The real power in Africa rests with its first ladies
"They appear most concerned about balancing in their heels and keeping their wigs in place." A Zimbabwean blogger on African first ladies
Compared with other big women, some former and incumbent African first ladies are bigger than the real forces on the throne, conspicuous consumers and pretty extravagant fashion icons
When lawyer Paul Muite had a run in with Kenya’s First Family, he was probably foolhardy— because you cross swords with Africa’s first ladies at your own peril. Although they don’t hold any elective or constitutional offices, these ladies command enormous clout.
They spend their lives with some of the most powerful men in the world, meaning their pillow talk translates into policies. They just need to threaten or plead with the big man and a village is connected to the national power grid... or disconnected.
The Economist magazine reckons First Ladies, especially in Africa, wield monstrous “bottom power”. “Behind every African Big Man has been a substantial woman,” wrote the respected magazine in December 2004.
Let’s start with Cote d’Ivoire’s first lady Simone Gbagbo. After rebels seized part of the country in 2002, Mrs Gbagbo, then parliamentary leader of her husband’s party, called on Ivorian women to deny conjugal rights to husbands who supported the making of peace with fighters who were controlling half of the country.
Ms Gbagbo’s path had been well beaten by the likes of Nana Rawlings (Ghana); Maureen Mwanawasa and Vera Chiluba (Zambia); Winnie Mandela (South Africa); Cecilia Kadzamira (Malawi); Sally Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Andree Toure (Guinea).
Other prominent members of this privileged cast are Jewel Howard-Taylor of Liberia, Constancia Obiang (Equatorial Guinea), Stella Obasanjo, Maryam Babangida and Mariam Abacha (Nigeria).
In May 2005, Stella Obasanjo ordered a police raid at the Midwest Herald, a Lagos-based newspaper which had published a story headlined Greedy Stella, linking her to the questionable sale of government houses to her relatives.
Police said they were acting on orders from a more powerful office than that of their commissioner — that of First Lady Stella. Sadly, she died while undergoing plastic surgery in Spain later that year.
So patronising was she that she banned the wives of state governors from addressing themselves as ‘Her Excellency’. Apparently she was the only eminence worthy of the title.
“By flaunting her marital connection, it is alleged Stella amassed a massive personal fortune. She could afford a tummy tuck surgery and a Sh40 million mansion in New York as a birthday gift for her only son, Olumuyiwa Obasanjo,” wrote the Standard newspaper of Ghana.
Another eminent lady with a beef against the media is Zimbabwe First Lady Grace Mugabe.
Last year, she punched Sunday Times photographer Richard Jones as she left the exclusive Shangri-La Hotel in Hong Kong. Grace is said to have flown into a rage when she saw a British photographer waiting outside her five-star hotel in Hong Kong.
So incensed was she that she beat the photographer, one blogger wrote, “black-and-blue, causing abrasions and cuts to his face and head with her diamond rings.”
Grace best illustrates the image of the indefatigable African first lady: glamorous, powerful, quarrelsome, petty, extravagant, conceited and overprotective.
However, Adjo Saabie, the author of Cinderella Weds Bluebird, a satire on first ladies, classifies Graca Machel (Mozambique and South Africa), Janet Museveni of Uganda, the late Sally Abacha of Nigeria, and Simone of Côte d’Ivoire as sophisticated politicians and intellectuals.
For Saabie, there is an unfortunate group made up of the wives of Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa (he died in 1996), Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (died in 2003) and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko who died in 1997.
Bokassa had 17 wives, some as young as 12, while Amin married five. Mobutu declared himself “the cock who goes from homestead to homestead leaving no hen uncovered”. He’s said to have slept with his ministers’ wives.
But others are opportunists who have used their positions to amass wealth for themselves through questionable charitable organisations. And then there are those who see themselves as fashion stars and beauty accessories for their husbands.
“They appear most concerned about balancing in their heels and keeping their wigs in place,” writes Saabie.
Chantal Biya, the trophy wife of Cameroonian President Paul Biya, and Grace are leading fashionistas in the mold of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, France President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife.
When the Pope visited Cameroon in March 2009, Chantal was in an extravagant head wrap that was adorned with tasteful crosses for the occasion, putting to shame the Pope’s humble mitre.
Boston Globe style writer Christopher Muther declared her “a saint of style” and a “fashion icon”. She is 38, her husband 76. And their spending is legendary.
When she confronted the Sunday Times journalist in Hong Kong, Grace was holding a Sh200,000 Jimmy Choo handbag, her eyes hidden behind Cavalli rhinestone-framed glasses and a red cashmere shawl over her head.
