Twenty one of the original 279 abducted Chibok Girls were released last week in a brokered: deal/swap/negotiation/exchange/ransom/agreement/good faith concession/knocking on the door/rewarding persistence/humanitarian gesture/between a rock and a hard place/tori don get K leg/sai Buhari/election promise/does it even matter how? Move.
Girls everywhere, parents, and nations are grateful and there is hope that this will be the first of many releases, until there are no more abductees in captivity anywhere.
Top marks to the administration of Mr. Buhari for persistence, sticking with the objective and keeping its cool under intense criticism… but the job is far from begun. This is the first time in 30 months that the government has made a breakthrough on this matter. The first 53 girls took their lives into their own hands and jumped from the moving trucks whisking them away into an unknown darkness. The next girl, two years later, used her wits to plot her escape and was discovered in the nick of time. But this is good news from the Buhari government.
And it has been a remarkable week.
The story of the released Chibok Girls was virtually over shadowed by the news of Mrs. Aisha Buhari’s interview with the BBC and her husband President Muhamadu Buhari’s response to it. This really dampened the goodwill he could have reaped from having his spouse, life partner, ‘jewel of inestimable worth’ apologies to the late great HID, welcome the girls in his absence, while he was on a state visit to Germany as a guest of the inimitable Angela Merkel. Instead it was Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and his wife Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo who officially received the 21 and presided over the press conference where few it seemed could hold back their tears.
Mrs. Buhari’s open criticism of her husband, which was broadcast to the whole world, stated that he did not know a majority of the people he was appointing to run his government, that a small cabal was fielding names of people for appointments and that the president did not know enough about these individuals. Aisha Buhari explained that she had been married to her husband for 27 years and in that time had not met many of the people presently appointed to his cabinet. She implied that the reins of government were slipping from his grasp to people who had not been in the trenches while the campaign for her husband’s election was being fought and who therefore did not know what the party had committed itself to do. Aisha Buhari said if things continued to go this way, she would not, as she had done before, throw herself into campaigning for her husband should he seek re election. In between the lines, Aisha Buhari was saying that if her husband did not make some fundamental change, he was unlikely to garner enough votes to win a reelection.
I stand to be corrected but this kind of comment, publicly issued, is unprecedented for the spouse of a president anywhere and while that is significant in itself, it is the import of her words that makes it critical, never mind the kerfuffle about whether she should have spoken where she did.
Mr. Buhari’s response to this was “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”
In all the rooms Mr. Buhari listed in dismissing his wife’s remarks, kitchen, living and “other,” he did not indicate that there was a special one for husband’s to listen to their wives, because of course, there isn’t. Social media has been full of cartoons with references to pillow talk gone wrong, based on the assumption that a pillow is being shared. The convention many Nigerian women are brought up on is that wives must find “a quiet space” and time, to gently point out to a husband, alternative approaches he might want to consider taking, in handling a particular matter. Women are enjoined never to contradict or criticise their husbands where even “two or three are gathered.” But it is a truism, long held, that when you close yourself off to useful advice, you will get to hear it, or feel it, in a way you did not expect. And perhaps because the interview was conducted in Hausa, Aisha Buhari could not imagine anybody else hearing it. I don’t know, I can only speculate. But if we compare the last two heads of state, here is one example where Goodluck Jonathan could teach Muhamadu Buhari a thing or two: It is important to keep Madam Missis happy! Bottom line, this is a 27-year-old marriage with one spouse finding a way to tell the other what he or she has refused to hear. What else is new?
But to the import of what Aisha Buhari said: This is not the first time a Nigerian administration has been run by a cabal and those lessons cannot have faded from memory so soon. Turai Yar’Adua tried to hide the truth about her husband, the late Umaru Yar‘Adua from the people and government of Nigeria and run the country’s affairs as she directed, never mind that she had not the right or authority to do so. Inner circles, of every ethnic and religious hue, and economic class, have leveraged their access to power for decades in Nigeria, whether the leadership was garbed in khaki or agbada. The price we have paid and are still paying for that is clear for even the blind to see.
Even were it not so in this particular case and Aisha Buhari is using a metaphor to hide discontent with some other ambiguous issue, it is clear that there is a communication gulf between the president and the cabinet he took six months to appoint.
Bihari, in his own words, articulated the central problem in his response: He claims superior knowledge over his wife because he tried four times, all by himself, to become president, taking his quest to the highest court in the land three times and failing before he succeeded.
That is not the full story. Mr. Buhari became president because of a concerted effort to put together an alliance that would defeat the PDP and ignite a campaign that Nigerians could rally around. He was elected in spite of doubts that he could break out of his thirty year old mould and be the herald of a new approach to governance anchored on a system of accountability that would be the beginning of responsible government in Nigeria. This is in sum the mission of his cabinet.
In electing Buhari, Nigerians bucked a historic trend and ousted an incumbent. These same Nigerians have the manpower and zeal to make a better country for themselves. Mr. Buhari needs to harness this and do what he was elected to do.
Next item: how about a nice smiling portrait of the Nigerian first family that we can all hang up on our walls?