By Chinelo Obogo
Recently, Nigeria’s immediate past first lady, Patience Jonathan, has been enmeshed in money laundering scandal after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) accused her of embezzlement and graft. She denied any wrong doing, while accusing the Federal Government of witch-hunt and vendetta.
Patience Jonathan was first lady from February 2010 to May 29, 2015, when her husband, ex president Goodluck Jonathan, lost in the presidential election. Like her predecessors, she initiated a pet project; ‘Women for Change Initiative’. The focus of the project was to champion the cause of women and the girl child, gender equality and the affirmative action.
But she remains the most controversial first lady owing to her bluntness and perceived lack of sophistication. However, it was widely known that ‘Mama Peace’, as she was called, wielded significant influence during her husband’s administration. Within the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), it was speculated that all anyone who wanted to win the party’s primary election at any level, needed was her blessings, and the ticket was yours. Such was the level of influence she wielded. Her influence stretched to her home state, Rivers, where she once publicly stated that Nyesom Wike was going to be the next governor of the state.
During the 2015 presidential campaign, her brashness and unsophisticated mannerism got to its peak. At one of the rallies, she bluntly told the crowd of cheering women that President Muhammadu Buhari, the All Progressive Congress (APC) candidate then was brain dead, and should not be voted for.
She said in pidgin: “Wetin him dey find again? Him dey drag with him pikin mate. “Old man wey no get brain, him brain don die pata pata. If you vote Buhari, na your prison”
While the country was still grappling with the gaffe, she created yet another stir when in Calabar she urged PDP supporters to stone people chanting ‘Change’, the slogan of the opposition APC.
In yet another rally, she said Buhari was an ‘analog’ candidate who was unfit to be president and urged women not to vote for him. She described him as a relic who should go and rest for the youths to take over. She said that he ruled Nigeria during the ‘analog’ years and Nigerians do not want to go back to those years. She addressed a huge crowd calling on all women to vote Jonathan because he has given them a chance to have a say in the country and not spending all their lives in the kitchen. “We do not want to type with type writer again, we want to use computers…Buhari is an old analog who ruled Nigeria during the analog years”, she said.
At yet another rally, she told women that if they voted for Buhari, he would send them to prison. She said: “What did they forget in Aso rock? If you vote PDP and Jonathan, it would be better for you. If you vote APC, you will go to prison. How can you jail somebody for 300 years? I’m not ready to carry food to my husband inside prison oh! As the wife of the President, if you are good, people will love you. You will have a Non-Governmental Organisation through which you will touch people’s lives. That is why I brought Women for Change Initiative.”
The EFCC’s case against her
The discovery of over $15 million in her account was a product of investigations into a money laundering case against a former Special Adviser on Domestic Affairs to ex-President Jonathan, Waripamowei Dudafa, to whom the EFCC had traced four company accounts which were frozen. A houseboy, driver and other domestic workers of Dudafa were named as directors, but Patience’s $15m was lodged in the accounts. She was reportedly given a special card with which she reportedly made withdrawals from the accounts across the world.
A Federal High court sitting in Lagos made a fresh order freezing multiple accounts suspected to be owned by Mrs. Jonathan and also suspected to be proceeds of crime. The account, with Skye Bank Plc, has a balance of $5,316.66. Also affected by the order are five companies and one Esther Oba. The companies are believed to have a total of N7,418,829,290.94 in six banks, while Oba has a balance of $429,381.87. The order by the court was consequent upon an ex-parte motion filed by EFCC prosecutor, Rotimi Oyedepo.
He contended that there was an urgent need for the court to direct the bank to, in the interim, freeze the accounts, to prevent further dissipation of the money.
The five companies affected are Finchley Top Homes Limited, Aribawa Aruera, Magel Resort Limited, AM -PM Global Network Limited, Pansy Oil and Gas Limited.
But Mrs. Jonathan has said that the EFCC has no case against her, and accused the Federal Government of witch-hunt and harassment. She said that the monies found in the accounts were gift from friends and well wishers and had committed no wrong in accepting them.
But is the case against Mrs. Jonathan vendetta or witch-hunt? And have other first ladies gotten similar treatment from successive governments? Is it payback for Mrs Jonathan’s reckless comments during the campaigns? A lawyer, Martins Agoziem does not think so. He said first ladies play significant roles in shaping the political processes in their countries, and it is usually expected that they put their acts in order as their roles demand. According to him, when most Nigerians think of a First lady, the image of one who uses her position for purposes of personal aggrandisement, rather than for furthering the interests of women comes to mind.
