By Lasisi Olagunju
“Your office is not recognized by law. Funds not approved.” A former Aso Rock official told me last week that President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote this in a file there in response to intense pressures from his wife, Stella, that she must ‘work’ as the First Lady. But the matter did not die there. For women, there is no end to a demand until it is supplied. There must always be a way through any iron curtain. The spirit of women walks on rivers and runs through canals to get at anything and anyone. My people praise them as the silence of the day, the noisemaker of the night. The silence that followed Obasanjo’s opposition to his wife’s request was so loud that one old General had to arrange for some ministries and agencies to fund the activities of the First Lady – without the knowledge of the president. The official told me this.
President Muhammadu Buhari at the beginning also vowed, like Obasanjo, that he would not have a functional First Lady. His wife would just be his wife, he promised. But like all men, the stoic, old soldier has caved in finally to the charm of his wife. A man is free to choose what he wants from his woman: Either the one who gingerly walks into the bedroom or the howling whirlwind of the parlour – the one who eats the head via the armpit, the wolf that devours the heart through the liver. We knew the wall of Jericho had fallen last week when we saw a roll call of special assistants and personal assistants to the First Lady. That peace gesture came shortly after an eruption in the Villa between Hajia and her in-laws. It was very eye-opening.
Our delectable First Lady, Aisha Buhari, loves walking on water no matter its depth. She was recently involved in interviews and counter-interviews on the Hausa Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) with her Daura in-laws on the other side. They fought openly over Villa space, doors, keys, locks and knobs and who controlled them. The spectacle tutored all of us on what it really takes to run Nigeria’s presidential palace. Every close and distant relation of the President of Nigeria and relations of relatives enjoy the honey of that borderless office. Living in the Villa with the president is a key benefit. It didn’t start today. All others – military and civilian – did it. When next you have a president who budgets billions for meals in the Villa, don’t shout about fraud, wastes and wastage. There are billions of mouths there to feed. If your great grandmother was a second cousin to the great grandfather of a president in Nigeria, go to Abuja; you are entitled to a Glass House inside our Villa. Inside that fortress, you are free to do anything – eat, fart, shit, behave, misbehave – do anything, including throwing stones. It is your right to live in that Glass House; it is also your right to break any glass – and record it on video.
The Buhari people have shown us now that presidential relations are very difficult to please and expensive to keep. They are the reason the Villa’s kitchen is busy all the time. Check the palace’s annual budgets. What can you infer from the figures? They are the reason we budget millions every year for cooking gas. They are the real reason the golden plates, spoons and forks get replaced every year. You know Nigerian Presidents don’t really eat much – because work and women won’t let them. In any case, when was the last time we elected an energetic president whose meals would be a threat to the national purse? So, why the hefty allocation for food and meals and drinks and refreshment? You can understand the huge budget for clinics, drugs and medical supplies. And that is because they always come old and fragile; sick and sickly. They need extra efforts to keep them running and walking. But the meals. Why? Well, we now know that families of ancestors and their descendants live in our State House at our expense. That is why for next year, 2020, State House foodstuffs and catering materials will cost our country N145,143,963 and refreshment and meals will gulp N135,668,651. That is Buhari’s budget; it is his Villa provision for next year. It didn’t start with Muhammadu Buhari. It won’t end with him. The only difference Buhari has made in this case is that his relations spilt the beans. Where I come from, when we see palace people tearing the veil of royalty in the marketplace, we gasp and say: won si’so l’oju eegun (they yanked the costume off the masquerader’s face).
If you invest so much in buying dizziness, it must make you dizzy. You cannot have so many residents, spend so much on food and drinks and not block the sewage with shit and trash. I will not complain that sewerage in the State House has a 2020 budget of N45,418,735. I do not think it will be good manners to join wailers and merchants of mischief to ask how many people eat the golden foods, litter the Villa and drop the expensive wastes. The drains must work this year as they did last year. Except you are a living dead, you would know now that the president’s village has emptied its contents into the Villa. Was that not the case too with Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan? Obasanjo even had someone who designated himself Friend of the President (FOP). In that compound of free everything, there are seen and unseen mouths in their millions who eat and fire buttock shots. For them, the Villa is home, their fortress from the tempests and buffetings of life. That is one big reason why you must never think negative again about budget allocations to basic things in the Villa. Do not wail because in the 2020 budget, the presidency (aka Aso Rock) has a total budget of N9,580,286,358. Do not complain because the State House Clinic has a budget of N723,003,927; drugs and medical supplies has N36,787,354 and there is another entry called Medical Expenses with an allocation of N51,821,160.
We copied the presidential system from the Americans. With the clone came things they don’t do but which we like because they are sweet. Housing and feeding hordes of hangers on in the Villa is one of our costly presidential innovations. We ignored the Americans’ table manners because they don’t have desirable bottom lines. If we were playing the game the way it should be played, there would be no outsiders in the Villa to contest beds and beddings with the first family. The American White House is free – but not totally free. No one would tell Muhammadu Buhari not to bring the whole of Daura and their cousins and nephews in Niger Republic into the Villa if he had to pay for their meals and security from his pocket. From 2001 to 2009, Laura Bush was in the White House with her husband, President George W. Bush. The CNN reported her writing after office that as First Lady, a bill came monthly, itemizing everything she and her family owed, including food, dry cleaning and hourly wages for waiters and cleanup crews at private parties. “There were some costs that I was not prepared for,” Bush wrote. “I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the expectations for a First Lady.” Her predecessor, Hillary Clinton lamented that her own family left the White House “dead broke.” She said they were in “something like $12 million in debt.” At the root of the political practice of a nation is its creation. Check how and who created the United States and you will understand why no president is allowed to kit his relations from the public till.
Our own ways always lead to very dark moral alleys. With us, the aged died and we said we’ve had enough of tears in the palace. We then changed our focus and enthroned the sickly. You can’t make that choice and not have repeated noise and cries from the palace. Friends of our president and his government are said to be embarrassed by what happened. They have not seen anything yet. You can’t have a multibillion naira business as the Aso Rock Villa and not have boardroom crisis. Feeling embarrassed won’t stop tension and eruptions going forward. The problem stems from structural and systemic dysfunctionality. It is also cultural and economic. The lady who recorded the president’s angry wife did not see her as the nation’s First Lady. She saw a woman who is married to her uncle – and who must respect her. We have not heard anything about that lady. She has done what no one has ever done and she is not seeing what no one has ever seen. But Hajia Aisha Buhari has apologized. What was that apology for? For the leakage of the video which she did not do or for the frenzied shouts we heard from her? Or was it just to stop further probes into what makes the Villa so sweet for close and distant relations of the president?
Now, has the drama ended? I do not think so. If Aroni does not stay at home, Onikoyi will not stop going to war. Unless we cleanse our presidential system of its peculiar intrusions, we will witness worse eruptions as we move forward. Reduce the perks and privileges of our presidents. Let them pay for things not very essential to their functions and wellbeing as heads of government. Let their wives pay for their fashion – their designer bags and shoes and diamond wears. Restructure the politics, the sociology and the finances of the Villa. Eject who and what do not belong there. Sanitize the space and let everyone, including relations and presidential spouses, stop seeing that expansive space as their business empire. This will likely assist in locking down further volcanic eruptions in our seats of government. When first families start paying for the excesses of their tastes leaving the Villa in debt, wives of presidents will stop pushing their husbands to misbehave and seek permanent residency in the State House.