The Transformative Influence of the Greatest of African First Ladies
O Mariama My Darling Mariama
Mariama, me woman
I’ll forever be your man
–Bongos Ikwue and the Groovies , 1978
By Frank Tietie
Maryam Babangida, Nigeria’s most glamorous First Lady (from 1985 to 1993), was a woman of immense charm, indeed charismatic, full of compassion and an epitome of African black beauty, will be forever remembered for her love for the Nigerian women folk.
Mrs Babangida, by the way she carried herself as First Lady, was a silent source of pride to many Nigerians, cutting across all genders, age, tribes and religions, including the harshest critics of her controversial husband, General Ibrahim Babangida, former Military President of Nigeria.
The Asaba born woman dazzled many Nigerians and melted hearts with her undeniable love-in-action for the ordinary, local Nigerian woman through her Better Life Programme for Rural Women.
She practically crisscrossed the length and breadth of Nigeria campaigning and engaging local Nigerian women on how to improve their living conditions through application of crafts, life skills, adult education and integration into government programmes.
Despite her flamboyance, Mrs Babangida’s down-to-earthedness endeared her to so many hearts and left indelible marks in the minds of many.
The influence of Mrs Babangida’s works was so enduring that the motto of the Citizens’ Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights (CASER), “Human Rights for Better Life” was adopted from the name of project, Better Life Programme for Rural Women.
Mrs Babangida’s love for women must have been influenced by her close connections with her mother, Hajiya Asabe Halima Mohammed who married her Father, Leonard Okogwu, an Igbo man from Asaba.
The young Maryam must have wished in her heart to improve the state of the Northern women she grew up with in Niger State, other parts of Northern Nigeria and later, the various Army barracks where she lived with her husband. And by providence she was to later assume a position to fulfil her wishes for Nigerian women.
In fact, unknown to many Nigerians, Mrs Babangida had always been a compassionate and action oriented woman. She was reported to have used her position as the President of Nigerian Army Officers Wives Association (NAOWA) in 1983, to greatly improve the living standards of the wives of Nigerian soldiers when her husband was Chief of Army Staff.
She was so loved by many Nigerians that her reported death in 2009 at the age of 61 shook the entire Nigeria and threw the nation into deep mourning.
It was reported that she died on her hospital bed in the USA with her husband, General Babangida, by her side. The then Senate President, David Mark cried uncontrollably on hearing the news of her death. Such were the immense love and influence she had on people, in general.
Maryam Babangida showed the world, in the most positive and effective manner how the office of the First Lady can be used to touch, improve and heal a nation.
Other succeeding First Ladies could have achieved the same impact as she did if there was constitutional recognition for the Office of the First Lady and serious budgetary allocations were made to it.
The present administration of President Buhari must realize the powerful potentials of the office of the First Lady.
It is therefore suggested that the President must at this moment, fully equip and deploy the First Lady, Aisha Buari to embark on a campaign of hope and national reconciliation in the face of Nigeria’s present struggles.
Given the chance and support, Aisha Buhari by her antecedents of being a forthright and outspoken woman, is capable of mobilising Nigerian men and woman across political divides, to rekindle faith in Nigeria and work for its future greatness.
Maryam Babangida succeeded greatly because of the support and freedom she enjoyed under the leadership of her husband, the then Military President. Aisha Buhari can succeed even much more with that kind of support.
May the memory of Maryam Babangida remain forever blessed in our hearts.
–Tietie, lawyer and Executive Director CASER
writes from Abuja.