Hajia Safinatu was very shy and described as a ‘retiring woman’. Yet, this graceful lady who did much of her activity in the background exerted her influence on one of Nigeria’s most powerful men for 20 months. This is the story of Safinatu, the first wife of President Muhammadu Buhari.
BIRTH, EARLY DAYS AND BACKGROUND
A Fulani by ethnicity, the late Hajia Safinatu was born on the 11th of December, 1952 in Jos, Plateau State into a family of 13 children, to Alhaji Yusufu Mani and Hajia Hadizatu Mani. Her mother, Hajia Hadizatu, gave birth to seven out of the 13 children. She is a native of Mani Local Government in Katsina State.
She was well-educated and was so literate that she could read and write in Arabic, being well-grounded in Islamic education. She attended the Women Teacher’s Training College in Katsina where she obtained her Grade II Teachers Certificate in 1971.
FALLING IN LOVE
Safinatu was 14 years old in 1966 when she met her husband for the very first time. Buhari, then a young major in the Nigerian Army, had paid a visit to the house of Safinatu’s father in the company of his friend, the late Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’adua. They had both gone to see Safinatu’s father, Alhaji Yusufu Mani, who was working in Lagos then as the Private Secretary to Alhaji Musa Yar’adua, the Minister of Lagos Affairs in the Federal Cabinet of the First Republic. Shehu Musa Yar’adua and Umaru Musa Yar’adua (later President of Nigeria) were sons of Alhaji Musa Yar’adua.
What happened during the first visit to Alhaji Mani’s house must have been spectacular because immediately the young major Buhari set his eyes on Safinatu, he was struck by the arrows of Cupid. That was not going to be the last visit to the house of Safinatu’s house. Buhari would later pay numerous subsequent onibaranbolebo visits to the family and like play like play, the two started exchanging letters. With time, both fell in love and they could court for four years and the two love birds would eventually decide to take their relationship to the next level.
An interesting thing about Buhari’s relationship with Safinatu was that shortly after the two met, the Nigerian Civil War started in 1967 and Buhari was deployed to the battlefields. This was one of the most tense periods in the life of Safinatu and she would later reveal that she was always worried during the war about the welfare of her lover and would ceaselessly pray for him. In 1971, with the war over, the two lovebirds decided to seal it and they got married. Thus, all through the war, while Buhari was on the battlefield combating Biafran rebels, his heart was not only burning with the love of Nigeria, it was also burning for a young beautiful Fulani girl named Safinatu. She was 18 when they got married.
BECOMING NIGERIA’S FIRST LADY
On the 19th of January, 1984, Hajia Safinatu Muhammadu Buhari moved into the State House, Ribadu Road, Marina, Lagos State. Nineteen days earlier, her husband had just become the country’s seventh head of state and as the wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, she had to move into the State House. That was her very first time of entering the State House even if she had been on the grounds of the State House at Dodan Barracks before. She arrived the State House with a few of her friends, relatives and her children; they were all received by her husband. But upon reaching the State House, she was disappointed with what she saw. She was expecting to see a presidential palace in all its majesty and glory, and the State House then did not have all the splendour of a Buckingham Palace.
Upon arrival at the State House, she was met by the housekeeper, Mrs. Adela Giwa, who then introduced her to members of the State House domestic staff.
LIFE AS THE FIRST LADY OF FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA
She was heavily influenced by social, religious and cultural factors and this was seen in her conduct and behaviour as the First Lady. She was always quietly by her husband’s side but she concentrated almost all her energy on her children and making the home very comfortable and peaceful for the general. She started her daily routine by reading the newspapers. Thereafter, if she had no engagements for the day, she would receive guests.
It was her habit to take breakfast late, lunch was also late as she took them at about 5pm and rarely took dinners. Even during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, her family normally took no meals after midnight and never took the usual sahur at dawn, sahur is the dawn meal taken by Muslims in preparation for the day’s fasting. Although she and her husband were devout Muslims, they were also considerably liberal in their attitude to life.
When Hajiya Safinatu took her breakfasts, she normally had them alone and her husband would have his own with his personal aides like his aide-de-camp, Major Mustapha Jokolo, his Chief Press Secretary, Mallam Wada Maida and his private secretary. At other times, one or two other people joined him for breakfast.
The head of state usually received visitors till about midnight after which he would then retire to his study to work till the early hours of the morning. A dutiful wife, Safinatu never left her husband in the study alone, she would stay with him, keeping his company until he was ready to sleep. This affected her own sleeping pattern and in order for her to be able to maintain the routine and stay awake with him, Safinatu would have a nap in the afternoon.
Safinatu never interferred with her husband’s official work and did not discuss national matters with him. She seemed to have devoted all her energies into ensuring that the home was as peaceful and as comfortable for the Head of State as possible. She avoided publicity unless it was absolutely necessary. For this reason, many Nigerians did not know much about her. I hope this piece will shed more light on her person.
