Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

African first ladies shun political role for social impact

Article from AFRIC editorial
By virtue of their marriage to the president of the country, the first ladies in Africa have a considerable amount of political will and influence. However, most constitutions do not provide for a separate office, neither does it affix special roles and responsibilities for the first lady. But as a result of their close links to major decision-makers, they tend to have considerable political influence. But in most cases, these first ladies have shunt political interference to focus more on social ventures.

When we hear of the first lady of a country, we immediately think of a high profile personality wielding political powers. Africa has more than 50 first ladies and they mostly accompany their husbands on state visits and other official outings to represent the country. These women gained political authority as the wives of the presidents, although in some few cases, some had independent political profile prior to their marriage to the president. It is not very certain whether constitutionally some of them have the right to political decisions, but the influence they have as the spouse to the president cannot be underestimated.

On the contrary, we often hear very little about first ladies in most countries as far as the political scene is concerned. One may begin to wonder if they have willingly decided to eschew this domain of their functions or perhaps they act from the background. Very few first ladies have had the chance to publicly display interest in politics. Grace Mugabe of Zimbabwe is one of those who had actively participated in his husband’s administration, but unfortunately, things took a negative turn in 2017 when her political ambitions grew strong and it was assumed that she had the intention of taking over the leadership of the country from her husband.

Aisha Buhari, the wife of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, came to the political spotlight when she indicated that the development of the country was hindered by two powerful men in Nigeria. In 2016, she had threatened to withdraw support for Muhammadu Buhari if he chose to seek re-election without reviewing his cabinet to integrate people who worked for his success in 2015. Again, her husband’s response to her political interference was not favourable.

Fatima Bio, first lady of the Republic of Sierra Leone on her part challenged African leaders to roll out free education, after President Julius Maada Bio in 2018s launched free education for 1.5 million primary and secondary school children in the country. Her call to other presidents leaves no doubt that she may have ignited her husband’s move.

Very few of these first ladies in Africa have been bold enough to engage in political interventions in matters affecting the country.

Do first ladies in Africa have a say in the affairs of the countries?

Nigerians were taken aback when Aisha Buhari indicated she would respect the constitution and not engage in politics but focus on charitable activities. Aisha was publicly reprimanded by her husband Buhari after a public statement on the possible hijack of his administration. With this public disregard for his wife, one begins to doubt if these women can in any possible way influence the decisions of their husbands.

However, the role played by Mary Ayen Mayardit, wife of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, portrays a contrary scenario. She is known to have a high degree of influence as compared to other first ladies. Promoted to the rank of major general in the army in 2018, she is considered to have significant influence over decisions that determine the fate of the country. But unfortunately, she is one of the very few first ladies who enjoy such power and degree of influence.


Although first ladies in Africa may have been dormant in the political arena, when it comes to social and other philanthropic activities, a good number of them have a pass mark.

Apart from being known to challenge those in power, Aisha Buhari runs a humanitarian project called “Future Assured Program” aimed at improving the wellbeing of women, children and, adolescents in Nigeria through education and economic empowerment. Healthcare for women and children is also the area of intervention of Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, who in 2014 was named Kenya’s Person of Year by the United Nations due to the works of her Beyond Zero initiative.

Cameroon’s first lady Chantal Biya was named UNAIDS Special Ambassador for her role in advocating for education and health in the country for several years with The Chantal Biya Foundation.  Just like other first ladies, Jeanette Kagame is reputed for championing the fight against HIV/AIDS through Imbuto Foundation, an initiative she founded.

In spite of their political status derived from their marriage to the president, the political role played by the first ladies in their respective countries still remains unfelt in most cases. However, we cannot completely ignore the fact that they could be influential and possibly participate in decision making in the background. But their participation in social drives to promote and uplift the status quo of the country cannot be underestimated.

Article from AFRIC editorial.

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