Africa’s First Ladies: Unofficial influencers

The perception and role of the First Lady has long been a subject of debate. Media presentations of First Ladies tend to collapse their cross-cutting identities into simplified gendered constructs, often give priority to their fashion choices, or portray them only as stoically supportive wives and/or loving mothers to family and nation. When former US First Lady Michelle Obama described herself as “Mom-in-Chief”, the phrase was criticised largely by white feminists who rejected Obama’s reduction to a maternal role despite her Ivy League education and established career. 

While the role of many First Ladies across the world is not constitutionally mandated, their unique role centres largely on identifying and spearheading certain social causes. For example, prior to establishing the Rebecca Foundation in 2017, the First Lady of Ghana, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, co-founded the non-governmental organisation Infant Malaria which implements malaria-prevention programmes and supports the creation of community-based health planning services compounds. 

In her article on First Lady philanthropy, Shelagh Gastrow noted that First Ladies are now forging ahead to facilitate partnerships between philanthropy, government and the private sector as a key approach to Africa attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). First Lady of Rwanda Jeannette Kagame, Gastrow points out, has an “extraordinary capacity for mobilising First Ladies,” while at the same time serving on the boards of global organisations, receiving honorary doctorates and garnering international awards for her work.

With a significant degree of freedom to decide on their programmes, there appears to be no standard procedures on deciding what social issues a First Lady should support. This has its advantages as well as drawbacks. While it’s acceptable for First Ladies to cite personal motivations for being passionate about an issue, chosen issues should ideally be located within a country’s development priorities and linked to its strategic plan. Currently, the rationale for selected causes is not always clearly articulated. A related concern centres around sustainability and strategic impact. The position of First Lady is subject to political dynamics, which can be unpredictable in some African countries. 

Foundations established and causes launched by First Ladies must be able to live beyond their founders’ terms and have built-in mechanisms to withstand political changes. Ugoji Egbujo’s rather scathing impression of African first ladies notes that “every first lady ushered into office in Nigeria abandons projects initiated by her predecessor and  engages in new projects”. A more recent article by Gambo Dori suggests that the Office of The First Lady should exercise greater accountability and transparency. 

Some former First Ladies such as Graça Machel are recognised both for their time in office as well as their subsequent work. As First Lady of Mozambique (1975-1986) and its Minister of Education (1975-1989), Machel made a significant impact on primary school education, increasing the number of children in school from 400 000 to 1.5 million by the time she left her position. Just prior to the beginning of Machel’s term as First Lady of South Africa in 1998, she was appointed as a United Nations Expert to Chair the Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The Graça Machel Trust, established in 2010, works to strengthen women’s movements, influence governance and protect children’s rights.

The absence of a constitutional mandate can allow First Ladies to create their own opportunities and move with relative ease in diverse spaces. Cora Neumann, co-founder of the RAND African First Ladies Initiative which, in 2010, morphed into the Global Alliance of First Ladies, argues that owning and taking positive advantage of the role of First Ladies is something African First Ladies do very well. Propelled by the identity as “the mother of the nation”, Neumann argues that First Ladies can connect with and be welcomed by grassroots communities in a unique way. As a result, they can exert influence and “shape attitudes and behaviours”. This, Neumann believes, can be more powerful than usual forms of political authority or high-level policy dictums. 

“Beyond philanthropy and moral influence, where are the opportunities for First Ladies to have greater impact?”

First Ladies are also adept at recognising the importance of collective power. The Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA), was formed in 2002 in Geneva as a response to a pandemic gripping the continent at the time. Since then, the organisation, with its current 42 members (34 whom are active) and led by its president, Adjoavi Sika Kabore, First Lady of Burkina Faso, has broadened its focus to improving reproductive health and the regional response to breast and cervical cancer. In February 2018, OAFLA and the African Union (AU) launched the Free to Shine campaign which aims to create awareness about the importance of prioritising mothers and children in the fight to reduce new HIV infections. 

Despite these advancements, it is difficult to ignore the contexts in which this progress sometimes plays out. On one hand, it’s impressive that Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni has established the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans and the National Strategy for the Advancement of Rural Women in Uganda. Her more recent efforts to rally Members of Parliament to become champions for maternal health reveal she also has a more strategic, policy-focused agenda. However, the fact that the current president and First Lady of Uganda have held on to power for 32 years tends to muddy these achievements somewhat. In addition, this long period in office has allowed Uganda’s First Lady to exert a strong moral influence over certain issues such as abstinence, adolescent comprehensive sexuality education and sexual identity. In spite of a long-term partnership with the United Nations Population Fund, in a country where the average woman has 5.4 children, she remains critical of the use of contraception

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, Zimbabwe’s former First Lady, Grace Mugabe, gained an international reputation for luxury spending sprees, despite her country’s severe and ongoing economic woes. The use of her position to cement the power of her husband’s office through fear and intimidation has been widely reported. 

Thankfully, in Africa, this is more the exception than the rule. Still, beyond philanthropy and moral influence, where are the opportunities for First Ladies to have greater impact? In reaching for a correlation, one might be enticed to see a relationship between Rwanda’s formidable First Lady and the country’s 61% female MP representation, the highest in the world. Similarly, for all its controversies, is Uganda’s 34% female representation in Parliament in part due to the work and example of the Janet Museveni? Unfortunately no data on these correlations exist and the argument falls flat given that under Grace Mugabe’s fraught tenure, Zimbabwe’s 33.2% female representation in its National Assembly just before its recent elections remained somewhat impressive. 

The truth is that advancements in female political representation are largely due to parity legislation enacted by certain countries, a result of strong political advocacy by civil society groups. However, First Ladies could lend their voices and amplify this movement. Whether First Ladies are in fact political figures is a separate, more complicated question. However, a call for them to support initiatives that are more political and strategic in nature,  such as empowerment and visibility of women, is certainly viable. With the dearth of information on the subject, this would be a welcome value-add to the discourse. 

“First Ladies could certainly take up the 50/50 campaign,” says Shireen Hassim, professor in Political Science at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg. “Framing the participation and representation of women in the political space as positive would mean First Ladies would be standing up for principles, rather than party politics.”  The ripple effects of a paradigm shift away from largely welfarist initiatives would be felt far beyond a First Lady’s time in office. It would certainly go a long way towards presenting her in a fuller, more multi-dimensional light.

(Main image: Michelle Obama (L) and Graça Machel at the Nelson Mandela Foundation on 21 June 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa. – Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI. 

24 October 2018