"Behind every successful man, there is a woman" goes the old saying. If this is true, as it seems it is, what impact have African First Ladies had on their husbands, who are generally said to have mismanaged Africa in the post-independence era? Or are they mere "flowers" decorating State Houses? This month, we devote our cover story to the "woman power" behind the African throne and how it influences (or doesn't influence) governance on the continent. Tom Mbakwe reports.
Do African First Ladies have any impact on their husbands? If yes, what has their impact been over the last 50 years of African independence? If no, are the First Ladies a breed apart from women in general the world over, who routinely use their God-given feminine power to get what they want?
For millennia, men, having deceived themselves that they are the "stronger sex" (going by their physical strength), have described women as the "weaker sex". But by the time you finish reading this piece, you would be a very courageous man indeed (if you are a man) to still live in the illusion that women are the weaker sex.
The recent fall of the 62-year-old Dominique Strauss-Khan (DSK), the powerful managing director (he has since resigned) of the powerful International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the feet of a 32-year-old woman from Guinea-Conakry (a "chambermaid", the international media have cared to let everybody know) has brought to the fore the power that women have over men--and this is irrespective of the man's station in life!
DSK was a giant of the global financial world. When he spoke, markets shook, and nations (especially those in Africa) paid attention! The organisation he headed could make and unmake any African country of its choice - as it regularly did in the past. When the IMF spoke, Africa listened. And yet, the leader of this powerful organisation just collapsed like ninepins before the power that nature has invested in a 32-year-old "chambermaid" from Guinea!
Is this not proof that although men may claim to be the "stronger sex", they are still at the mercy of the so-called "weaker sex"? In effect, who is the "stronger sex"--man or woman?
Extrapolated to cover the "big" men who govern (or have governed) Africa in the post-independence era, who are said to have largely run the continent into the ground, how has this feminine power worked on them and their performance in office?
Have they ever suffered from the DSK syndrome--ie, falling to pieces at the feet of woman power? If yes, how has it affected their psychological wellbeing and, by extension, the way they govern? If no, have they not been real men? For every real man tastes the power of woman power at some point in his natural life. It is part of the growing up process.
To gauge how this works, one needs not to go any further than James Baldwin, the African-American writer, who said: "Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex, you thought of nothing else if you didn't have it and thought of other things if you did."
Here, Baldwin was talking more about men than women. In Britain, there is a general belief that men think about sex every two minutes. That makes it 30 times every hour, and 720 times every 24-hour period (one day). If you multiply that by one week of 7 days, you get 5,040 times, which makes it a tidy 60,480 times a year! In that context, Baldwin's philosophy becomes even more dire for men. The relevant question is 'What do men do if they don't have it?' Baldwin says they think of "nothing else". And if that man happens to be a head of state, or the managing director of the IMF, what impact does this have on his state of mind, his performance in office, and on the country or the organisation he runs as a whole?
In that context, what has happened to DSK, and by extension the power that women have over men, is a serious subject that needs to be looked at seriously.
As Chinweizu, the Nigerian writer and social commentator says in his book, The Anatomy of Female Power, published in 1990: "Female power exists; it hangs over every man like a ubiquitous shadow. Indeed, the life cycle of man, from cradle to grave, may be divided into three phases, each of which is defined by the form of female power which dominates him: motherpower, bridepower, and wifepower ... We must remember the saying 'the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world'."
Chinweizu continues: "Marriage is the central institution of female power--not political parties, parliaments, armies, business enterprises, bureaucracies, etc. The nest or family home, where a woman is both mother and wife, is the seat of female power--not barracks, factories, offices or other such places where large numbers of persons gather together. In making marriage its central institution, female power has chosen the organisational form most suited to its nature and its needs."
To fully grasp the depth of this power, and how destructive it can be if misapplied, it is important to draw lessons from other authorities. For the billions of Christians in Africa and across the world, the stories of Adam and Eve, and Samson and Delilah, are familiar ones.
The Bible sets the scene in Genesis chapters i to 3. After creating man, God, the Bible records, took a long hard look at him and said (Gen 2:18, 24): "It is not good for a man to live alone. I will make him a help mate ... Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh."
That one sentence, "it is not good for a man to live alone", is pregnant with meaning. In its simplest sense, it is an admission by God that to be complete or whole a man must live with a woman - because he needs a help mate. To do what? To help him make life meaningful - for him and for her; to achieve their life purpose.
According to the Bible, after creating man and woman, God charged them (Gen 1:28) to "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it ..."
To carry out this mandate, man and woman need one another, else there would be no procreation and replenishment of the earth, For procreation to be possible, and because it is the woman who will carry the baby for nine months in her womb, God invested her with more inner power than the man. Sadly for the man, he was imbued with a higher level of testosterone which, as the popular belief in Britain goes, makes him chink of sex every two minutes. This, in effect, means he becomes a slave to the need and to the provider of that need - which happens to be the woman.
