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Much Noise, Little Impact: Story of First Ladies’ Pet Projects

pet-pro-1It was all pomp and circumstance when the wife of the President, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, hosted prominent Nigerians at the old Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, for the launch of her book, ‘The Essentials of Beauty Therapy: A Complete Guide for Beauty Therapy.’

The event garnered a lot of media attention.

It was April 14, 2016, exactly two years since about 276 Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents from their dormitory.  Over 200 of the girls have yet to be found.

However, according to her, proceeds from the book launch would be sent to the parents of the over 200 abducted Chibok schoolgirls and those of the boys abducted in Buni Yadi.

This was, perhaps, a demonstration of the philosophy of her pet project, ‘Future Assured,’ which she launched recently in Abuja.

Though Mrs. Buhari has said she doesn’t want to be referred to as the First Lady, she is said to be operating from the Office of the First Lady in the Presidential Villa, where her predecessors operated from, including the immediate past First Lady, Mrs. Patience Jonathan.

The office is said to be located beside the official residence of the President.

During the launch, Mrs. Buhari, had spoken of her commitment to improving maternal health care and reducing the rate of infant mortality in the country, stating that the wife of a leader has the responsibility to assist her husband in various ways because he is busy with state affairs.

This, she said, informed her decision to float her pet project, ‘Future Assured.’

She said, “I decided to come up with a project called ‘Future Assured’ to help in reducing maternal and infant mortality rate and support girl-child education.

“The project is also to enlighten parents on how to restrain their children from being indoctrinated into social vices. Monitoring daily activities and control of every child is a unique family affair.

“We need to educate women on how to control their children in order to avoid a situation where they would fall victims of indoctrination to social vices inimical to the society.”

Since then, the President’s wife has been travelling to states, recently to Cross River State, to meet with state governors’ wives for them to support her project in their states.

Meanwhile, at her April 14 event, guests who appeared to help her launch her book refused to disclose their donations, unlike what was obtained in the past.

Though Mrs. Buhari said her decision to present the book on the day of the Chibok girls abduction anniversary was to contribute to the support of victims of insurgency, particularly mothers and children, as well as malnourished kids across the country, there are criticisms that she shouldn’t have launched a beauty therapy book on such a date.

“Mrs. Buhari should be criticised for her insensitivity, launching a book on the Chibok anniversary. The idea of celebrating something as vain as ‘beauty’ seems frivolous when compared to the harrowing experience the 219 abducted young women must be going through,” an author, Ms. Abimbola Adelakun, wrote in an article, ‘Mrs. Buhari’s hustle.’

She added, “The very day Mrs. Buhari was gathering a crowd of Nigerians wealthy enough to be sheltered from the ugliness that characterises the Nigerian social landscape — no light, no fuel, no money, no jobs, no joy, no hope — the United States Congress addressed the issue of the missing Chibok girls, promising they would do all they could to bring them back.

“You would think it is their country’s personal tragedy. In a number of places in different parts of the world, schoolchildren, politicians, artistes, and ordinary folk sent words of solidarity to Nigeria, joining hands in global humanitarianism. Here in Nigeria? The wife of the President launched a book on ‘beauty therapy’ before a crowd whose lives were already too privileged to ever need her book.”

A Nigerian communications expert and women rights advocate based in London, Dr. (Mrs.) Doyin Adeoye, also told Saturday PUNCH via LinkedIn that it was worrisome that Mrs. Buhari’s event got a lot of media coverage on “something that has little impact” on the lives of girls in the country.

She said, “I can’t yet seem to fathom how a beauty therapy book launch would impact the lives of Nigerian girls or rescue the Chibok schoolgirls from the hands of their abductors. What surprised me was that that event got a lot more attention than it deserved.

“The First Lady and her guests showed no sign of mourning of sort. They were all dressed gorgeously, in a posh banquet hall, with perhaps a lot of food and drinks to go round, making merry. But our girls are out there, languishing in the hands of Boko Haram. On a business sense, her book launch was good, but on a moral note, it’s bad.”

The Office of the First Lady

Though the First Lady is an unofficial title and unrecognised in the constitution, its position has traditionally been held by the wife of the President, concurrent with his term of office.

