A country divided by kitchen politics

2016-10-23 06:01
File: AFP

File: AFP

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In a recession that has seen Nigeria’s economy decline 0.36% and unemployment rise 13%, gossip about President Muhammadu Buhari and First Lady Aisha appears to be the new stimulus. And it’s trending as if the country’s recovery depended on it.

It all started with the interview Aisha granted the BBC Hausa Service a week ago.

In the interview, she said outsiders had hijacked Buhari’s government, expressed the fear that there might be a rebellion of 15 million people who voted for him in the last elections, and warned that if her husband did not change course, she would not campaign for him in 2019.

For a woman from the largely conservative northern part of the country, you had to hear the comment first to believe it. Aisha’s interview caught fire, leaving the public sharply divided, with insiders in the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) firmly behind her.

On one side are those who described her interview as the anguished cry of a genuinely concerned wife, woman and citizen. While it may seem that she burnt her husband at the stake, her sympathisers insist that she could not have granted the interview if she still had his ear.

It seemed the “hijackers” (not more than three or four, according to Aisha) had seized Buhari from his loyal base – the public and his wife. She did not name names, but fingers have been pointing at Buhari’s uncle and a few close aides. Her patriotic duty, it seemed, was to retrieve her husband for herself and country. She should therefore not be judged by the unintended consequences of her action but by her pure, redeeming motive.

Nonsense, say those on the other side. There’s nothing altruistic or selfless about the Aisha interview. It’s the outburst of a woman who has refused to come to terms with the fact that her husband had said, from day one, that his government would have no place for the Office of the First Lady. They also say she could be smarting from the failure of her nominees – mostly party insiders – to get appointments in the new government.

Aisha’s comments were still rippling when Buhari responded. “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to,” he said half-jokingly at a press conference in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel was present. “But she belongs to my kitchen, my living room and the other room.”

Buhari’s response immediately inflamed the public mood, with supporters on both sides digging in. While leading women, politicians and columnists have jumped in, comparing the president’s remarks to Donald Trump’s “locker room banter”, Buhari’s supporters, mostly from his gerontocratic core, responded that, “the woman needs to be put in her place once and for all”. A senator even suggested that Buhari should send Aisha back to her father’s house.

Neither Buhari nor Aisha is backing down.

High-profile politicians facing corruption charges and party faithful in the ruling APC who have been in the cold have seized on the spat as proof that a few hardliners have “hijacked” the government.

Politicians from the two major parties have been posting sunny photos of themselves and their spouses on social media to taunt the feuding first family.

Open feuds in the first family are rare in Nigeria. Even though the two most dominant first ladies – Maryam, wife of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida; and Patience, wife of former president Goodluck Jonathan – were reputed to have ruled the roost, they never fell out with their spouses publicly.

What now?

After 17 months in power, Buhari’s government has made remarkable progress in the fight against insurgency in the northeast and has even negotiated the rescue of 21 of the Chibok girls, matters over which the previous government seemed clueless. The fight against corruption is also being vigorously pursued, with sacred cows in the military and other arms of government now under investigation.

But bread-and-butter issues remain a major headache for the government. So far, Buhari’s pace remains frustratingly slow and decisions to jump-start the economy and create jobs are mired in presidential lethargy. Party faithful, especially hundreds who worked for the president’s election hoping for a payback, remain in the wilderness, swelling the army of the discontented.

Insiders say that with Buhari nearing the halfway mark of his presidency – and tangible benefits still a pipe dream – the first lady had genuine reason to worry about a potential revolt from the army of discontents.

“Her intention may be very good,” said another insider who spoke to me. “But after 27 years of marriage, you must find a way to talk to your husband without hanging him out to dry.”

It seems that both the message and the messenger have become fodder in a family feud that will not put bread on the public’s table.

Ishiekwene is the managing director/editor in chief of The Interview and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors’ Network

Read more on:    muhamadu buhari  |  nigeria  |  west africa

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