And as every slave has a master, and every master has power over his or her slave, the man becomes the "weaker sex" in this context. That explains why a 32-year-old chambermaid from Guinea can have power over a 62-year-old managing director of the IMF.
Perhaps DSK, an alleged "ladies' man", may not be a good example - some men, like him, are naturally prone to the need and whatever they get at home is not enough to make them behave properly. But unless men recognise their powerlessness in the context of this need and find ways to cope with that powerlessness, will forever deceive themselves that they are the stronger sex, when they are not.
This is amply demonstrated in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:1-24). It is recorded that when Eve fell to the charms of the Serpent and ate the fruit that God had expressly ordered them not to ear, for they would surely die if they did, she gave some to Adam, the "stronger sex", and he gobbled it up as if there was no tomorrow.
And when God, now angry, asked Adam why they had disobeyed his order not to eat the forbidden fruit, his answer was classic: "The woman you gave to me, gave me the fruit, and I ate it." (Gen 3:12.) Adam was supposed to be the "stronger sex", yet Eve the "weaker sex", had the power to turn his head and make him eat the forbidden fruit.
Fast-forward to the story of Samson and Delilah. The Bible records in Judges chapters 13 to 16 that Samson was a strong man that God wanted to use to liberate the Israelites from the Philistines, who had ruled over them for 40 years.
His birth had been foretold by an angel, and his extraordinary strength resided in his long hair. The day he cut his hair, his strength would vanish. His first wife, a Philistine beauty, betrayed him to her people even as the seven-day marriage feast was still on.
His second wife, Delilah, also a Philistine, was even worse. She accepted a blood price of 1,100 pieces of silver to betray Samson to the Philistine establishment who wanted to kill him.
The Philistines wanted to know the source of Samson's extraordinary strength, and they asked Delilah to use her female power to tease it out of him. They told her (Judges 16:5): "Entice him and see where his great strength lies, and by what means we may prevail against him. And we may bind him and afflict him. And we will give you, every one of us, 1,100 pieces of silver."
The Bible says Delilah used every trick to get at Samson, and when, after three attempts, he still would not give her the right information, she turned on the full beam of her "woman power".
"How can you not say you love me," Delilah went into seductive mode. "You have mocked me these three times and you have not told me the source of your great strength." The Bible records that for weeks and weeks, Delilah pressed him "daily with her words, and urged him, so that his soul vexed unto death". That is the old way of saying she nagged him to death!
In the end, woman power triumphed. Samson crumbled. He gave Delilah what she wanted. The Bible says: "He told her all his heart, and said unto her, there hath not come a razor upon my head, for I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother's womb. If I be shaven, my strength will go from me and I shall become weak like any other man."
Delilah went quickly to her people: "Come up this once, for he has showed me all his heart," she told the Philistines who brought her the money they had promised.
And wait for this (woman power at full blast): "And she made him sleep upon her knees (Judges 16:19); and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him ...
"And the Philistines took him and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in prison" (Judges 16: 21).
In the end, a blind Samson, having been turned into an object of sport, got his revenge when his hair had grown back, by bringing the whole house literally down, killing himself and 3,000 Philistine men and women who had gathered in an amphitheatre to watch him entertain them.
So what did Delilah have that Samson wanted that made him lose his hair, and head, in the way he did? Most men will tell you that it is not food; these days men can cook for themselves. It is not housekeeping either, for men can do that too. Companionship is a good pull, but men can get even this elsewhere, among themselves.
Though the three needs above--food, house-keeping, and companionship - are very important to men, they need more than that by nature. The Bible says Delilah "made [Samson] sleep upon her knees". That is where the catch is. According to the 10 men I interviewed for this piece, of all the things that a man needs to survive, the most important to him, which incidentally he cannot provide by himself, is sex. It is the one need that he cannot (or the vast majority of men cannot) satisfy via any other means than women!
And as Baldwin shows, the man cannot think of anything else if he does not have it. Throughout history, the lack of sexual relationship has been proven to disturb the mental equilibrium of men more than any other human need--whatever their status in life! Some of them go berserk, in fact.
It has also been proven that the majority of the most brutal men in history, such as Henry Morton Stanley and his boss, King Leopold II of Belgium, were men who found themselves to be inadequate in the sex department.
In his book, King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild, the American writer, traces the basis of the brutalities that Stanley committed against the poor Africans who came across his path as he explored the interior of the continent, to his inability to have sexual relations with women. Even when he married, Stanley could still not consummate his marriage because he strongly believed that "sex was for beasts" and he could not see himself stooping so low. Although the records show that Stanley wrote love letters to at least three women, he himself confessed despairingly in 1886: "The fact is, I can't talk to women."
