Aisha Buhari may be the First Lady, wife of the most powerful person in Africa’s most populous country, but she’s the last human you’d want to have around if you’re someone with a smidgen of value for human rights.
It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. — Thomas Sowell
Zainab Kassim was treating her body to some rejuvenating time at the spa on the morning of November 18, 2022 when she received a phone call from Abubakar Maikano, the Administrative Officer at the presidential villa, inviting her to physically discuss something he knew was of interest to her. She considered going but discarded the idea.
By the time she returned home, observed siesta and roused herself, she had missed two more phone calls. The first was from Usman Shugaba, First Lady Aisha Buhari’s Aide-De-Camp (ADC), who claimed that the Security Officer (SO) had been trying to reach her unsuccessfully. Zainab then called the SO. Unlike the decoy-employing Maikano and Shugaba, the SO asked at once to meet up.
It was nine months since the First Lady unceremoniously fired Zainab on the pages of newspapers as her Executive Assistant. She had served the First Lady “with sweat and blood” for seven years, between June 2015 and February 2022, and her time at the villa was done and dusted. Why would anyone want to see her at the villa? Again, she declined.
She would soon give it a second thought. SO was her ex-colleague with whom there was no feud, after all. She reluctantly agreed to meet up with him at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) junction, Guzape. She had been waiting here for him for half an hour when two SUVs suddenly sandwiched her, a gun-toting official of the Department of State Service (DSS) disembarking to order her out of her car or watch the door shattered with bullets. The SO was still nowhere to be found, so Zainab called him to ask: “Did you set me up?”
12 ‘MOUTH SLAPS’ — DEHUMANISED ON AISHA BUHARI’S ORDERS
The first destination was the DSS headquarters, where the DSS officials abandoned Zainab in the car for over an hour, pending clearance from an unnamed superior. The clearance was taking forever to come, so they drove her to the villa, pulling over at the office of the Officer in Charge of the DSS at the villa (OC Villa). This was where she discovered her offence for the first time. The OC Villa handed her a paper to write a statement on why she “removed a post from the First Lady’s Instagram handle”. All this Gestapo-style abduction was about an Instagram post?
After writing her statement, Zainab was left idling away for the next five hours. At 11pm or thereabouts, the SO telephoned the OC to deliver Zainab to the First Lady.
Aisha Buhari was personally physically assaulting Aminu Mohammed, the 500-level student of the Federal University Dutse who tweeted that she was feeding fat on the poor’s wealth, when Zainab was brought into her presence. The First Lady instantly turned on Zainab, screaming in Hausa: “That’s Aminu’s mother coming!”
Zainab says the First Lady went on a tirade, accusing her of deleting posts from her Instagram account and — before she could defend herself — belts: “Slap her!”
Zainab instantly got what she calls “a thunderous slap”.
“From who?” I asked her.
“I don’t know those two guys,” she responds. “Every other person there I knew, but not these two guys, so I believe they were the ones who went to bring Aminu from Jigawa. I must have received two or four slaps, because my brain…”
Zainab maintains innocence of the said offence. She was still attempting to recover from the slaps when another instruction came: “Beat her!” By Zainab’s narration, the First Lady started to beat her SO, chiding him: “It’s your fault; you’re supposed to be protecting me.”
As Aisha Buhari was beating SO, SO was punching Zainab’s stomach. The harder the First Lady hit the SO, the harder he smacked Zainab.
“As she was beating him, he was beating me,” she says. “All I could do was scream ‘Oh my God, oh my God’ in Arabic.”
All this, she recalls, happened in public, in the presence of the SO, OC, ADC, two DSS officials, the First Lady’s orderlies, Aminu, those two police officers who slapped her, and one other lady. This was close to midnight on Friday November 18.
