How Powerful Are African First Ladies?

The first lady of Nigeria, Aicha Buhari, has expressed her disappointment with the current ruling class in Nigeria and opined that if the situation continues she will not support her husband’s bid for another term of office in 2019. In a recent BBC interview, President Buhari’s wife regretted the fact that most of the people occupying top administrative jobs in Nigeria don’t even carry the vision of the APC party that brought the husband to power. The government has been hijacked by a few people who are behind appointments, she quipped. To buttress her important role in the running of state affairs, the 45 year old said out of about 50 persons the president appoints he does not know about 45, she either.

The story of Mrs. Buhari is just a microscopic picture of the influence African first ladies have over state affairs and especially on the decisions taken by their husbands. In Africa, first ladies do not have any official function but some of them have become the image of their husbands. In this article we shall be exploring some of those influential first ladies in Africa.

In an interview with The Telegraph, former first lady of Zambia Maureen Mwanawasa said sometimes, people who couldn’t meet her husband would present their problems to her because she was closets to Levy Mwanawasa. She didn’t fail to advise the president on matters she took note of whenever she was going around.

Starting with Africa’s giant, the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who has been President since 2009, has been married six times; one of his wives died, another divorced in 1998 (current Chairperson of AU Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma). The latter had been Home Affairs Minister before moving to the AU. Even though it is not clear how Zuma’s wives influence him on state issues their upkeep is becoming a burden to the South African economy. In a recent parliamentary report, it was said that during the last three years the state has spent over 8.6 million Rand ($550,000) on the purchase of cars for the first ladies.

In Africa’s most populated country, Nigeria, the situation is different as it was widely believed that former President, Goodluck Jonathan’s wife, Patience, stimulated in him a lot of “patience” which paved his way to the top job. Jonathan moved from a University lecturer, to deputy Governor, Governor, Vice President and finally President. Today it is the wife of the current Nigerian President, Aisha Buhari who is making headline news.

In neighbouring Cameroon, Chantal Pulchérie Biya, wife of Paul Biya who has been in power since 1982 is known to have so much influence on the 83 year old leader. It is believed that Paul Biya’s clinging to power is because Chantal, who only got married to the Paul in 1994, wants to leave the state house only when her children would have settled down. Some of her close relatives have also been appointed to the government like current Minister of Sports, Pierre Ismael Bidoung Mpkatt, and her late mother Rosette Ndongo Mengolo was propelled to the position of Mayor in one of the towns in the West of the country because of her daughter’s influence. Her strong influence over the husband is proof that she is always with him both on private and official trips. Moreover, Chantal Biya who spends a lot on fashion, has also created philanthropic organisations and thanks to that she is UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador.

Just next door in Chad is Hinda Deby Itno who is the official first lady and wife of President Idriss Deby Itno. An expert in financial affairs, Hinda, who was just 10 when Deby was taken over power in 1990, never fails to go public in support of her husband. President Deby has even confirmed that he cannot make any decision without her counsel.

Even though in the world beyond, Kenyans can still remember the reigning days of Lucy Kibaki (died in April 2016) who became a good client for the media because of her acts. In 2005, she stormed Kenya’s largest media house, and took it hostage for hours, physically challenging some of its staff because of a report published about her that didn’t correspond to her taste. On another occasion, she slapped a journalist at state house during an Independence Day celebration. In 2007, she announced her husband’s bid for the next election.

Still in the line of past influential first ladies was Simone Ehivet Gbagbo of Ivory Coast. This daughter of a Church Minister was so influential to the extent that when the 2002 peace talks were stalled, the former UN Scribe, Kofi Annan even suggested that she be invited to Paris because she certainly has a mastery of the situation. She co-founded what has become known today as the Front Populaire Ivoirienne (FPI) party in 1982 with her husband and others. In 2006, Jeune Afrique reported that Simone Gbagbo is a first lady like no other. In one of the testimonies in the trial of her husband at the ICC, a certain “Sam the African” said in 2011, President Laurent Gbagbo was about to make his resignation speech when it was interrupted by the wife who seemed more powerful than the man. Simone Gbagbo was a Member of Parlaiment and proclaimed herself parliamentary group leader of her party.

It is still a novelty in Africa for a woman to become President. However, the next name is not just eyeing the top job but, like Cristina de Kirchner of Argentina who succeeded her husband Nestor in 2007, she too may likely keep the family name at the Presidency. Here we are talking of Grace Mugabe. The 51 year old has risen to top positions in the ruling ZANU-PF party as she is now member of the politburo. The former Secretary at the President’s cabinet turned first lady is also head of the Women’s wing and is noted for boasting about advising the two vice Presidents of Zimbabwe. She has extensively organized political campaigns and rallies which made many pundits to see her as the likely successor of President Mugabe especially with the fall of the influential former vice President, Joice Mujuru in 2014.

Even though defying President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia is a rare occurrence, the influential first lady and beauty Queen of the country who hails from Morocco, courageously opposed him and threatened to leave the marriage if the President does not renounce his marriage to his new wife. Zenaib Suma Jammeh protested until just one year after the marriage the President allegedly divorced the new wife in 2011.

There are still many of them whose names we haven’t published but will a lot of influence in their country like Jeannette Kagame of Rwanda, Ana Paula dos Santos of Angola, and Dominique Folloroux Ouattara of Ivory Coast. A good number of them came in after the death of the first wives Grace Mugabe, and Chantal Biya while some are co-espousing their husbands with other women who are hardly seen in public like the four surviving wives of Jacob Zuma or Queen Inkhosikati La Mbikiza of Swaziland. Some have been there for more than 20 years like Chantal Biya while others are new comers like Hinda Deby. However, the essence is not the number of years spent in the state house but the impact created as the mother of the nation. Impact here is not limited to political smoke-screen and elephant white projects for prestige and media frenzy but making sure other women don’t suffer because of their husband’s shortsighted, ill-baked and selfish ambitions.