The Parliament Diary


Giant Strides

Giant Strides

Following is an abridged profile of Former Nigerian First Lady Dr. Mrs. Maryam Sani Abacha. It is an extraction from the original work by John Adache, in which he eloquently chronicled some of the major focal programs and activities of Mrs. Abacha’s tenure as First Lady, which are unarguably the most exceptional contributions ever by a Nigerian First Lady to Nigeria’s social and economic progress

Her Excellency, Maryam Sani Abacha was born Maryam Jiddah in Kaduna on the 4th of March 1947 to Sheikh Mohammad Jiddah and Nana Ya Guumsu Nasara, a Kanuri Princess of Bornu Emirate whose father was of German Origin. Tracing her genealogical tree from the patrilineal lineage, Maryam is a direct descendent of Sheikh Ibrahim Wadaima, an Arabian who settled in Kanem Bornu around the 16th and 17th centuries. The Wadaima family is one of the known six great founding families of modern Bornu. Under the leadership of Sheikh Lawal El-Nur, of whom Sheikh Jiddah, Maryam’s father is a direct descendant, the Wadaima family later settled in the town of Masfa Lawani, presently in Mafa Local Government Area of Bornu State.

Her Excellency Maryam Sani Abacha began her educational pursuit at Tudun Wada Primary School and U.N.A. Primary School, Sabon Gari Zaria, and graduated later from the Dala Girls Secondary School, Kano. While in Primary School, her discipline and leadership qualities began to emerge as she rose to become a Patrol Leader in the Girl’s Movement (Brownie and Girl Guide) in 1961. As a student in Secondary School, her teachers had described her as “a calm, reliable and disciplined student”. During her Secondary School education, she distinguished herself as a promising public speaker in the debating club and excelled among her contemporaries in sports as a Table Tennis Champion.

In 1965, Miss Maryam Jiddah got married to Second Lieutenant Sani Abacha, whom she had known as a close family acquaintance, several years before he joined the Army. She lived with her husband at his military postings in Kaduna, Ibadan, and Kainji, until the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War in July 1967.

As a practical manifestation of her passionate humanitarian disposition, an attribute which is a dominant drive in her character, Maryam joined the collective efforts to mobilize Officers’ Wives to visit and deliver aide materials to wounded soldiers at the Military Hospital in Ibadan during the Nigerian Civil War Years (1967-1961). The couple moved back to Kaduna at the end of the war in 1970, from where her husband, a Lt. Colonel was posted to command the 2nd Amphibious Brigade in Port Harcourt.  While in Port Harcourt, Maryam set up a women’s forum in her residence where she organized a group of officers’ wives and other ladies to dialogue on contemporary issues of development as they related to the Nigerian socio-political system.

On her return to Kaduna after the civil war, her ardent desire to render self-less service to humanity saw her playing a significant role in the development of the Jam’iyyar Matan Arewa (a Northern Women NGO) which resulted, among other projects in the building of an Orphanage/Nursery School in Kaduna in 1973. She was later elected to the Executive Council of the Association for the period 1973-1974. In 1979, Maryam Abacha along with the wives of other senior military officers helped in the re-activation of the moribund Army Officers’ Wives Association (NAOWA) and emerged as its 12th National President from 1985-1990.

As the National President of NAOWA, she began a systematic program of establishing Vocational Training Schools in various Army formations throughout the country. In these vocational centers, Nigerian women and girls, especially families of army personnel were taught not only various skills and trades but also how to use locally available resources to create wealth for themselves and their communities.

By the end of her 5year tenure in 1990, a number of such schools already constructed and functional were to be found in Lagos, Kano, Sokoto, Bauchi, and Maiduguri; whereas those in Kaduna, Ibadan and Jaji were at various stages of completion.

During her tenure, as a result of her determination to lay a solid foundation for the intellectual development of the Nigerian Youth, she began a deliberate policy of building, equipping, and staffing nursery schools located in Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna, Enugu, Bauchi, Maiduguri, and Port-Harcourt. In addition to the nursery schools, Maryam as President of NAOWA also saw to the establishment of a primary and secondary school in Ojo Military Cantonment in Lagos. She revived the NAOWA farm including the building of a farmhouse.

