Aisha Buhari and The Other Book


Two ‘heavyweight’ books will be publicly presented in Nigeria today, one in Lagos and the other in Abuja. I have read both. In Abuja, the combined forces of Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Mr Tony Elumelu, Alhaji Abdulsamad Rabiu, Prince Arthur Eze, Hajiya Bola Shagaya and Mr Femi Otedola will present ‘Aisha Buhari: Being Different’ written by her publicist, Dr Hajo Sani. To chair the occasion is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. In Lagos, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo will lead eight governors to present ‘The Making of the Nigerian Flagship: The Story of The Guardian’ co-authored by Aaron Ukodie and O’seun Ogunseitan with contributions from several former pioneer staff of the newspaper.

As a reporter with The Guardian for 15 months during the epoch documented (the first decade between 1983 and 1993), it was not difficult for me to secure an advance copy of ‘The Making of the Nigerian Flagship’ from the authors. But getting a copy of ‘Aisha Buhari: Being Different’ required a great deal of effort and tact. I was curious to know more about this very unusual First Lady whose public interventions sometimes read like that of an opposition leader. Described by the author as both a biography and “a compendium of issues that have to do with the development and wellbeing of women and the less privileged of society”, I can make certain deductions about Mrs Aisha Buhari by reading between the lines of the book that is, as expected of such publications, purely promotional. Incidentally, the foreword by President Muhammadu Buhari is rather formal despite saying that the book “presents an opportunity for me to say a few words about Aisha my wife with whom I have shared three decades of my life and five great children.”

While we will come back to Mrs Buhari’s book, let me first pay homage to two former senior colleagues at The Guardian for their very insightful book. As an aside, when the newspaper was established in 1983, the announcing advert read: ‘Sooner or later, you will read The Guardian’. By the time I started my journalism career at the newspaper in November 1990 upon completion of my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) primary assignment in Niger State, the joke in the newsroom was: ‘Sooner or later, you will leave The Guardian!’ That many left the newspaper at different times is of course a familiar story in the media industry. But nostalgia about a glorious past for a newspaper that is still very much in business, which the authors have done so brilliantly in this book, is almost akin to writing a memorial tribute for someone that is still alive. It is, however, to the credit of Mrs Maiden Ibru that the legacy of her late husband is being sustained.

Writing a narrative involving hundreds of journalists is an editorial suicide mission. That Ukodie and Ogunseitan were able to handle such a delicate task with panache is a testimony to their professionalism. Even when there will still be contentions about some of their claims, it is a good book that takes readers through the evolution of a newspaper that prides itself as the flagship of Nigerian journalism, and for a period in recent history, lived by that rather pompous appellation. In 618 pages, divided into 28 chapters, Ukodie and Ogunseitan share insights on how The Ibru Brothers, (Michael, Felix, Bernard, Goodie, and Alex) conceived a dream of adding a newspaper to their business empire. It was then left for their youngest, Alex Uruemu Ibru to actualise the dream. And he did.

By shedding light on the operating environment during the early years of The Guardian, the authors reveal how the best hands in the media industry were recruited before the management decided to bring on board talented young men and women as well as reputed names from the academia. According to the authors, The Guardian was able to maintain high standards during the time they and others worked at ‘Rutam House’ by telling compelling stories and living by the highest ideals as journalists. The authors particularly credit the trio of Dr Stanley Macebuh (now of blessed memory), Mr Oyinlade Bonuola (Ladbone), and Mr Nick Iduwe as the brains behind the roll-out of the first edition of The Guardian on Sunday on 27th February 1983. And in a narrative that is rich in content and context, the authors highlight the struggles of balancing editorial and advertisement spaces, the effectiveness of distributing different content types, as well as how the newspaper was able to establish a unique house-style that appealed to a broad section of the Nigerian political and business elite.

