At first, like every sane Nigerian, I took President Muhammadu Buhari’s response to his wife’s criticism of his government as a joke. And even agreed with Mallam Garba Shehu’s description of it as such on Twitter, that “(President Buhari) was obviously throwing a banter.” But the president’s unnecessary restatement of that misogynistic caricaturing of his wife in a subsequent interview, clarifying that indeed “she belongs in my kitchen, my living room and the other”, was devastating. And this was done as guest of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman who manages a country more prosperous than his and ranks higher than him in the global political equation. Yet that wasn’t a clue to keep his patriarchy to himself.
The tragic thing is, what Mrs. Buhari said wasn’t even damaging. It was an explicit praise of the president, which was why I endeavoured to understand her interviews on BBC in Hausa and then in English as a PR stunt developed to exonerate the husband. For what could be a more convenient inference from her claim that the government has been hijacked by strangers and opportunists? I even likened her guts to that of her fictional American counterpart, Mrs. Claire Underwood, reputed for audacious ambition and manipulation of events to secure her husband’s political capital. “House of Cards” fans will get this analogy.
For a president serially accused of nepotism and parochialism, Aisha’s interviews, in my initial interpretations, seemed like strategic PR for President Buhari. Her criticism only portrayed him as he once described himself, that he “belongs to everybody…” All the things she said, intended to be a criticism of her husband, only projected a favourable image of the man.
For a fact, Aisha wasn’t speaking for me, probably not for anyone outside her circle of partisan elite. She was speaking for those who deserved or expected rewards for supporting Buhari. The hunger addressed in the BBC interview isn’t really that of the masses, but that of a part of the Nigerian elite who aren’t eating as they had anticipated. So, following her logic, democracy is intended to be a grand house party for friends and family of the celebrant – the president.
Shouldn’t this have been explained by the president’s media managers as validation of the man’s famous declaration of belonging to nobody even though he belongs to all? Aisha Buhari’s argument could’ve been valid if she hadn’t based a point on Buhari inviting strangers and opportunists to his government. She painted her husband as naïve, and that his government has been hijacked. Before him was an opportunity to describe her outrage as a misunderstanding of his magnanimity.
Perhaps the president was not disturbed by the media backlash that trailed his initial degrading response to his wife because patriarchy is a way of life in his country, and expressions as his aren’t interpreted as wrong and unacceptable here. We shouldn’t be fooled, millions of us like this male-privileging social order, even if we can’t make the delusion of that grandeur public. Amongst ourselves, and deep within us, there’s a maddening patriarchal tendency obvious in our reactions when we see a car badly driven, a lady living alone, a lady over 30 who is unmarried, a lady heading a big public institution. Like all privileges, men see this patriarchy as birthright, something hard to unlearn. Like that racist who can’t imagine a world of all equal. And it would be foolish to praise the president for publicly shaming us all.
Buhari has goofed by degrading his wife in the eyes of the world, and he should apologise to her. But her outrage over his approach to governance was harmless. There’s nothing wrong with the president of Nigeria appointing citizens he didn’t know, or had never ever met, which seems to frighten his wife the most. That’s a partisan concern, not a national problem. If anything, we should commend the man for refusing to reward only those who supported him as expected by his wife and her ilk. It’s one thing to say Nigeria isn’t functioning as promised by the APC, it’s another to say it’s so as a result of existence of “strangers” and “opportunists” in the government.
As we await the next episode of the first family’s rumble, the president needs a retreat to reflect deeply on the legacy he intends to leave behind, and the impact of this politically incorrect example he advertised in his reaction to his wife. Buhari used to be a flawless model to some partisans, and their intellectual allies could have written the story of his struggles and named it “The Best President Nigeria Never Had” if he had lost the 2015 Presidential Elections.
Today, he’s falling down the popularity bar, and the speed with which this is happening is the only motivation he needs to sit up. It’s likely he may not have company in the “other room” soon, so what he really needs is a space to reflect—a Reflection Room. May God save us from us!