It was also during her tenure that Maryam initiated the institutionalization of NAOWA WEEK. Similarly during her tenure, she also initiated and presided over the formation of joint military and police officers’ wives associations and encouraged equally, the growth of other human development activities. In this regard, she saw to the formation of the Joint Armed Forces and Police Officers’ Wives Consultative Committee (JOFOPOWOCCO) in 1986, which was renamed in 1996 to the Defence and Police Officers’ Wives Association (DEPOWA) to enhance the cordial relationship between the presidency and the various arms of the Armed Forces and the Police.

Equally to create a forum for the exchange of ideas and to provide a conducive environment whereby retirees could seek, and/or assist themselves, Her Excellency initiated the establishment of the Retired Army and Police Officers’ Wives Association (RAPOWA) in 1996. Similarly, she presided over the NAOWA National Sports Competition held at Ibadan in 1988, the National Seminars on the Theme: “Home as a Base for Peace” in Lagos in 1987, and “Greater NAOWA” in Kaduna in 1989. Maryam had already been an ardent believer in the cultivation of a healthy cooking culture which led her to facilitate the organization of a number of Cookery Competitions such as the Maiden edition in Lagos, in 1986, Ibadan, in 1987, and Jos in 1989.

On 17th November 1993, General Sani Abacha became the Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. As First Lady, Her Excellency Mrs. Maryam Abacha on 3rd March 1994 initiated the Family Support Programme (FSP). The FSP, which has an accompanying comprehensive Blue Print, is a holistic program whose focus is on the family as a nucleus of social growth and development.

Accordingly, the program focused on Health, Education, Agriculture, Income Generation, Disability, and Destitution among others. To further enlighten Nigerians and stimulate Government’s interest in the various FSP Action Areas, Her Excellency initiated and sponsored seminars and workshops on health; HIV/AIDS; Domestic violence; Disability; Destitution and Street Begging; Culture and Tradition as they relate to the sustenance of interest in traditional music.

A major project component of the Family Support Programme was the National Programme on Immunization (NPI) with its operational Blue Prints. The program is designed to eradicate on a sustainable basis the six childhood diseases in Nigeria, namely: Measles, Tuberculosis, Whooping cough, Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Polio. In recognition of this effort, she was appointed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a member of Polio/Free Africa, a committee of distinguished African leaders established for the eradication of poliomyelitis in Africa.

The FSP and its solitary acceptance by the Nigerian public earned the First Lady a United Nations award from the secretariat of the International Year of the Family in early 1995. The import of the award is mirrored most in the United Nations citation that came with it, extolling the FSP as having “eloquently translated the philosophy of the International Year of the Family as described by the United Nations in 1994”.

The First Lady through the effort and success of the Family Support Programme persuaded the Federal Government to establish the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development in January 1995. The Federal Ministry is the focal point for articulating development issues that affect women and children in Nigeria. It is in this context that she led the Nigerian delegation to the 5th African Regional Conference on Women, held in Dakar in 1994, and to the 4th World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China in 1995.

After Beijing, Her Excellency ensured the commencement of national enlightenment programs focused on the twelve critical areas of concern adopted during the Beijing Conference on Women. In this regard, workshops were conducted throughout the country under the auspices of the Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development.

The twelve critical areas of concern were thoroughly discussed resulting in the publication of instructional manuals and their accompanying workbooks for each of the Critical Areas. The manuals were designed to aid the enlightenment programming efforts of the nation’s grass root facilitators. Thus on 8th March 1997, during the commemoration of International Women’s Day, Her Excellency announced the approval by the Nigerian Government to the establishment of the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development in all states; thus facilitating the maximization of the impact of the programming efforts directed at women, children, and families at the local level.

Cognizant of her determination to empower women with the skills that will enable them continuously improve the quality of their lives, Maryam Abacha, was at the Beijing Conference and appointed as one of the conference Vice Presidents by the UN. Besides, her appeal for global peace in her address at the conference influenced Her Excellency’s appointment as the leader of the Africa First Ladies Peace Mission Committee by the African First Ladies Committee on Peace. The committee’s main goal is to influence the struggles for peace and free Africa from wars that are ravaging parts of the continent. Her emphasis on global peace during the Beijing conference formed part of the recommendations of the conference declaration. So too did her appeal for the respect of women’s rights.

As part of Maryam Abacha’s renewed efforts to improve the quality of life for Nigerian Families, and in consonance with Nigeria’s Vision 2020 program of development, the First Lady launched the socio-economic aspects of the FSP called Family Economic Advancement Programme (FEAP) on 3rd March 1997.

