Friday, November 15, 2019


              Aisha Ummi Garba El-Rufai

How do you become a good First Lady? Unfortunately, you cannot find any handbook to guide you on First Ladyship. “It’s not technically a job, nor is it an official government title.” Just bear in mind the number of people who occupied the seat before you and how each one of them conducted herself in the office, the kind of projects she dedicated herself to and how all that impacted on the lives of the people so you may tread the same path, pursue your own programmes and leave your mark for posterity. 

I was fascinated by what Michelle stated of a tradition where an outgoing president will engage the incoming president in a guided tour of the White House. We do not have this in Nigeria at least for First Ladies. With her bilious and rancorous attack on the North as a whole and the Buharis in particular, Patience Jonathan, for instance, could not have taken Aisha Buhari on such tour of the Villa. Former President Jonathan has been to the Villa to have a tête-à-tête conversation with his successor Muhammadu Buhari, but not once have we seen such spirit of fraternity from their wives. Whoever occupies the Presidential Villa should be viewed as one who represents Nigeria, not his political party, region or religion, and thus he merits the support of Nigerians in so far as he acts within the law, in order to succeed. 

Incoming President Obama and wife were received at the White House for the customary guided tour by outgoing President Bush and wife. “The First Lady clamped my hand warmly.” Said Michelle, “‘Please call me Laura,’ she said. Her husband was just as welcoming, possessing a magnanimous Texas spirit that seemed to override any political hard feelings.” 

Whatever anyone might have said during electioneering was all politics. They were now united in serving the United States of America. “Throughout the campaign,” Michelle continued, “Barack had criticized the president’s leadership frequently and in detail, promising voters he would fix the many things he viewed as mistakes. Bush, as a Republican, had naturally supported John McCain’s candidacy. But he’s also vowed to make this the smoothest presidential transition in history, instructing every department in the executive branch to prepare briefing binders for the incoming administration. Even on the First Lady’s side, staffers were putting together contact lists, calendars, and sample correspondence to help me find my footing when it came to the social obligations that came with the title. There was kindness running beneath all of it, a genuine love of country that I will always appreciate and admire.”

The tour covered areas like the Family Residence, Rose Garden, the Oval Office as well as reminiscences of former occupants of the White House - “the Clintons, the Carters, two sets of Bushes, Nancy Reagan, and Betty Ford.” “This was all heartening.” Michelle said, “I already looked forward to the day I could pass whatever I picked up to the next First Lady in line.”  

President Bush fulfilled his vow of making “the smoothest presidential transition in history,” but compare that with the wrangling and acrimonious debate that characterised the transitional teams of outgoing President Jonathan and that of incoming President Buhari. But to his eternal credit, Jonathan, despite the agony of defeat, was able to take the then president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari on a guided tour of the Villa. Vice President Namadi Sambo also took Yemi Osinbajo, the vice president-elect, on a tour of the vice-president wing of Aso Rock. It remains to be seen whether or not the current tenants of the Villa will be magnanimous enough to take their successors on such tour when their tenancy expires come 2023. 

As First Lady, you live “in a kind of bubble now, sealed off at least partially from the everyday world.” Everything is done for you, almost, surrounded by secret service personnel and a regular police escort. Do not allow the allurement ensconced in the bubble to deceive you into thinking that it will last forever. Make sure that when it busts, and certainly, it will, that you exit it unscathed. Necessary security measures may be taken to shield some of your friends and family members from you. Find a way of maintaining contact with them at whatever level your schedules permit. 

“I was allowed to use a personal BlackBerry”, Michelle said, “but had been advised to limit my contact to only ten of my most intimate friends - the people who loved and supported me without any sort of agenda. Most of my communications were mediated by…” “my deputy chief of staff…” “who knew the contours of my life better than anyone. She kept track of all my cousins, all my college friends. We gave out her phone number and email address instead of mine, directing all requests to her. Part of the issue was that old acquaintances and distant relatives were surfacing from nowhere and with a flood of inquiries.” 

What I like most about Becoming is the Obamas' concern about instilling discipline in their daughters, Sasha and Malia. On their first day of school in the White House, since he could not ride with them to the school, as his custom before he became president, Obama admonished Sasha and Malia: “(keep smiling, be kind, listen to your teachers), adding finally, as the two girls donned their purple backpacks, “‘And definitely don’t pick your noses!’” 

Michelle and her mom accompanied the girls to school that day “in what would become their new form of a school bus - a black SUV with smoked windows made of bulletproof glass.” 

Michelle did not forget where she came from, her humble beginnings. She saw herself lucky “to be living this way.” Her “master suite in the residence was bigger than the entirety of the upstairs apartment” her “family had shared when” she “was growing up on Euclid Avenue.” “I was a child of the South Side,” she said, “now raising daughters who slept in rooms designed by a high-end interior decorator and who could custom order their breakfast from a chef.” In spite of all these privileges, Michelle prevented her daughters from acting in an overbearing, dictatorial manner towards the people that were employed to ensure their comfort. “I made it clear to the housekeeping staff”, she said, “that our girls, as they had in Chicago, would make their beds every morning. I also instructed Malia and Sasha to act as they’d always acted - to be polite and gracious and to not ask for anything more than what they absolutely needed or couldn’t get for themselves.” 

Women, not necessarily First Ladies, have a lot to learn from the way Michelle cared for and trained the girls. Some women have no compunction about maltreating a housemaid or anyone in their employ. In their very sight and to their hearing, but without any form of reprimand, their children ill-treat and abuse domestic servants the age of their parents. Do whatever you may with the end in mind. 

The Government or State House is not the end of the world, and of course, the power that your husband wields is nowhere near that of the President of the United States. Your residence is an infinitesimally small house when compared to the White House “with 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors.” But even with this splendour, the Obamas were humbled when they travelled out of the States. “I’d been walking around”, Michelle said, “thinking that our new house was big and grand to the point of being over the top, but then I went to England and met Her Majesty the Queen.” 

Michelle narrated step-by-step details of their experiences during that visit to her Majesty. “It turns out”, she said, “that the Buckingham Place is big - so big that it almost defies description. It has 775 rooms and is fifteen-times the size of the White House. In the years to come, Barack and I would be lucky enough to return there a few times as invited guests. On our later trips, we’d sleep in a sumptuous bedroom suite on the ground floor of the palace, looked after by liveried footmen and ladies-in-waiting. We’d attend a formal banquet in the ballroom, eating with forks and knives coated in gold. At one point, as we were given a tour, we were told things like “This is our Blue Room” our guide gesturing into a vast hall that was five times the size of our Blue Room back home. The Queen’s head usher one day would take me, my mother, and the girls through the Palace Rose Garden, which contained thousands of flawlessly blooming flowers and occupied nearly an acre of land, making the few rosebushes we so proudly kept outside the Oval Office suddenly seem a tad less impressive. I found Buckingham Palace breathtaking and incomprehensible at the same time.”

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