Commentary: In Praise of Dame Patience Jonathan
By the time the last dust of her husband’s tenure fades away and anthologists scurry to scribble her place in Nigerian socio-political history, Dame Patience Faka Jonathan would no doubt occupy a huge space in the books. Many would remember her for diverse reasons. For some, her serio-comic disposition and displays would serenade the memory. For others, it might be her predilection to being forthright and unpretentious about her personality. She comes to you raw and natural, no airs or any form of dissimulation or pretending to be Victorian in a manner that would ‘suit’ the office of “First Lady’.
Dame Jonathan never tried to speak with her nose raised in a cheap copy of the ‘white man’. She did not pretend to copy the phonetics of ‘exposed and well-tutored’ women. She speaks with the guttural brogue of an Okirika woman. She never tried to catwalk or walk like a cat just so we would realise how her office has transformed her. She stayed herself, sometimes decked out in double wrappers like your everyday Nigerian woman. It takes a strong character to be yourself in the midst of affluence and influence especially if you were the wife of a man who had no shoes growing up but who later became the president of his country. For being herself, Madam Jonathan has won the hearts of many.
But by far, where you cannot deny the First Lady maximum marks is in the aspect of her uncommon courage, derring-do and unflinching support for her husband in the midst of the turbulence orchestrated to torpedo his administration. Against the roaring waves of violence and contrived destruction, we could hear the voice of the Dame uttering ‘peace, be still’. It is the plaintive cry of a concerned mother urging the riotous mob to shun the bomb and embrace the book. Dame Jonathan is an emblem of peace. She has cried for peace to reign in the nation. She has entreated the advancing army of terror recruits to retreat and surrender their weapons of mass destruction in exchange for a better life fuelled by good education and acquisition of contemporary vocational skills.
She is an unrepentant defender of child rights especially the girl child. She has championed this cause in Africa in a manner no First Lady ever had. Little wonder the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) named her its Special Ambassador for Child Online Protection, an honour she has borne with Amazonite dignity. Last year, at the ITU World conference in Bangkok, Thailand, I encountered the First Lady. She was the face of the ITU, traversing the stands of countries from all over the world to draw global attention to the need to protect children from being harassed, molested and abused online.
There in Bangkok, I did not see a Dame Jonathan spruced up in Victorian attire. She was comfortable in her wrapper, in her proudly Africa fabric. She addressed different audiences including a gathering of young and hugely talented innovators from across the globe, a small crowd of inquisitive minds which boasts Nigeria’s Oscar Ekponimo. As she moved from audience to audience to preach her gospel of cyber decorum and child protection, she was swamped by white people from all around the world yet such exotic assemblage of humanity did not sway her to change her accent. She spoke like a typical Nigerian, warts and all.
You may disagree with her brand of macro-economic policy but Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy has seen a lot of the white community but she did not allow the phonetics of the American system to corrupt her Nigerian accent. This is not a mark of weakness, it is a testimony of her strong character to still be herself even while in the company of the ‘exotic’ community. Such strength of character is made even more profound in the First Lady.
Add to this, the very fact that Dame Jonathan, aside the late Maryam Babangida of the ‘Better Life for Rural Women’ fame, has while in office affected more women than all the other first ladies put together. Dame Jonathan’s Women for Change initiative has turned out a rallying fulcrum for Nigerian women to raise their voices against the deafening din of the men folk in the nation’s political space.
Chroniclers of history would remember Dame Jonathan as a good family woman who tried to promote good family values in her country. She reminds us of Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States. Mamie was reputed as the ‘All-American wife and mother’ because of her strong family values. And with that, she became popular with voters and she helped to project her husband as a good family man.
Dame Jonathan has entrenched in our minds the picture of a caring, sober and emotional mother. She comes to Nigerians as a wife and pillar of support for her husband. Brahima Sanou, ITU Director, Telecom Development Bureau, described Nigeria’s Dame Jonathan as ‘Mother Cyber Peace”. This is not a misnomer. It is a fitting epaulet on the shoulders of a woman whose ceaseless crusade to protect the children from both real and virtual world plunderers is incomparable.
We may not approve of her mastery of the Queen’s English (you don’t need to speak good English to be a good leader) but we cannot lose sight of her sense of bravery, courage and empathy for both the poor and the threatened category of homo sapiens: women and children. Above all, she has stood by her husband at all times.
In good times and bad times, Dame Jonathan has remained unfazed and unmoved by the allure of opulence and the grandeur of fame. This is the stuff of women of strong character and it is one virtue very rare among women these days and in these times.