For trying to defend herself against the accusation of deleting the Instagram post, the First Lady told the policemen to give Zainab 12 “mouth slaps”, that is, to hold the lips with which she was talking, and hit them! She then ordered Zainab to lie down, and instructed Ruth Rabbi Adamu, her orderly, to beat her. Ruth unhooked her belt and started to whip Zainab. Still dissatisfied, the First Lady snatched the belt from Ruth and lashed it at Zainab’s skin by herself.
“Each time I tried to defend myself against the allegations, she told them to hold my mouth and slap it,” Zainab recalls. “This happened 12 times.”
KARMA STRUCK WITHIN A FEW HOURS
When Aisha Buhari was done whipping Zainab, she withdrew from her and advanced towards Aminu to resume the assault that had been punctuated by Zanab’s arrival, but she tripped before getting to him, injuring her leg in the process. The leg injury, and subsequent hospital treatment, was reported by Daily Nigerian, although the platform hadn’t yet known the cause at the time. Eight days later, Jafaar Jafaar, founder of the paper, released snippets of the cause of the leg injury.
Zainab says the First Lady hurled some of the most horrible words she’d ever heard in life at her — words like “You’ll go to jail”, “I wish they killed you”, “I will shoot you’, “I wish they shot you and threw your body in the lagoon”, “I will kill you and nothing will happen”.
“Aisha kept screaming ‘I will burst your stomach,” says Zainab. “At one point I said ‘you know I have high blood pressure’, but she told me ‘I don’t care’. It was later I found out that she thought I was pregnant.”
On learning of their mum’s injury and the preparations to take her to the hospital, three of Aisha’s children sprang out to find their mother, sat on the floor, compelling Zainab to alter the password to her Instagram account before heading to the hospital to nurse her injury. The Commissioner of Police (CP), the OC Anti-Vice and two more officers moved Zainab to the State Criminal Investigation Department (CID), where she was mandated to talk as they wrote a statement on her behalf. From there, Zainab was detained at Asokoro Police Station. Before the officers locked her up, she asked them to be allowed to have her blood pressure medication and contact her family, but they declined. They simply told her “see you at 7am”.
MANHUNT FOR ZAINAB
Unable to reach her on the phone, Zainab’s loved ones knew at once that something untoward had happened. By the second day of her detention, they had begun scouring the police stations in the federal capital. Of course, they made a stop at Asokoro; as expected, the police denied holding her. It didn’t take too long for them to be exposed, though: Once someone on the search team spotted the ADC at the station, it became clear Zainab was their guest.
Having gone nearly 48 hours without her drugs, Zainab — she arrived at the Asokoro Police Station at about 4am on Saturday — collapsed on Sunday evening, and was rushed to the Police Hospital, Area 1, Garki, where the doctor confirmed she was experiencing body pains and would be kept for four hours to monitor her already-high blood pressure. The doctor let Zainab have access to her BP meds, and promised her captors to send her back to the cell if she was okay by 9pm. She also prescribed a brain x-ray at Firmcare Diagnostics and Medical Services, also in Garki, to establish the extent of the damage to Zainab’s brain by the multiple head slaps she received at the villa.
THE INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF POLICE AS AISHA BUHARI’S ‘BOY’
The hospital pronounced Zainab unfit for discharge that night, so the doctor kept her overnight. She was discharged on Monday morning — not to her house, but the cell! Shortly before her release from the hospital, the ADC had unceremoniously shown up, promising to secure her freedom from detention. But there was a clause: no conversations with lawyers, no interactions with rights activists, no media interviews. By then, news of Aminu’s detention, and to a smaller extent Zainab’s, had filtered to the press.
Tuesday, Zainab fainted for the second time in two days and was rushed to the hospital again. Starting to fear she might die in their custody, they released her to her people.
Hours before her release, Usman Alkali Baba, the Inspector-General of Police; Halima Buhari, President Muhammadu Buhari’s fifth daughter; and her husband met with Zainab’s parents and husband, reiterating that she must not talk to any support group or “tarnish the image of the First Lady”. Alkali was quoted to have specifically warned them all that as the IGP, he could “use a small stone to kill a bird” and that he would use “any of the resources” available to him to “protect the First Lady”. IGP Alkali said nothing about the president’s wife’s abuse of power and state institutions.
