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“It’s time for first ladies’ impunity to stop”: Femi Falana speaks out

Femi Falana says retired judges should handle election petition cases

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“It’s time for first ladies’ impunity to stop”: Femi Falana speaks out

by Dare Lawal

Patience Jonathan has turned out to be one of the most divisive figures in the polity today. She has admirers and critics in large numbers. However it seems that these days, critics of the Nigerian first lady and her style grow daily in their numbers. The reason is not far-fetched. As the first lady continues to play a partisan role in the economy, Nigerians would assess her in a partisan manner and there are very few politicians who have a high favourability rating in the eyes of the public.

One person who has consistently picked issues with not just the Mrs. Jonathan, but also first ladies in various government houses who carry over what he considers to be their “impunity”, is senior lawyer, Femi Falana. He spoke to the Punch recently strictly on that subject, and he had quite a lot to say.

Read the interview below: 

What does the Nigerian constitution say about the office of the First Lady and what are the roles assigned to the occupant?

The post of the First Lady is not a creation of the constitution. In other words, there is no mention or reference to the post in the constitution or any other statute in the land. So, the question of assigning responsibilities to the office does not arise. In the first and second republics, there was no office of the First Lady. Even under successive military regimes up to the Muhammadu Buhari/Tunde Idiagbon era, the post was unknown. It was under the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida junta that the wife of the military president created the post, albeit illegally. There was no decree to back it up. When the late Mrs. Maryam Babangida (known as Maryam the First) started diverting public funds to run her Better Life project, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, challenged the aberration in court. Although the action was struck out for want of locus standi, Nigerians kicked against the illegality. Under the maximum dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, we had the reign of ‘Maryam the second.’

The post of the First Lady was one of the oddities bequeathed to the civilian regime by a corrupt and wasteful military dictatorship. From 1999 till now, no president has had the courage to check the excesses of his wife. These days, roads are blocked in our cities for hours because the wife of the president is retouching her hair in a salon. Very recently, Lagos was completely grounded for eight hours because the wife of the president (Patience Jonathan) was in town to attend a naming ceremony. Governor Raji Fashola, SAN, was compelled to condemn the illegal disruption of activities in the state.

Last month, the Government Reserved Area in Port-Harcourt was closed down for 11 days because the wife of the president was around to kick-start the 2015 electioneering in total violation of the Electoral Act. It was reported that there were some official functions the elected governor could not attend because his official residence was blocked by armed gendarmes, who were detailed to protect and secure an unelected person. It is high time such reckless impunity associated with the wife of the president was stopped. The other time, all the wives of senators were summoned to Abuja where the president’s wife asked them to warn their husbands to behave themselves. Why should senators allow such humiliation with all the risks involved in travelling to Abuja for frivolities?

Many have argued that the wives of governors and the President should carry out some governmental responsibilities to complement the efforts of their spouses. Is this logical?

Nigerians are totally opposed to the idea of conferring any power or responsibilities on the spouses of presidents and governors. The Justice Alfa Belgore Constitutional Review Panel, set up by President Goodluck Jonathan, rejected the inclusion of the office of the First Lady in the constitution. The National Assembly constitutional review committees have also kicked against it. Recently, the proposed allocation of N4bn in the Federal Capital Territory budget to build an office for the First Lady was expunged by the Senate. If the allocation had been passed, I would have challenged it in court. But, the Senate rightly rejected it. Let the spouses and family members of elected officials give a helping hand to them by ensuring their success and not by blocking roads to disrupt the free movement of goods and services and in the process, violate the freedom of movement of citizens.

As a permanent secretary in Bayelsa State, does the rule guiding civil service allow the wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, Patience, to remain out of duty for long?

I am not familiar with the civil service rules of Bayelsa State. But, the post of permanent secretary has become political, hence the wife of the president was considered for the appointment. We were told that she has been on leave of absence since 1999 and that may have been extended to 2015. Unfortunately, we are not learning from the past. In the Second Republic, the wives of the President and governors treated themselves with dignity. The late Mrs. Atinuke Ige was a High Court judge in Oyo State, while her husband was the governor. She never adjourned her cases to attend state functions. Even under the current democratic dispensation, many wives of governors are complementing the duties of their husbands without subjecting citizens to harassment.

Where her roles cannot be governmental, what kind of public duties can she carry out?

I cannot dictate for spouses of elected officials what roles they should play.  But, let them learn from the professionals among them like Justice Mary Peter-Odili, who has reached the apogee of her career. If she had been on sabbatical leave for eight years when her husband was the governor of Rivers State, she could not have made it to the apex court by now. Let those who decide to run non-governmental organisations run them for the benefit of our people. There is so much to do. Let them join the campaign to remove 10.5 million children from the streets and register them in schools. Let them join the battle to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, cholera and other preventable diseases that are ravaging our people. Let them influence their spouses to address these problems and the crisis of poverty in the midst of plenty.

Pet projects of first ladies have come under heavy criticism, particularly when public funds are diverted to them indirectly through donations. Are these projects justifiable?

Like other citizens, spouses of elected officials are entitled to establish NGOs but the sources of funding them should be known by the public. Like I said, there is so much to do. Cases of rape are on the increase all over the country. We have the highest number of illiterate children in the world. We have the highest number of children afflicted with HIV/AIDS. In some parts of the country, education for girls remains a taboo. Women and children are the greatest victims of our poverty-induced economy. These issues should occupy the attention of governors’ wives setting up NGOs. Happily, some are doing well in these areas.

What about the paraphernalia attached to the office of the First Lady, should the President/governor’s wife enjoy the benefits accruable to elected public office holders?

You cannot talk of the paraphernalia of an office that has not been established by law. However, the spouses of an elected President and governors are entitled to attend programmes and travel with their partners. They are entitled to adequate security, particularly in this age of kidnapping. There are some other benefits conferred on them by law.

Would criticism of first ladies not be described as limiting women participation in politics?

The criticisms are justified, as they are borne out of experience. Nigerians are perfectly in order in reviewing what happened in the past and what now obtains here and in other civilised countries. The last time (wife of the United States President) Mrs. Barrack Obama travelled to Spain for a holiday, the American press probed how she funded her trip. In our country, the president’s wife was flown abroad for medical treatment last year but we were told she was on leave and that she was in perfect state of health.  As a religious people, Nigerians were not given any prayer point and could not pray for her and wish her a speedy recovery.  On her return, she abused and cursed those who had wished her dead. A month later, she held a thanksgiving service in the Presidential Villa where she asked Nigerians to thank God for her, as she had just risen from the dead like Lazarus. Don’t you think the Presidency should have apologised to Nigerians for the unwarranted embarrassment?

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