Throughout the democratic world, when we put a cross on the ballot paper most of us vote not for the named party, but the personality of the leader. But should we look more deeply into the influence a potential First Lady will have upon which policies are eventually delivered? We tend to look at this in retrospect, but forewarned is forearmed.
“Those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana
Mama Cecelia Tamanda Kadzamira – Government of Secrecy
Let us make one point clear here, Mama was never a First Lady but she owned the role.
To begin with, the role of Cecelia was concealment – no one knew her job description. Her cool, calm personality removed her from any overt political mastery over the President but behind closed doors her influence over President Kamuzu’s political and personal decisions played a significant role in the way the country was running. Kadzamira won the love of Malawians and she was fondly referred to as Mama, Mother of the Nation. She was a serious-minded lady who rarely made public speeches. She believed in living within her means and working hard for everything, evidenced by a letter she wrote to Kamuzu whilst in London on official duties, “I am O.K. here and I don’t need money”. Not your average Malawian lady!
The secrecy and seriousness that was evolving around State House mirrored how the government was running. Many things were done behind the scenes but there was a great deal of earnest hard work going on in all government sectors.
Corruption was just a word in spelling tests.
Annie Muluzi – Government of convenience
Annie was in principal the official First Lady of Malawi. From afar, Annie Muluzi’s mannerisms and outlook made her the right candidate to take up the mantle from Mama Cecelia Kadzamira. However, events were not to unfold that way.
Bakili Muluzi (the President) had two concurrent wives, Annie being the first and most endorsed by the inner circle. People close to Muluzi thought that bringing in the second wife, Patricia, to State House was going to be un-Malawian hence Annie slept in the State House bedroom only for convenience sake. What happened next? Inevitable scandals and rudderless leadership. Hardy Nyirenda, a journalist of the once popular Newspaper “The Democrat”, unearthed the first corruption scandal famously known as “The Field York Scandal” mere months after Muluzi entered office.
The State House bedroom was not in order and affairs of state went pear-shaped. The free primary education was a shambles, with government money changing hands like nobody’s business. The woman who made breakfast at State House rendered the presidency moribund.
On 15th March 1999, Bakili Muluzi officially announced the separation from his spouse of three decades.
Patricia Shanil Muluzi – Government of impulse
Patricia, the other wife, was crowned First Lady. She and her five children shunned celebrity. As a second wife, Bakili loved Patricia. This changed the mood of the State House bedroom and by extrapolation day-to-day policy.
Like a nightmare, Bakili awoke from the dead realising that he was President of Malawi. Because he was living at State House with someone he loved, he also changed some people around him and brought in the ones he loved. Muluzi must be rueing not having moved Patricia into State House from the get-go. Even though the electorate knew that Bakili was now pointing in the right direction, damage had already been done. The pillow talk did not help either, but worsened matters. Shanil was now enjoying the role of the First Lady, closing the Mama chapter and assuming her own style. Too many public speeches and meetings meant that the time at State House was too short for her to fulfil her ambitions while the President busied himself cleaning up after humiliating corruption that riddled the first term. The couple decided to bid for a third term against the constitution, which was rejected by parliament. Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Or Lady Macbeth.
Shanil should be credited for establishing a Freedom Foundation Trust which was not personalised but carried the charitable work for the first lady.
Ethel Mutharika – Government of development
We all remember Ethel Mutharika. The fact that pillow talk plays a vital role in the running of state affairs was evident when Ethel became first Lady.
She wore the shoes of Mama gracefully. No wonder – they both had a Zimbabwean background!
Ethel Mutharika is remembered for her charitable work, establishing the Ethel Mutharika Foundation to bring assistance to less fortunate Malawians.
During her time at State House, a dark cloud hung over the Presidential lodge: Bingu (The President) had fallen out with his mentor Bakili Muluzi; The opposition led by MCP wanted Parliament to debate section 65 (of the constitution preventing MPs crossing the floor) first rather than balancing the budget. The United Democratic Front (UDF), the vehicle Bingu rode to win the presidency, wanted him impeached but the synergy behind closed doors helped him ignore distraction and concentrate on developmental projects dear to Ethel thus endearing him also to Malawians.
As ever, the First Lady embarked on projects that were genuinely helping underprivileged Malawians while her husband masterminded much needed national development projects in the public good. Was this just coincidence or an angel on his shoulder? Unfortunately, Ethel Mutharika never saw her legacy come to fruition, passing away on 28th May 2007.
Callista Mutharika – Government of Politicians
Bingu then married Callista, former minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture and also former Member of Parliament for Likangala Constituency in Zomba – An experienced politician who championed Safemotherhood. With an influential Callista looking over his shoulder, the President began to waste his energy on bipartisan politics at the expense of those development goals thanks to State House “bedroom politics”. The disposition of the First Lady drives the President, and by extension the nation. The First Lady herself was busy addressing political rallies and at time shouting at critics and activist “to go to hell”.
Gertrude Mutharika – Government of Change and Valentine Kiss
Gertrude Mutharika is the current First Lady of Malawi. She is a politician as well but unlike Callista, she is not so politically active, being reserved and private despite having a public romantic kiss on valentine with hubby President. Whilst almost all First Ladies had foundation trusts for helping the disadvantaged, Gertrude’s reign is different. Her vision is “Beautify Malawi” (Beam). She would like all cities in the country cleaned and kept beautiful.
State House bedroom politics resonates at the business end – The President stays out of the limelight unlike his predecessors, stripping the office of some powers and streamlining civil service bureaucracy among other things. Yes, you may argue that these issues are in the DPP manifesto too, but if “her indoors” is opposed would they ever see the light of day?
An international phenomenon
Readers with a global perspective and long memories may be thinking of further proof of this concept from around the world that made the headlines: e.g. Nancy Regan’s astrological guru Joan Quigley; Prince Charles consorting with Camilla behind the back of the much loved Diana; UK prime minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Booth QC’s dealings with life coach Carole Caplin’s criminal husband; Margaret Thatcher winning a third term by causing voters to fear “the woman who made the breakfast” in opposition leader Neil Kinnock’s household; Raisa Gorbachev’s reign coinciding with the end of communism; Carla Bruni’s glamour, fame and philanthropy distracting the French from Sarkozy’s controversial policies; Eva Perón of Argentina; Hillary Clinton; Michelle Obama; Winnie Mandela; Eleanor Roosevelt becoming the longest-serving First Lady in American history. Who was her husband again?
The list goes on back to Samson and Delilah.