ONCE UPON A TIME, THE FIRST LADY’S ‘GENERAL’
Zainab first started working for Aisha Buhari as her Personal Assistant shortly after her husband secured a now-widely-regretted victory at the 2015 polls. At the time, Aisha did not have formal slots, so Zainab and others were placed under her Future Assured initiative. In any case, the Office of the First Lady, which Aisha leverages to oppress the downtrodden, is merely ceremonial — not elective, without a place in the Constitution. In one of his litany of failed pre-election promises, President Muhammadu Buhari had exclusively told Weekly Trust in December 2014 that he would discard the Office of the First Lady if elected, a promise that was subsequently endorsed by Aisha. Buharis’ first term had not even ended when he did an about-face.
Before the job, Zainab was in Lagos; she relocated to Abuja with her 10-month-old daughter, abandoning the Child Aid And Support Awareness Foundation (CASAF), an organisation she founded in 2011 to provide aid to children in orphanage homes and underserved communities, including IDP camps.
At the start of Buhari’s second term in 2019, she received a letter officially confirming her as Special Assistant to the First Lady, something she says is compensation for her tireless work during the 2019 campaign period.
“I was at the forefront of the campaign,” she says. “I was doing literally everything that had to do with the women’s wing. I was everywhere. Even during the lockdown, I was always on the road, Benue, Plateau, everywhere. And I remember one day when we were in her living room in the villa and the president came in, and she told him, ‘Zainab is my general.’”
As the years went by, Zainab developed high blood pressure working for a woman she says “can be toxic”.
“We saw people get kicked out for no reason,” she recalls. “You went to work every day knowing it could be the last day. Someone could come tell her something about you, and you could get fired without the opportunity to state your side. I saw her do that with her friends and family, even people who spoke the same language with her. So, every day, I went to work afraid.”
Meanwhile, a source familiar with Zainab’s work but who asked not to be named for fear of sack as they still work in the villa, told FIJ Zainab literally slaved for Aisha Buhari. “Zainab planned all the presidential weddings that happened between 2015 and her sack last year — every single one!” said the source. “The first family did not have an official planner. She found nannies for the first family, and planned their birthday parties outside of official duties. In fact, she still planned their events months after she had been officially fired.”
FIJ also understands that from her starting salary of N250,000, Zainab hired five hands whom she paid N30,000 each, solely to help her meet the First Lady’s needs.
“This was Zainab’s salary for five years, from 2015 to 2019,” the source continued. “And she needed those hands because there could be any assignment from the First Lady, even in the middle of the night. This was someone who had a 10-month-old baby but came back home to her only at 2am, 3am every day. And, on this job, you’re not allowed to take money from anyone or be friends with anyone, be it governors’ wives or anyone else.”
TRYING FOR A BABY
In 2022, Zainab’s then 10-month-old baby clocked seven without a sibling. She and her husband had been trying for a baby without success, so she attempted In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF); it failed. All her conceptions pre-IVF ended in miscarriages; and each time she bled, she did not stop working. “I had many miscarriages in the course of that job,” she says, “and with all the bleeding, I was still doing all the work.”
So, with all of the stress of work, failed conceptions, rising blood pressure, palpitations and her daughter asking for a sibling, Zainab, seeing she was “running mad”, opted to take time off.
One Saturday in October 2021, when she was responding to a lot of hormonal drugs and had blown up, the FIrst Lady sent for her. She went with all her medication and injections, explained that she was trying for a baby, and requested for some physical time off. The First Lady agreed to let Zainab work out of the villa since Zainab herself had hired three support staff.
