Oluremi Obasanjo – A Feminist Icon? (From the Archives)

November 27, 2008 at 6:28pm

While stuck at the airport this morning waiting for my ride to Ado-Ekiti I bought a copy of Tell magazine. A headline caught my eye, ‘Oluremi Obasanjo tells all in her book Bitter Sweet’ I turned the pages to read Fidel Bam’s review. There are a lot of unflattering adjectives to describe his review ladies. He calls it a book of vengeance I call it a book of revelations. Oluremi Obasanjo has shown great courage in writing this memoir. I’m not nearly as brave; I’m planning to write a faction because I’m totally terrified of the fall out if I print ‘the truth’ about my experiences with my ‘husbands’. Please note I use the term husbands here not to mean that I have had multiple spouses but in recognition of the Igbo-Nigerian point of view that all a woman’s in-laws are her ‘husbands’ and requiring the same amount of submission and ass kissing.

Bam in his ‘review’ keeps going on and on about how family secret’s have been made public. The first thing I learnt as a neophyte women’s rights activist was the importance of bringing things out n the light of day. Secret places are where abuse happens. I disagree with him totally as to whether posterity will forgive her, some of us already have. She has done a great thing for women’s rights in Nigeria; whether by design or accident she has become an inspiration for physically, emotionally and psychologically battered women all over the country to speak out honestly about their experience. She has punctured the stigma and shame. She has changed the public discourse on domestic violence.

Bam’s review was insensitive, unfair and prejudiced. ‘No matter the extent of Obasanjo’s humiliating his wife, is that enough reason for Oluremi to out Herod Herod?’. I remember as a young wife and mother complaining to an older woman about my husband’s womanizing, I was already considering a separation. Her advice? ‘It’s no reason to separate, my husband used to bring women into our bedroom and I served them.’ And why was I advised to endure such humiliation? For the sake of the children. She knew that the children would become the pawns in a horrible battle. She knew the rules. I didn’t, I still had my undiluted American beliefs about rights, rule of law and liberty of person regardless of gender.

I admire Oluremi! She has shown fortitude in raising her kids well despite the overwhelming odds against her and in giving her man chance after chance after chance to reform, repent and change. Although Oluremi sometimes comes across as aggressive, coarse and self righteous, I can sympathize with her having been pushed to shrewish dementia myself by a self centered husband and pesky in laws, pushed to violently and crudely reject the powerlessness imposed by the violent dominance of an outdated ideology based on paranoia, suspicion, and male privilege. Perhaps the structures for peaceful resolution exist but what do you do when they are corruptly manipulated or even ignored? Or when you don’t have the resources to access them, they’re not free after all.

Why should women go through debilitating and humiliating experiences like this just because we have decided that we can no longer live with the man we married? We can and should do something to end these abuses. Access to children after a divorce or separation is one of the biggest issues. Why should a woman be denied access to her children or denied financial support to raise them simply because she has decided to no longer accept humiliation and abuse passively? How do we stop this from ever happening to another woman again? This is not an isolated case; it’s just the most high profile one by far. I have worked with abused women for more than 10 years and no matter the economic class the story is the same.

Just last week I met a woman I’ve known for years. She separated from her husband when her kids were toddlers, she was denied access and had to go through all sorts of subterfuge to see her kids. Her husband bribed the court officials for years to stall the case she brought against him. When we met she proudly told me how her son now in his early twenties fights to protect her rights and ensure her unrestricted access. Why should her access to her children have been denied all these years? Why was she denied interaction with her children all these years? Why should her children have been denied their mother’s influence all these years? Because she could no longer live with the man she married? Why did she have to wait all these years till her son could give her justice? Why should her son, or any child, who should be focused on creating a life and starting a family need to go to battle with their paternal family to stop a mother’s abuse?

