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Presidential spouses, pot-bellies, and the quest for political power in Africa

Wednesday September 5 2012



US First Lady Michelle Obama made what is widely considered to be a very brilliant speech at Tuesday night’s Democratic National Convention.

“Top That, Barack” said the news site, Huffingtonpost, suggesting that President Barack Obama, a formidable orator, will struggle to beat his wife’s performance.

Said Huffingtonpost: “[Michelle] Obama got a standing ovation from the crowd, and as the camera panned around the room, several people visibly wept”.

Last week, Ann Romney, wife of Obama’s rival Mitt Romney, also put in a similar show for her man at the Republican National Convention, although Huffingtonpost that reported sections of her speech “fell flat”.

These wives’ speeches, American media reported, can actually lose or win their husbands votes.

They also highlight one of the main differences between American and African politics. In the still highly-patriarchal African countries, if the wife of a candidate were to headline a party conference on behalf of her husband, rivals would start rumours how she is the one “who wears the trousers at home”.


Because many ordinary East Africans don’t have terribly progressive views about women’s rights, that can lose her man votes.

I also suspect that even where voters are open-minded, African Big Men are too insecure about being eclipsed by their wives to allow them have a night of their own hogging the political spotlight.

That said, it seems American presidential candidates start planning to run for office before they get married.

That is because, on the whole, in the last five American elections I have followed closely, all the presidential wives have been fairly articulate.

That is important, because it doesn’t make sense to get the First Lady on the stage if she can’t communicate.

Secondly, in the last 20 years, all American First Ladies have been slender or of average size and either beautiful, or good looking — although this is not so important.

I checked out the photos and oratory records of African First Ladies, and clearly their husbands never planned early on putting them in front of the cameras or on the stage on nomination night.

That said, I also looked at photos of American male presidential candidates of the last 60 years, and it struck me that none of them was potbellied.

However, in Africa, it seems that if you are not pot-bellied, some voters won’t take you seriously. The result is that if you look at the bigger East Africa, we have a mixed record.

There are presidents of all shapes and sizes; from the portly President Mwai Kibaki, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, to the medium-sized president of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza, Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete, DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila; then South Sudan’s is somewhere in between, and Rwanda tall and slender Paul Kagame.

East Africa, in that regard, is a better equal size opportunity region for politicians than America.

But surely, it would be a disaster if we judged politicians by the eloquence of their wives and their own oratorical skills. If you did that in Africa, you would end up with too many clowns becoming president.

The Americans figured this out too, so they introduced a corrective mechanism — the presidential debate. African leaders, except in two or so countries, have done a good job of avoiding debates.

One, because they fear they will do badly in the debate and people will laugh at them. Secondly, that by agreeing to debate with their rivals, they “elevate them to the level of president”.

Thirdly, as we said earlier, our elections attract candidates of all shapes and sizes. And looks and shape can be political.

One man who understands this is Prime Minister Raila Odinga. In 2007, Raila famously said elections were not a beauty contest in which candidates deserved votes on the basis of their looks.

Right now, opinion polls put Raila in the lead for the 2013 presidential race.

Imagine, though, that we had a line-up of Peter Kenneth, Martha Karua, Charity Ngilu, Raphael Tuju, William Ruto, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Raila on a candidates’ dais, and we had to do an opinion poll based on physical appearance alone, who’d come top?

I don’t know, but in a year when there shall be no sitting president in the race, whether or not Kenya has a presidential debate in 2013 could rest on concerns about appearance.