The program was designed to empower all families who constitute the local producers of goods, services, and potential entrepreneurs in the area of establishment of cottage industries; using not only locally sourced raw materials but also indigenous skills, plants, machinery, and equipment fabricated in Nigeria, thus, laying the foundation for the much needed industrial take-off in the country.

In recognition of her consistent and dedicated humanitarian services to Nigerian people in such areas as the advancement of social and gender equity, peace, and democracy, Maryam Abacha received merit awards from numerous organizations; national and international. These include the African Youth Sports Federation, the Sickle Cell Club of Nigeria, the National Council of Women’s Societies, the Nurses Association of West Africa, and the African Association of Women Entrepreneurs amongst others. Other awards include the Award from the World Council of Mayors Inc. (United Nations Cities) for outstanding support of families, women, and children (1997); America-Nigeria Progressive Association Inc.

Award for outstanding contribution in promoting mutual cooperation and understanding between Nigeria and the United States (1999); Merit Award for boundless effort and dedication in uplifting the lives of families by the International Cultural Centre, Los Angeles, USA (1997); Kansas City Honorary Citizen of the United States of America (1998); Outstanding African Achievers Gold Award for Transparency and Nation Building; Women, Africa Economic Growth Reserve; an Award given as one of the Leading Business Women in West Africa, Cape Town, South Africa (2008); Mrs. Abacha is Patron of Retired Armed Forces and Police Officers Wives Association of which she was founder and initiator.

Others are The Disabled Peoples’ Association; The Widows Association; Patron, Girls Guide, National Council of Women’s Society (NCWS); Kanem Women Association; She was invested with Royal Regalia as a Kanuri Princess; Merit Award for boundless effort and dedication in uplifting the lives of families by International Cultural Center, Los Angeles USA (1997); The Zik Prize in Leadership for Outstanding Performance in Humanitarian Leadership (1998); Certificate of Award for unparalleled and Imperishable contributions to the overall development of Nigeria in the areas of socio-economic development, security rejuvenation, political stability, tribal and religious tolerance (2005), among others.

Equally, in late 1995 and March 1997, the University of Maiduguri and Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka conferred Honorary Degrees of Doctor of Laws (LLD) on Maryam Abacha. In the same year, the University of Maiduguri bestowed on her another Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.

At the international level, apart from her continental assignments as a member of Polio-Free Africa, Maryam Abacha is a member of the Micro-Credit Summit of Advocates, and the International Steering Committee of First Ladies (ISC). In 1996, in response to her continental assignment as the leader of the Africa First Ladies Committee on Africa Peace Mission, she established the Peace Mission Secretariat in Abuja and convened the inaugural ECOWAS First Ladies Peace Mission Summit. In the same vein, she initiated and saw to the establishment of the Peace Mission Liaison Office in Monrovia, Liberia under whose auspices relief materials were delivered to the victims of the Liberian Civil War in December 1996, and in May 1997, Her Excellency presided over the inaugural Africa First Ladies Peace Summit in Abuja.

Her Excellency, Maryam Abacha has traveled extensively. This is because she sees traveling as a means not only of broadening one’s worldview, but also providing practical opportunities for building bridges of peace, mending torn fences, and creating the enabling environment for the cultivation of the spirit of understanding and goodwill amongst communities and between nations. Guided by this philosophical disposition, Mrs. Abacha has traveled to virtually all parts of Nigeria. Additionally, she had among others visited the following countries, namely; the United Kingdom, France, USA, Senegal, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, North Korea, and China. She speaks Hausa, Kanuri, Arabic, and English.

As an avowed writer and poet, Her Excellency has to her credit the following publications: Home as a Base for Peace (1987), NAOWA: A Symbol of Motivation (1992); The Pride of Culture (1996). These are in addition to seminal papers presented at the national and international fora, some of which have significantly formed the basis of major government policies such as the establishment of the Directorate of Foods, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFFRI); National Directorate of Employment (NDE); the People’s Bank of Nigeria (PBN); and other related people-centered social welfare and rural development programs.

Her Excellency, Dr. Maryam Abacha is a devoted House Wife, a mother of lovely children, and a true believer and advocate of peace. Her major hobbies include; social work, cultural affairs, cooking, care for children and the elderly, photography, reading, writing, and sports.

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