Reversed roles: The tough lives of husbands of female governors
It is fairly discomforting for some men to play second fiddle to their spouses in the public arena, especially in a patriarchal society like ours.
It is even more complicated in a scenario where they are the minority in a grouping of spouses of county governors, as is currently the case in Kenya.
Murega Baicu, Meru Governor Kawira Mwangaza’s husband, who has lately featured prominently in the news for hanging around his wife, holds that he is a victim of “gender-based violence”.
The Meru First Gentleman does not comprehend why people do not want to see him seated next to his wife in her office, at public functions or even in her official car, yet the public was comfortable with the past governors Peter Munya and Kiraitu Murungi parading their wives at public functions and sharing podiums and official cars with them without causing drama or protests.
“This is very confusing for me. I am only trying to emulate what Mrs Munya and Mrs Kiraitu have been doing yet people especially Members of the County Assembly (MCAs) do not want me anywhere near the governor. I guess my people of Meru are not used to, or comfortable with, the idea of a man being ‘a First Lady’,” he says with a chuckle.
Murega has particularly been bashed for allegedly giving directives to MCAs, reprimanding county employees and acting as a whistleblower, action which, he explains, are geared at guarding against swindling of county coffers.
The governor has appointed him as the Meru Youth Service Patron as well as the ‘ambassador of Meru Hustlers’.
His Kirinyaga counterpart, Kamotho Waiganjo, Governor Anne Waiguru’s husband, recalls with amusement an awkward situation he found himself in during his wife’s first term in office.
At some point, he was nearly denied access to an event for the governors’ spouses by organisers who anticipated only women participants.
Governors will always be men
He only gained entry after explaining to the receptionist – who had express directives not to allow males into the hall – that he was a victim of assumption by organisers that governors will always be men.
Following the embarrassing experience, Kamotho is keen on proposing changes to the name of the County First Ladies’ Association (CFLA) to accommodate both genders. Alternatively, the First Gentlemen may opt to fashion their own outfit.
Waiganjo attributes the discomfort and misunderstanding over the position to the patriarchal nature of society.
“Our role here is to profile the reality that governance has no gender lens. We must demystify the position of governor, which is why some people are viewing us as unique beings.”
But owing to the misogynistic nature of society, when a man is involved in the affairs of his wife, he is bound to be accused of interference.
The same standard of judgment does not apply to First Ladies, who are often deeply involved in their husbands’ programmes and activities.
In fact, as Waiganjo and Murega aptly observe, it is regarded positively as supporting the governing spouse.
This perhaps explains why Murega has run into trouble with part of the electorate in Meru County for hanging around his wife, including in the office and at official meetings, and why on the other hand Waiganjo and Ali Kanga, who is married to Kwale Governor Fatuma Mohamed Achani, have opted to keep a low profile.
Informally offers help to the governor
Waiganjo has deliberately taken a back seat to make his partner “feel complete” and demonstrate to the people of Kirinyaga that she can handle the affairs of the county “without a man hovering around her”.
Instead, the lawyer informally offers help to the governor through legal services and occasional advice on governance and political strategy.
Kanga is similarly reluctant to take up any role in the county.
He has a full-time teaching job and also feels the need to free his partner from what is likely to be misconstrued as “control and influence” over her.
Being a Muslim, the Clinical Virology lecturer at the Technical University of Mombasa has his role as First Husband well cut out for him.
As the man, he is traditionally viewed as head of the family and the main contact person for his wife’s political and development engagements.
In search of votes
“When election time comes, I must take up the lead role of reaching out to fellow men in search of votes. Society also expects me to take charge of her personal safety and shield my family from any manner of attacks – verbal or otherwise – during the campaign. So ideally, my wife, my governor, is my responsibility,” says Kanga.
But George Wanga, whose wife, Gladys, is Homa Bay Governor, is neither keen on visibility nor on commenting on the role he might play.
“Is there anything specific in the Constitution about First Ladies or Gentlemen?” Wanga asked while declining to engage in “a discourse over positions and roles that are not constitutionally stipulated”.
Similarly, Dennis Apaa and Sam Mburu, the husbands of Embu County Governor Cecily Mbarire and her Nakuru counterpart, Susan Kihika, respectively, prefer staying in the background. The two businessmen declined to talk to The Weekly Review about their roles in the lives of their political heavyweight partners.
Of the seven counties led by female governors, Machakos has no First Gentleman. Wavinya Ndeti’s husband, Dolamu Henry Oduwole, a Nigerian national, died in September 2016.
The official duties of First Ladies – and now First Gentlemen – are quite hazy. Holders of these positions ordinarily have ceremonial, rather than salaried, roles, which include attending official ceremonies and functions with or instead of the Governor, and promoting various causes within their counties.
President is female
The uncertainty that this position elicits is reflected at the national level as well, especially in countries where the president is female.
Closer home in Tanzania, for instance, Mr Hafidh Ameir, an agricultural academic, lives quietly in the shadow of his wife, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who assumed leadership of the country in 2021 following the death of her predecessor, John-Pombe Magufuli.
Unlike most First Gentlemen across the globe, Mr Ameir hardly accompanies his wife on international trips.
Malawi’s retired Chief Justice, Richard Banda, was also absent from the public limelight when his wife, Joyce Banda, served as President between 2012 and 2014. Joyce variously celebrated her husband as her “best friend and cheerleader” who nonetheless kept away from her political affairs.
Ideally, the negative perceptions and attitudes towards holders of the office of First Gentleman are a product of the mindset that spouses of governors are mere ‘flower girls’, a rather discomforting picture for most male spouses.
In a bid to avoid the ‘flower girl’ label, the female spouses of governors, under the aegis of the CFLA, have put in place a strategic plan with clearly defined objectives and strategies for rolling out socio-economic and political development programmes.
The plan stands on the four pillars of advocacy, empowerment, direct service provision and networking, and was officially launched by former First Lady Margaret Kenyatta in July 2015. But as gender parity in politics continues to improve, with more women securing elective seats, the number of First Gentlemen is also expected to rise.
The import of this reality is the need for redesigning the association of governors’ spouses, including its name, objectives and programmes to reflect both genders.
This story is published in the current edition of Weekly Review.