Buhari Loses the Plot
In the run-up to last year’s presidential election, Patience Jonathan, the wife of Nigeria’s then president, warned women what they were letting themselves in for should they reject her husband in favour of Muhammadu Buhari. The last time Buhari was head of state, as a military strongman in the mid-1980s, ‘he said women should be confined to the kitchen,’ she said. ‘But under Jonathan’s administration, women have been liberated to contribute to national development. If you vote for Buhari again, you will return to the kitchen.’
Her advice was ignored and Buhari was duly elected. Everybody was happy at first. Sixteen years of mind-boggling corruption had left the people clamouring for ‘change’, which quickly became the new government’s mantra. And then everything went horribly wrong. It wasn’t entirely Buhari’s fault. The precipitous decline in global oil prices was bound to hurt, but he didn’t help by overriding advice on how best to stem the concomitant fall of the currency. Inflation is running at 17.9 per cent. Nigerians are hurting, and rumours spread that Buhari was running the country with a kitchen cabinet of fewer than half a dozen family members nobody voted for.
And then last week his wife, Aisha, acknowledging the ‘complaints upon complaints’ she had been receiving, confirmed our worst fears. Speaking on the BBC Hausa Service, she said that the government is ‘being operated by a few people’ whom even she doesn’t know, and left open the question of whether Buhari was actually in charge: ‘It is left for the people to decide whether he is in charge or he is not in charge.’ Unless things change, she added, she would not be campaigning for him in 2019.
The interview was unprecedented. No Nigerian first lady – especially not a Muslim one – had spoken out publicly against her husband before. At a joint press conference with Angela Merkel on the day the interview was aired, Buhari smiled uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know which party my wife belongs to,’ he said, ‘but she belongs to my kitchen and my living-room and the other room.’ The German chancellor, looking just as uncomfortable, glared at him before winding up the conference. Buhari appeared oblivious of the insult to one of the world’s most powerful women, whom he was asking for €18 million in humanitarian aid, not least to assist the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency – 21 of whom were recently released – because, according to their leader, ‘women are slaves and slaves are allowed in Islam.’
The clerics who took the president’s side against his wife didn’t go quite that far, but they were quick to point out that, according to Islamic marriage guidelines, ‘a wife ought not to berate or warn her husband in public,’ and recommended that he divorce her forthwith. It apparently didn’t occur to them that she might have had enough herself.
She isn’t shy of a fight. In June, when an opposition governor who had accused her, wrongly, of being involved in the Halliburton scandal – the US company bribed Nigerian officials in exchange for contracts – she called him an ‘unchained mad dog’ on Twitter (the tweets have since been deleted).
So what happens now? There have been calls on social media, especially from the predominantly Christian south (as opposed to the predominantly Muslim north) for Mrs Buhari to contest the election in 2019. There’s no doubt that Nigerian women are grotesquely under-represented in all tiers of government: 5.6 per cent in the House of Representatives and 6.5 per cent in the Senate, which is well below both the global average (22.8 per cent) and the sub-Saharan African average (23.1 per cent). An Aisha Buhari presidency might indeed be the change we are looking for, given that her husband seems to have lost the plot. In an interview after his scandalous remarks, he reiterated his position and then some.
‘I am sure you have a house,’ he said. ‘You know where your kitchen is, you know where your living room is, and I believe your wife looks after all of that, even if she is working.’
‘That is your wife’s function?’ the interviewer asked.
‘Yes, to look after me.’
‘And she should stay out of politics?’
‘I think so,’ Buhari said.