THE PUBLIC SACK WITHOUT PERSONAL NOTIFICATION
Someday in January 2022, Zainab noticed she had been yanked off the official WhatsApp platform for aides. She believes one of the First Lady’s new aides had said something negative about her to her boss. Zainab texted the First Lady to politely inform her she was no longer on the platform, and to ask if she had done something wrong.
Although the First Lady said Zainab had done nothing wrong, she forwarded her message to Aliyu Abdullahi, her then Special Adviser on Media who now works with the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). In late January 2022, one of Aisha’s closest aides rang Zainab to tell her to resign, saying she had witnessed the First Lady fume about her, with threats of firing her. Zainab reached out to two of Aisha’s children, asking what she did wrong. The duo returned to tell Zainab her offence was that she was “working for a certain governor’s wife” and that she had “too many connections in the DSS”.
“Nooooooo!!!” Zainab screams when asked if she was truly ‘working’ for the said governor’s wife. “This governor’s wife is just a kind person to me. Nothing else at all.”
One of Aisha’s children had told Zainab all was well, and they had spoken to their mother. However, on February 11, 2022, Zainab woke up to news in the dailies: Zainab Kassim disengaged from office of the First Lady. It was no shock. Right in the middle of the you-will-be-fired rumours, Zainab herself had written a resignation letter and sent it to one of the First Lady’s right-hand men, but he dissuaded her from submitting it, claiming all had been resolved. With news of her sack now finally public, Zainab texted the First Lady to thank her for seven years of growth and learning, you know, those words outgoing employees write to their bosses with whom they’d rather keep a healthy relationship. Aisha rang her immediately, saying, according to Zainab: “I got your message o; there is no problem between us at all o. But when you’re working with the presidency, there are some things you cannot do.”
Zainab wasn’t sure if “those things you cannot do” meant she could not have a baby. “My loyalty to madam First Lady ended that day, although, to be honest, I have no hard feelings towards her children,” Zainab says.
“Imagine if I didn’t see it coming and I just woke up to news of my sack, with my health condition, without my boss communicating my sack to me, who was being sacked?
“As if the public sacking wasn’t enough, Aisha gathered governors’ wives in Dubai to tell them lies to defend the sack. Afterwards, one of the governors’ wives called me to tell me everything Aisha said.”
Zainab moved out of the official quarters immediately. Surprisingly, in April, Aisha called to ask her why. Rather than answer, Zainab burst into tears, “crying, shouting, telling her I didn’t do all the things she said I did”. “She recorded the call,” says Zainab, “and I know this because some of the people she forwarded it to admitted so.”
Zainab admits that after her sack, two of Aisha’s children sent her N2.5 million to rent another apartment; the First Lady’s younger brother sent N600,000.
INSIDE THE FIRST LADY’S ‘HALL OF INFAMY’
Every employer reserves the prerogative to dismiss an employee, but the reasons have to be valid and employee rights have to be respected to the fullest. In Aisha Buhari’s world, there exists a long list of ex-employees with whom she parted under the flimsiest and dodgiest of reasons.
Take her former personal photographer, Haye Okoh, for example. FIJ understands that Haye was let go because she informed the First Lady she was getting married. A villa source told FIJ that Aisha Buhari said if Haye was serious, why would she be trying to get married while working for her? Haye was immediately fired. In addition, the First Lady was reported to have ordered that Haye’s belongings be evacuated from her official quarters that same day, and the keys withdrawn. Despite not earning the sack for any documented offence, Haye was not offered the dignity of leaving office through the front door. She left the lodge in a matter of hours. FIJ found Haye on social media and messaged her for comments, but there was no feedback.
Then there is her erstwhile aide-de-camp, Sani Baba-Inna, whom she accused of collecting up to N2.5 billion from high-profile politicians in her name. That’s a humongous sum of money in truth. The only problem? Till date, nobody knows these public officials who gave Baba-Inna the millions of naira that totalled N2.5bn.