As Hochschild reports in his book, Stanley eventually married the eccentric high-society portrait painter, Dorothy Tennant on 12 July 1890 in a lavish wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey in London, attended by the good and great of Britain, including Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Yet, as Hochschild shows, Stanley's "great fear of women" prevented him from consummating his marriage. After his honeymoon, Stanley himself wrote in his diary: "I do not regard it wifely, to procure these pleasures, at the cost of making me feel like a monkey in a cage."
To which his biographer, Frank McLynn adds: "Stanley's fear of women was so great that when he was finally called upon to satisfy a wife, [he] in effect broke down and confessed that he considered sex for the beasts."
According to Hochschild: "Whether this inference is right or wrong, the inhibitions that caused Stanley so much pain are a reminder that the explorers and soldiers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past or in themselves. The economic explanations of imperial expansion--the search for raw materials, labour and markets--are all valid, but there was psychological fuel as well."
Here, Stanley had a common link with his boss, King Leopold II. Hochschild tells how the "loveless marriage" of Leopold's parents affected the young prince. "If Leopold wanted to see his father, he had to apply for an audience."
The cold atmosphere in which he grew up haunted him in later life. He became an "ungainly, haughty young man whom his first cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, thought Very odd' and in the habit of 'saying disagreeable things to people1," Hochschild recounts.
When he married, Leopold and his wife Marie-Henriette, "like many young couples of the day ... apparently found sex a frightening mystery." Queen Victoria became their sex-educator. The British monarch and her husband, Prince Albert, gave Leopold and his wife (who visited regularly from Brussels) tips about how to get on with the job.
Several years later, when Marie-Henriette became pregnant, an excited Leopold wrote to Prince Albert thanking him for "the wise and practical advice you gave me ... [It] has now borne fruit."
When Leopold finally ascended the throne in 1865, his undying desire was to own colonies. He tried everything under the sun to get a colony to no avail, including buying the Philippines from Spain, buying lakes in the Nile and draining them out, or trying to lease territory on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).
The brutal expeditions of Stanley in Africa finally offered Leopold the chance to land his prized jewel, Congo. Stanley made two "journalistic" trips to Africa, first in 1869 to find David Livingstone, on a mission for a US newspaper. The second was in 1874, for Leopold, where, starting from Zanzibar on the eastern seaboard with 356 people (mostly Africans), he "attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages" (his own words) as he plundered his way down to Boma and the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast.
Through this brutality, Stanley was able to colonise Congo for Leopold. And while Leopold ruled Congo as his personal fiefdom, as many as 10 million Congolese died at the hands of his agents, according to Hochschild's research. In fact, Leopold's brutality knew no bounds. As more Congolese villages resisted his rubber order (quotas for tapped rubber were set for the villagers), Leopold's agents ordered his army, the Force Publique, to raid the rebellious villages and kill the people. To make sure that the soldiers did not waste the bullets in hunting animals, their officers demanded to see the amputated right hand of every person they killed.
As Hochschild puts it: "The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. 'Sometimes', said one officer to a missionary, 'soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man'. In some military units, there was even a 'keeper of the hands', his job was the smoking [of them]."
The inference here is that the inability to have sexual relations with women does produce psychological problems in men, such as Stanley and Leopold II experienced, and pushes them into abnormal behaviour. If that man happens to hold a responsible position in society, like Leopold, his performance is bound to be adversely affected, as Leopold's was in Congo.
In effect, the sexual need, by nature, is so vital to a man's health that whatever his social standing--he could be president or king, gardener or labourer--he literally has to be on his knees to meet the need. Which gives the satisfier of that need (the woman) enormous power over the man.
Chinweizu is emphatic about this in the Anatomy of Female Power. "As any negotiator will tell you, the more desperate your opponent is for what you have, the more favourable the terms you could get him to accept. Or, as one woman friend of mine told me: 'When it comes to sex, the one who wants it less holds the power'. Thus, an addiction which makes a man more desperate for sex increases woman's power over him.
"On the whole, contrary to men's ego-boosting illusions, man may be the brawnier and brainier sex; woman is not the weaker but the wilier sex. However helpless and sentimental women may appear to be, in those things which matter to them, they are less sentimental, less naive, more cynical, more ruthless, and more tenacious than men."
Knowing this, women (as individuals or as a collective) have used the "sex boycott" in the past, and still continue to use it, as a weapon to get what they want. Yaa Asantawaa, the Asante queen in Ghana, was said to have used a sex boycott to force the cowed Asante men to take up arms against the British in 1900. In April this year, Belgian women threatened to impose a sex boycott to force the predominantly male politicians in the country to agree to form a coalition government in the national interest.
