Big men in love: African presidents are also human

Wednesday April 07 2010

Democratic Republic of Congo First Lady Marie Olive Lembe di Sita and husband Joseph Kabila (Photo/File)

Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika’s Valentine’s Day engagement party was one to warm the heart of romantics everywhere.

In a continent where public display of romance is still frowned upon, the President half-heartedly tried to keep a lid on the courtship, before discovering that love, like a cough, cannot be hidden, as an African proverb cautions.

The engagement ceremony, held in the country’s State House and beamed on live television, was however a colourful mash of both traditional and modern themes.

“Apa ndiye tafika (She is the one),” President Mutharika blushed, upon traditionally and “correctly” identifying his—and
the nation’s— First Lady-in-waiting.

His sweetheart, Calista Chapola-Chimbombo, is a former tourism minister in the southern African country best known for hosting pop singer Madonna in her frequent forays to adopt children.

The two lovebirds will be wed on May 1. Both are widowed, with the President’s first wife having died from cancer in 2007.\


The need to find love seems to be a universal urge and has not spared African presidents who for some reason find themselves single lonely while in office.

Such a situation will simply not do for a continent where being seen as a family man is often a requirement for electability.

Indeed in many African cultures, a leader without a wife is unflatteringly regarded to as a “young man”

Botswana leader Seretse Khama Ian Khama, in some quarters referred to as the Bachelor President, stands out for bucking this trend. It is however worth noting that at one point he almost got married.

It remains to be seen how long he can hold out, with many of the opinion that it is only a matter of time as the paramount chief of the Bangwato he is obliged to marry. Most of African leaders, however, tied their nuptials before they ascended to office and many have decades of marriage under their belt.

Notable long-married leaders in African politics include Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Anerood Jugnauth of Mauritius and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni also weigh in on this list.

Others like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi are polygamists. Contrary to western misconceptions, polygamy is an important political credential in Africa where it projects a leader as a “man of the people.”

Also sight should not be lost of the any African leader is a child of two worlds, meaning their social lives must of necessity embody a conflict between Western and African values.

Togo’s totalitarian and Africa’s longest-serving former president Gnassingbe Eyadema was survived by three official wives at his death in 2005, but the actual number was said to be higher.

But the spectre of the African President marrying in office is less well documented and Mr Mutharika’s upcoming nuptials will cast more attention on this trend.

A quirk of these marriages is that many who marry in office take on wives several years their junior, with gulfs in age of as much as 40 years not uncommon.

President Mutharika is 76, while his fiancée is said to be in her 40s

Former South African leader Nelson Mandela, while definitely not your typical Big Man in the African sense, probably stands out in this interesting cast of presidents who have taken on first—or new—wives while in office.

Mr Mandela, now 81, married Ms Graca Machel, the former wife of Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, in 1998.

Machel died in an air crash in 1986.

The Mandela-Graca wedding came two years after the statesman divorced his wife of 39 years, Winnie Madikizela- Mandela.

Graca is 27 years younger than the globally revered Mandela. Their wedding was attended by 2000 guests including celebrities Michael Jackson, Danny Glover, and Stevie Wonder.

The definition of the “Big Man” varies, but is mainly dependent on longevity in power, or the extent to which they tower over their countries’ affairs of the state.

They almost always provide captivating tales of their marital lives, with their spouses’ escapades making for huge talking points in the streets.

For sheer intrigue value, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s wedding to Grace Marufu stands out.

In power since 1980, President Mugabe married Grace in 1990 while still wed to his first wife Sally, a Ghanaian. He justified this by saying that tradition allowed him to take a junior wife but was to later get special dispensation to solemnise it in church in 1996.

Sally had died four years earlier from a kidney ailment. Grace, 40 years Mugabe’s junior, is better known as the “First Shopper” for her lavish shopping sprees abroad, despite the flagging fortunes of fellow Zimbabweans after her husband’s much-criticised take-over of white-owned farms.

Once considered the breadbasket of the region, Mr Mugabe’s policies have attracted debilitating international economic sanctions.

However any snide references to her are best made out of the earshot of authorities, with Mr Mugabe said to dote on her in a manner inconsistent with the strong-arm tactics he employs in matters of state.

Handsome couple

Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos has ruled the oil-rich southern African country since 1979, but married his wife Ana in
1991. She is 21 years his junior. Described by diplomats as a “handsome couple” who could due to their expensive tastes could “for all the world be living in southern California”, Ana also holds huge sway in the country’s politics.

She recently caused a huge furore when she announced her five-year-old son would school in former colonial power Portugal, due to the “bad quality of state education,” which many blame on her husband’s policies.

Not to be left out is Cameroon’s longserving strongman, Paul Biya, who has since 1982 held power in the country well known for its footballing stature, home of Roger Milla and Samuel Et’oo.

After his wife Jeanne-Irène Biya died in 1992, President Biya two years later married Ms Chantal Vigoroux, who is 38 years his junior.

Chantal Biya, is famous for her signature hairstyle known in Cameroon as “la banane” and which is quite a sight to behold. She is even said to rival US First Lady Michelle Obama when it comes to her elegant, and expensive, dress sense.

The late El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon was until his death in 2009 Africa’s longest-reigning non-monarch, having
taken over the oil-rich Central African nation in 1967. He divorced his second wife, Marie Josephine Kama, in 1986 and married Edith Lucie Sassou-Nguesso, the daughter of Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso in 1990.

Edith died from illness in March 2009, just four months before President Bongo, who was 5”0’ tall. She was almost 30 years his junior and was a symbol of the tight links between the two Central Africa veterans.

In keeping with the all-important theme of electability, other Big Men have not shied away from marrying with one eye firmly cast on upcoming elections or on their continued hold on power.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila in a June 2006 lavish ceremony married his long-term girlfriend, Marie Olive Lembe di Sita.

President Kabila was at the time aged 35, while his beautiful bride clocked in at 27.

Riverside palace

The young man had in 2001 been unexpectedly thrust into the presidency of the vast mineral-rich country following the assassination of his father Laurent Desire-Kabila.

The event, held in his riverside palace, was broadcast on state television and unsurprisingly came just ahead of the 2006 elections — the first in the volatile country for 40 years — and which he went on to win in a run-off.

The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh has been in power since 1994 following a coup that ended one of the continent’s longest traditions
of democracy. The leader of the tiny West African nation of 1.8 million, he insists on being called His Excellency President Professor Dr Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh.

His married his second wife Zeinab, the daughter of a Guinean diplomat in 1994 after his first marriage to Tuti Faal failed.

Zeinab, 13 years younger than Yahya, is like Grace Mugabe, also renowned for her international shopping skills.

Chadian strongman Idriss Deby Itna has been in power since 1990, and has married officially four times, or 13 depending
on whom you listen to.

But his vows to Hinda Mahamat Acyl in 2005 were seen by many as a way of earning tribal support with rebels in the East
hell bent on toppling his regime.

Hinda comes from one of Chad’s foremost Arab tribes on whom he draws political support.

Renowned for her breathtaking beauty, she is 29 years his junior but wields immense power in decision making and even once gave a speech to the African Union in his place.

“She’s so beautiful,” the normally roughmannered president was quoted as gushing in 2006. “She helps advise me with every single decision I make.”

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project