Emerging Trends In The Role Of The First Lady In National Development

                                       KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY


                                           HE ERELU BISI FAYEMI








The first time I reflected on what I understood about the Office of the First Lady was in January 2012, during my husband’s first term (2010-2014). I had embarked on a tour of Local Governments in Ekiti State to support women with empowerment initiatives and advocacy on a number of issues. The tour was very successful and attracted a lot of media attention, mostly positive. However, there was this one columnist with one of the national newspapers who wrote a scathing article, basically telling me to stay at home and stop going around making so much noise since I was not an elected government official and my position was an unconstitutional one. I decided to write a response (which was published in several national papers) which I called ‘The First Lady Debate’. The summary of my thoughts in that article were that the role of a First Lady cannot be wished away. First Ladies have always contributed significantly to national development, and the time has come to focus on what the platform means or ought to mean, and invest in what has the potential to be a critical institution in governance. I am therefore pleased that we are now having a sober and dispassionate reflection on this issue.

There is a growing amount of literature on the role and impact of First Ladies around the world. This is mostly because the role has continued to evolve in different contexts, and there is information available on the various activities, programs and interests of First Ladies from advanced democracies as well as emerging ones. What the available evidence points to is that the role of a First Lady has the potential to be a powerful platform for influencing change and advancing governance and development goals. How successful a First Lady is depends on a number of variables which include the political, legal and cultural context, availability of resources, support of her spouse, her abilities and capacities and her identified vision. It is a role that can be shaped or defined in ways to suit the individual concerned, and whilst it has its drawbacks, there are many possibilities. To draw from the title of a recent research article on the role of First Ladies by the Bush Institute in collaboration with the International Center for Research on Women, it is ‘A role without a rulebook’. What started out as a role that was essentially an extension of domestic responsibilities of a wife has evolved over time to become a formidable platform that can be used to influence change and expedite reforms on a large scale.

There are many examples of the influence of First Ladies around the world and within our own country here. I will give four brief examples:

  • Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) who has gone down in history as one of the most influential First Ladies of all time, due to her life-long commitment to human rights, social inclusion and the empowerment of women. She made such an impact during her time as First Lady that President Harry Truman appointed her as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1945-1952) where she was one of those drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
  • Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez, wife of former President Leonel Fernandez, Dominican Republic. She served as First Lady of the Dominican Republic from 2004-2012. As First Lady, she and her staff coordinated social policies for her husband’s administration, and generated programs for health, education of children, young people and vulnerable sectors of society. Margarita became the elected Vice-President of the Dominican Republic from 2012-2020.
  • Graca Simbine Machel, as the wife of Samora Machel, served as First Lady of Mozambique from 1975-1986. She also became the First Lady of South Africa (1998-1999) when she married Nelson Mandela. Graca was a Freedom Fighter and participated in the Mozambique liberation war as an active combatant and coordinator of FRELIMO’s education and outreach programs. She went on to become the Minister for Education and Culture after the war and worked to implement FRELIMO’s goal of universal education for all Mozambicans. Under her leadership enrolment went up from 400,000 to 1.5m children in school. Today, Graca Machel is one of the most respected civil society leaders on the continent, and she runs the Graca Machel Trust.
  • Maryam Babangida was First Lady of Nigeria from 1985-1993. Her Better Life for Rural Women program mobilized Nigerian women in an unprecedented way, and forced a focus on the plight of women in rural areas. The National Center for Women that she spearheaded remains a lasting testament to her vision.


Regardless of context, the role of the First Lady has stabilized around five key roles as follows:

  • WIFE

This is the starting point for any First Lady. She is the Wife of the leader and is expected to provide support and unfiltered advice. She is also a mother bringing up biological and non-biological children, either within the family or on the community at large. These are critical roles because as a Wife, she is the first to see him in the morning and she is the last to listen to whatever trials or triumphs he comes home with at night. In western democracies, the unspoken implication of this is that they will not vote for a saint who ends up going home to the warm embraces of a dragon, that will be a danger to democracy and they factor this into their decisions about how leaders are assessed.


This is another traditional role expected of a First Lady. She is expected to host activities and events to foster good will and a sense of belonging. This is considered to be an important part of public life, creating an enabling environment for relationships to thrive and for communication gaps to be bridged.


