Many may not view Aisha Buhari beyond the lens of the office of the First Lady, but she has had an exciting and colourful life.
From humble beginnings in Yola, Adamawa State, where she was born, the trained beautician, who married President Muhammadu Buhari on the 2nd of December 1989, worked her way to success in business and academics.
In an interview with the BBC, she discussed the expectations of being the First Lady of Nigeria, her academic pursuits, charity work and what she intends to do after her husband leaves office.
Would you say this administration has met the expectations of Nigerians?
The anticipation of us was so high. People were expecting so much from us. And maybe after seven years, we haven’t performed to their expectation. Only God knows what is in somebody’s mind. As human beings, we cannot say that we are right or have done what we should. So, the government has tried. The administration has done its best, but maybe it is still not the best for others. To them, they have done their best. So only God knows. So, we must apologise to Nigerians, whether we met their expectations.
In what areas do you think that they could have done better, in your own opinion?
I don’t know because I run my office like an NGO to receive people. I’m not into government activities. My own is to support them either in health or education. I won’t go into details about what they are doing.
Do you think there is a chance that the APC may not come back as the ruling party in Nigeria?
Why did you ask that question? Of course, we will continue. Of course, APC will win by the Grace of God.
Tell us about yourself
I was born and raised in Yola, in today’s Adamawa State. I was born in 1971. I attended primary school at Yola Secondary School in Yola. And then, I went to the University of Maiduguri. I worked for about ten months before entering the university as a student, and then suddenly, I married. Getting married did not stop me from furthering my education. So, I continued with my education.
I first went to NCE, where I studied Social Studies. I thought that Social Studies would be the most straightforward course because I had children simultaneously. But it happened that it was so wide, vast and quite large.
But thank God, I finished the NCE. And much later, the Federal Government opened what is called distance learning, and I joined Ambrose Alli University, Kaduna Campus, where I obtained a degree in Public Administration.
Initially, we started with Political Science, but for a lack of lecturers, they decided to divert us to Public Administration which is equally vast. We touched a lot of fields like Law, Business, and everything.
What about your Masters?
After that, I went to the UK because my children went there. Most of the time, I happened to be in the UK. So I decided to use that time to enrol for short courses like Beauty Therapy. I did the Beauty Therapy course for two years and got a diploma. I learnt everything from nails to manicures, pedicures, eyelashes, and permanent make-up, everything about beauty. So I got a certificate in that. When I returned to Kaduna, I opened a Spa and, later on, a training institute.
I was also one of the consultants for KRPC, Kaduna NNPC, on the youth empowerment programme. They call it YEASA. They typically empower the youths around their host environment in order not to vandalise their equipment.
So, I happened to be one of their consultants. I was one of the resource persons of NBTE. So I was among the people that wrote the curriculum for them. I wrote the beauty therapy side of it, and then there were other courses like Agriculture.
People don’t see your academic side a lot, and it’s fascinating to me. So what motivated you to go into educating the girl child particularly?
Where we were born and brought up, even our great-grandparents were educated. So even when I got married, I think in our society at that time, the environment or the family, or in Adamawa State in general, the least educated person was maybe somebody with a secondary school leaving certificate.
So your motivation for educating, especially young people. Where did it come from? Why did you pick an interest in education?
We found it very important and we were also beneficiaries of the girl child education. We benefited a lot from it.
You spoke about raising children and also going to school at the same time. A lot of people find that very difficult to do. How did you manage?
That was why most of the time, I went for part-time schooling. That gives me time to take care of the home front and continue my education.
After opening the spa and the beauty institute, when NDA started enrolling civilians, we were the second set that got registered. So I obtained a Master’s Degree in International Affairs and Strategic Studies at the Nigerian Defence Academy. Later on, I enrolled on online courses like Codependency and so on. But suddenly, we started campaigning for the 2014-2015 elections, which stopped me from continuing with many activities.
