The role played by the wives of heads of state in Africa has been largely ignored. In a bid to contribute to this under-researched area we analyzed the political role, influence, and activities of First Ladies in a number of countries on the continent.
We put together the African First Ladies Database to analyze the functions, roles, strategies, and agency of some of Africa’s most influential First Ladies. Our focus was mostly on southern Africa. But our research also covered East and Central Africa. We included first ladies in our database based on their proximity to the executive and other decision-makers.
Three emerged as particularly influential. These were Janet Museveni, wife of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni; Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe; and Denise Nkurunziza, wife of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. All have been politically ambitious and actively supported their husbands’ rule.
Our paper addressed their political agendas, roles, influence, and accountability. We found that they were influential political actors who were active domestically, regionally and internationally. This enabled them to influence relationships and to extract political support, as well as financial gain through tenders and government funding.
Our findings raise questions about the accountability of first ladies and the transparency of their public duties and private interests. But Africa’s first ladies aren’t on their own. Similar accusations have been made against others elsewhere. For example, during the presidential tenure of her husband, Hillary Clinton was often described as interfering with White House politics and Capitol Hill decisions. Similar accusations were made against, among others, Imelda Marcos of The Philippines.
First Ladies as political activists
We found that the first ladies acted as power brokers and members of an inner circle. They actively mobilized support for their spouses. They used strategies such as their personal narratives, their country’s liberation history, religion and culture. They supported their husbands’ campaigns and downplayed, denied or simply remained silent on the failures of their husbands’ governments.
Grace Mugabe: Her political career spanned a mere three years (2014-2017) when she was elected as the President of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. This role meant that she automatically became a member of the party’s Politburo. She was successful in gaining support for her husband’s tenure as well as her own political ambitions from religious leaders, youth and the Women’s League, traditional leaders, and minority apostolic churches.
She made some noteworthy claims of support for her husband. For example, she publicly stated that even if he were to be incapacitated, Zimbabweans would vote for him because he was God-ordained.
Besides addressing religious rallies, she used nationwide “Meet the People” tours to brand herself and the President.
Grace Mugabe often welcomed and hosted foreign Heads of State and Government at her Harare home, and at State House. Her close proximity to the President gave her access to influential political networks that she exploited to buy properties and run businesses.
Denise Nkurunziza: She led the Burundi ruling party’s Women’s League (the Abakenyererarugamba). Like other African First Ladies, she used religion to endorse and support her husband’s rule. She is also an ordained Reverend.
Christians are a significant audience for the Nkurunzizas. They often hold prayer groups and wash the feet of members of the congregation. In 2017, the ruling party promoted President Pierre Nkurunziza as the “Supreme Everlasting Guide” (“Visionary”), adding to the personality cult that had been emerging around him. In 2018, Pierre Nkurunziza established Thursdays as a national Burundian Day of Prayer devoted to Christ and to fasting with prayers “without exception” for the ruling party.
Another key constituency for Denise Nkurunziza was influential women who held senior positions across the political and military spectrum.
The office of the First Lady was also used to bolster diplomatic relations between Burundi and the international community.
Janet Museveni: She was appointed as Minister of State for Karamoja by her husband in 2009. The Karamojong saw the move as a sign of the President’s affection for them.
Beyond her career in politics, she is revered by some as the “Mother of the Nation” thanks to her social outreach on maternal health.
In 2014, the Global Decency Index (GDI), invented by Decent Africa, an African fashion brand, announced that she was “the most decent African First Lady”.
Her pious, nurturing image contributes to her husband’s credibility locally and internationally.
Patriarchy still rules
Despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence, we found that the three women we studied remained subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies. A few gender biases were evident.
One was in expectations of the role of the First Lady. They were expected to be spouse, mother, caregiver, and nurturer of the sick, young and elderly. Another was that the Offices of the First Lady were fully directed from within the President’s office. This meant that the flow of information about them was skewed to project as ideal woman, trophies and a trailblazer for issues stereotyped and associated with women.
In addition, none of the constitutions of the countries we examined referred to the position.
This, in our view, reflects an impression that the role isn’t important – because it is, by and large, held by women. It also undermines democratic accountability.
We believe there should be constitutional clarity and accountability – which would herald accountability – on the formal role, powers, and functions of First Ladies.
Arina Muresan was a co-author of this piece. She is a member of our team.