He said: “I am not one of those that believe that the investigation of Mrs. Jonathan is a witch-hunt because of the things she said against the president during the last elections. The question that people should ask is what job was she doing that she could amass such wealth within a short period of time? We should stop being sentimental and give her trial any ethnic coloration. If such money was found on her, she should tell the country how she got it.”
The experience of Patience Jonathan brings into perspective the actions of past first ladies.
Not much has been heard from Maryam Abacha, the former first lady and widow of the late dictator, General Sani Abacha who was military head of state from 1993 to 1998. When she held sway as first lady, she initiated her pet project ‘Family Economic Advancement Programme’ (FEAP), which was targeted at improving the lives of women and children.
After her husband’s death in June 1998, Mrs.Abacha allegedly attempted to leave Nigeria with suitcases filled with money. She was reportedly arrested, placed on 24-hour surveillance, and banned from leaving Nigeria. Despite the brutality, human rights abuse and embezzlement carried out during her husband’s regime, Mrs. Abacha has always insisted that her husband acted in the best interest of Nigeria. Her statement fuelled speculations that she was trying to get reprieve from the then president Obasanjo, who was jailed by General Abacha..
The late Stella, wife of ex President Olusegun Obasanjo held sway as First lady from May 29, 1999 before her death on October 23, 2005. She was known for her pet project, ‘Child care Trust’, which sought to improve the welfare of children. During her time as First lady, she carried out many philanthropic activities and tried to further the interests of women and children. She was also known for her style and glamour, but died after complications that arose from a cosmetic surgical procedure abroad. Mrs. Obasanjo had her own share of controversies. She was criticised for living an extravagant life, and Midwest Herald newspaper once ran an article accusing her of organising the sale of 207 government-owned properties to her relatives at reduced prices. This attracted widespread criticism for her ostentatious displays of wealth and lavish lifestyle.
Turai, the wife of the late President Musa Yar’Adua was First lady between May 29, 2007 until the death of her husband in 2010. The late Yar’adua had contested elections on the platform of the PDP against President Muhammadu Buari and won. Like her predecessors before her, Turai wielded so much influence in her husband’s administration and called the shots.
The extent of wealth she has was not known until late last year when the Police command in Katsina arrested one of her aides, Yusuf Sarkin-gida, for stealing N91 million worth of goods belonging to her after she lodged a complaint to the police. The suspect had been the custodian of all Turai’s keys and property for many years even before her late husband became governor of Katsina State.
Shortly after the inauguration of President Buhari’s administration in 2015, the EFCC commenced the probe of Zainab Dakingari, Turai’s daughter and wife of former Kebbi State governor, Saidu Dakingari. She was said to have been invited to explain the huge sums of money allegedly siphoned through her companies when she was the First lady of Kebbi State.
Later that year, Turai was reported to have visited ex president Olusegun Obasanjo, where she pleaded with him to forgive her and her family for whatever wrong was done to him (Obasanjo) during her late husband’s tenure. She was also reported to have pleaded with Obasanjo to prevail on President Buhari not to harass or victimise her family members or those who worked with her husband. She was reported to have specifically mentioned the probe of one of her daughters, Zainab, by the EFCC. She believed that it was harassment and witch-hunt by the Buhari administration to get at her family.
Other African first ladies
A report on Feminist Africa, a publication of African Gender Institute states that the first lady phenomenon has created a dynamic political space which has been appropriated and used by the wives and friends of men in power for purposes of personal aggrandisement, rather than for furthering the interests of women.
When most people think of an African First lady, the image that comes to mind is that of Grace Mugabe, the wife of the long serving President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. She has been consistently criticised of living an ostentatious lifestyle, and shopping for luxury goods while the economy of her country is going down.
In Swaziland in 2008, eight of the Swazi King Mswati III’s 13 wives, accompanied by children, maids and bodyguards, chartered a plane for a world tour to countries including France, Italy, Taiwan and the US. According to the Times of Swaziland, they reportedly spent about $6 million from public coffers, and the report elicited so much outcry that Swazi women took to the streets to protest.
In South Africa, one of Jacob Zuma’s three wives caused a scandal by sleeping with her bodyguard. While in Malawi, first lady Ethel Mutharika had a Taj Mahal-style mausoleum built in her name.
The late Imelda Marcos, the wife of the late Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos was known for her expensive fashion and trips abroad, and was often remembered for owning over 3000 pairs of shoes.