PROFILE: The many lives of Aisha Jummai Alhassan

by Wilfred Okiche

Every four years in May since 1999, the political elite gathers at Eagle Square, in the nation’s capital to witness the swearing in of the man (never woman) elected to the office of the President of the Federal Republic. It is twenty months till the next presidential inauguration. The journey to this May date, dubbed electoral season, usually begins months or years in advance though, sometimes immediately after the last date. The series of events that constitute electoral season include high-wire permutations, calculations, alliances and realignments. Throw in a bit of mudslinging too.

President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) are only midway into a contentiously fought four-year tenure that began in 2015, following a historic victory at the polls. On the best of days of the administration, it appears that Buhari,-and the APC,- have only just settled into the business of governance and providing dividends to the citizenry.

Aisha Jummai Alhassan serves in the Buhari administration as Minister for Women Affairs and Social Development.

Aisha Jummai Alhassan has just launched the electoral season.

In a video clip that has since gone viral, Alhassan led a group of APC leaders from Taraba on a courtesy visit during the Salah break, to APC chieftain, Atiku Abubakar. In her goodwill message to the former vice president, delivered in her native dialect, Alhassan addressed him as the President of Nigeria come 2019. Insha Allah.

As if that wasn’t brazen or disturbing enough, Alhassan doubled down on her statement in the couple of days that followed, unburdening to the BBC Hausa service, ‘’Atiku is my godfather even before I joined politics, and again Baba Buhari did not tell us that he is going to run in 2019. And let me tell you today that if Baba said he is going to contest in 2019, I swear to Allah I will go before him and kneel and tell him that ‘Baba I am grateful for the opportunity you gave me to serve your government as a minister. But Baba just like you know I will support only Atiku because he is my godfather.’ (That is) if Atiku said he is going to contest…’’

That wasn’t all.

Alhassan spoke with Reuters last Wednesday and had this to say again in her defense, ‘’In 2014/2015, he (Buhari) said he was going to run for only one term to clean up the mess that the (previous) PDP government did in Nigeria. And I took him for his word that he is not contesting in 2019.”

While a good number of political watchers were stunned by Alhassan’s confessions, others quickly took it in stride. Governor of Kaduna, Nasir Elrufai and self-appointed defender of Buhari’s interests, especially among his cohort of governors, expressed his lack of surprise at Alhassan’s latest political move and stopping just short of labelling her a traitor, told State House correspondents there was really nothing new to see.

‘’In the APC she (Alhassan) was never in the Buhari camp. She did not support our candidates during the national convention. She did not vote for Buhari during the primaries.’’ El-Rufai revealed before going on to add that Alhassan was only appointed minister, ‘’out of the largeness of the president’s heart and to encourage women in politics.’’

Winner takes it all

It is important to place El-Rufai’s statements in contextual light, as taken solely on the merits, they reveal only half the entire picture. The APC is less a consummate political entity than it is a product of convenience, fueled by the common desire of all the parties involved to end the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) sixteen-year rule.

Making up the APC on its 6, February 2013 inauguration were the Bola Tinubu-led Southwest dominating Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) which was set up around the personality and reputation of president Buhari, and had its base in the core North. there was also the fast depleting All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and a wing of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).

Five disgruntled serving governors (at the time) led by Rivers’ Rotimi Amaechi broke away from the PDP months later and were embraced by the APC. Atiku Abubakar joined the family a year after the party was floated and brought with him, his formidable political machinery.

Aisha Jummai Alhassan was part of the deal. After Atiku lost the presidential primaries to Buhari, he more or less surrendered his machinery to aid Buhari’s triumph. Then a serving senator representing Taraba North, Alhassan decamped from the PDP and joined the APC where she was handed the ticket to represent the party at the gubernatorial polls. She lost to PDP’s Darius Ishaku in a race that was indeed a fight to the finish.

In the spirit of inclusivity, President Buhari upon assumption of office appointed officials from all the various factions making up the APC. Indeed he had little choice. The APC wasn’t- still isn’t- known to have a strong female presence, especially at the highest levels of decision-making. The choice of Alhassan who was at the time, locked in a fierce judicial battle to claim the mandate of governing Taraba from Ishaku was a no-brainer. She came highly recommended, had plenty of experience mobilising votes and had the national name recognition having served in the Senate for four years. Alhassan had also become somewhat of a cause celebral, after her spirited run for governor activated feminist groups and ignited various social media debates.