She later revealed that becoming the nation’s number one family had a radical transformation on their lives. She said Major-General Muhammadu Buhari had always been a family man but when he assumed the role of the Head of State, he had considerably less time to spend with his children as he would have wished. She recalled that when her husband was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 3rd Armoured Division in Jos, between November 1981 and December 1983, he would personally drive the family from Jos to Daura and to Kaduna. But once he became the Head of State, it became impossible but he always found time to celebrate special events and anniversaries like birthdays quietly with his family.
Life for Safinatu in the State House was different from what she was used to and she had to adapt. Visiting appointments had to be done via the Protocol Section and neither she nor her children could go out and return as they so desired. Before becoming the First Lady, she would travel to various places within and outside Nigeria with her husband and children but as First Lady, she never went anywhere with him. On some occasions as First Lady, she paid some private visits to some states within the country but she never travelled with any of the children.
When they moved into the State House, the state of the Nigerian economy was incredibly bad and there were severe financial constraints even on the First Family. She could not handle the renovations of the State House as she had planned. She said that it was so bad that she had to sell her car in order for her to maintain herself and her children.
As Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari had a private room where he received and entertain guests. Mrs. Buhari was in no way involved with the official guests unless they came with their wives and she was summoned to host them. The provision for entertaining and catering for official guests was always done by the government officials. The catering and household staff at both the Dodan Barracks and State House prepared the meals and handled all the arrangements. As the hostess to the wives of foreign dignitaries, Mrs. Buhari and her personal assistant, Binta Garba, of the Protocol Section, would draw up a programme to meet the needs of their special guests. If they did not have guests, she would enjoy the dinner with her husband.
When Mrs. Buhari hosted the wife of the Gambian President, Lady Jawara, she travelled with her to the ancient city of Kano, where they visited the city walls and one of the markets, in the company of the wife of the military governor of Kano State, Mrs. Halima Hamza. She also played host to the wife of the President of Senegal, Madame Diouf and the wife of the former French ambassador to Nigeria, Madame Drumets. At such times, she left the selection of the dishes for the state occasions to the catering officials and household staff.
Cooking for the Commander-in-Chief
When it came to the traditional dishes, they were always personally prepared by the First Lady herself, assisted by aides. General Buhari loved to enjoy pepper soup made with mutton, chicken or fish. He also loved mutton suya. Buhari’s food was not complete without serving some of these. For his breakfast, he would start with fruit juice then follow it with quaker oats then do a collabo with fried eggs, liver and kidney, beans with toast and tea.
Lunch was usually taken late and consisted of tuwon shinkafa with okro soup or pounded yam and egusi soup dashishi or pankasu. Sometimes, the Head of State would have roasted ram suya or hot pepper soup. Buhari’s lunch was always served with fruit salad. Dinner was light and usually consisted of steak with vegetables or tuwo masara and miyan kuka, which is then followed by a dessert of fresh fruits.
During her leisure time in the State House, Mrs. Buhari would collect and compile traditional Hausa and Fulani recipes. She was of the belief that these recipes were not fully studied, documented or put to proper use.
FAMILY AND CHILDREN
As at the time her husband was overthrown, she had given birth to four children: Zulaihatu (now late), Magajiya-Fatima, Hadizatu-Nana and Safinatu Lami. They would also later have a fifth child, Musa (now late). Following the overthrow of her husband, she left for Kaduna with her children.
Safinatu Lami shares the same name with her late mother.
The late Zulaihatu at the launching of her mother’s foundation. A sickle celler, Zulaihatu died after giving birth.
Following his release from detention by the Ibrahim Babangida regime, the couple went their separate ways in the mid 1980s. She was reportedly accused of receiving financial assistance from Babangida while her husband was in detention following the overthrow of his government. Buhari would later marry Aisha in February 1989.
DISEASE AND DEATH
In 1998, she was diagnosed to be suffering from diabetes mellitus in Saudi Arabia. For eight years, she battled the disease and breathed her last on the 14th of January, 2006. She was 53.
HER WORDS, LEGACY AND REMEMBRANCE
As the wife of the Head of State, she said it was important for the First Lady to always remain patient with people and the husband as things were bound to change once they move into the position of power. Her words:
‘…be patient and have understanding with people around you and most importantly with your husband. With the immense responsibilities of State, things are bound to be different from the time when he was not Head of State. Understanding and patience make for better co-existence and for the peace of mind the husband needs to perform effectively.’
She also expressed herself on other matters saying:
‘I think that the wives of Heads of State should be given the opportunity to speak on matters of national significance. They should willingly shoulder these responsibilities and serve as mothers of the nation. They should also aim towards achieving their set objectives so as to attain a feeling of self-fulfillment after they might have left the State House. ’
She also strongly believed that the roles of First Ladies should be properly outlined, their official responsibilities identified and the necessary resources provided for them to achieve these goals and contribute their quota to national development.
She also believed that First Ladies should not be made irrelevant or dependent after their spouses must have left office. A quiet but strong-willed woman, the memory of the late Hajia Safinatu Buhari lives on in the hearts of her loved ones. The Hajia Safinatu Buhari Foundation, which focuses on diabetes, was established in her honour.