While all families have varying degrees of dysfunction and some may seem to have more than others it seems too much of a coincidence that his narcissistic, high risk behavior and mood swings only emerged after the civil war. While it’s not popular to accept that Africans also experience psychological trauma and its long term behavioral consequences it sounds to me like he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This is not uncommon in soldiers, even Nigerian soldiers. I handled a divorce case a while back, the husband, an armed forces man, had just returned from an active mission and was exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD. The administration couldn’t offer him any help. He refused to admit he had a problem, his marriage collapsed under the strain. He reacted pretty much the way Obasanjo did, refusing to pay child support and becoming increasingly abusive.

Obasanjo may have had PTSD after the civil war and it may have been further aggravated by his experience in Abacha’s gulag but it is still obvious that he is a highly controlling alpha male. He seems to have won Oluremi’s heart through his sheer persistence and determination, it also seems obvious that he totally controlled her; he dictated her clothes, her education and her career. He fits the profile of wife abusers that we have identified over the decades, these are some of the traits and our high machismo society encourages them. Poor woman, it seems from her narrative that everyone just expected her to shut up and stop embarrassing her husband the big man war hero, commander in chief and Head of State, no different from what thousands of Nigerian women experience just because the man is ‘commander of chef’, ‘head of household’ and a local champion. Money and power just magnify the issues.

Some may accuse Oluremi of herself being a conniving, manipulative and scheming woman who was herself intoxicated by her husband’s power and rising profile but that would ignore very complex dynamics and be mere speculation. Oluremi’s devotion to her children is evident throughout her narrative, her own fulfilled, content and stable childhood seems the standard she sought for her children. I don’t get the impression she was as hurt by her husband’s treatment of her as she was by his treatment of their children. He wrested custody from her only to leave the children unprotected and uncared for in his house, one of the children even died despite the fact that he was second in command at the time. Her aspirations for her children were met with a rebuke that she wanted to spoil them. I empathize completely, that reflects my experience so totally, and all the while I was being accused of being a gold digger. Oluremi fought to the bitter end, I got fed up with the drama in my case, forcibly took my children and tried to do the best I could on my own.

Oluremi’s story does not necessarily impact my opinion of Obasanjo’s real and imagined achievements what it does is reveal a tormented and driven man, a career soldier with invisible psychic wounds he would never admit to and memories he would obviously prefer to forget. I was almost moved to compassion for the man, I certainly understand his leadership style better. He was not the first powerful leader to sacrifice his family for the dysfunctional and illusionary trappings of power. Powerful men through out history have chosen to indulge their vanity and act with impunity and entitlement. He was an autocrat in his home and an autocrat in government; he may have had good intentions and noble aspirations but democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law set new requirements and expectations. He fought for his equality as a black African and cannot understand the aspirations of his women for equality as human beings. Equality is not a male prerogative, just like power is no longer the prerogative of wealth. Recognizing your wife as your partner and treating her with dignity, respect and inclusion is really not a choice, it’s a requirement for a happy fulfilled and balanced life in the modern world. Could this be why so many want to keep the masses and women stuck in the stone ages, uneducated, unemployed or under employed, superstitious and naïve?

I have reaffirmed or learn a number of things from reading this gripping account of a life interrupted;

1. there is an urgent need to review the Matrimonial Causes Act, it is archaic and it is not gender sensitive at all. Not only does it make it difficult for a woman to seek divorce it makes it expensive to pursue. The customary law systems that the majorities of woman have access to in the north and in the south of Nigeria are heavily biased against women based as they are on archaic world views where women and children were merely chattels and expose women seeking divorce and their to extreme exploitation, trauma and humiliation.
2. the Nigerian armed forces need to review their transition support for veterans returning from war, especially the psychological support they provide. Wars are dehumanizing and brutalizing, veterans need assistance re-integrating into society after prolonged exposure to the violence and brutality of armed conflict.
3. Nigerian journalists still need to learn how to write sensitively about women and women’s issues. Fidel Bam, would you have advised your sister or your daughter not to share her experience because her husband is a big man or simply because he is a man? And if yes, to what goal? To protect the image of the man that is abusing her? Or because her plight is not really that high up on your list of priority issues to deal with?

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