With a newsroom packed with seasoned professionals (Femi Kusa, Amman Ogan, Eluem Emeka Izeze, Sunmi Smart Cole, Bisi Ogunbadejo, Sunny Ojeagbase, Sonala Olumhense, Lanre Idowu, Ohi Alegbe, Jullyette Ukabiala, Greg Obong-Oshotse, Chuks Iloegbunam, Taiwo Obe, Tunde Thompson, Nduka Irabor, Kingsley Osadolor, Eddie Iroh, Ndaeyo Uko, Okey Ndibe, Ayogu Eze, Jewell Dafinone, Harriet Lawrence, Babatunde Ogala, Al-Bishak, Wole Agunbiade, Dapo Olorunyomi, Dele Olojede, Akin Ogunrinde, Raheem Adedoyin, Abdul Oroh, Dupe Ajayi and several others) and an editorial powerhouse of renowned intellectuals (Onwuchekwa Jemie, Jide Oluwajuyitan, Godwin Sogolo, Edwin Madunagu, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Sam Oyovbaire, Emevwo Biakolo, Chidi Amuta, Ben Tomoloju, Okey Ikechukwu, and many others), The Guardian was more than a newspaper in the period captured by the book.

Interestingly, the authors could not have gotten a better reviewer for today’s occasion than Dr Reuben Abati who was only in his early twenties when he made a name for himself at The Guardian. Abati wrote insightful columns (most times detailing his varied experiences inside ‘Molue’) and eventually succeeded the inimitable Dr Olatunji Dare as chair of the editorial board. As I once reminded the young man (I am older than Abati by 24 hours), such was my awe for his writings that on my first day at The Guardian, I nearly prostrated when introduced to him!

At the end, the message from the book is that while The Guardian may have come a long way and has maintained some of its old tradition, there seems to be a change from the original ideals espoused by those who manned the newsroom in the first decade of the newspaper. This perhaps explains why the most interesting chapter in the book contains personal recollections by several ex-staff who have moved on to different stations in life: The circumstances under which they joined the newspaper and left, the lessons learned and how they built their careers from there. In a way, these reflections capture the essence of the book and fulfil the outcome the authors were seeking to achieve.

Mrs Aisha Buhari’s book is no less insightful. In many villages of Northern Nigeria, according to the author while putting context into why the First Lady married so early, “Educating a girl is not considered a priority”; although she also argues that “child marriage occurs more frequently among girls who are the least educated and poorest, and who are living in rural areas.” When Aisha got married at age 18, “the future seemed unsure” but she was determined to make something of her life with education as a pathway. Fortunately, she got the support of her husband.

Shortly after her marriage, the young Aisha enrolled with the National Teacher Institute for a four-year programme between 1992 and 1996 to obtain a National Certificate in Education (NCE). Four years later, she secured admission at the Kaduna campus of the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State where she completed her first degree in Public Administration. She would later add a Masters degree in International Affairs and Strategic Studies at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna. She also obtained a diploma in Beauty Therapy from the Carlton Institute of Beauty Therapy, Windsor, United Kingdom and a postgraduate diploma in cosmetology and beauty from Academy Esthetique Beauty Institute of France.

I find this aspect of Mrs Buhari’s life interesting. Her pursuit of education was purposeful and targeted. She did not go to school to just earn a certificate. She chose technical education that would give her a vocation for which she is now renowned. She was a resource person for the National Board for Technical Education on Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology, and she also participated in the curriculum development of Small Medium Enterprise (SME). She wrote a training manual, ‘The Essentials of Beauty Therapy: A Complete Guide for Beauty Specialists’. I wish she had used her office and force of personality to lead a national campaign on technical education where we fail so miserably as a nation or for the education of girl child, especially in the North.

However, the most revealing aspects of the book are the crucial roles Mrs Aisha Buhari was documented as having played in the emergence of her husband as president of Nigeria. It is in these accounts that one can understand what has become a crisis of expectations. The author, a Senior Special Assistant to the President is a close relation of the First Lady, a fact which she admitted, and among the many photographs in the book was one she took with a teenage Aisha in 1989. While the First Lady has no direct voice in the book, she spoke through others: Siblings, uncles, aunties, children, friends, former classmates, former teachers, politicians, and other acquaintances. These people of course have only good things to say about her, as to be expected. But her only son, Yusuf, sounded truer than he probably intended. After describing the First Lady with all those superlatives everyone would associate with their mother, Yusuf also added: “She is a fighter whom no one should attempt to disagree with as well. She goes all the way, till she sees the end of issues. She makes her point known and finds a way to make it stick.”

