One of the stories we don’t get to visit a lot in Nigeria is the stories of the wives of our head of states and presidents. This isn’t the usual “behind a successful man is a woman”, this is a story of phenomenal women who did great in their own capacities.
However, the goal isn’t “make” them look good or bad but to revisit history and bring to consciousness, the wives of head of states and presidents in Nigeria.
Today, history remembers Maryam Babangida, the wife of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who was Nigeria’s head of state from 1985 to 1993. A woman who undoubtedly came from a generation that relegated women to the background but was still able to find her voice and use it right.
It is no news that Babangida was the target of criticism for rampant corruption during his regime. But, today isn’t for Ibrahim Babaginda.
Maryam Babangida was known and credited with creating the position of First Lady of Nigeria and making it her own. Needless to say that the office of the First Lady is not recognised in the Nigerian constitution, it is accepted but considered informal. However, Maryam honed it.
As First Lady, she began various projects to better women’s lives in Nigeria. The “Maryam Phenomenon” became a celebrity and “an icon of beauty, fashion and style”, a position she retained after her husband’s fall from power.
Maryam was born in 1948 to an Igbo father from Asaba (now Delta state) and a Hausa mother from Niger state.
On 6 September 1969, she married Major Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida shortly before her 21st birthday. They had four children, Mohammed and Aminu, boys, and Aisha and Halima, two girls.
Maryam Babangida became President of the Nigerian Army Officers Wives Association (NAOWA) after her husband became Chief of Army Staff in 1983. In this position, she was instrumental in opening schools, hospitals, women’s training centres and daycare centres for children.
Her interests included gardening, interior design, music, squash, badminton, bird-gathering, philanthropic activities and reading.
Maryam Babangida was a phenomenal woman whose impact was felt in Dodan Barracks in Lagos after her husband moved in as head of state in 1985.
She had to schedule extensive renovations to make the rooms more suited for formal receptions. In the April 1990 coup attempt by Gideon Orkar against Ibrahim Babangida, who was present in the barracks when the attack occurred but managed to escape through a back road, Dodan Barracks was one of the main places seized.
Between 1985 and 1993, as First Lady of Nigeria, she converted the ceremonial post into a champion of rural development for women. In 1987, she established the Rural Women’s Better Life Program which launched numerous cooperatives, cottage industries, farms and gardens, shops and markets, women’s centres and social welfare programmes. The Maryam Babangida National Centre for Women’s Development was established in 1993 for research, training, and to mobilize women towards self-emancipation.
She actively championed the problems facing women. She reached out to other African countries’ First Ladies to stress the important role that they can play in improving their people’s lives.
She had considerable impact in collaborating with the National Council for Women’s Societies (NCWS), helping to win support for initiatives such as the controversial SFEM (Special Foreign Exchange Market) initiative to cut subsidies and to devalue and repair the currency. She also set up a glamourous persona.
Talking about the opening of the seven-day Better Life Fair in 1990, one journalist said: “She was like a Roman empress on a throne, regal and resplendent in a stone-studded flowing outfit that defied description…” Women responded to her as a role model, and her appeal lasted long after her husband fell from power.
As gathered by Daily Times, her book, Home Front: Nigerian Army Officers and Their Wives, published in 1988, illustrated the importance of the work women do at home to help their husbands, and has since been criticized by feminists.
On 27 December 2009, Maryam died from ovarian cancer at a hospital in Los Angeles, California, aged 61. Her husband was standing by her side when she died. The President of the Nigerian Senate at the time, David Mark, was said to have broken down into tears when he heard the news.
The Times of Nigeria reported on her death that she was “considered to be one of the greatest women in Africa today”.
On the 19th of March, 2020, the governor of Delta State commissioned the Maryam Babangida way. The road houses the most important national and state establishments in the capital city. A strategic gateway, the road is about five minutes drive from the city centre to Asaba International Airport.
Despite the criticisms that may have trailed her life, one cannot look away from the fact that Maryam Babangida was not regular. She was the first woman to turn the First Lady seat from ceremonial to active and important.
Let’s call her, “the pacesetter and superhero“.