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Emerging from ‘the other room

Last week, snippets from a BBC interview with Mrs. Aisha Buhari, wife of the President of Nigeria, were unleashed on the blogosphere. While I and many other Nigerians were still trying to wrap our heads around whether or not Mrs. Buhari’s utterances were appropriate or not and what they mean for our current political and economic situation, her husband gave us whiplash with his response to his wife’s comments.

In his words, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” This was said in the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has been described as the most powerful woman in the world, and at a time when America is entertaining the idea of its first female president.

Mrs. Buhari essentially criticised her husband’s administration and suggested that he has no control over the machinery running the government. That should give us all some pause. The whole point of democracy is that the people are governed by their choice, manifested in the outcome of general elections.The citizens are presented with options who court us for our votes by promising the actualisation of a common value – stable currency, jobs, gender parity, zero tolerance for corruption – whatever it is. And we make a choice with the expectation that they will be faithful to their promises and accountable to us. However, the suggestion by Mrs. Buhari that there are puppeteers behind the scenes who have hijacked the executive almost seems like a cop-out for the dismal performance of the Buhari administration thus far.

Mrs. Buhari was candid in her interview but I still could not help feeling uneasy about the interview because, although I can appreciate her connection with the frustrations of Nigerians at this time, I am not sure what purpose it serves that this glimpse of clarity is coming from the President’s wife. I expect that as his wife Mrs. Buhari will (or at least expect to) wield some political influence over the President, but she does not do so on our behalf in the way that elected officials are expected to.

While she may not be an elected official or a decision-maker in her husband’s political party, I do expect that Mrs. Buhari will act in a way that promotes the values of her husband’s administration. Two of the messages that we have received strongly from this administration are: first, that we must buy made in Nigeria to strengthen the naira and second, that change begins with each of us.

Mrs. Buhari emerged from “the other room” and headed to Brussels to deliver the opening remark on “Women’s Role in Global Security” at the African Women’s Forum. But it is not the purpose of her visit to Brussels that caught the attention of Nigerians. It is what she was wearing. Mrs. Buhari was wearing a multi-coloured cape, which an eagle-eyed fashionista identified to be a product of Salvatore Ferragamo with a price tag of $2,600. This is not the first time that Mrs. Buhari is making headlines because of her fashion choices.

I don’t mind a fashion-forward first lady but it would be good if the related headlines are positive. When I read about the Salvatore Ferragamo cape, apart from questioning whether it could be a knock-off, I wondered whether this is not a missed opportunity for Mrs. Buhari to show us that she is committed to the values of this administration, the same values that persuaded voters to bring the President into power. “Buy Nigeria”, “Change Begins with Me”, what better way to promote those two concepts than to commission Nigerian designers to dress the First Lady and promote the talent that is in Nigeria.

Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States is known for her fashion sense. What Michelle has done over the last eight years is wear the designs of young, relatively obscure fashion designers to state functions and foreign events. I don’t think that was by accident. Mrs. Obama made a conscious decision to promote young talent. She made a fashion statement with her choices. Is it impossible for Mrs. Buhari to achieve a similar objective? I don’t think so. There are many creative ways that this could happen. There are many companies from VLISCO to GTBank tapping into the pool of fashion design talent in Nigeria. What would it take to run a competition for young entrepreneurs in the fashion industry to contribute to the first lady’s fashion statement?

Nigeria has had fashionable first ladies in the past. The first thing that one of my Ivorian friends said to me when we first met over twenty years ago was how much she and the women in her country admired Mrs. Maryam Babangida for her style and poise. I do not think that Nigerians have a problem with a fashion-forward first lady, but especially at this time, when we are all suffering and are being told to sacrifice for the advancement of our economy, we would appreciate her style better if the statement she chooses to make with her fashion choices is in step with the values that the government is trying to promote and for which they were voted into office.

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