Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-AFRICA: The First Lady Syndrome

Farah Khan

ADDIS ABABA, Nov 25 1999 (IPS) - The First Lady syndrome in Africa is an obstacle to gender advancement, say women activists who object to the high profile the Sixth African Regional Conference on Women, being held in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa from Nov 22-27, have given to the wives of leaders.

The activists are worried that the stage accorded Nigerian First Lady, Stella Obasanjo, may rekindle the syndrome that has gripped West Africa where first ladies were used as an instrument to quell political opposition by subsuming women’s movement.

They also complain that donors favour first lady programmes, despite the fact that they are not sustainable because the programmes end when leaders and their wives depart office. Vera Chiluba’s Hope Foundation in Zambia, Nana Rawlings’ December 31st Movement in Ghana and Obasanjo’s children’s programmes are the beneficiaries of millions of donor dollars.

The debate about first ladies has gathered steam as women’s movements grow stronger and democracy is entrenched. “It is an undemocratic situation,” says Joanna Foster of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF) who is also a drafter of the non- governmental organisation (NGO) shadow report, which will critique the role of first ladies in Africa.

First ladies are not elected, their husbands are sometimes. They gain political authority only as the wives of political leaders, although in some cases, they also have an independent political profile.

South Africa’s first lady, Zanele Mbeki, was a gender activist long before her husband’s accession to power in June this year. She recently declared at a briefing on “Beijing plus Five” that she is not defined by her husband’s job description.

In Mozambique, Graca Machel, was a Frelimo leader in her own right. Still, a new generation of talented women says that women can and must get leadership positions in their own right.

The NGO shadow report, to be released on Friday, is likely to raise the first lady syndrome as a growing trend to be treated with caution and an obstacle to gender advancement. The entrenchment of first ladies, as political entities, often means that their programmes sap resources that could go to the institutional mechanisms for gender advancement.

Thus, activists and female politicians do not like the syndrome. But, there is no denying that first ladies occupy an important political space. Many grassroots women look up to them because of their proximity to power. Donors do the same, dishing out funding to first lady programmes to win the support of the power of the day.

Political strategists suggest that the space occupied by political wives must be used to benefit development. Says one: “They have been a force for evil. They can also be a force for good.”

They have leaders’ ears and some new generation first ladies intend to use them. Obasanjo, speaking at a Peace Forum earlier this week said that, “Many of us are lucky to have husbands who listen to, and respect our counsel. Have we always advised them to do what is right? Have we, as wives of leaders, resisted the lure of glamour and power, and encouraged our husbands to work for the good of all society?”

To answer her in one word: No! Many are happy that first ladies should assume such roles, as positive forces for good. But activists want first ladies to play a complementary role with women’s movements and not become the dominant players.

In Ghana, Nana Rawlings is the women’s movement. She led the country’s delegation to Beijing in 1995, is single-handedly determining affirmative action quotas for female politicians and drives its gender movement.

In Nigeria, Mariam Abacha and Miriam Babangida, played the same roles. “The problem is bigger than just first ladies,” says Lynn Mutoni, the executive director of the Kenya-based FEMNET, an NGO. “The wives of ruling party politicians involve themselves in the political leadership of women’s networks.”

The women’s movement becomes the women’s wing of ruling parties and “inevitably they push their husband’s agendas,” says economist Yassine Fall of Senegal.

This may be even more dangerous than the personality cults which first ladies tend to fashion because it eats into political space, both for women and for different political voices. Says Foster: “It closes off women’s space and remaining space becomes party political.”

Often party women are used as praise-singers, cooks and voting fodder in a myriad African countries.

In Zambia, women complain that Vera Chiluba regularly uses her Hope Foundation to lambast a nascent political opposition.

In Kenya, the National Women’s Network that is allied to the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party opposed a female presidential candidate. “Women are the neck that holds up the head,” said Zipporah Kitoni of the Network, to explain their decision not to support candidate Charity Ngila.

The legacy of first ladies and their negative role in gender empowerment in Africa has left a sour taste in many mouths. “We want their visibility de-emphasised,” said a Nigerian delegate about first ladies. “The women’s agenda should not be set by wives, but by the very talented and educated women out there who arrive on their own steam.”

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