Why First Families Matter As Much As Who Becomes President
As the country gets nearer to that silly season known as the General Elections time, more and more people will be crawling out of the woodworks claiming to be visionaries who will drive the country into the next fifty-year phase. But while the leaders flaunt their political credentials, few, if any, will be telling the voters much (if at all) about the single-most influential person in their lives: their spouse.
And, the world over, history teaches us that spouses can and do exert immense amounts of influence on their better-halves. We don’t have to travel far for illustrative examples of how corrosively influential spouses can be on leaders. Africa has more than its fair share of modern-day Marie Antoinette; some already in reign, some in the making.
Down South we have Grace Mugabe, the wife to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Behind her back, Zimbabweans call the First Lady Her Excellency the Dis-Grace, a reference to her excessive ways, lust for power and greed. Although she holds no official position in the Government, Grace Mugabe has the entire government machinery wrapped around her little finger.
Mugabe’s cabinet can make a decision in the morning and the following day President Mugabe, after overnight ‘consultations’ with the First Lady beats a complete about-turn. While Zimbabweans starve, the First Lady spends millions of dollars (real US dollars, not Zim dollars) of public funds every year on shopping sprees, exotic holidays and acquisition of holiday villas in the four corners of the earth. Not too long ago, Grace Mugabe spent a cool US$ 30million (about KShs 2.55billion) to construct and furnish a palace, which the First Lady later sold to former Libyan President Muammar Gadaffi.
And speaking of Gadaffi, it becomes evident that besides First Ladies, there are also other members of the First Family who can exert excessive amounts of influence in the running of State affairs without being accountable to anyone. Take for instance Muammar Gadaffi’s sons. They rode rough shod on Libyans and foreigners alike, both within and outside Libyan jurisdiction.
Hannibal Gadaffi, the son Muammar Gadaffi named after the famous and notorious 180BC Carthaginian military commander and war-hero, Hannibal Hamilcar Barca, was known for notoriety in the streets of Tripoli that would have made his ancient namesake blush. While his father was the supreme leader of Libya, Hannibal Gadaffi roamed the streets of Tripoli and entertainment hotspots snatching his friends’ girlfriends at gunpoint.
On the West African side, perhaps you may have heard of Teodorin Obiang the favourite son of President Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. The First Son is famous for splashy life-style financed through the country’s oil exports, which the First Son treats like personal resources. Last year police in Paris seized about a dozen supercars (each worth over a million US dollars) from Teodorin Obiang’s villa on suspicions that the cars were proceeds of corruption.
In Obiang Junior’s fleet were sleek and rare models ranging from Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari Enzo, Bugatti Veyron, Aston Martini, LeMans, Maseratti to Porsche Carrera. A few years ago Obiang Jnr bought himself a modest birthday gift in the form of a yacht. Cost? Just US$ 350million (about KShs 30billion), money irregularly skimmed out of the country’s oil exports.
Up north there was, until recently Tunisia’s First Lady Leïla Trebelsi Ali, the wife of former Tunisian President Ben Ali. Her excesses were such that she was regarded as the Imelda Marcos of the Arab World. During her husband’s reign, she and her close relatives openly engaged in massive corruption, serious abuse of power and excessive ruthlessness to those who dared question their excesses. Despite being a former hairdresser with little formal education, Leïla Ali controlled not just her husband the President but also the entire government machinery.
Tunisia’s First Lady used the Central Bank of Tunisia like a personal piggy bank where she would walk in and collect millions of dollars in briefcases for shopping binges in fashion capitals of the world. Legend has it that before the Ben Ali clan fled the country, Leïla made a dash to the Central Bank where she stole and fled with gold bullion worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Little wonder that today she is on the wanted list of Interpol for money laundering and high treason.
Indeed, it was the excesses of the First Lady Leïla Ali and her immediate relatives that stoked the fires of citizens’ rebellion. In our neighboring Ethiopia there is the First Lady Azeb Mesfin, wife to President Meles Zenawi. Early last year a Spanish newspaper reported that the Ethiopian First Lady had squandered hundreds of millions of dollars buying luxury holiday homes in Europe while her countrymen and women lived in abject poverty.
Stories are many of countries electing people who appear like good leaders only for them to be turned into despots thanks to the influence of their wives and children. So as Kenyans decide on whom to vote for as President and Governors in the 47 Counties, it is very critical that we take time to question, interrogate and investigate the character and nature of the prospective First Ladies as well as the prospective First Children.
Failure to do so, we may end up with an Imelda Marcos, a Grace Mugabe or a Leïla Ali pulling strings behind the scenes at State House and operating the Central Bank as a personal piggy bank to the detriment of the country and its resources. Or worse still, we could have our own equivalents of Obiang Jnr or Hannibal Gadaffi roaming the streets of Nairobi guns blazing à la Wild West because their father happens to reside in State House or at the Governor’s mansion in the County.