Right from 2003 when Buhari first ran for president, Aisha was said to have been involved in mobilizing women and youths as well as meeting with various stakeholders, including campaigning in her home state of Adamawa in 2007. Against the background that most Nigerians for the first time saw Mrs Buhari in the prelude to the 2015 election, it is quite revealing to read about her efforts in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Let’s take a few words from the book: “The finale of Aisha’s political journey can be seen in the way she ventured, labored and scaled through the rough socio-political terrain dotted with difficult barriers of culture, gender and intrigues, like a woman caught in a political web. The stakes were high against a woman from a highly restrictive, and deeply cultural and religious background married to an opposition candidate who resolved to play politics ethically. First, there was stiff opposition from the home front, to women participating in politics, with attendant social biases, psychological assault, economic restrictions, and political intrigues…the testing ground for her was during the election campaigns of 2003, 2007 and 2011, where the worst incidences occurred, but which ultimately resulted in victory and survival for her.”

Following Buhari’s defeat at the 2003 presidential election, it was Aisha who “gallantly picked everything from the pieces and began to build back the campaign machinery, as if the next elections were around the corner. From trickles to small groups, the crowd began to rise like the moon tides, attracted by her sheer commitment and dedication to long-term goals set for the next election 2007.” But when the court cases were over and Buhari could not reclaim his ‘stolen mandate’, he was abandoned by his supporters. This was when Mrs Aisha Buhari, according to Nana Abu Ali—then the only female coordinator of The Buhari Organisation (TBO) who spoke to the author—took over the political structure of her husband. “Mrs Buhari proved her capabilities by taking over the campaign activities and by mobilizing women and youths across Nigeria in a very matured and civil way; aligning herself with people from all backgrounds. She was a voice, a powerful voice, and her humility was captivating. Though not known to many people, she played a vital role behind the scenes throughout the 2003, 2007 and 2011 election campaigns. Aisha Buhari is an attestation of the willpower of a woman. Her commitment and determination have proven her to be a woman with a strong head on her shoulders and a mind of her own.”

Since what is candour to someone could be seen as indiscretion to others, the question some have raised about Mrs Aisha Buhari is whether her interventions were motivated by personal interest or the pursuit of public good. If indeed Mrs Buhari played the campaign roles credited to her in all the four attempts by her husband before he was elected president in 2015, was she also expecting to play a central role in the government?

The author justified the First Lady’s controversial public interventions that seemed to have put her at odds with the current administration headed by her husband. Aisha Buhari’s motive in sharing those critical views, according to Hajo Sani, is two-fold. “The first is that she is moved by her humanitarian nature to identify with the general feelings of the people. Secondly, she desires to draw the attention of policy makers to the issues of the day”, wrote the author who then added: “If your house is burning and you admit it, even the critic might lift a bucket of water to help drown the flames.”

To be sure, Buhari’s ‘house’ has been in flames for a while and whatever may have been her motivation, Aisha has had to call out people she described as “cabal” who had “hijacked power” from her husband, once threatened not to campaign for his second term (although she eventually did) and was critical of the nomination process of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Aisha has also publicly imputed corruption in the management of the State House clinic aside the allegory of hyenas, jackals, and weaker animals. The author says Aisha Buhari is a non-conformist and goes ahead to explain why: “Established structures are usually difficult to break from, and it is wisdom to extract from the old to bring about a more informed and useful innovation. One distinct feature of the personality of Aisha Buhari is her ability to break free of established structures.”

Regardless of whatever role Mrs Buhari may have played in the elections contested by her husband before he got to Aso Rock at the fourth attempt, she was only supporting her spouse. That, for critics, is not a license to have vaunted expectations or to be engaging in public criticism of a government headed by her husband. I know from my own experience at the Villa that as First Lady, Mrs Buhari has channels to pass on her messages either to the president or his appointees. What her varied interventions have done is to enable Nigerians see the dysfunctionality of the administration and Buhari’s hands-off approach to governance.