So does it look like when you leave Aso Villa, perhaps you may go back?
I think, for now, I need to rest; I need peace. I’m not talking about anything now apart from having peace and spending time with my children and grandchildren.
When you became the president’s wife, did it take away your motherly duties as a grandmother, a mother, and a wife? Did you have time to perform your duties and also do the official duties that you had to do?
It never stopped me from performing my duties as a mother or as a grandmother. Before going to a conference or a meeting, the grandchildren will call me, “Mummy, you didn’t do this for me,” I’ll say, ok, I’m coming. When I get there, I will compose myself and become serious like a first lady.
So I played a double role at the same time. Like in this office, my children and grandchildren were laughing and joking. Suddenly, I moved to another office and then became serious and became the First Lady of Nigeria.
And how did they adjust to grandma as the first lady?
Don’t forget that I was married to a former president for 25 years before becoming the First Lady of Nigeria. So already we have that culture of behaving ourselves, all of us, including the grandchildren. They know when to do this or when to do certain things.
As women, we like to cook for our families. Did you have that time as a first lady to do the cooking for the family as you used to?
I do cook, not even for my family but for my husband, even for outsiders. I cook for the elderly and people that are sick. I cook for them.
We didn’t see a lot of the charitable activities that you did. Can you take us through a lot of them?
Charitable activities are like a part of me. When I realised I had many people willing to help me, we decided to go on a medical mission.
In that medical mission, we usually screen about 4,000 women in each state in less than 10 hours. We screen them for different ailments, including cancer, and those living with HPV. We usually collaborate with Marie Stopes Foundation. And in Marie Stopes Foundation, they have a machine called ‘See and Treat’.
So, if we test a woman and she is positive, we keep her aside, and then after the whole screening, they come back and concentrate on them. Then they burn the lesions that they have seen in them. So they call it ‘See and Treat’. That way, they are harmful to HPV. And we did it for thousands of women in Nigeria because we went to almost all the States. I can remember, In 2015, we started with Cross River, then moved to other states.
What was the motivation?
You know I come from the North-east where we look at having education as mandatory. And in the North-west, we found out that they got married early, at 13 or 14, which is problematic and unfortunate. And I do my best to see how we can help to stop it or reduce it.
What do you want to be remembered the most for?
Service to humanity. We gave some stationeries and school materials, and then during our campaign, we extracted a few points from the party manifesto. We capitalised on it, and then we campaigned on it. That includes feeding; giving a hot meal to primary and secondary school students. That encourages them to remain in school. It was a big challenge for us because, by the time my husband came into power, there were no such resources, but I insisted that we campaigned for it, and it must be done.
Do you see this continuing after your husband leaves office?
Yes, of course, it will, as long as it’s APC leadership.
And what if it’s not?
It should be
Will you continue Future Assured?
Yes, I will, at a lower level, maybe because I want to rest after this. I want peace. I want to relax. I want to be with my grandchildren, with my children, and with my associates like before.
We are caged here. I’m sure we will continue with ‘Future Assured’. We can’t stop because we have already collaborated with many international bodies.
Will you go back to your beauty parlours?
I shut it down. That one is gone. But I’m going to have it in my own house for my personal use.
Do you see yourself going for any public office at all?
Thank you very much. I thank God for giving me the opportunity of being the First Lady of Nigeria, and I think that position is priceless. I thank God and pray that he grants us good exiting and we hand over to the APC government again. I don’t have any political ambition because, after that, I will be the former First Lady of Nigeria. What else am I looking for?
What if you rest for some time and then come back?
I want to continue resting.
Any word of advice for the following first ladies that are coming? What do you want them to know that probably nobody will tell them?
Let her just be herself. She should not allow anybody to come and mortgage their administration. So they have to listen to the people that voted for them. They must listen to people. And then be herself under any circumstance. She must be herself. She should not allow people to define her. She should try and express herself.