African politics and the role of First Ladies

Wed, 30 Jul 2014 Source: Bokor, Michael J. K.

(Part I)

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

Monday, July 28, 2014

Folks, the wives of male Presidents in Africa are parading themselves about as First Ladies and profiting from it. Of all, Mrs. Graca Machel is the only one to have emerged as the First Lady for two different countries at different times, beginning as the wife of Samora Machel of Mozambique and shifting to South Africa’s Madiba Nelson Mandela. She has outlived her husbands. The status of First Lady has come to stay, some may say.

It is no news that these First Ladies have constituted themselves into an Association of First Ladies and are accorded whatever respect and privilege that their status fetches for them. It is nothing new to be told that so-so-and-so is the First Lady of so-so-and-so country, meaning that she must of necessity be accorded all that her husband (the Head of State) enjoys in terms of protocol services and submissiveness wrought by status as the fount of authority wherever she shows up.

In truth, all that is accorded the substantive leader is extended to his wife by virtue of her being his better half. I wonder what is happening in Liberia, where Sirleaf Johnson’s husband may be regarded as the First Gentleman (if any title of the sort is ever coined for him).

The bachelor heads of state know the implications and quickly pull along mistresses to save face. Even then, such mistresses portray themselves as “founts of authority” to be accorded whatever respect their status fetches for them. All at the expense of the ordinary, poor tax payer to whom such a status is useless in terms of a quid-pro-quo arrangement. What do these First Ladies bring to the “food table” of these poor tax payers?

Everything is done to prop them up for whatever they may be to the Establishment. They have offices and staff to do their bidding, meaning that they are positioned as forces to be reckoned with. A lot of them even attract foreign dignitaries and act as if they have the backing of the citizens whose electoral decision put their husbands in office and accidentally seems to be validating their status as “bed-fellows”. From what I have observed so far, I can confidently say that these so-called First Ladies have become authorities unto themselves, acting as if they have any constituency to rely on. They don’t have any constituency except those doing all they can to use public funds and other resources (including political capital) to prop them up. The voters don’t recognize them and will chafe at how public funds are spent to support their escapades.

These First Ladies have come into their own and realized that they can also benefit from the system if they assert their influence; hence, the formation of the Association of First Ladies (only in Sub-Saharan Africa) where intricate forces have combined to doom politics, turning it into a game without principles and meant for only those who know how to “pass the ball” right. Ridiculous!!

They are encouraged by their realization that they are the “shadows” and should play their cards well. In Ghana, for instance, the grapevine has over the years revealed to us how much influence these wives have on their husbands, especially in the appointment of personalities to offices.

We have heard of their "pillow-talk" and how much that has done to put some people in office and to sway their husbands away from their normal paths of self-realization. I don't intend to bore anybody with anything, but we can tell from what has happened in contemporary times that the First Ladies of the various countries have arrogated to themselves some kind of power that doesn't come from the electorate to do things at the expense of the tax payer.

But let me just go a bit down the memory lane to bring up some issues so we can engage them in a productive discussion regarding African First Ladies and what they mean to governance. I will consider Ghana's case, starting with the First Republic and ending on what is happening right in front of our eyes today. Please, bear with me. I will do this brief exploratory survey without any malice aforethought or any intention to undermine anybody. Mine is just to raise an important issue for public discussion. So, here I go.

When the British colonial officers were ruling the Gold Coast, no one heard anything about their wives, apparently because they were not recognized as political authorities invested with any power of administration to warrant their being highlighted and supported on ventures all over the place.

Come in the indigenous African ruler (Dr. Kwame Nkrumah) at independence and Fathia Nkrumah became a public figure. Although I wasn't alive to happenings within the period, I have been informed about how she functioned to become a household name. The overthrow of Nkrumah sent her packing off to the land of her birth (Egypt). Whatever Fate befell her serves as a reminder to those who care to know her as Ghana's First Lady. A lot of politics was done about her, though. She is gone, but not after giving us children who are known in one way or the other for their role in contemporary Ghanaian politics (Samia Nkrumah of the CPP and the political vagrant, Dr. Sekou Nkrumah).

