice of words, has become fodder for public scrutiny, available to be manipulated for political gain.
The hawks may circle but Aisha Buhari’s response has been refreshingly interesting to observe. She has insisted on staying true to herself, ever ready to take a stand regardless of whoever’s ox is gored.
After taking several hits, Aisha Buhari remains unbent, unbowed, unbroken.