Cold in the ground
President Mugabe married Grace Marufu, 40 years his junior and his former secretary, after the death of first wife.
In his blog, Sidebar, a prolific Zimbabwean blogger says Sally “wasn’t even cold in the ground when Grace took her place on the political stage”.
She was previously married to Stanley Goreraza, an air force pilot, and her influence on Mugabe is well known.
When Zimbabweans went to the polls in 2008, she declared that her husband would not accept defeat. Well, he did not disappoint.
Her extravagance has earned her nicknames such as ‘Dis Grace’ and ‘First Shopper’. According to the Sunday Times, Grace spent £55,500 (Sh7 million) on marble statues in Vietnam and £8,700 (Sh1 million) on a handbag in Singapore.
She is said to wear Sh25,000 worth of Christian Dior sunglasses, and Rolex watches that go for Sh3.5 million each.
Grace also owned a 30-room mansion in Harare called ‘Gracelands’.
But because of media attention, she is said to have sold it to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
And if she needs lessons on how to inherit Mr Mugabe’s estate, she should book a date with Cecilia Kadzamira, the mistress of former Malawi President Kamuzu Banda (the president died in 1997 aged about 101).
The official Malawi Hostess, as she was called since she was not formally married to Dr Banda, is alleged to have inherited the Banda estate, said to be worth millions of dollars.
On arguments that Dr Banda’s relatives should have been given a significant portion of the inheritance, she said: “The relatives came and went, but I was always there.”
While her husband was at the helm, she was hated for her arrogance and suffocating influence on him. Because of her, Dr Banda banned the Simon and Garfunkel song, Cecilia, in Malawi.
Coming at a time when their relationship was hitting rock bottom, The Ngwazi (Crocodile) took a dim view of the lyrics Cecilia, I’m down on my knees, I’m begging you please to come home!
When Dr Banda turned senile, Kadzamira sponsored her uncle John
Tembo to act in his place and, through her influence, Dr Banda sponsored Tembo to succeed him, but Malawians voted for Bakili Muluzi.
Together with Tembo, Cecilia was arrested and charged with murder. But, compared with other first ladies, her way of claiming the husband’s cash was relatively decent.
When Nigeria’s Abacha died in scandalous circumstances, Mariam was arrested as she fled with 38 suitcases stuffed with US dollars. And, in neighbouring Liberia, after Taylor’s arrest in Nigeria — where he had been offered asylum — his Jewel is said to have squandered his wealth.
On the inheritance issue, Vera Chiluba could be the more unlucky one. After being subjected to an ugly divorce drama with her husband, she lost a case in which she sought part of Chiluba’s estate.
But it is doubtful if Kadzamira — or Grace — was or is as powerful as Nana Rawlings or Ayesha (the wife of Sekou Conneh, the leader Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, which seized power in Liberia in 2003).
At the height of the war, she called a Press conference and announced that she was going to sack her husband. “If you open a big business and put your husband in charge... if you see things are not going the right way, you step him aside and straighten things up,” she was quoted as saying but, after rigorous persuasion, she let the man keep his job.
Ayesha, a soothsayer, had brokered a deal for weapons from Guinea which were used to oust Charles Taylor.
And, like Ayesha, Ghana’s Nana was the power behind the throne.
During his oppressive rule, Rawlings declared to Ghanaians that only one person could tame him — and that was Nana. This is why she shared blame for her husband’s excesses.
“If President Rawlings epitomised former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, his wife Nana Konadu-Rawlings was Imelda Marcos and Eva Peron put together,” wrote West African journalist Hido Onumah.
Talk that she wanted to succeed Rawlings caused discomfort across the country. In 1998, she annoyed Ghanaians when she announced that the government would only start development projects in areas that voted for it, and she was linked to killings committed during Rawlings’s first coup in 1979.
Investigations later revealed that killers collected the keys of their getaway car from her house.
But Ayesha and Nana are not the only first lady warlords.
Agathe, the wife of former Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana, is believed to have supported fighting following her husband’s killing. She was nicknamed Kanjogera, after a brutal Rwandan queen of the early 20th century.
However, Queen Dzeliwe Shongwe, ‘the Great She Elephant’ and senior wife of King Sobhuza II of Swaziland, must be the greatest beneficiary of proximity to a powerful husband — at least in Africa.
She asked her husband to name her a joint Head of State in 1981. He did.
As the Economist said in a 2004 article, compared with other big women, Africa’s are bigger.