Wife of the Former Governor Of Ekiti State, United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador and Co-Founder of African Women’s Development Fund, Erelu Bisi Fayemi delivered a riveting speech on the role of political spouses in celebration of Mama HID Awolowo.
Read the full text of the speech below;
It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning, as part of celebrations of the life of one of the greatest women this country has ever known, Chief Mrs. Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo, fondly known as Mama H.I.D. Last week, when the funeral rites began, there was a comment I read online. In response to the coverage of the activities in Ibadan, someone said “I wonder what all the fuss is about. After all she was ‘only the wife of a Premier’. As distasteful as the comment might sound, such sentiments should not come as a surprise. We live in times when there is a deficit of so many things in our society- knowledge of history, respect for each other, regard for elders and humility to acknowledge the things we do not know or understand. Yes, Mama was the Wife of late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former Premier of the Western Region of Nigeria. Chief Obafemi Awolowo is a legend, and our history as a country is never complete without reference to his ideals, perspectives and searing vision. However, no one can call Mama ‘only a wife’.
The task I have today is not to eulogise Mama Awolowo, more qualified people have done that. I have been asked to reflect on the place of women such as her in our political and social landscape. I thought the reference to Mama as ‘only’ will be a good place to start. ‘Only’ in this context conjures up words such as ‘ordinary’, ‘insignificant’, ‘mere’, ‘unnecessary’, ‘meaningless’ and so on. I am going to make some brief remarks on the role of political spouses in our political landscape. Even though I will be using the word ‘spouse’ a lot, I will be referring mainly to political wives because they are still in the vast majority.
With an increase in the number of women in decision making at all levels, we can no longer think and talk about political spaces as being dominated by men only. Hopefully we will get to a point when the conversations about spouses are genuinely about male and female partners and not almost exclusively about wives.
The wives of political leaders in Nigeria 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. When they start roaming the landscape, regardless of how innocuous their activities are, they might become targets. I have often heard reference made to certain spouses of earlier Heads of State in Nigeria, who were either almost anonymous or practically invisible. People speak fondly of those times when political wives knew their place and were not seen in public, appearing to ‘rule’ alongside their husbands. And then Mrs. Maryam Babangida came along and changed the rules with her ‘Better Life for Nigerian Women’. Since then, 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, entrepreneur,prayer warrior, professional, adviser, friend, negotiator, peace maker, hostess, ambassador, administrator, campaigner, opinion leader, role model, mentor, politician, mobilizer, 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.
There are different strategies that political spouses use and they are all valid. Some establish projects, some don’t, that is fine. Some play most of the roles mentioned above, some are just comfortable with one or two. That is alright too.They should not be condemned if they do or don’t.
All these roles are not only valid and part of the unwritten job description; any political leader without a spouse who can help perform these responsibilities will be at a serious disadvantage. However, with all these expectations also comes the understanding that 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 lives of political spouses are not all about glamour, wealth 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, long working hours, very limited family time, balancing family obligations with political demands, betrayals and treachery due to the insatiable nature of human beings, and abandonment when the tap of political patronage dries up.
If the role of spouses is so important, why do we have never ending debates about the constitutionality or otherwise of their roles? I have always maintained that this is a red herring. 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, the constituency knows it, the State knows it, the country knows it. When people need favours from a leader, they go to his wife. When the problem is solved the leader takes the credit. When something goes wrong, the wife takes the blame for being ‘meddlesome’. 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 political fortunes change and everyone flies off like birds, including those who her husband empowered and built up. She is the one who picks up the pieces when friends who they have supported and trusted run off to tell tales about them to the next political wife. And then her phones start ringing again when political fortunes change.
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, norms 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 our political campaigns or initiatives. When we are done with them, we expect them to disappear quietly to where they came from.
We need to respond to the needs of our time. At this time in our history in Nigeria, we need women in positions of decision making. We need more mentors and role models to help deal with a multiplicity of political, social and economic challenges. We also need to acknowledge the contributions of those who hold no formal positions, but serve in their own way. The contributions of these women are equally valid. We have very accomplished women in their own right, who also happen to be spouses of political leaders. Unfortunately, we have allowed misogyny, sexism, ignorance, spite and hypocrisy to cloud the debate. We still operate within systems that suggest that women are meant to be seen but not heard. Worse still, if such a woman happens to be a political spouse, she is fair game because she is not seen as an individual in her own right. She is perceived as an expensive leech draining resources from the State, unnecessary baggage, or some local version of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
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. Equally important, her husband appreciated her contributions hence his reference to her as his ‘Jewel of Inestimable Value’. From the things Papa said about her in his writings and the revelations in her recently launched autobiography, it is clear that Mama’s role went beyond that of a traditional partner, always expected to be on the sidelines as the world passes her by. In a society where women are not always given their due respect, at a time when gender issues were not on the agenda, Mama occupied political space in her own right as a leader, strategist, mobilizer and inspiration to many. This led her husband, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the greatest sages Nigeria has produced to describe his wife in the most romantic and poetic way ever heard at the time and even up till now.