Blue Blood

The political system that Alhassan has benefitted so generously from is vicious and takes no prisoners and so it isn’t surprising that the reaction to Alhassan’s messaging on 2019 has been swift and stoked many passions.

The APC leadership, via a statement by publicity secretary Bolaji Abdullahi, has accepted her apology and chalked it all down to wrong timing but there have been active calls for her resignation even from within the party. In the same vein. there have been numerous attempts to diminish her accomplishments and dismiss her appointment as merely a token hire. But these cynics only fail to reckon with Alhassan’s role and importance within the party.

Alhassan was born into a political family.

Her father, Abubakar Ibrahim who sired 34 offspring, joined the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) as a student in Barewa College Zaria before pitching tent with the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in the first republic. Ibrahim in 1959, was elected to the House of Representatives. He was re-elected for a second term but the mandate was truncated by the 1966 coup. Ibrahim would spend his later years as chairman of the National Peoples Party (NPN) in old Gongola State in the Second Republic, and also acted as Chairman NRC, Taraba State. He was once Chair of the Convening Committee of PDP in Taraba State in 1998.

Alhassan’s elder brother, Senator Abdulazeez Abubakar Ibrahim represented Taraba Central constituency for two terms before running unsuccessfully for governor on the platform of the ANPP and losing to the late Danbaba Suntai.

It was as a preliminary student of the Ahmadu Bello University that Alhassan would first venture into politics. At just over 18 years of age, Alhassan was elected vice president of the Student Union Government, becoming the only female in the executive council. She would later become acting president after her principal and some ex-co members were expelled from the University.

Younger sister, Zainab Ibrahim told Daily Trust, ‘’It was a family decision when my brother attempted the governorship election and lost that Aisha should be given the chance to try because she is more popular and grassroots-oriented than our first brother.’’

No shrinking violet

Alhassan’s rise to student union significance mirrors that of countless women from deeply patriarchal backgrounds who manage to score positions of influence not by open show of ambition, but by the accident of being at the right place at the right time. From Angela Merkel to Theresa May, history is replete with examples of women who went about their business as nondescript team players. These women were then ushered in to the big leagues at moments of crises, either to clean up messes created by the menfolk or because their elevation was constitutionally expedient and could not be denied.

When she decided to seek for elected office for the first time as Senator representing Taraba North, Alhassan took this model, adapted it to suit her and then turned it on its head. Alhassan is quite content adopting a low profile observing the scene and paying her dues, all the while waiting to strike when an opportune moment presents itself. Having retired voluntarily from the judiciary in 2009, Alhassan took the deep dive into her state’s political waters. She was already a card-carrying member of the PDP since 2005.

Her entry into partisan politics was quite inauspicious and she played the game quietly but shrewdly. Reverend Jolly Nyame, former governor of Taraba state was at the time godfather to virtually every politician of note in the state and it was only natural that Alhassan gravitate towards him. Alhassan’s political ascension can be traced directly to Nyame’s own decline. Locked in a hopeless feud with Suntai, his former protégé, Nyame, hustled out of the PDP, was seeking to reconsolidate his fast crumbling hold on the state. He decided a run for the Senate would make the most sense.

To hear insiders tell it, it was Nyame who encouraged Alhassan, a neophyte at the time to run against the incumbent, Manzo Anthony, a former ambassador, whom he considered a more formidable opponent. In his calculation, Alhassan would be the easier candidate to defeat at the main elections. He missed the mark. By a mile.

Alhassan put up an energetic campaign, easily outspending whatever Anthony was shelling out. Her influential family background, ability to mobilise and local political situation in Taraba’s most influential senatorial district – Anthony wasn’t particularly loved – coalesced to give her victory at the primaries. Alhassan then ran the race of her life to pull an upset victory over Nyame who ran on the APC platform. She did this by gaining Christian support even though as a Muslim she belongs to the minority.

