First Ladydom

The Fatoumata Bah-Barrow Foundation has strayed onto the spooky territory of the Donald – not Trump, but Rumsfeld. I was as much struck by the shadowy statement from the Foundation on the mysterious appearance of D33million dalasi into its account as I was with Rumsfeld’s strange topology of knowns and unknowns: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

On any plausibility barometer the notion of an un-sourced appearance of that amount of money will score very low indeed. It would have been laughable had it not been so brazenly insulting to our intelligence. What could have been settled by a simple statement from the bank or a phone call to the bank manager – to find out the source of the money – will now be a long drawn out panto production, as we await the findings of the internal “panel of investigators” tasked with investigating the source of the money. At the end of the fact finding, according to the Foundation’s spokesperson, “if there is need we will explain”.

Ouch!  The conditional transparency feels like a dagger ripping right through the ideals, or should I say, rhetoric of New Gambia. And when this comes from the First Lady’s Foundation, we should be quite worried about the motives and seriousness of the powers that be.

It is now a universal trend for presidents’ wives to form foundations for philanthropic purposes. The First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, has become an international figure in her own right for her philanthropic work. She has received numerous international awards, including the International AIDS Trust Award in 2003 presented by Senator Hillary Clinton (herself a former First Lady; and rumour has it that President Clinton once called her the “First Liability”).

The double First Lady, in Mozambique and South Africa, GracaMachel, is another notable figure who has won a string of awards for her work. The names go on and on. It is quite evident that when these foundations are run with propriety and competence, they can go a long way in contributing a lot of good to the common weal. But First Ladydom is a ‘role without a rulebook’; each makes of it what she will. Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, and (Gucci) Grace Mugabe of Zimbabwe, represent the kleptocratic counterexample to the GracaMachels and Jeannette Kagames of this world. These lot pervert philanthropy for personal aggrandizement. Their “sense of philanthropy is never self-effacing, it is nearly always geared towards vain glory.

They mobilise funds, they mobilise other women into subservience, and they become empresses; and revel in extravagant gatherings of cronies”.  First Ladydom, with its affectations of precedence, has always been a dubious concept to me. I have often wondered why we do not refer to the Vice President’s wife as the Second Lady! And who should be next in this fake hierarchy? The phrase, First Lady, was coined in the 1860’s in honour of Mrs Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, making her the first First Lady. Before then the phrase was not in currency.

But the phrase was probably meant more tongue-in-cheek than as an earnest compliment. Mary Lincoln has the reputation of being one of the most wasteful and hysterical First Ladies to have occupied the White House. So what was in all likelihood meant was that she was the First Lady of profligacy.

The Fatoumata Bah-Barrow Foundation cannot fob us off with excuses that raise more questions than they answer. The Foundation might be a private organization, but it was established for a public purpose; therefore when public-interest concerns are raised, the Foundation is indeed obliged to address them; contrary to the spokesperson’s assertion that “the Foundation is not a public entity and as such it is not funded by government or state resources and is therefore not obliged or mandated to report to the public about its activities”. The defensive tone of this statement arouses the suspicion that the Foundation is trying to stave off or scare us away from any scrutiny of its activities.

The whole episode leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and does not bode well for the future. The internal investigation might report that the money came from an anonymous donor; or rather, that it was a surprise donation from an anonymous donor. They could even say that it was all a terrible case of mistaken account identity; and that the money will be returned immediately to the hapless sender. Whatever this report might contain, it seems unlikely that it will settle the matter.

First Lady Fatoumata Bah-Barrow must realize that her conduct and activities must be seen to be above board. This has been a blemish on her Foundation, and it couldn’t have left her husband unscathed. One only hopes that this was a one-off misjudgment that wouldn’t form the pattern for future behavior; and that our First Lady wouldn’t turn out to have been a Gucci Grace sleeper cell.

By Momodou Alieu Sidi Mboge

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