OPINION: First Lady -- On An Illegal Podium?

OPINION: First Lady -- On An Illegal Podium?

OPINION: First Lady -- On An Illegal Podium?

Patience Jonathan, the First Lady and Permanent Secretary in the Bayelsa State Civil Service, a position to which she was promoted last year to national outrage, is in the news again for the wrong reasons.

Having decided to now conduct her public outings with an official podium of 'First Lady' complete with the country's coat of arms and national colours, it seems there is no limit to the odium Nigeria would endure in her hands. For the wife of the President, occupying a ceremonial office that is unknown to Nigeria's constitution and laws, to use the coat of arms in the manner she does amounts to a desecration of national symbols and disrespect to all Nigerians. 

This odious practice should be stopped immediately and President Goodluck Jonathan should lead the way as the man who has sworn to abide by the constitution and uphold its tenets. It is bad enough that the First Lady's deviation from the norm is manifesting in the President's household, it is doubly sad that he has seen nothing wrong with it. No doubt, Madam Jonathan deserves praise for her tireless efforts at improving the lots of Nigerian women. Her campaigns on the political scene did more a lot to impact on her husband's political fortunes. She is indeed a force for good. But introducing a seal of her own is a little over border.

It all seemed a joke when, in February, Patience Jonathan, surrounded by her friends and family members, first made her address on a customized podium adorned with the country's official seal. From all indications, the practice appears to be her new fancy, disrespectful as it is of the country's sovereignty and cherished ideals. Naturally, the question that has necessarily been provoked is: on what basis could the 'office' of the First Lady, unrecognised by the constitution, carry a seal bearing the nation's coat of arms and the national colours?

This is a joke taken too far and a clear violation of the constitution of Nigeria. It is surprising that this indiscretion escaped the attention and advice of the civil servants or, perhaps, worse still, enjoyed their approval. 

Whatever the case, this saga is a clear demonstration of how much erosion dignity and professionalism have suffered in the nation's civil service. Besides, if those who are expected to guide the first wife on the unconstitutionality of her actions failed in their duty, can the President himself claim ignorance of his spouse's debauchment?

Notably, this is not the first time Madam Jonathan would be involved in conducts unbecoming of her station as the President's consort. Her several goofs in public are now well documented in an unedifying diary of her person and position. She often behaves like an all-conquering empress as she takes on governors and elected leaders at the slightest opportunity in ways that embarrass the nation. Sometime in the middle of last year, the Governor of Bayelsa State Seriake Dickson elevated the First Lady to the rank of permanent secretary without a portfolio in the civil service of Bayelsa State, ostensibly in accordance with the constitutional power conferred on him but certainly in total disregard of decency.

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On her part, the beneficiary justified her promotion on the point that she had been a teacher in the state, when in reality, she had been away from her job since her husband was elected Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, and up to his ascension of office as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. On another occasion, she sent the Minister of Water Resources, Mrs. Serah Ochekpe, to represent her at a book launch in honour of President Olusegun Obasanjo at the latter's Presidential Library in Abeokuta.

These episodes bring to the front burner issues of law and ethics in governance, and they constitute avoidable pressures on the polity. The First Lady has no power to commandeer a serving minister to do her bidding. A minister is a servant of the state, appointed by the President, not his wife. That action was a clear violation of sections 147 and 148 of the 1999 Constitution which vests in the President the power to appoint a minister who may be assigned a 'responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation, including the administration of any department of government.' Surely the First Lady's office does not fall into the category stipulated by the constitution.

Patience Jonathan's actions are not only too brazen but clearly unconstitutional, an act for which the President could be held accountable. The time has, therefore, come to remind Mr Jonathan that Madam Jonathan has stepped out of bounds, this time adorning her ceremonial station with the seal of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and she must be reined in immediately.

Her action ridicules Nigeria in the comity of nations and President Jonathan needs to demonstrate that he understands the implication of the leadership position he occupies and back it up with corresponding action.

Truly, Nigeria has been unlucky to have many leaders seemingly incapable of appreciating basic ethics of governance even when they are ever so quick to cite precedents for their actions from countries like the United States of America. This, however, is often done dishonestly. The 'First Lady' has no place in the constitution and clearly is a ceremonial position from which the lucky spouse is expected to use her personal comportment to enhance her husband's image. In America where it evolved in the nineteen century, it was manifestly for delivering some public good, especially those involving charity and humanitarian exertion. First Ladies in America never seek to interfere with the President's job, never dare attempt to usurp the powers of their husbands, let alone drag them to the dangerous grounds of infringement of the basic laws of the country and the consequent threat of impeachment.

In Nigeria, the impunity now being displayed by those saddled with the responsibility of running the nation's affairs has rendered the country a fertile ground for breeding the improbable. The Patience Jonathan First Ladyship, in its power grab, is one such absurdity.

First Lady's status is a moral pulpit from which the highest of values cherished by a nation are expected to be espoused, especially by example. It is no podium for unconstitutional actions, substantive or symbolic.

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