Alhaja Yar Adua’s “first ladyism” revisited

February 23, 2012 

by Tola Adenle

This is not the first time I’m wondering aloud at the direction that Nigeria’s “first ladyism” – borrowing Professor Soyinka’s description of the Nigerian hybrid – is going. Since late Chief Stella Obasanjo, I’ve written many times on first ladies, especially in the Southwest. For example, I wondered aloud here on September 23, 2007 in “First ladyism: volcanoes waiting to erupt” how Mrs. Yar Adua could launch her “pet project” at Katsina when the whole country is supposedly her husband’s constituency. I also mentioned information from a newspaper that her daughter, one of the wives of a Northern governor, had her picture publicly-displayed.

Now, two recent events have gotten me wondering again. In far-away Los Angeles in April, an “African First Ladies Summit” took place in swanky Beverly Hills Hotel. I was intrigued by a group picture that showed Adelcia Pires of Cape Verde; Hadija Landja from Niger; the flamboyant Chantal Biya of Cameroon; Ana Samos from Angola and a representative from the Harem of Swaziland’s King, “Queen Kiza” AND Nigeria’s Alhaja Turai Yar Adua. Intriguingly, Dr. Osotimehin, the Health Minister, appeared in one group photograph.

First, here’s a little info about “The African First Ladies Health Summit” a.k.a. “first ever Summit For Leadership” from the web after my first information from the BBC news and The Nation. “LEADERSHIP FOR HEALTH African First Ladies Health Summit” is supposedly “the vision of ‘US Doctors for Africa (with an acronym, USDAF, that I first mistook for a US government agency) and African Synergy”. Meanwhile, “African Synergy [is] an NGO of 22 First Ladies from Africa”. The two bodies “hope for a broader partnership amongst the wide range of partners attending the summit … to make real and lasting change in Africa”. Gracing the occasion were proud-of-her-African-roots model, Naomi Campbell; famous-for-being-famous Paris Hilton (who’s known to charge thousands of dollars to attend events) and a few B-listers from Hollywood. Maria Shriver, California’s First Lady also attended. The occasion saw the first ladies “introduce their domestic and region-wide efforts across Africa, engage in dialogues with other leaders from the field of global health …”

The group slapped the collective face of long-suffering Africans: The consensus amongst the First Ladies was that what was lacking in Africa was the will of the people. Of course these women conveniently forget that the problems of Africa are rooted in their husbands’ mis-governance and mis-management of the continent’s wealth and human resources.

If most African countries belong to the African Union, why couldn’t their first ladies all be in this NGO? Or was there a hurry to get it going that others could not be contacted? While one occasion can be used to harness several goals, it seems strange that an “NGO of 22 First Ladies …” would also be “honoring the philanthropic efforts of the First Ladies of Africa”, i.e. themselves at their first gathering. It’s also rather strange that a 1st “First Ladies’ Summit” would not start in Africa but in far-away America despite heavy hitters like Chevron, ExxonMobil and Pfizer that seemed on board because of Nigeria.

How’s this NGO structured and where is its registered office? What happens if a member’s husband is ousted and Madam/Madame refuses to release funds in her keep? How will funds raised be shared among the countries? While “expected attendees” were to be 22 and only those in the photograph (twelve) seemed to have attended, why are others, including Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, etcetera NOT members? Pardon me, was this a summit of ‘The Wretched of the Earth” (Fanon) of First Ladies?

More questions: why was Osotimehin present at the “Summit”? Were other Health Ministers present but excluded from photographs? His presence got me wondering about the second event: Alhaja Yar Adua’s new project, an “International Cancer Center in Abuja”. Here are some of Alhaji Aliero, Chairman of Implementation Committee’s words at a press conference. The Alhaji, who wears several hats, is FCT minister and, I believe, soon to be another son-in-law of the Yar Adua.

