Thursday, September 29, 2016 6:48 am
By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
Chief Hannah Idowu Dideolu (HID) Awolowo passed away on September 19th2015, just a few weeks shy of being 100 years old. The activities that had been planned for her centenary birthday were turned into a celebration of her glorious life. One of the activities was a Women’s Celebration for Mama, which took place on November 23rd 2015 in Ikenne, her home town, in Ogun State, Nigeria. I was asked to speak at the event, so I gave a presentation on ‘The Role of Political Spouses in Our Evolving Political Space’. On September 19th 2016, one year after the passing of Mama, the HID Awolowo Foundation was launched, as part of the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. I was invited to join the Advisory Council of the new foundation, which aims to promote the values that Mama HID stood for. I have decided to share an abridged version of the speech I gave last year, to celebrate this great woman who, unlike many other political spouses, will not go unsung.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the former Premier of the then Western Region of Nigeria, is a legend, and our history as a country is never complete without reference to his achievements, perspectives and soaring vision. His wife, fondly known as Mama HID, by virtue of the role she played in his life and the contributions she made to society at large, is a legend in her own right.
The wives of political leaders in Nigeria (and elsewhere) are often treated with suspicion and disdain. This is mostly because the track record of some political spouses has left a lot to be desired and has turned people against the idea of them being visible. I however believe that a lot of vituperation against political spouses is less about their actual or potential misdeeds, but more about the perceived place of wives. Wives are supposed to stay at home, looking after the home front, firmly under the control of their husbands. We have had many debates about the roles of political spouses, the danger they present for democratic spaces through their back door manipulations, their use of informal authority for personal gain, their lust for illegal power, and the drain they pose on tax payers’ resources. While most of these concerns might be valid, I would like to have a look at the other side of the story.
The political wife, over time, has to become all things to all people. She is a mother to the family and community, prayer warrior, adviser, friend, negotiator, peace maker, hostess, ambassador, role model, advocate, pace-setter, philanthropist. To be able to accomplish all this she has to be an effective strategist, administrator, multi-tasker, networker and much more. A political wife is more than ‘just’ or ‘only’ a wife. There is no substitute for a politician’s wife, no personal aide, Women Leader or political appointee can take the place of a spouse.
However, with all these expectations also comes the understanding that political wives will have the following character traits – empathy, humility, courtesy, grace, diplomacy, discretion, tact, restraint, generosity. It is understood that to whom much is given, much is expected, and so wives are required to carry out their various assignments with all the dignity and grace they can muster at all times, and be above board in all things.
The life of a political spouse is not all about glamour, perks and endless ceremonies. The human cost of public service can very high and some even have to make the ultimate sacrifice – either experiencing the death of a spouse on the job or being killed themselves – the late Kudirat Abiola is an example. Spouses often go through serious hardships due to the nature of politics – long periods of absence, endless working hours, very limited family time, betrayals and treachery due to the insatiable nature of human beings, and abandonment when the tap of political patronage dries up.
You do not need a constitutional provision to tell a political leader that his wife’s role is important. He knows it, everyone around him knows it. When people need favours from a leader, they go to his wife. The same people who complain about a wife’s overbearing influence over her husband will be the same to run to her for intervention when they have problems with their boss. It is the political wife who is left holding her husband’s hand when fortunes change and everyone flies off like birds. She is the one who picks up the pieces when trusted friends and associates turn against them. And then her phones start ringing again when political fortunes change for the better.
We live in a society that has become rather schizophrenic in its understanding and analysis of local and global trends. On the one hand, we are quick to point out how evolved democratic systems are in the West, but fail to take into account how those institutions evolved within the context of their own history and values. In the US for example, the Office of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) evolved over time. It is not in the American Constitution, and for many years the office was not funded, except for use of seconded, temporary staff. All this changed in November 1978 when President Jimmy Carter approved Public Law 95-570 which provided for the First Lady’s budget and staff. In addition, attitudes and expectations have shifted over the years to accommodate different spouses who bring their own unique contributions as long as they are within established parameters of service to the people and support for the vision of Mr. President.
On the other hand, here in Nigeria, we are unable to allow our institutions grow and learn. Our response is to throw the baby out with the bath water. We do not allow healthy and informed debate on the role of political spouses. We keep personalizing the issues by focusing on individual shortcomings rather than taking a more holistic view of how partners do indeed add value to the political process. We hereby create a black market where everyone knows where to buy something that is supposed to be illegal but they buy it anyway because it is needed and not available elsewhere. When it suits us, we use spouses to support political campaigns or initiatives. When we are done with them, we expect them to disappear quietly to where they came from.
Mama H.I.D. was the quintessential political spouse. She performed all the roles expected of her with legendary grace, perseverance, fortitude and unique wisdom. She lived through unbearable tragedies.
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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]