Mama Taraba

In August, when Vice President Yemi Osinbajo arrived for a working visit to Taraba state, it was partly in response to Alhassan who some months back had led party members in her state to the APC national headquarters to protest perceived non-inclusion on the part of the federal government. ‘’No opposition party performed as well as we did since 1999, but unfortunately, apart from my appointment which is statutory and constitutional, and the ambassadorial, we still do not have any meaningful appointment, ” the minister lamented.

During the veep’s visit, Alhassan made it quite clear through her show of power, that she was the state’s most valuable player as far as the APC is concerned. She would later host a top-level reconciliatory party meeting involving Osinbajo and other party leaders in the state.

This wasn’t the first time Alhassan would dare to say her piece at times when speaking out could mean disrupting the status quo. As a Senator, she led her colleagues from Taraba to stand down the nomination of Obadiah Ando, who was hoping to return as Minister of Water Resources. In a joint press conference, Alhassan alleged non-performance on Ando’s part during his stint as Minister in the past administration as well as his inaccessibility to the people of the state. ‘’He did not even construct one borehole for his people as Minister of Water Resources.’’ She wailed.

At her confirmation hearing, before responding to the Senate President’s line of questioning, Alhassan was not above doing some politicking. She thought it important to stress that her nomination for minister was not a reward for her dropping her judicial battle to become the country’s first elected female governor.

Alhassan who is hailed widely as Mama Taraba did not come to this role by chance. Having recognised her strengths as a mobiliser, she zeroed in on that most profitable of voters bloc; women and young persons and worked to cultivate a solid following at home. These supporters followed her all the way to the Supreme Court, by way of the Appeal Court after the electoral tribunal temporarily announced her as winner of the Taraba guber polls. She lost her governorship bid but not her followers who are prepping for another run come 2019. She also gained countless admirers across the country who have been impressed by her gumption.

Lady of firsts

Ambitious women who nakedly thirst for power often have a conflicted relationship with the public. Alhassan who walks around half the time with a smile plastered on her face appears to have sidestepped the bile that usually trails such women. Her biggest public transgression occurred January last year during a contentious meeting between the federal government and the #BringBackOurGirls group. The group in a tweet, accused the minister of reeking of condescension towards the plight of the distraught parents and accused her of showing ‘’zero empathy.’’

Somehow, this hasn’t derailed her train.

Born on 16th September, 1959 in Jalingo, Alhassan was admitted to ABU, Zaria where due to the demands of being a young wife and mother, she had to switch from her science background to study Law. She was called to the bar in 1986.

After starting her career at the Kaduna state judiciary, Alhassan was transferred to the FCT Judiciary in 1992 and assumed duties as the only female Magistrate. She was appointed the first female Attorney General of Taraba State in 1997 and retired voluntarily from the FCT Judiciary as the first female Chief Registrar of the High Court in 2009.

Her tenure as minister has been largely uneventful, and it would appear that she does not find the responsibility stimulating enough. The ministry has been in the news for rehabilitation of the returned Chibok girls and not much else. Much of Alhassan’s activities, when she isn’t politicking, have revolved around advocacy visits and drumming up support for campaigns like the United Nations-sanctioned He-For-She push for gender equality (it was launched in May), the gender equality bill (didn’t fly at the national assembly) and the child rights act (has been domesticated in 24 states).

There is also the campaign for the domestication of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of 2015 (VAPP) which prohibits female genital mutilation, harmful widowhood practices, harmful traditional practices and all forms of violence against persons in both private and public life.

Redoubtable

Aisha don’t give up”

Those were President Buhari’s words of encouragement to Alhassan back in 2015 when the results of Taraba state gubernatorial elections came in and she found herself trailing Governor Darius Ishaku. It was advice she took to heart, fighting with uncommon doses of moxie, all the way to the Supreme Court.

She is still fighting.

Mama Taraba may have narrowly missed out on making history, but her eyes remain on the prize. In an interview with Channels TV’s Gbenga Ashiru on the programme, Question Time, she confirmed another run in 2019, rating her chances of winning very high. ‘’By the grace of God’’ she said, ‘’Especially since I know I won the (last election.)”

The Atiku debacle, the speaking truth to power, the power plays; both subtle and aggressive, they are all in keeping with Alhassan’s character sure enough. But they are also indicative of her political future, and the far-reaching lengths she is willing to go.

Whatever Buhari decides to do with her, it would be premature to count her out.

The lady’s not one for turning.

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