The military cowards who dislodged Nkrumah from power paraded their wives but no one really took notice of them for anything. Nothing to write home about such First Ladies, especially when Gen. Ankrah was said to have more than one wife and couldn't know which was to be shown to Ghanaians as his legitimate wife (First Lady). The treacherous Afrifa didn't fare any better. Good riddance.

Busia entered the scene with Naa Morkor Busia but she didn't last because her husband was removed from office within 27 months of assuming power. Forget about the titular Head of State at the time, Edward Akufo-Addo, because his wife couldn't be given any prominence beyond the titular confines of her husband’s presence in government. When Busia died, Naa Morkor lost it all, including her own South Odorkor residence that the Rawlings government expropriated for the benefit of the cadres of the revolution. Akufo-Addo’s wife might not even be known to people of her generation. Dust!!

In comes Kutu Acheampong with his frolicking. His wife, Faustina, came across as the First Lady but had more to worry about in terms of her husband's unbridled womanizing antics than doing anything to register herself as a First Lady who could achieve prominence on the political scene. Another good riddance.

Bring in General Fred Akufo whose wife didn’t get that much latitude to be seen all over the place as the First Lady of Ghana in a tottering and teetering military regime. The same goes for Fulera Limann, wife of the President of the 3rd Republic, who entered the Osu Castle a nonentity and left as such. Nothing to remember her by.

When Jerry Rawlings first burst onto the political scene, his wife (Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings) was an unaccomplished worker at the textiles division of the former United Africa Company (UAC) in Accra. No condition is permanent, we know. Thus, Lady Luck smiled on Nana Konadu when Rawlings returned to power on December 31, 1981, and she established herself as a colossus under the umbrella of the 31st December Women's Movement. Her activities, utterances, and political posturing can't be forgotten anytime soon, especially if we consider why she is still adamant and has formed the National Democratic Party to protect her political interests and push the Rawlings agenda in reverse (The legitimate channel for the Rawlings phenomenon is the NDC, which is larger than Rawlings and his wife put together).

Nana Konadu and Rawlings are two sides of the same coin. Don't ask me why. Those who know what she was as a First Lady will explain it all—even as she can’t still bring herself to realize that she can’t rise above the status of a First Lady. Even the dreaded Okumkom Nana Akwasi Agyemang can come to terms with reality because of how he got uplifted to become an important figure in the Kumasi sector of the Rawlings administration (someone who had earlier been humiliated by being forced to carry human excreta for whatever offence he might have committed against the system as determined by the revolutionary Rawlings administration).

Indeed, Nana Konadu's role as the First Lady of Ghana is a whole history to be written for whatever it has contributed to the entrenchment of the status of First Ladies in African politics. Is it about using women's power to achieve political success or about using the umbrella of the so-called "Affirmative Action" tag for personal political ambitions? Don’t ask me. A pathetic Quixotic adventure that backfired when Rawlings turned a new leaf to the blind side of Nana Konadu?

In truth, though, we must concede that Nana Konadu did accomplish some positive gains for sustaining the Rawlings phenomenon. That Rawlings phenomenon has its positive side, especially in its leading to the establishment of the 4th Republic. Ghana has experienced much stability as a result of Rawlings effort. Anybody who doubts this fact needs serious (mental health) examination at many levels.

On the flip side, Nana Konadu singularly gave the status of "First Lady" in Ghana (and Africa) a huge boost that has sustained it ever since, even though her own fall from grace to grass should be telling those following in her footsteps that there is always a day of reckoning ahead. Her influence on Rawlings is legendary (at least, the man himself has ever made utterances to that effect even as she has said that he is the best cook because he cooks for the family). Too much for them; but it must be said without ceasing that Nana Konadu's exploitation of the status of First Lady set an alluring precedent which is still being exploited by African women lucky to become the wives of Presidents or military rulers on the continent.

I shall return…

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Columnist: Bokor, Michael J. K.