First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan has a big personality and is a powerful political figure. She holds multiple Nigerian university degrees. She has been the permanent secretary in the Bayelsa state government, usually the most senior civil service position. She was appointed by the governor who is a political ally of her husband, President Goodluck Jonathan. She has consistently advocated on behalf of more women in national life. She also acquired brief notoriety in the United States when she initially described the Chibok kidnapping as a fraud designed to embarrass her husband.
Recent media reporting on Patience Jonathan’s verbal assaults on All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and the opposition’s response provides a glimpse into the current national electoral campaign. The Nigerian media reports the first lady as allegedly calling for the supporters of her husband’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to “stone” those canvassing for “change.” The APC has since made a formal complaint against the first lady to the International Criminal Court for inciting violence. The first lady’s media aide, Ayo Ademuyi, has since said, “Dame Patience Jonathan is a woman of peace that can never in any way be identied with violence before, during, and after elections.”
At another campaign venue, the first lady said Buhari was “brain dead." Buhari’s health has become a significant campaign issue. So much so that one opposition figure complained that the first lady was commenting on Buhari’s health rather than his intelligence or political acumen when she said he was brain dead.
In Kogi state, Patience Jonathan is quoted as saying, “I thank you very much the people of Kogi. This time around, I came to thank you very well. I brought some gift for you. I brought rice. I brought brocade. I brought many thanks for you. It is not for election but to thank you very well.” In Sokoto, “to empower women,” she distributed 1,200 bags of rice, 5,000 bundles of brocade, 5,000 wrappers, 800 blankets, and 2,000 rubber mats to women in 23 local government areas. Her campaign rhetoric specifically targets women, emphasizing the number of women in the Jonathan administration.
According to Nigerian media, the APC’s campaign organization has responded with a statement describing Dame Jonathan as “an incredibly crude woman,” and “thanked” Nigerians for putting up with her. The statement, signed by the APC’s director of media and publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, called on Jonathan to put the First Lady “in bridles" and protested Jonathan’s use of “worship centres” as platforms for official statements: “If predecessor presidents did not use the mosques or churches to make official statements of public importance, it is wrong for President Jonathan to start something that is already sending the wrong message.” Shehu also accused the president of exploiting religion for political gains. Further, the APC campaign organization is accusing Jonathan of disbursing large sums to “religious leaders in order to buy their conscience.”
The use of incendiary rhetoric, the distribution of largess, and the appeals to religious identity do not paint a pretty picture. It is likely that the APC is as guilty in intent as the PDP, but with one difference. The PDP has deep pockets. The APC does not. Some of my Nigerian interlocutors have suggested that one of the motivations for postponing the elections from February 14 to March 28 was that the longer campaign period would bleed the APC dry. Come election day, we will see what consequence this may have had.