The new coming of Oluremi Tinubu By Dare Babarinsa
18 May 2023 | THE GUARDIAN
On May 29, 2023, in 11 days time, Oluremi Tinubu, wife of the President-elect, would become the First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is a position of little power but great influence. There is nothing more influential than to share the bed of the most powerful man in the land.
Oluremi Tinubu is coming to Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja, with formidable credentials and considerable clout. She is a politician of remarkable competence in her own right and she had received great mentoring from the President-elect for many years. Now she and her husband are the new tenants of Aso Rock. It is a moment of great opportunities and herculean challenges.
Oluremi Tinubu was the quiet, almost shy First Lady of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007. I had known her husband, who was quite close to Chief Moshood Abiola, the publisher of the Concord Group of Newspapers, in those early days of the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12 Abiola’s mandate.
Abiola had won the presidential election of June 12, 1993, but his victory was annulled by the dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida. That was my first meeting with Tinubu. He was handsome, fearless, cerebral, restless and truly formidable. He was the kind of young men and women you find around Abiola who regarded Tinubu as one of the rising stars of Lagos politics.
Tinubu had won a seat to the Senate but was prepared nonetheless to risk everything for Abiola. We did not know that his pillar of support was not just the influential grassroots politician, Mama Abibatu Magaji, the Iyaloja-General of Lagos, but also an iron-butterfly called Oluremi Tinubu.
Now Oluremi Tinubu is leading her team to Aso Rock. She would be a different kind of First Lady. She is the first real politician to become the First Lady of Nigeria. Others have come to learn on the job. Her predecessor, Aisha Buhari, discovered her voice at the Villa. She fought rear-guard battles trying to maintain control over her turf. I am not sure she won the war, but at least she won many battles.
It is noteworthy that Aisha Buhari was one of the most consistent supporters of Asiwaju Tinubu during the bitter struggle for power within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Few days ago, Aisha had welcomed Oluremi to the Villa, showing her round the expansive premises. A new Queen is coming to town.
In a moment of expansive reflection, President Muhammadu Buhari said his wife’s duty was “in the other room.” He was trying to emphasise that the First Lady’s duty was first and foremost to take care of the personal needs of the First Citizen. His view was misinterpreted to mean a confirmation of old biases against women who were expected to be seen and not heard.
Subsequent events showed that Aisha could not be confined to a straightjacket and she was never shy of engaging in battle those she perceived as her opponents. Her husband is a straightjacket monogamist who nonetheless is also a promoter of women in politics. He is for no one and also for everyone!
Indeed, the position of First Lady has been a pedestal of dubious utility some of the times. During the First Republic, the wives of Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa were not seen in public. They were confined to the official quarters of the Prime Minister at Onikan, Lagos, which is now used as the Lagos Office of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
We also knew of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s, First Lady, Mama Flora, mainly in the beautiful almanac that our parents hung in the sitting rooms of those days. Then the military seized power on January 15, 1966 and Victoria Ironsi, wife of Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, became the First Lady. It was an office she could not fully occupy until her husband was killed six months later on July 29, 1966.
Victoria Gowon, wartime bride of General Yakubu Gowon, was a diffident lady when she got married in 1969. She rose to the job and her prim and proper demeanor complemented her enormous influence. She was a kind and generous woman who complemented the grim realities of wartime. Her reign ended when her husband was toppled in the coup of July 29, 1975, which brought General Murtala Muhammed to power.
Ajoke, Muhammed’s First Lady, was to spend only a brief moment in the limelight until her husband was killed on February 13, 1976, during the abortive coup of Colonel Buka Suka Dimka.
When General Olusegun Obasanjo became Nigeria’s military ruler in succession to Muhammed, he refused to have an official First Lady. His wife, Esther Oluremi, did not follow him to Dodan Barracks, then the Nigerian seat of power in Lagos. Therefore, no woman was visible in the corridors of power in those days or even after President Aliyu Shehu Shagari stepped in.
Shagari had several wives but only Hadiza was seen rarely in public. Instead, the stage was left to Beatrice, the senior wife of Vice President Alex Ekwueme. When Shagari was toppled, the new regime of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari was not in the mood for what it considered an unnecessary firstladism. Buhari’s late wife, Safinatu, was rarely seen in public.
The coming to power of General Ibrahim Babangida in August 1985 also marked the return of Nigerian contemporary firstladism. Maryam, the wife of Babangida, was a formidable woman of great elegance and ambition. She set the pace with her Better Life for Rural Women programme. Every other First Lady since her eight-year reign has been following her inimitable act. She was political in a way in which a general’s wife can be and her influence was considerable. She was a powerhouse in her own right. After eight turbulent years, she yielded place to Margaret, the formidable wife of Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, Head of the Interim National Government.
Mrs. Shonekan, a highly educated woman, was a pillar of the West African Examinational Council and Head of National Office in Nigeria. She soon gave way to Maryam, the wife of the unsmiling General Sani Abacha who seized power from Shonekan in November 1993.
Maryam Abacha built her reign after that of her old rival, Mrs. Maryam Babangida. She was succeeded by the respected and respectable Justice Fati Lami Abubakar, wife of General Abdulsalami Abubakar who came to power following the sudden death of General Abacha in 1998.
The return of democratic rule in 1999 has given a new flip to the office of the First Lady. Stella Obasanjo, wife of General Olusegun Obasanjo occupied the post for almost seven years until her sudden death in 2005. When Obasanjo’s successor, President Umar Musa Yar’Adua stepped in, his wife, Turai, became the First Lady. She was to prove that dynamite comes in small packages.
Her successor, Dr. Patience Jonathan, tried to show that she and her husband ran a co-Presidency. She was visible, formidable, eloquent in her own peculiar way, witty and very politically savvy. She was a great campaigner and no one could ignore her. She was not shy about throwing her truly formidable weight around. It is the good fortune of Aisha Buhari that she came to follow the inimitable Mrs. Jonathan.
These are the forerunners that Mrs. Tinubu has to contend with. Only one of her predecessors, Mrs. Jonathan, has even served as First Lady before coming to the centre of Nigerian power. Mrs. Jonathan was First Lady in Bayelsa State where her husband was briefly the governor before he was pulled upstairs to become Vice President under President Yar’Adua. Mrs. Tinubu was First Lady for eight years in Lagos State before her election into the Senate. Now it is her turn to prove her mettle.