The position carries no official duties, but over the years, the First Lady has been known to organise and attend official ceremonies and functions of state either along with, or in place of, the President.

According to experts, the position is largely one of status, as First Ladies have held influence in a range of sectors, from fashion to public opinion on policy.

An author, Mrs. Ngozi Iheanacho, in an article titled, ‘First Ladies in Nigeria: The Rise of Amazon Crusaders for Better Life of the Vulnerable,’ critically examined the roles of First Ladies in the country.

She described the position of the First Lady as “a modern political import to Nigeria.”

The status and operations of Nigerian First Ladies date back to 1987, which the late Mrs. Maryam Babangida founded when her husband, Major General Ibrahim Babangida, was the military president.

Prior to 1987, the wives of Nigerian leaders — Presidents, Prime Minister, Heads of State and governors or military administrators — existed as “mere wives.”

But this changed when Mrs. Babangida came on board.

Through her Better Life Programme for Rural Women, with an avalanche of pet projects across Nigeria, the status of the First Lady became reckoned as important and crucial in the country’s political economy.

Conscious of the absence of constitutional backing for the operations, BLPRW was incorporated and became a non-governmental organisation, targeted at transforming the lives of the vulnerable in the country, especially the women.

Sequel to Mrs. Babangida’s legacy, the position of the First Lady has become popular and ‘officially’ recognised in the structure and chain of political leadership at the three tiers of governance, especially at the federal and state levels.

Like Amazons, they have continued to rise in fame, with exotic paraphernalia of office and pet projects.

After Mrs. Babangida, Nigeria has had other influential First Ladies, especially at the federal level, including Mrs. Maryam Abacha (1993-1998). She also ran a pet project named the Family Support Programme/Family Economic Advancement Programme.

Others were Hon. Justice Fati Abubakar (1998-1999), who ran the Women’s Right Advancement and Protection Alternative; Mrs. Stella Obasanjo (1999-2007), who ran the Child Care Trust; Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua (2007-2010), who ran the Women und Youth Empowerment Foundation.

The immediate past First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan (2010-2015), ran the Women for Change Initiative.

Some of these First Ladies were, however, criticised, for using their crusade platforms for political campaigns and money-making ventures and having excesses in the use of state connections, power and meddlesomeness in their husband’s administrations.

Present First Ladies in states and their pet projects

Virtually every state governor’s wife in the country now runs one pet project or the other. Here’s a look at some of the First Ladies’ pet projects:

In Abia State, the First Lady of the state, Mrs. Nkechi Ikpeazu, runs a pet project, Vicar Hope Foundation, aimed primarily at providing accommodation for widows in the state.

Recently, six indigent widows and a blind man became owners of a bungalow each, with Mrs. Ikpeazu saying that the project was in line with her passion towards assisting and bringing succour to indigent widows and other less-privileged persons in the society.

“This is in line with my covenant with God and the objective of my pet project, which would complement that of the government, in providing succour to this class of people, who have no one to help them have a decent accommodation,” she had said during the handing over of the buildings to the beneficiaries.

She also said that the funds used for the project were from donations to her foundation.

As for Mrs. Martha Emmanuel, the First Lady of Akwa Ibom State, she recently said that more than forty youths in the state had benefited from her Family Empowerment and Youths Reorientation Programme.

According to her, beneficiaries had got items ranging from hair dressing equipment, to sewing machines, to fashion designing and barbing salon kits, as well as generators.

She added that her programme sought to stem the tide of teenage pregnancy and encourage girl-child education in the state.

The First Lady has, however, been said to use her foundation to sponsor 155 widows to Jerusalem, Israel to pray for the revival of the country’s economic misfortune.

“Mrs. Emmanuel believes that God listens to prayers from widows very quickly. The women visited most places Jesus prayed during trying times. Emmanuel also donated N250,000 to widows for empowerment in her FEYRep programme,” a source said.

Apart from this, a resident, Mrs. Evelyn Etim said of the First Lady’s pet project, “Mrs. Emmanuel recently sent some orphans whose ailments could not be treated in Nigeria abroad for medical treatment. She is actually working. We have to cooperate with her if we want better things to come from her.”