Baba-Inna was arrested in September 2018 on Aisha’s orders, but the Police found only N1,200 cash in his house and another N30,000 in his bank account. The Police subsequently cleared him; but after Aisha kicked, claiming the Police were trying to cover one of their own up, the DSS stepped in. The DSS released him in December, three months after his first arrest, without any proof of the said allegations.
In Zainab’s abduction, arrest and dehumanization, and in Baba-Inna’s case, something so horribly obvious is Aisha Buhari’s abuse of state power and institutions. By its own admission, the DSS was set up to prevent or detect any crime against the internal security of Nigeria; protect and preserve all non-military classified matters concerning the internal security of Nigeria; and prevent, detect and investigate threats of espionage, subversion, sabotage, terrorism, separatist agitations, inter-group conflicts, economic crimes of national security dimension. However, it has been reduced to something of a vigilante group, picking up citizens for petty allegations like deletion of Instagram posts. FIJ sent a WhatsApp message to Peter Afunanya, the DSS spokesman, for comments, but there was no feedback even though he read the message.
Outside those investigations, FIJ understands that several of the said high-profile politicians were miffed by the allegations, knowing they did not give Baba-Inna money as claimed. FIJ can confirm that two of the governors Aisha said Baba-Inna took money from, have both privately denied the claim. FIJ understands they never made the denial public because they did not want to be seen as embarrassing the First Lady. Even the then IGP, Ibrahim Idris, named as one of Baba-Inna’s donors, repeatedly denied the claim.
And another is Mary Noah, Aisha’s personal beautician of well over a decade. FIJ understands that Mary had been working at Aisha’s spa for at least 14 years before she became First Lady. However, in the second half of 2021, she made the grave mistake of informing her boss that she had just purchased a piece of land. Hours later, after she had handed Aisha her medications and bid her goodbye for the day, the security accosted her on her way home, saying the First Lady had called them to search her because some thousands of dollars had gone missing. FIJ understands it was a thoroughly undignifying search. And this was someone who had never been previously accused of theft.
“They searched this girl to her vagina, to her pants,” a current villa employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said. “But they didn’t find any money on her. She was fired nevertheless. Her mistake was telling the First Lady about the land; the First Lady is someone who doesn’t want her people to progress. Claiming she stole $10,000, or was it $20,000, was just a smokescreen.”
Then there is the earlier-mentioned Aminu, who was arrested by plain-clothes security, taken to Abuja, beaten on the First Lady’s orders and detained. Aminu regained freedom only because his ordeal became a media item, prompting public outrage. However, scores of others were not so lucky. Among them are at least five faintly identified by a DSS official.
“There is this one the ADC sent his boys to pick in one of the hotels at Central Area; I think his name is Habib from Kano or so,” said the DSS official, who only agreed to speak with FIJ through an intermediary for fear of being given out.
“There is one they arrested at Dr. Hajo [Sani’s] house… I think the guy is from Delta or so. And there are about three arrested again in Kano in relation to this social media stuff, but that was done by our people [the DSS] in Kano. Many of such cases, but having their full identity is the major problem.”
THREE MONTHS ON, ZAINAB’S PAINS CONTINUE
Till date, Zainab experiences pains in her ribs and joints, for which she is undergoing physiotherapy. For the pain in her eyes, she is still seeing an ophthalmologist.
In the daytime, she experiences panic attacks. At night, she can no longer sleep unless supervised. If she wakes up at night and finds nobody beside her, she starts to scream. She constantly feels someone is following her. For that, she sees a psychotherapist for help.
“The other day, I was driving and I thought someone was following me, I had to drive into a filling station,” she tells FIJ. “I felt if someone wanted to shoot me, at least they wouldn’t do it in a filling station!”
Her eight-year-old daughter still cries in school from time to time. Once her friends asked her why she was moody, she said her mum travelled without telling her, and without reaching her or being reachable.
“One thing this ordeal has taught me is that you could literally disappear off the surface of the earth and only a few people will care about your disappearance,” Zainab says of the experience.