Overall, ‘The Making of the Nigerian Flagship: The Story of The Guardian’ by Aaron Ukodie and O’seun Ogunseitan and ‘Aisha Buhari: Being Different’, by Dr Hajo Sani are two difficult books. One is a Herculean undertaking in the history of Nigerian journalism. No matter its encyclopedic sweep, a book on a massive media undertaking at a contentious phase in Nigerian history can only evoke more controversy mostly among journalists. But it also fills an important conceptual gap: newspapers should go beyond telling the story of others. One can only hope that other leading Nigerian media houses will be challenged to write their corporate and editorial histories. The book on Mrs Buhari is also unique. She evokes curiosity as the first Nigerian First Lady who has disagreed openly on policy and political issues with her incumbent husband. While some people will celebrate the book as providing insights into the making of a frank and outspoken First Lady, some will also see the effort as a thinly veiled PR attempt. For me, the main takeaway from the book is that a politically conscious woman like Mrs Aisha Buhari is not someone anybody would consign to ‘The Other Room’ without consequences!

The Passage of Chukwuma, Odumakin

Good people die every day, but not all of them affirm for us the goodness in humanity like Innocent Chukwuma. Brilliant, humble and humorous, Innocent impacted our world by making a difference in the lives of those he met. Long before he became the West African Director of Ford Foundation, a position he vacated only about two months ago, Innocent had already, by dint of passion, commitment, and hard work, become an important leader within the civil society space in Nigeria. The CLEEN Foundation, which he established in 1998, is renowned for the promotion of public safety, security, and access to justice through empirical research and legislative advocacy.

While Innocent may no longer be with us physically, he taught us enduring lessons about making an impact no matter the length of our lives. He may have died at 55, but his life was purposeful and he will always be remembered for his graciousness and generousity of spirit to friends. And he never waivered in his effort to realize a Nigeria that works for all citizens, with security as his primary focus. His concern for the welfare of those who put their lives on the line for others, led CLEEN to the forefront of the effort to reform policing and ensure that its personnel received living wages. It is therefore very painful that we lost him at a period he was looking forward to another phase in life after ten years at Ford Foundation.

Although our paths crossed several times during the pro-democracy struggles in the nineties, it was not until 2010/2011 that Innocent and I became friends. We were both in the United States at a period he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School where he taught a course on the management of non-profits and I was a fellow at the Weatherhead Centre. It was therefore no surprise that we collaborated on my last two books, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire: How African Migrants Risk Everything in their Futile Search for a Better Life in Europe’ and ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’, which he actually inspired. As Vice President Yemi Osinbajo wrote in his tribute, Innocent’s “thoughtful, knowledge-driven, drama-free, but relentless pursuit of justice and the common good will be an enduring legacy.”

Sadly, a few hours before Innocent’s death, we also lost Mr Yinka Odumakin, spokesman for Afenifere, the Yoruba socio-political organisation. Right from his campus days at Ife where he was the PRO of the Students Union, Odumakin had distinguished himself as a social crusader. And he fought for his convictions to the very end. There can be no better tribute to him than the one paid by Tinubu, a man with whom he publicly disagreed. According to the APC National Leader, Odumakin, “epitomized the true definition of the citizen; a patriot who was ever conscious of the fact that his life could not be complete or his humanity meaningful if he did not take an active interest in and join like-minded fellow citizens in seeking always to promote the common good of his community and country.” May God comfort my sister, Joe Okei-odumakin and their children.

Meanwhile, on Sunday morning when I heard about the passage of Innocent, I shed tears. But then, a Yoruba adage says, “Òkú nsukun òkú, akáṣolérí nsukun ara wọn” (mourners are only weeping for themselves) or perhaps more apt in the circumstance: “Iku tin pa ojugba eni, owe nla lon pa fun gbogbo wa” (the death of a peer is a proverb for all friends to begin imbibing that timeless motto of the Boys Scout: Be prepared!)

My thoughts and prayers are with Josephine—and their three lovely daughters Innocent always talked about—at this most difficult period. May God offer them the comfort only He can give.

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