Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem:

The Unexcellent, Un Lady-like,  thuggish behaviour of supposedly Madame Excellence, Mrs Lucy Kibaki, the wife of Kenya's President Kibaki (therefore his official First Lady) has been receiving a deserved attention in the media from many quarters. It has provided an opportunity for debate on the role of Africa's fist ladies many of whom are a source of pain, embarrassment and sometimes respect or envy but more often awe  to many citizens of their countries. The view of many seem to be that Mama Lucy was only unlucky to have been caught so publicly but she is not alone in wielding unelected power and using every opportunity to perform what the late Nigerian Afro beat Maestro , Fela Kuti, called 'power show'. The BBC Africa service, never to miss any opportunity for scandal and salacious reporting about Africa, sometimes simulating one if there is none has even invited its listeners to send in ratings of their First ladies. There has not been and there is unlikely to be many people coming out in defence of their first ladies.

While it is true that there are a few of them who are admired for their support for worthy causes, using their position as official occupants of the first bed room (and theoretically the first bed in the land) to focus on issues and constituencies that may otherwise be marginalized, there is ambiguity about their general political   role.

The cold fact is that a first lady whether in Africaor outside Africa has not got any defined constitutional role. Whatever role they play is based on the assumption that their proximity and intimacy with the President or Prime Minister, gives them influence, for good or bad. . It is an indirect power, which assumes greater impact in the situation of power worship in many African countries. Where institutions are not strong and the Presidency is so  pervasive and practically accountable to no one but itself the huge vacuum of lack of sanctions and restraints become harvest fields for all kinds of proxy power wielders. It is not just the First lady (or second or third ones for that matter) that benefits from such situation: the first daughter, the first son and their siblings, the first in –laws, the current concubine, the old one and the potential one, all have their places in this personal power scheme. The first messenger, the first cat, the first door, the first Dog in addition to the first boot -licker, the first shoe shiner and first clown (otherwise known as people close to the president or high up in the state House) all compete for influence around the big man.

Before you start thinking it is an African disease just look at experience from other countries. Nancy Reagan was so powerful that she consulted her stargazers to determine her husband’s travels to very important global events. Shame the stars did not reveal to her the attempted assassination of her husband early in his regime!.Cherie Blair in Britain reportedly extends the services of her style Guru and new ageist chums to her husband. Many are even suspecting that her strong Catholicism of having too much influence on the self –confessed Christian Prime Minister of a largely protestant country . It is impossible to create a Chinese wall between the official functions of anybody and those close and dearest to them. You do not have to be a head of state before your wife, lover, children, siblings, relatives, friends and others whose only relation to your job is being related to you by blood or close to you socially, to have some influence on the performance of your tasks.

It is the difficult areas of where influence transforms into power especially raw power like that shamefully displayed by Mrs Lucy Kibaki that should concern the public. There is nothing that gives the wife, partner or concubine of the president the right to order any citizen around or use state institutions for her own grand delusions. Many of the first ladies have transcended the boundary of influence into the realm of power interfering in how government functions and controlling different power points be it political or economic and financial institutions. What would be the reaction of the public to the wife of a Medical Director of a Public or even Private hospital, who decides to be a drug dispenser just because she has been sharing the bed of the Director?  Imagine the impact on our Judiciary if the wife of the Chief Judge of the country decides that pillow talk has made her a member of the Supreme Court!

The arguments sparked by Mrs Kibaki's executive lawlessness have focused on First ladies. Thy may be the top of the pyramid of our unaccountable power but they are not alone. The wives of Vice Presidents, Ministers and most senior officials behave in similar ways; the only difference is what they can get away with. By no means is the power show limited to women. Male partners, relatives and acolytes of those in power behave as badly.

The tantrums of First ladies are actually an indication of gender powerlessness. They  have no record of their own, no power of their own, they are just there because their husbands are up there. Many try to convert executive idleness into a full time job by intruding into all kinds of public spaces to remind us that they are there. That's why some of them assume they are leaders of other women  in a kind of delusionary division of labour with their husbands who command the whole country. They are paranoid around female members of the government. Their husbands indulge them 'to keep them busy' and reduce their nagging in the state house. The truth also is that some of them, if they sleep in the first bed at all, do so without their executive partners who could be busy executing it somewhere else for 'me and my country'. They should sort out their marital problems instead of inflicting their frustrations on citizens. But the wider issues involved include the limits on power and those who wield them directly or indirectly in our societies. As long as power remains essentially patriarchal women’s powerlessness will continue to express itself through the kind of shadow power deriving from affiliation to the Men in their lives whether as first,second, third or fourth ladies. But patriarchy alone does not explain the abuse of power by those in power whether male or female across Africa. The explanation lies in the lack of accountability and personalisation of power whether in government or outside of it.