At a time when issues of sexual harassment and women’s rights dominate the narrative of the United States presidential race, it was unfortunate for an African leader of the most populous, most ethnically diverse and most culturally rich country in the continent to insult his wife and in fact all African women before the whole world.
“I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room,” said President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, in response to his wife Aisha Buhari’s criticism of his government’s performance.
Buhari’s reaction is an insult to African women and it has left a bad taste in the mouth with African men as well, particularly as Buhari stood beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of Europe’s most powerful women leaders and indeed a wife herself. I can only imagine how much Merkel must have cringed when she heard Buhari’s insulting words to his wife and to women as a whole. British online newspaper Independent reported that Merkel ostensibly “glared at him before laughing briefly”. What else could she have done? As an old Arab adage says: “The worst misfortune is the one that makes you laugh.”
Unfortunately, the western media may just dismiss his comments as an awkward view from an African leader, but it is a serious matter. More so, since women are known to be the backbone of African economy, apart from holding together the continent’s social fabric.
When I read Aisha’s strong comments against her husband’s choice of people for ministerial and other senior government posts, I could understand that she was obviously not happy that the people who worked hard for the party to win the elections, people on whose shoulders Muhammadu reached the presidency, were passed over in government appointments and opportunistic outsiders were favoured, who were not even members of the party. She even mentioned that she spoke to the president and conveyed to him complaints that she had heard from the people. But as the president decided to ignore her advice, she finally decided to go public with her frustration and put her disappointment on record as a citizen.
“As a person, I have my right to say how I feel about something. If it continues like this, I am not going to be a part of any movement again, because I need to work with people who started the journey collectively so that we can achieve what we want to achieve; so that he would leave behind a legacy,” she said in an interview with BBC.
If you look at the words, she underlined that she had a right as a person or citizen to say what she felt. She also reminded her husband about the journey they have taken together and with other party supporters on way to presidency. And finally, she reminded him that she was worried about his legacy.
My first impression after reading Aisha’s words was that the president was such a lucky guy — to have a wife like Aisha. But I forgot that Buhari was just another irritable African leader who cannot tolerate criticism. He had the whole language dictionary before him to choose better words. He could have said that his wife was his moral compass, but his fossilised view of women revealed his true nature.
A laundry list
Compare this with what the President of the United States, Barack Obama, had to say when he was asked what did he and his wife fought about: “You know, after about 15 years, I finally figured out that she’s always right,” was Obama’s answer to Ellen DeGeneres.
Contrast Buhari’s position also with former Japanese rime minister Naoto Kan, whose wife had questioned whether he was even fit for the nation’s highest office. “You are the prime minister, so what will change in Japan?” she said, making a laundry list of her husband’s shortcomings — from his failure to do any household work to his irritability about a book that she had published. Kan called her “the opposition at home”.
Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is known to have his wife as his critic, who was described by Ikuo Gonoi, a political scientist, as a “shock absorber”, noting that her remarks had kept the prime minister’s image from going to one extreme or the other.
But unlike these leaders who appreciate the intelligence of their spouses, Buhari was quick to “claim superior knowledge over her ...” He needs to be reminded that by being in the kitchen, African women had kept the continent’s children alive, while the men were committing genocides and wreaking havoc with the continent’s resources and image.
African women are the breadwinners, the farmers, the cow-herders, the traders — and mothers, who mostly raise their children as single parents since the men are often devoured by wars and diseases. These women are doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, bankers, lawyers and journalists. They are in the police and military forces as well. They are in the legislative and executive bodies of governments and according to McKinsey & Company’s annual Women Matter report 2016, Africa beats Asia, America and Latin America in women holding managerial positions.
African women have also become presidents in some of the most difficult countries of the continent, such as Liberia, Malawi and Central Africa. And I am proud to say that one courageous woman is rattling the political landscape in Somalia and giving jitters to men by running for president for the first time in the country’s history. And to top it all, at least three African women have won the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to peace and development.
Do I need to remind Buhari that Hatshepsut, Cleopatra and Nefertiti of Egypt; Ameena, the queen of Zaria in Nigeria; Candace, the empress of Ethiopia; Makeda, the queen of Sheba; Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana; and Arrawelo of Somalia were all powerful figures in African history.
Finally, we all know that African women are too busy fixing the continent than to worry about the antics of insecure men like President Buhari. And to borrow the words of Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the US, women in Africa will “do what women have always done” — they will roll up their sleeves and go back to work both in the kitchen and beyond.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social and cultural issues.