Over time, First Ladies have become champions of various causes ranging from education of children, health issues, poverty, economic empowerment to the inclusion of women in all aspects of development. When First Ladies champion issues, it is expected that their voices will matter and people will listen. This attracts attention to issues which would hitherto have been ignored without their intervention. Examples include the work of former African First Ladies such as Nana Agyeman Rawlings with her formidable December 31st movement for the economic and political empowerment of women in Ghana, HE Chantal Campaore’s work on Female Genital Mutilation in Burkina Faso, and HE Zanele Mbeki’s work on financial inclusion of women in South Africa to mention just a few. There is also HE Jeannette Kagame’s current work on HIV/AIDS in Rwanda and regionally, and Margaret Kenyatta’s role in championing reductions in infant mortality and safe motherhood.

Here in Nigeria, we have had HE Maryam Babangida’s Better Life for Rural Women, HE Maryam Abacha’s Family Support Program, HE Justice Fati Abubakar’s work on legal protection for women and children, late Mrs Stella Obasanjo’s work with Special Needs Children, HE Turai Yar’Adua’s work on HIV/AIDS and Cancer, HE Patience Jonathan’s economic empowerment for poor women, and currently HE Aisha Buhari’s role as a Reproductive Health, Tuberculosis and Gender Based Violence champion.


Attracting attention and the resources that follow to an issue is one of the ways First Ladies have contributed to national development. There is no point talking about a problem if there are no resources to fix it. Whilst it is not compulsory for all First Ladies to have operational or grantmaking foundations, this is one way in which they have been able to scale up and sustain their efforts. Most First Ladies have foundations through which they support issues of concern to them. Some of these entities continue after their terms in office or are scaled up or down depending on context.


A prime example of the evolution of the role of First Ladies in contemporary times is their involvement in Policy Advocacy. Drawing attention to an issue and building momentum around it is one thing. Having the force of law or policy to sustain it is another. First Ladies have traditionally not engaged in policy advocacy because of the limited political space they have access to. However, this is something that has changed around the world. Locally, more First Ladies are involved in influencing laws and policies for sustainable change. Former and serving State First Ladies in Nigeria have been involved in laws and policies around Cancer, HIV/AIDS, Trafficking, Sickle Cell and Gender Based Violence. In June 2020, Nigerian Governors’ Wives established a group known as Nigerian Governors’ Wives Against Gender Based Violence. Their advocacy with the Nigerian Governors’ Forum resulted in the Nigerian Governors’ Forum declaring a State of Emergency on Gender Based Violence. In June 2020 only 13 States had domesticated the 2015 Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act. As of April 2021, 21 States have signed on, and we have more Sexual Assault Referral Centers and Shelters across the country than we have ever had before.


To be able to accomplish all these roles a First Lady has to be an effective strategist, bridge-builder, administrator, multi-tasker, networker and much more. There is no substitute for a First Lady, no personal aide, relation, or political appointee can take her place. However, with all these expectations also comes the understanding that First Ladies will have character traits such as empathy, flexibility, humility, courtesy, grace, diplomacy, discretion, tact, restraint and generosity. To whom much is given, much is expected, and so First Ladies are encouraged to carry out their various assignments with all the dignity and grace they can muster, and be above board in all things.

The life of a political spouse is not all about glamour and perks of office. The human cost of public service can be very high and some even have to make the ultimate sacrifice – either experiencing the death of a spouse on the job or being killed themselves – the late Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, the wife of the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola is an example. Spouses often go through serious hardships due to the nature of politics – long periods of absence, endless working hours, very limited family time, betrayals and treachery, and abandonment by associates when the tap of political patronage dries up.

The wives of political leaders are often treated with suspicion and disdain mostly because the track record of some political spouses that has left a lot to be desired. I however believe that a lot of vituperation against First Ladies is less about their actual or potential misdeeds, but more about gender stereotypes. Wives are supposed to stay at home, looking after the home front, out of public view and firmly under the control of their husbands who are the ones the electorate voted for.

