Posted by From Josephine Lohor in Abuja and Tokunbo Adedoja in Lagos on
Death has struck again in the land--this time in the highest seat of power claiming the First Lady, Mrs Stella Obasanjo.
Death has struck again in the land--this time in the highest seat of power claiming the First Lady, Mrs Stella Obasanjo. The news of her death in a Spanish hospital was broken to the nation yesterday morning, while the fate of 114 passengers and crew of an Abuja bound plane which disappeared shortly after take-off was still unknown. Stella's death, which was not preceded by even the slightest sign of a failing health, came as a rude shock to the nation.
Last weekend, she was at the wedding reception of the daughter of the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, where she did not only look hale and healthy, but also danced to the melodious music played at the event. And Thursday last week, Ogun State Governor Gbenga Daniel decorated her as the patroness of the Gateway 2006. That became her last public outing.
Stella, who would have been 60 next month, was born in Warri, Delta State, on November 14, 1945 and is the first of seven children born to the distinguished industrialist and administrator, Dr. Christopher Abebe and his wife, Theresa. Her father is the first indigenous chairman of United African Company Plc.
She attended Our Lady of Apostles Primary School, Yaba, Lagos, from 1955 to 1959. In 1960, she enrolled into St. Theresa's College, Ibadan, and passed the West African School Certificate in 1964 and completed her Higher School Certificate (HSC) in 1966, also in the same school.
She proceeded to the University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University, where she read English from 1967 to 1969, but she dropped out of the university to pursue a course in Insurance Studies in the United Kingdom between 1970 to 1974 and also trained as a Confidential Secretary at Pitman's College, London, in 1976. That year, she married Obasanjo, then a serving general.
Though, gone to the celestial realm, Stella already has a place on the pages of Nigerian history. Since May 29, 1999 when Obasanjo was sworn-in as civilian President, Stella registered her presence on the nation's social and political landscape.
But even long before then, she had made her way into the hearts of several Nigerians following the solid support she gave to her husband during the fathom coup saga of the late General Sani Abacha era. Her presence at various local and international workshops and symposia at that period, although the Abacha regime frowned at such gatherings, kept the fire of the agitation for the release of her husband burning.
Also during the Jos convention where Obasanjo secured the nomination of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as flag-bearer for the 1999 presidential election and the party's 2003 presidential primaries, Stella showed her support in a special way. She sat beside her husband throughout the night until the results of the votes were announced in his favour.
In 1999, many had thought she would stay in the background based on Obasanjo's remarks on the role he envisaged for her. Reacting to journalists question on what role Stella would play under his Presidency shortly after he was elected, Obasanjo simply said "she will be my wife." His remarks were further confirmed by Stella, who, while responding to a question on what role she would play during her husband's tenure said "the president has said I am going to be his wife. That is what I am going to be."
But all that changed barely three months into the President's first tenure. Stella unveiled her plan to launch a pet project tagged: The Child Care Trust, a private, non- profit, non-governmental organisation and a vehicle through which she sought to address the needs of the underprivileged and challenged children in Nigeria. The project was founded on the premise that when the necessary care and support are given to disabled children, such lifeline could guarantee for them a happy and productive adult life.
The project, situated in Bwari, on the outskirts of Abuja with facilities for classrooms, pre-school and day care services for working mothers, also offers vocational training schemes for children and women from less privileged backgrounds. A specialist clinic that provides primary health care services to children and women is also part of the complex that offers occupational and speech therapy and physiotherapy.
As a strong advocate of issues of women empowerment, both in the economic and political spheres, it is on record that she saw to the remarkable growth of the number of women in elective and appointive positions in Nigeria, just as she encouraged wives of state governors to develop and run people-centred projects in their respective states.
Also to her credit, many wives of state governors took up this challenge and are vigorously running viable and self-sustaining programmes and schemes that address the needs of the less-privileged in the society.
Within the last six years, Stella traversed the length and breadth of the country, using every opportunity to challenge women and women organisations to rise above their social, economic and political circumstances and to aim to reach for the skies.
Stella, like her predecessors brought glamour to the office of the first lady and was graceful in her carriage throughout the six and half years she occupied the office. It is also on record that Stella played a key role in the fund-raising programme for the completion of the ecumenical centre in Abuja. She led wives of other top government officials as ushers at the fund-raising event.
Her name, in the last few years, was also enmeshed in several controversies. Each time the successes of the administration of President Obasanjo were highlighted, critics would counter such claims with allegations of corruption within the President's household. In fact, in her last few months, she was a subject of negative media reports bordering on the business and financial transactions of her siblings and son. First was the N38 billion COJA scandal out of which media reports alleged she got a N6 billion furnishing contract. After TheNews magazine published a damning report on her alleged role in the scandal, Stella, who denied the allegation, immediately headed for the court and slammed a N1billion libel suit on the medium.
Her name also featured prominently in the botched sale of federal government properties in Lagos by the then Minister of Housing, Mrs Mobolaji Osomo. It was President Obasanjo, while canceling the sales carried out by the former Minister without due process that announced to the nation that he was embarrassed that names of eight of his wife's family members appeared on the list of those who got allocation.
Also a couple of weeks ago, she was in the news again over allegations that her US-based son, Olumuyiwa, bought a multi-million naira house in America. For several days, her aides and siblings battled to rationalise her son's property investment.
In terms of honours and awards, the late first lady received various service and honours awards, both at home and abroad. Some of her chieftaincy titles are Yeye Oge of Oke--Ona Egba, Abeokuta, 1992; Iya Meso of Egbaland, Abeokuta, 1992; Yeye 'Luwa (Iya Oba) of Orile--Owu, Ogun State 1993; Yeye Tuluse of Owu--Isin, Kwara, State 1995; Oga Nla Obirin Owu, Abeokuta, 1996; Enyi of Asaba, 2000; Yeye Oranmiyan of Ile Ife, 2001; Obong An wan of Ke Efik Eburutu, 2001; Nne Diora Mma of Asaba, 2002; Ada Abia, 2002; Nne"Oghai of (sial Nwga South Local Government Area of Abia State, 2002; Maigirma Langtang; Mama Bezhe of Bwari, 2002; and Ibinoze 1 of Afenesanland, 2002.
A few of her service awards include Africa Achievement Award, Los Angeles, USA, 2000; Global Safe Motherhood Award, White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, 2001; I Honourary Fellowship of the West African College of Nursing, The West African College of Nursing Liberia, 2001; International Recognition Award on women and AIDS'. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Citizens Education Foundation, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A, 2000. United Arab Emirates Foundation Prize for 2004; and Executive Board of World Health Organisation/UAE Ministry of Health, 2004.
In addition to her numerous titles and Awards, Stella was also matron and chair to a host of civic and professional organisations, including: Grand Matron of Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria; Grand Matron of the National Grassroots Associations of Nigeria; Nigeria Tourism Ambassador; Grand Matron of the Better Life Programme for African Women. Chair of
Council of Women Peace Envoys (CWPE), National Grand Patron of the Girls Brigade, Nigeria, and Grand Patron, National Council of Women's Societies, Nigeria.
Certainly, when the history of the nation's first ladies would be told, Stella will have her own chapter. No doubt, she was as a glamorous first lady, whose pet project gave hope to the disadvantaged and disabled children across the land.