But for Mrs. Glory Ita, “I only hear people talk about Mrs. Emmanuel’s empowerment programme. I have yet to see the programme, but if the woman is doing something for her party members, does this attract accolades from members of the public? Why I’m saying this is that there has been so much noise about the woman’s empowerment programme just like that of her predecessor, Mrs. Unoma Akpabio.”

Also, Mrs. Okon Etim said, “As for me, I don’t see anything special about empowerment programmes by wives of governors. Hope this will not be another means of siphoning money out of the system? What I have found out in our rulers is that they can’t do or give something that won’t benefit them.”

The First Lady of Bayelsa State, Dr. (Mrs.) Rachael Dickson, said her dream is for every girl in the state to be educated. This, she said, prompted her to launch the Friday Konyefas Foundation, which she named after her late father, Friday Konyefas.

She stated that her dream is to declare war against girl-child illiteracy and to help young women who have long abandoned education to embrace schooling again.

But a cross-section of women, who spoke to the Saturday PUNCH, said that the project had yet to impact their lives.

A restaurateur,  Mrs. Judith Smith, said she had not heard about the governor’s wife’s pet project let alone benefitting from it.

“I do not know if she has any project. So, the issue of impacting on my life does not arise,” she said.

A recent trip to Lagos of the First Lady of Borno State, Mrs. Nana Shettima,  where she was spotted with a 60-member official entourage, was criticised by many people, especially coming from a state where over 450 children have died of malnutrition in Internally Displaced Persons camps as a result on the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Shettima runs the Support for Women, Orphans and Tsangaya Foundation, which recently presented wrappers to women in the state, according to reports.

She has also reportedly empowered 500 less-privileged women in the state with soft loans to enable them to start petty trading.

Dr. (Mrs.) Lynda Ayade of Cross River State recently launched her pet project, the Mediatrix Foundation, which is geared at providing care to women and children in the state.

Her project was launched by the wife of the President, Mrs. Buhari, when the latter visited Cross River State to launch her Future Assured project.

Mrs. Ayade lamented that women still patronise unskilled birth attendants, prayer houses, and churches despite the free health programme made available to them.

“The ugly trend must be stopped in our society. Infant mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 live births. This high maternal and mortality rate contributes to the national picture and, therefore, is totally unacceptable,” she had said.

In Edo State, Mrs. Iara Oshiomhole, said her love for children made her to name her pet project We Care Trust, which has a mission of caring for the underprivileged Nigerian children.

On the occasion of the launching of her project, over N137m was reportedly raised from pledges and cash donations from donors such as business tycoon, Aliko Dangote.

The First Lady of Imo State, Mrs. Nkechi Okorocha’s wife’s pet project, She Needs A Roof Programme, is perhaps one which has the most media attention among others in Nigeria today.

As the vice-president of her husband’s many organisations, in addition to being a businesswoman and author herself, Mrs. Okorocha recently disclosed that about N370m had been expended by her project to provide furnished homes to 126 indigent women in the state.

Stating that each house cost N3m, she added that her SNARP, which started in 2011, had become successful because “God is using me and my team as vessels to provide homes for these poor women in our state.”

However, her pet project has attracted lots of criticisms, with some saying she had turned it into a personal business as against helping the poor and helpless.

A source who spoke to Saturday PUNCH alleged that at the commissioning of the buildings being handed over to the beneficiaries, Mrs. Okorocha usually uses the opportunity to compel members of the Imo State House of Assembly, Local Government Area chairmen administrators, government appointees, and political office aspirants to donate handsomely in support of her project, which they usually do.

Mrs. Okorocha’s media aide, Mrs. Nkechi Ezirim, did not pick our correspondent’s calls and did not respond to text messages forwarded to her to seek a response.

Some women in the state, who spoke to one of our correspondents, said they were worried about the sustainability of Mrs. Okorocha’s pet project at the end of her tenure.

A businesswoman, Mrs. Ogechi Abata, who hails from Umuohiagu in Ngor Okpala LGA, commended the First Lady, but lamented such programmes were usually not sustained at the end of the tenure of the initiators.

She said, “Ex-Governor Ohakim’s wife, Chioma, came with her EWAYI. She mobilised all the women in the state, constructed a two-storey building, but as soon as her husband left, the programme collapsed. The uncompleted building is still there and serving no purpose.”