“It is now time to tackle the menace of cancer by taking the bull by the horn, thanks to our inimitable First Lady, whose brainchild it is to seek solution to the scourge.
… the first of its kind in Nigeria and indeed West Africa. … has been conceptualised by the First Lady after a study …and visit along with some Nigerian cancer specialists to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre … “worried by the increase in reported cases of people with cancer in Nigeria, … has concluded plans to seek solution to the scourge … a terminal disease … made worse by the fact that most Nigerian hospitals … lack diagnostic capacity …”

.I think establishing a center for cancer is an excellent thing but it far outweighs a first lady’s position or the self-ascribed brief of “pet project”. American first ladies, starting from Eleanor Roosevelt who got “first ladyism” going, generally engage in projects that do not constitute empire building. The choice of Aliero as Chairman is as narrow-minded as Alhaja Yar Adua’s launch of her initiative at Katsina in ’07, and the guy’s very pedestrian press release is one result of that. Alhaja Yar Adua may, indeed, be interested in having a center that will carry out “far reaching research initiatives towards finding a lasting cure to the dreaded disease …” but how far it will go is already hampered. I know nothing about this man beyond newspaper reports but here’s more from his press release: “Tonight, cancer marches resolutely toward more than a million Nigerian homes, littering its pathway with the bodies of the young …”

As far as the “committee” was concerned, bringing somebody who had lost family members to cancer to “give moving testimony” was a necessity. “Mrs. Esther Abe’s … father died of prostate cancer while her mother died of cancer of the pancreas. … she said “I cannot wish my enemy the disease.”
I’m worried about how the funds will be raised in spite of [Madam Great Nation] Information Minister Akunyili’s glowing words canvassing “support for the project … since it is not government owned … attracting funding support from international bodies and philanthropists abroad …informed by the first lady’s great compassion for the poor, the sick, the handicap[ped] especially women and children” and will have “a Board of Trustees of competent, honest and well-trusted Nigerians”.

Nigerians need to know more about the funds since Alhaja Yar Adua is supposedly doing it on behalf of – and in the name of the country. How much has been collected – from here and overseas, so far, and WHO the contributors are. Is Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas financially involved? Is the Alhaja going to hold public presentations at which state governments, federal agencies, the private sector will be asked to donate? What is/what would be the Federal Government’s financial contribution to this project?
I have a huge problem with such a vast amount not being channeled into existing institutions like the University College Hospital, Ibadan, ABU-TH, Nsukka Teaching Hospital and other established medical centers “that lack diagnostic capacity” according to Aliero, where the huge amounts being bandied can be quickly utilized to strengthen existing programs. Some years ago, I wrote here about a young Nigerian lady, a UCH alumnae and Ekiti indigene, Professor Funmi Olopade (nee Falusi), head of one of the cancer units at the prestigious University of Chicago who won half a million dollars from the McArthur Foundation. It was for her ground-breaking work on a female-related cancer.

Osotimehin is very aware that Olopade donated a large chunk of her award to the UCH and Ife for ongoing effort on cancer research. She also put together a sort of inaugural lecture which I attended to which she invited along not only her medical professor husband, also a UCH alumnus but also some colleagues in her areas of interest from the University of Chicago. She did not ask for – nor get – any government recognition. Since Osotimehin seems to work closely with Alhaja Yar Adua, one is left wondering what input, if any, he has in this huge project, or if he thought suggesting to her how the huge amount being planned could be put to BETTER AND QUICKER use would jeopardize his then quest for a ministerial portfolio from the HIV/Aids post.

I’m not being a naysayer – as newspaper commentators who do not support the government wholesale are viewed – but I do not see this project succeeding as a first lady’s project. Now, it is possible we are looking at something like the Cancer Center at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Muslim Saudi Arabia where the royal family AND Saudi Government are one.
And with that, we arrive at my final question: what is the name of this cancer center and who will own it? Nigerians need answers.

The Nation on Sunday, May 2009.

[Update: Professor Osotimehin did move up to head Nigeria’s “juicy” Health Ministry and now, as Nigerian government appointee, is at an international organization. TOLA, February 22, 2012.]



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