Let us raise the level of this debate. Political spouses do not have to be written into the constitution. However, there should be an appreciation of the fact that it is almost impossible for a male politician to survive in political office without a supportive spouse. These spouses need encouragement and support not constant denigration.
If we have democratic processes that are inclusive enough, the issue of ‘problematic spouses’ that keep being our reference point can be addressed in various ways. To start with political leaders should share their vision with their spouses and what the expectations are early on. The profile, temperament and perception of a political spouse are critical from the onset. As I said in an earlier essay, no one should have to vote for a saint who goes home to the warm embrace of a dragon. Political spouses cannot afford to have poor manners, a cantankerous nature and a proclivity for gaffes. There are things people, male or female, should not do or say in public, regardless of your station in life or who you are married to. We should therefore not conflate the issues to do with the importance of spouses on the political scene with the track record of ill-advised persons who have been operating in a context where there are no rules or terms of reference.
We should endeavour to document the experiences of political spouses as much as we can. Instead of conjuring up our own version of their stories, why not approach them and ask? A lot of information we think we have about our political leaders is incomplete without the contributions or opinions of their spouses. All our male political leaders write books. When they do, casual reference is made to their spouses. What are their stories? How has life been for them? What lessons do they have to share? Our Universities, Centers of Gender Studies and women’s networks should take note.
To my sisters and friends who are political spouses, let us continue to learn from the life of Mama H.I.D. All you are going through or have gone through, Mama endured and much, much more. She did not skip a beat and kept many balls up in the air at once, many times at great personal cost. That is the nature of the job. Mama understood it very well. Like Mama, we should also remember that people might defer to us because of our partner’s positions, but ultimately, if we want respect, recognition and encouragement, we have to earn it. In our moments of weakness we should remember this and forge ahead.
I know we live in times when the activities of politicians and their spouses are under intense scrutiny, courtesy of the dark side of social media. Freedom of speech and journalistic freedom is an inalienable component of democratic processes. However, unfounded rumours, character assassination and unquantifiable damage to people’s reputations is not acceptable. Even though Mama did not have to endure social media scrutiny during the epoch she held sway, she certainly had her share of unfair treatment at the hands of idle thinkers, spiteful persons, the ever present rumour mill, those who adapt the familiar strategy of attacking principals via their spouses and those who glorify in the misfortune of others. As an older friend once told me, when you are in that position, you become a dustbin, a receptacle for all kinds of foul matter. No one can be a Saint. We can however strive to be the best we can for ourselves, our communities and our husbands. Let us carry out our functions with integrity, commitment and discretion. Let us remember who we do it for- our husbands, our people and God.
To young women out there who have dreams and aspirations, continue to aim for the sky. Your success in life should not be tied to who you marry. Marriage is not a career path, there is no short cut to success, only hard work gets you there. Marry because you are in love and want to share your life with someone, and not for upward mobility. Perhaps you will become a political leader, maybe your spouse, perhaps both of you. What is important to note is that when you commit yourself to the institution of marriage, and you find yourself in public life, you are committing to an extra layer of sacrifices, compromises, mutual support and encouragement, for better, for worse. If you become a political spouse, you need to adjust your compass so that you do not lose your bearings.
For the men, the same applies. Don’t go on the prowl for political heiresses to marry as your path to glory. Allow your wives to grow. When your wife is empowered, you benefit more. If you have political aspirations, share them with your wife so that she understands what will be expected of her. Allow her to be part of networks and initiatives she can learn from. Get mentors for her. Don’t think that it is ok to ‘upgrade’ so that you can get a more politically useful partner. If you do that you will be gathering stones and not jewels.
We thank God for Mama’s life. We thank God for the kind of love we only read about in novels. Whether it is written on her tombstone or not, the one thing we will all remember about Mama is her being described by her husband as a ‘Jewel of Inestimable Value’. She was not only her husband’s jewel, she was ours too. May the rest of us be worthy of being described in such glowing terms.
Thank you for listening.
A Speech by Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, the United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador and Co-Founder of African Women’s Development Fund, at the women’s celebration in honour of late Chief H.I.D. Awolowo, on November 23, 2015 in Lagos.