Mrs. Ngozi Adikuru from Umuozu in Isiala Mbano also feared that the First Lady’s pet project was not sustainable.

“It is not enough to begin a centre, but to finish it that matters,” she simply said.

Mrs. Olufunso Amosun, the First Lady of Ogun State, runs the UPLIFT Development Foundation, which she has often said is not a pet project.

Among others, the foundation caters to the aged, women and the development of youths in the state.

The First Lady of Ondo State, Mrs. Olukemi Mimiko, runs a pet project named the Maternal Pulse Foundation, which caters to the health care of children and offers free cancer screening to women in the state.

About 1,000 women had been screened so far, according to her recently.

However, there are mixed reactions over the First Lady’s foundation.

Some women told Saturday PUNCH that the beneficiaries of the foundation were only a set of selected women.

A groceries seller, Mrs. Sijuwola James, said she was one of the 1,000 women who benefited from free cervical cancer screening under the auspices of the MPF in 2013.

But as for Mrs. Felicia Adigun, a poultry farmer, the MPF has not had not much impact on women in the state, “save only a few politicians’ wives.”

She said, “We just hear about it on the radio and television, we don’t really know how it is being operated. We know that of the state government with free medical service at the Mother and Child hospital. That one has impact on many women. But Maternal Purse Foundation, to me, has no impact.”

Like her counterparts, Mrs. Sherifat Aregbesola of Osun State runs the Sheri Care Foundation, whose activities revolve around caring for the aged, the needy, the physically challenged, widows and youths in the state.

However, residents might have yet to feel the impact of the First Lady.

A resident, Juliet Adekagun, said, “To be frank, I don’t know anything about her pet project, but I like the personality of the First Lady. She is unassuming and likeable, but I don’t know what she is doing.

“I am sure she also has a pet project because I watched her one time, but the project has nothing to do with me and maybe that is why I don’t know anything about it. If her project is something that affects the lives of the majority of the women, I am sure I would have known about it even if I am not a beneficiary.”

Another resident of Osogbo, Mrs. Folasade Adepoju, said, “The government here has failed us; both the husband and wife. I don’t have any problem with the wife because nobody voted for her, but I am not feeling the impact of her project.”

Huge money, poor impact

Apart from grants from international organisations such as the United Nations, some of these first ladies usually state that the funds used in running their pet projects come as donations from well-meaning Nigerians.

Be that as it may, experts have criticised them that despite all the attention their pet projects usually get, they have failed to impact many lives of those they say they look after.

The women rights advocate, Mrs. Adeoye, said, “My problem with them is the kind of coverage they get for doing little. I understand, they need to impress lots of people and foreign agencies in order to get donations. They need to show they’re working.

“Recently, the wife of the Vice-President, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo, was seen flying a presidential jet to an Internally Displaced Persons camp to distribute just some cartons of noodles and probably some other food items. I’m not blaming them for anything, actually. But if they are doing little, why show the world as if you’re doing so much?”

A Calabar-based legal practitioner, Mr. Donald Archibong, has faulted the establishments of pet projects by governors’ wives.

According to Archibong, pet projects are drains to the lean resources available to states.

He said, “Pet projects are good examples of the drains in the system. If the President or governors’ wives are sincere about pet projects, why have they not initiated moves to institutionalise them so that they could continue after they leave?

“Look at Mrs. Mariam Babangida’s pet project — Better Life for Rural Women — it was a good project, but it did not see the light of the day after the husband left power. These projects are all waste of money and manpower. They are simply not necessary.”

A former governorship candidate of the Progressives Peoples Alliance in the 2011 elections, Mr. Goddie Akpama, alleged that pet projects are “conduit ” used by governors to siphon state funds through their wives.

Akpama said, “They are conduit for governors to enrich their wives. Why can’t the wife of the Cross River State governor, for instance, key into any of the programmes of the ministry of health instead of replicating what agencies and parastatal are doing in the name of pet project?

“It is not necessary at all as the projects are attached with so many appointed aides. The governor will always channel so much money to pet projects by their wives. It is an avenue to steal money.”

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