“My family and friends tried to silence me out of fear for their lives. They said since Aisha fell and had surgery and spent four days in the hospital, that must have been God fighting. But silence was doing me more harm mentally, hence everything I’m doing, even this interview, is independent of what my husband, mum, siblings and friends feel. I’m making these decisions alone, on my own.”
FIJ contacted Suleman Haruna, media aide to Aisha, requesting comments from his principal, but he redirected enquiries to Sani Zorro, Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs and Strategy to the First Lady. Zorro read FIJ’s WhatApp message asking for Aisha’s comments, but he had not replied as of press time.
THE CALIBRE OF PEOPLE AROUND AISHA BUHARI
FIJ contacted Suleman Haruna, media aide to Aisha, requesting comments from his principal, but he redirected enquiries to Sani Zorro, Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs and Strategy to the First Lady.
When FIJ contacted Zorro, former President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), former President of the West African Journalists Association (WAJA), former President of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), and former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Internally Displaced Persons, Refugees and Initiatives on the North East, he asked a series of interesting questions:
“Dear “Investigative” Journalist, ‘Fisayo Soyombo. [sic] Thank you for your interest in my Principal [sic], and wish to assure you [sic] of our willingness to assist with your legitimate enquiries,” he wrote.
“Before then, it is only proper to establish your legal identity [sic], if only to protect our good profession from the activities of its enemies, including fake and other rogue elements.
Kindly help me to facilitate your request by responding to the following;
“Which platform do you represent, what beat do you cover, and what is your position in your organisation’s editorial hierarchy, Pls? [sic]
“2. What are the identities of the complainants who made the “testimonies”? This should enable us verify their claimed relationship with my Principal.
“3. Instead of generalized claims of “assault” [sic] “battery” and “dehumanization”, could you be specific with individual cases Pls [sic]?
“4. What are the identities of the “security agents” whom they alleged had aided and abeted [sic] their illegal treatment by Aisha Buhari?
“I am sure ‘Bisayo would not find difficulty in clarifying these issues to enable me be of service to your medium and the greater Nigerian Society [sic] in accordance with the Nigerian Constitution, International, Regional and local conventions, agreements and protocols governing the practice of ethical journalism as opposed to the overwhelming resort to blackmail, extortion, and other criminal tools that define today’s practice.
“As a Reporter [sic] of profound integrity, I want you, Mr Soyombo, to accept my assurances of professional solidarity at all levels, and under all circumstances Pls [sic]. Thank you in anticipation [sic].
FIJ responded by urging Zorro “to address Zainab’s Kassim’s case with regard to the words you itemised in ‘3’ above, but he wrote back, saying: “I do not know this person, or whatever her claims are.”
But Zorro was lying; his appointment to Aisha’s team was announced in the very press statement announcing Zainab’s sacking.
JUSTICE FOR ZAINAB
“I want justice,” Zainab says.
“I want the world to know what happened to me. I want the world to know how I was told to keep quiet, irrespective of what happened to me. There are women I expect to be at the forefront of this fight, but these are the same women who are telling me to keep quiet because ‘this is power’. I feel that this is hypocrisy.
“There were times when I spoke out against the government I worked for, when I aired my opinion and stood on the side of truth. I feel like if I represented the truth when it concerned other people, why shouldn’t I do the same for myself?”
Asked what exactly would represent justice for her, Zainab replies: “I think I deserve an apology; my family deserves an apology — my husband, my daughter, my friends — for the trauma we underwent for four days. And I heard that the First Lady had told the judge I would get five years in jail. Everyone around me who has cried over this matter deserves an apology.”
After this piece, she wants Nigerians to know that if anything happens to her husband, her mother, her siblings or her two closest friends, then Aisha Buhari should be held responsible. Zainab’s husband in particular was made to sign a bail bond, accompanied by a gag order, before her release.
“If she’s not using state apparatus, she can use assassins,” she says. “I fear her more than I fear the devil.”
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