We have had many debates back and forth about the roles of political spouses, the danger they present for democratic spaces through their back door manipulations, their use of informal authority for personal gain, their lust for illegal power, and the drain they pose on tax payers’ resources. There are also well-known stereotypes of First Ladies here in Nigeria as being clueless, ignorant, greedy, meddlesome, illiterate, power drunk, it is a long list. While some of these concerns might be valid, I would like to urge us to examine the opportunities and benefits that this platform provides. In the six years I have been a First Lady, I have had the pleasure of working with amazing, creative and dynamic women. My colleagues are Medical Doctors, Lawyers, Diplomats, Academics, Development Specialists, Entrepreneurs, Teachers, Engineers, Architects and so on. There are real opportunities here to take advantage of all these skills and capacities.

We live in a society that has become rather schizophrenic in its understanding and analysis of local and global trends. We are quick to point out how exemplary democratic systems are in the West, but fail to take into account how those institutions evolved within the context of their own history and values. In the US for example, the Office of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) evolved over time. It was not in the American Constitution, and for many years the office was not funded, except for use of seconded, temporary staff. All this changed in November 1978 when President Jimmy Carter approved Public Law 95-570 which provided for the First Lady’s budget and staff. In addition, attitudes and expectations have shifted over the years to accommodate different spouses who bring their own unique contributions as long as they are within established parameters of service to the people and support for the vision of Mr. President.

In many African countries, the Office of the First Lady is formally recognized either as a matter of convention or through specific policy provisions such as in Namibia and Ethiopia. The African Union has a dedicated office that coordinates the activities of African First Ladies, an indication of how important they see their contributions. This started by encouraging African First Ladies to organize under the auspices of Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS in 2002. In light of their need to address other advocacy issues, the network recently rebranded itself and is now known as Organisation of African First Ladies for Development. There is also the the African First Ladies Peace Mission which aims to coordinate peace-building efforts of African First Ladies.

Here in Nigeria, we are unable to allow our institutions grow and learn. Our response is to throw the baby out with the bath water. We do not allow healthy and informed debate on the role of political spouses. We keep personalizing the issues by focusing on individual shortcomings rather than taking a more holistic view of how partners do indeed add value to the political process. We hereby create a black market where everyone knows where to buy something that is supposed to be illegal but they buy it anyway because it is needed and not available elsewhere. When it suits us, we use spouses to support political campaigns or philanthropic initiatives. When we are done with them, we expect them to disappear quietly to where they came from.

We need a change of mindsets. If we have democratic processes that are inclusive enough, the issue of ‘problematic spouses’ that keep being our reference point can be addressed in various ways. We should not conflate the issues to do with the importance of spouses on the political scene with the track record of unethical and unscrupulous persons operating in a context where there is no accountability.



  • First Ladies should be recognized as change agents, and should be encouraged to complement the efforts of the government at National and State level.
  • Every First Lady should champion an issue or a cause. Being a Champion requires that you be knowledgeable, passionate and resourceful, and capable of building a range of partnerships to aid the cause.
  • First Ladies should be encouraged to support policy advocacy to ensure lasting change beyond individual projects. Many First Ladies are concerned about social issues such as children’s well-being, women’s livelihoods, health, poverty alleviation and peace, but we find ourselves restricted due to a lack of legal, policy and institutional frameworks to address these issues comprehensively. Without the requisite laws and policies in place at national and State level, all our efforts will amount to tackling symptoms as opposed to root causes.
  • There should be more research, data and information available on the roles and impact of First Ladies.
  • Partnerships with government agencies, civil society and development partners to scale up or sustain our work beyond our terms in office is important. There is a lot to be done as we strive to do our best sometimes under difficult circumstances and within the shortest time possible.
  • There should be a culture of continuity in governance. Efforts should be made to sustain worthwhile social intervention programs initiated by First Ladies. Not everything needs to be thrown away when governments change.
  • There should be mentoring and orientation programs for First Ladies as well as ongoing learning and knowledge sharing initiatives. This will foster greater understanding of expectations, norms and values that will make the role easier.

To all our former First Ladies I say thank you for your service, contributions and sacrifice. To our First Lady HE Dr Aisha Buhari I say thank you for your leadership, please keep up the good work. To my colleagues, State First Ladies, I say be strong, stay focused and have faith. May you never regret heeding this call to service and may your legacies speak for you.

Thank you all and God bless.





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