By Alabi Williams (Opinion)
There is no constitutional designation for the position of First Lady, but it exits as part of the organogram of any state house, be it in Aso Rock, or in the 36 states of the federation. Even local government chairmen and the sole administrators that are handpicked by governors, who are afraid to conduct council elections, parade their own first ladies. They are always there, ubiquitous and ready to create their parallel structures to service their ‘pet’ projects.
At one time, when there was an issue between two former first ladies, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua and her successor, Patience Jonathan, over a piece of choice land in Abuja, tempers flared over why that office should exist in the first place, and why it was being flaunted rambunctiously in the faces of Nigerians. Some Nigerians did not even attempt to hear the details of that face-off, but were peeved by what appeared to be an obnoxious use of an office that was not provided for in the Constitution. Spare them the details! Why should two first ladies fight over a piece of land, to the extent that it became a subject of national embarrassment? That led to another round of debate on whether we really need the Office of First Lady.
The arguments went back and forth, with proponents making a good case with that of the United States, where the First Lady remains very visible, active, even though not constitutionally empowered. The U.S. first lady, according to Wikipedia, is the hostess of the White House, the seat of government and she is in charge of all social and ceremonial events of the White House. She has her own staff, and that includes the White House Social Secretary, a Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, Chief Floral Designer, Executive Chef, among several others. There is an office, even though unofficial and there are activities to be carried out, as well as, monies to be spent. The office, by last check, does not come with a salary, yet, the first lady is expected to be very gorgeous, and charming.
The details of the sources of wealth of a U.S. first lady are not very clear, but the occupant of that office, as well as, her husband are very mindful of ethical issues. The office is one of influence and if care is not taken to preserve its integrity, the first lady could make a fortune by fixing meetings, arranging contracts and living on percentages. The details are not very clear, but access to official money is watertight and reason why American public keep guessing how their first ladies dress well and look good. And in extreme cases, citizens are provoked to ask for sources of wealth. The point is that even in the U.S., this debate is still work in progress.
Here at home, if you ask me, I think it will make more sense to officially create an office for the first lady, so that we are able to track the activities and what it costs to run the office. The office exists as a structure in the office of chairman of the local government, governor and president. It is there physically and draws resources from the state. It will be in the interest of transparency to make the office accessible to auditors.
The case at hand is that of Mrs. Patience Jonathan, who is alleged to have amassed huge sums to her personal benefit, while she was the occupant of an office that does not exist constitutionally. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is now on her case, working to establish that her assets, some of which have been frozen, were not earned legitimately, and that she profited unjustly from her position as first lady. My concern here is not whether anybody is guilty, because that is the job of the judiciary. My concern is that the system makes it possible for any first lady to benefit unduly from where she is put. In local parlance, they say you cannot live so close to the river and wash yourself with spittle. The office of first lady is a big office and not just that of the one at Aso Rock. If we are privy to know what first ladies have helped themselves with in all the 36 states and local governments since 1999, maybe that of Patience would be mild. We are talking of a period, when there was no accountability and transparency was zero. Between 1999 and 2003, it was an era when there were no checks, no EFCC. There was no BVN to trace who was transferring what sums out of state houses. Wives of governors ran their own projects and foundations. Nobody asked where they got monies to run their activities. It was the era of overseas training for wives of governors and even wives of council chairmen.
The field was wide open in those early years and remains so, even in this era of change for any wife to peddle influence and extort monies. During elections, wives of governors could be very influential. If you want to run for an office and you have the ears of the first lady of your state, it will give you some advantage. But you have to appreciate her kindness one way, or the other. The story is told of some who brazenly put a price on every intervention or assistance they render. If such payments are huge enough at the end of the day to put up a state of the art hotel in say, Yenagoa, or Port Harcourt, how will the EFCC classify that to be a product of theft or ill-gotten wealth? In the listing of offices in part 11 of the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 constitution, as amended, for the purpose of code of conduct, the office of the first lady was never mentioned. It does not exist. But we know it is the unofficial number two position, before that of the vice president, or deputy governor. Some deputy governors take orders from their Oga’s wives and woe betide anyone who challenges their majesties. Their husbands are emperors and they too are in charge.
Going forward, we expect to see serious changes. When the wife of the current president, Aisha Buhari promised not to collect toll from visitors to Aso Rock, before they are allowed to see Mr. President, we looked forward to breathing fresh air. But there are many ways tolls can be mounted. If the wife of a president launches a book, for instance, and governors and other politically exposed persons come to make huge donations, such are ethically suspicious. The code of conduct in the Fifth Schedule of our constitution is very clear about gifts in public offices. The wife of Mr. President generously makes trucks and trucks of donations of essential commodities to camps of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Good intention, but what are the sources of these donations, that are clearly not appropriated in the 2016 budget? If they are gifts from businessmen and so-called philanthropists, who also happen to be patrons of government, then care must be taken, so that in future, when auditors pry into the books, nobody will cry that they are being witch-hunted.
Hilary Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton had to explain over and again that their Foundation did not engage in quid pro quo arrangements with benefactors. It is a big integrity issue in saner climes, but here, we carry on as if only Patience Jonathan and those who have fallen out of government are the ones who are susceptible. You cannot keep yam with a goat and expect it not to eat. You must keep the yam from harm. The opaqueness of the system we operate makes it easy to blur the lines between crime and punishment. Even the assets declaration process prescribed in the constitution is malleable. Many people in government operate foundations and pet projects to hide their sins from the public.
In conclusion, let this exposure on Patience Jonathan not be limited to her, so that more persons can learn lessons.