Africa's First Ladies scratch, kick, scream but we still love them: What the fight of Zuma's wives reveals

Josephine Bongo, the First Lady of Gabon for 20 years, reinvented herself as a musician after her divorce. She has ten musical albums under her belt,

OUR sister publication the Mail & Guardian this week reminded us that marital discord in presidential palaces, are important because they often reveal a wider regime dysfunction. It reported an earlier fallout between two of President Jacob Zuma’s wives, after they laid eyes on each other, both having turned up for the same TV interview.

The national SABC broadcaster had apparently hedged its bets (it blamed poor internal communication) and sent out invites to Tobeka Madiba and Bongi Ngema, in the hope that at least one would honour their invite for an August 9 Women’s Day TV interview.

In the event, both turned up, and lost their cool, accusing the station management of stitching them up. The station has denied this. Witnesses talked of raised voices and a screaming match, before both turned on their heels and stomped out.

Beyond Zuma’s wives

The rivalry between Zuma’s wives is well documented and often spills out into the open—to a media that is all too happy to chronicle it. But the drama is not specific to South Africa, with other spouses of African heads of states over the years having served up what the etiquette Taliban have described as depicted exhibiting “un-First Lady like” conduct. 

Former Kenyan First Lady Lucy Kibaki, no stranger to controversy, in 2005 stormed the offices of the largest circulating daily to protest the Kenyan media’s reporting of the First Family.

The trigger appeared to have been a report that she had wanted police action over a nocturnal farewell party held for then-outgoing World Bank country director, Makhtar Diop.

She reportedly demanded that Diop, who was her tenant, turn down the volume, by some accounts accusing him of having “a bad mother”.  Three nights later she stormed the Nation Media Group’s main newsroom just before midnight and spent close to three hours loudly ticking off journalists, while confiscating their phones and notebooks. 

The Kenyan media had further reported that Mrs Kibaki had turned up at Diop’s house in her nightclothes, to which she retorted that she was free to wear anything she wanted, including a bikini. 

Four years later, she stood by her husband’s side glowering at assembled journalists as Mwai Kibaki, who claimed he was in a “foul mood”, denied persistent rumours that he had a second wife. Mrs Kibaki told one TV station that she had almost marched there in the night again to “attack you”.

“You keep tormenting us, I don’t know what you get out of it,” she told newspeople  at the rare news conference.

The Obasanjo drama

Marital woes and rivalries have been a rich source of colour, giving us a glimpse of the temperaments of First Families and those we would entrust with leadership.

While she did not quite ascend to the position of First Lady, Oluremi Obasanjo, the first wife of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo (she left him before he became a Big Man), gave titillating  accounts of her tiffs with her husband’s mistresses and the eventual First Lady Stella Obasanjo.

Obasanjo, an important figure in Nigeria’s history, was the country’s military ruler between 1976 and 1979, and civilian  leader between 1999 and 2007. 

In her autobiography Bitter-Sweet: My life with Obasanjo, Remi as she is referred to, details how she was often engaged with telephone battles with Stella in the early 1980s, despite having separated from Obasanjo in 1975. 

 “She would call to abuse me and I would reply to taunt her. Two days after I gave birth to my last born in 1982, I phoned to tell Stella the news; she told me I was delirious,” she wrote in a book that had Nigerians enthusiastically turning pages. 

Were, were,” she screamed,” you see that you have really gone mad. You are beginning to imagine things. How can you be pregnant, much less have a baby for Obasanjo? I’ve told you, he’s mine for good.” In one episode, she describes hearing a hospital loudspeaker calling for “Mrs Obasanjo”. It was not her, but Stella, whom she wasn’t aware was at the hospital too. She looked for, found Stella, and wrestled her to the ground in a noisy scuffle along the hospital corridors!

Stella died in 2005 while undergoing elective cosmetic surgery in Spain at a discreet and luxury clinic.

In another account, Remi also tells over a tussle with her husband over a poultry business, which resulted in her being arrested and taken to the Lafenwa police station, where “I had been stripped to my underwear.” 

Wardrobe malfunctions

Wardrobe malfunctions have also been caused by the difficult circumstances African First Ladies have found themselves in. The triumph of rebel Laurent Kabila’s forces over former Zaire (now DR Congo) president Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the continent’s more kleptocratic leaders, in 1997 forced the First Family to flee to Togo. 

Witnesses reported seeing the First Lady, Bobi Ladawa (who had an identical twin sister who also reportedly met the president’s mistress), emerge from the Russian made Antonov aircraft in her nightgown.  

Simone Gbagbo, the formerly powerful spouse was also shown in what looked suspiciously close to night clothes after her husband dramatically fell from power in 2011, looking forlorn at the change in fortunes as she and her man were being led out of the State House basement were they were holding out against advancing opposition forces. 

But we’ve also had First Ladies who have reinvented themselves after reversals in circumstances and warmed themselves back into the people’s hearts.  Josephine Bongo, the First Lady of Gabon for 20 years, repurposed herself as a musician after her divorce from then-president Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1986.

She became Patience Dabany, and is now one of Gabon’s more foremost musical ambassadors, performing to enthusiastic crowds at her many global stops.

She has ten musical albums under her belt, and one of her popular songs was used to campaign for her former husband in 2005. Perhaps these are the kinds of performances Zuma’s sparring wives should lean towards, to help resuscitate the First Husband’s flagging domestic political ratings.


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