By Dare Babarinsa
10 June 2021 THE GUARDIAN
Mrs Ajoke Muhammed may be one of the least known First Ladies in Nigerian history. When her husband became Nigerian third military ruler, she was just a young woman of 33, looking forward to a lifetime of conjugal felicity with her husband. She became a widow at less than 34 years of age when her husband was killed during the coup of February 13, 1976. Then she began a lifelong journey of widowhood. Her husband was just 36 and even at that young age, he had been at the epicenter of Nigerian politics for at least a decade.
Ten years after Muhammed was killed, my editors sent me to go and interview Mrs Ajoke Muhammed. I met her at her shop at the Tafawa Balewa Square. She was a serious looking young woman, occupied by the daily pressure of life. Some of her children were around. At least one girl, who should be in her late teens or early twenties was in the shop with her. She declined to be interviewed. It was apparent that the burden of widowhood was heavy on her. And then the daily struggle of trying to bring up a brood of young children without the father around. It is difficult to carry your pot of water on the head with only one hand.
It gladdens one’s heart that Mrs Muhammed made it to 80 in good health and a measure of fulfilments. God has been good to her. Her sacrifices and the sacrifices of her family have not been in vain. Depite the tragedies that befell her family; loss of a husband, loss of a son in later years, she has done well.
Man is burdened by remembrance and no one is more burdened than a widow or anyone who has lost a truly loved one to the cold hands of death. In the course of Nigerian history, many widows have emerged as victims of our thirst for power and for vengeance. Few people ask about the widows of power and they are often left at the mercy of the elements like discarded tyres. I remember that after the Nigerian Civil War, the 131 Battalion of the Nigerian Army was transferred from Iwo Road, Ibadan to Osogbo, now the capital of Osun State. I followed by brother, Captain Adeyinka Babarinsa, to Osogbo, and the soldiers, as soldiers were wont to be, became the great news of the town. One of the celebrities in Osogbo then was Mrs Faderera Akintola, the widow of Chief Ladoke Akintola, the second premier of the defunct Western Region. I think Mrs Faderera had a shop on Ikirun Road. Her husband was killed during the coup of January 15, 1966. She was a woman in her middle-age and she still looked then apparently vigourous. She was once a powerful woman. She has since lost that status.
After Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa was killed on January 15, 1966, his widows packed his few belongings; for he was a man of Spartan taste, and headed home to his village of Tafawa-Balewa. Who knows what happened to his descendants and the widows since then? In 1982, I had met Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, the then Deputy Governor of Bauchi State and asked him excitedly whether he was the son of the assassinated Prime Minister. He said he was not.
Who remember all the families that were shattered during that first coup? What happened to the widows of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first and only Premier of the defunct Northern Region (now divided into 18 states)? Bello was killed along with one of his wives during the coup of January 15, 1966. The man who led the team that shot Bello was a familiar face to the Premier who had taken special interest in Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. It was Nzeogwu who shot the Premier and that shot shattered many dreams. I was told that one of Bello’s youngest wives, a woman who was barely 20, later married Ibrahim Dasuki, the late Sultan of Sokoto. That coup also produced many widows including those of leading military officers like Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun, Brigadier Maimalari, Colonel Kur Mohammed and Colonel Ralph Shodeinde. The coup makers never came to power.
It was Ironsi who came to power after Balewa was killed. He was to meet his end during the coup of July 29, 1966 during which time his host in Ibadan, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, was also killed. One of Fajuyi’s widows later married another military officer. Today, Ironsi’s wife has remained a widow for more than half a century. When her husband was abducted, his young son, Thomas, was with him. The assassin spared Thomas and the lad, dressed in a lady’s clothing, was taken to the railway station at Dugbe in Ibadan. Even in her state of distress, Mrs Victoria Ironsi drove to the Iddo Railway station in Lagos to receive her traumatized son.
Today, there are many widows of power in Nigeria, but the most visible are the widows of former Heads of State. Like Ajoke Mohammed and Victoria Ironsi, some of them suddenly found that they have become widows. General Sani Abacha was the most powerful ruler Nigeria has ever known. Then suddenly one day in June 1998, Maryam, his normally unflappable wife, found herself being flown to Kano for Abacha’s burial. Umar Musa Yar’Adua’s wife Turai, had to endure many months of slow and agonizing wait while death kept vigil by the door before stepping in to claim the President.
It would be interesting to know how the widows of other men of power have been coping since the rude intrusion of death. What has been happening to the wives of Chief Moshood Abiola, Nigeria’s President presumptive, who won the June 12, 1993 presidential elections? What of the wife of Major-General Babatunde Idiagbon, Buhari’s powerful deputy during his first coming as the head of the ruling military junta? What of the wives of Chuba Okadigbo and Emeka Ojukwu?
When Stella Obasanjo became First Lady, she decided to invite all former First Ladies to a meeting in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja. However, the security men at the gate would not let one of the guests in because she came in a public taxi and that was forbidden at the presidential precinct. When Stella was told about the commotion at the Pilot gate, she hurried there to rescue her guest. Then the two of them embraced and wept.
On May 23, Ajoke Muhammed celebrated her 80th birthday anniversary. She had led a good and fruitful life and her running story continues to enthrall with creative energy and relentless productivity. Her daughter, Aisha, wife of outstanding lawyer, Gbenga Oyebode, reveals that mama has turned her involvement into nature conservation into something extraordinary. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement and has established Nigeria’s only two botanical gardens in Abuja and Lagos.
“For the past 30 years, she has travelled around the world to find and import endangered plants as seeds with the aim to conserve, propagate and disseminate forgotten indigenous plants,” stated Aisha.
Ajoke is also spending her life in the pursuit of peace. In her 14 years of marriage to Murtala Muhammed, she saw him go to war in the aftermath of the bloody second coup and watched with trepidation, as he became the ruler of Nigeria at a turbulent period. Now she is determined to impact some lessons to an unwilling nation and change the perception of coming generations. “She is a bridge builder, across tribes, generations and socio-economic divisions,” stated Aisha. “She has overcome many challenges including the loss of her first son and has become an epitome of dignity, grace and equanimity.”
Let’s spare a thought for the First Ladies. It is not always about better life. It is not an easy thing to be a widow for 50 years like Mama Ajoke Muhammed and bear the burden with dignity without crumbling. Congratulations Mama. I wish you greater days ahead by God’s grace.