A sex boycott is a powerful tool. It is in this context that even the prudish Christian Bible is peppered with admonitions to women to be considerate in their sexual relations with their husbands. In First Corinthians 7:2-5, Paul writes that "to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. The wife has not power of her own body bur the husband; and likewise also the husband has not power of his own body but the wife. Do not deny yourselves to one another except it be with agreement for a short time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again that Satan may not tempt you for your incontinency."
Paul goes on to tell Christians that "it is better to marry than to burn with lust". In a way, this injunction goes to the heart of the problem that the Roman Catholic Church, which has unnaturally prevented its priests from marrying, has had with the clerical abuse of boys. It all helps to prove the fact that sex and all its discontents is a very serious subject, even to the men of God. It is so important that some of the men and women I interviewed, while researching this piece, insisted that, to them, their definition of marriage is "80% sex and 20% of other things".
To men, the power of the sexual need is such that a lot of them go to ruin if they are denied it. As such, some find solace in adultery and promiscuity. Others resort to heavy drinking, and domestic violence to express their pent-up frustrations. The personalities of others just collapse. A shortcut has been divorce and remarriage.
Because of the psychological and emotional problems involved, some of the African men I interviewed harked back to the days when their fathers and forefathers were able to marry multiple wives with no social opprobrium attached.
"Yes, men would say that, wouldn't they?" said a Kenyan woman I interviewed for this piece. "If, for the sake of their mental and emotional health, men need multiple wives, why doesn't society allow women to have multiple husbands in return? Women too have mental and emotional needs to look after."
It is a good point, but the men I interviewed were unanimous that many women take woman power and nagging beyond acceptable limits and thereby become a health hazard to their husbands. "Like Delilah, they can send men to their early graves," one man said.
Which brought to mind what one British taxi driver said to this writer back in 1991. "Why do women live longer than men?" he asked me, before answering the question himself: "Because they have no wives." His view may not be politically correct, and many women and women's groups may fume about it, but many of the men I interviewed insisted there was a grain of truth in it.
Back in Africa
So how does "woman power" work in Africa, and especially on the African leadership? One Ugandan man I interviewed said: "A DSK event in Africa would not have the sort of media play it has had in the West, our media and society have no time for such things."
His contention was that "since multiple wives, though out of fashion today, are still allowed by our societies, it is not a big deal for an African man, or even a head of state, to dump his nagging or badly-behaved wife and go for another one. Africa is not Europe," he added for good measure.
Despite his bold statement, there is evidence showing that woman power still works for ill or good in African State Houses. Currently, one president in Central Africa, unable to cope with his wife, is said to have sent her away to live in the USA.
Another president, in East Africa, has been compelled to have a second "unofficial" wife because he could not cope any more with his "official" wife's disruptive influence. Today the second "wife" goes about town with an official motorcade but, officially, the president insists that he only has one "official" wife, and parliament and everybody turns a blind eye to the second.
In the Southern African region, one "jealous" First Lady is said to have built up a bad reputation for terrorising not only her husband in the State House, but all besides. Not wanting any scandal to leak out, her husband has done his best over the years to cope with her misdemeanours.
In Central Africa, another president is said to have arranged the death of his first wife (she was shot) when he could no longer cope with her. He has since married a younger woman.
In North Africa, it is said that the greed of the former Tunisian First Lady and her family was responsible for the demise of President Ben All's government, and the emergence of the Arab Spring that has convulsed the Arab world, from Egypt to Libya, Yemen to Bahrain, and now Syria.
In West Africa, one First Lady was known to be the dark power behind her husband's government. She revelled in the appointment and sacking of ministers and other officials who crossed her. In effect, it was a buy-one-get-one-free situation as she acted as the unofficial co-president.
In conclusion, it is pertinent to ask again: Have the African First Ladies had any impact on their husbands? If, as many Africans say, the continent has been misgoverned over the last 50 years, then the First Ladies cannot escape blame.
They have power invested by nature to steer their husbands in the right direction. If they fail, and their husbands go off track, they naturaly become guilty by association. After all, as Chinweizu says in The Anatomy of Female Power
"The wives of elite men are, of course, the best husband managers. These are the grandes dames or grand matriarchs who expertly manage the foremost male managers of vast organisations. They are the type referred to when, at testimonial dinners, it is said that behind every successful man there is a woman. But what, it may be asked, does such a woman do to her man from behind?"
The power that women have over their husbands' actions and even over rulers is demonstrated by Chinweizu when he quotes what happened (and still happens) in traditional Africa:
"As part of the intricate system of checks and balances in some traditional African societies, women exercise the most effective sanction against misrule. When a king becomes intolerable to his subjects, a procession of grandmothers will march naked to his palace. No ruler survives this final and dramatic repudiation by the mothers of his subjects. Usually, the threat of this march is enough to bring erring and dictatorial rulers to heel."
Perhaps this may be too extreme for modern First Ladies to do, but it shows the enormous power they have in their hands to make their husbands do the right thing and govern properly.…