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First Ladies and First Gentlemen: Constitutional Intruders or Builders? 

First Ladies and First Gentlemen: Constitutional Intruders or Builders? 

“There is no handbook for incoming first ladies… It’s not technically a job, nor is it an official government title. It comes with no salary and no spelled-out set of obligations. It’s a strange kind of sidecar to the presidency…” 

– Michelle Obama in ‘Becoming’

Seven women were elected as governors during Kenya’s 2022 general election. Three were elected in 2017 and none in 2013. Still, today’s 15% falls short of the constitutional ambition of 33% (16 out of 47). But be that as it may, the election of women governors has made prominent the phenomenon of the First Gentleman (FG). The FG is the spouse, partner, or husband to a woman governor. This creature remains strange. Kenyans are more accustomed to its counterpart – The First Lady (FL). Mama Ngina Kenyatta (1963-1978) seminally espoused it (the title ‘Mama’, which has sustained, personified public imagination and her rendition). During Daniel Moi’s presidency (1978-2002), the role hibernated. Moi was divorced. Unlike in the USwhere the role is entrenched and female relatives step in when presidents are without spouses or the spouses cannot act, Moi benched it altogether. 

In turn and fidelity to fuata nyayo conditioning, senior political officials also ‘privatised’ their spouses and marriages. And so for over two decades, Kenyans became accustomed to publicly lone-ranging, mostly male politicians. Then come after Mwai Kibaki’s election as president, Lucy Kibaki seemed a strange but much welcomed occurrence. The forgotten FL institution was swiftly re-membered. Lucy Kibaki scaffolded and reactivated it to its current imagination – public, robust, and entitled. Her successor, Margaret Kenyatta (2013-2022) strengthened and refined it while its current animator, Rachel Ruto, seems to have gracefully picked the baton and set her gaze and pace on the prize. 

In 2013, county governors emerged. Public imagination visualised them as lesser ‘presidents’, who like Kibaki and the Kenyattas, were expected to have a ‘Mama’- a County First Lady (CFL). In a copy and paste manner, the role was devolved. Between 2013 and 2017, Kenya had forty eight FLs, each individually personifying the role, notably with Lucy Kibaki’s and later Margaret Kenyatta’s models. During this era, Michelle Obama, the First Lady of The United States (2008-2016) captured imagination glamorised and significantly influenced global perception of a FL. With these blueprints, CFLs picked their pet projects, a majority clichéd around children, environmental and gender issues, donned their vitenges and in different ways, expectedly administered their doses of ceremonial care and affection. The rest was ‘Mama wa County’. Similar to the Office of the FL of Kenya (OFLOK), which is allocated a purse (c. KES 430 million in 2019), aides and logistics, CFLs were accorded the same. 

Kenya’s recent sociology of politics, and convention have gradually matured this institution. 

Akin to the OFLOK, and through administrative and political leveraging, and like a silent movie, active but mute, the institution of the CFL is now a constitutional gremlin. It is a constitutional stranger because at first instance, the marital status of state and public officials is not a factor at recruitment and during service. Under the Bill of Rights, it is a ground for discrimination, if invoked. 

Consequently, Kenyans elect individuals and not couples (unless running mate), or families (inasmuch as marriage is constitutionally irrelevant, it remains socio-culturally relevant, and at times used negatively especially against single women during elections). With this appreciation, it is a constitutional misnomer to publicly accommodate an ‘office’ whose genesis is marital (because s/he is married to…) . Not that it should be ignored, but its performance should not burden Wanjiku. In 2014, Kenya’s Attorney General (AG) advised against the official establishment of the OCFL. 

Weak legal rooting, and Kenya’s semi-federal devolution, hence differences between the FLOK and the CFL, were major reasons. Consequently, using tax-payers’ resources to establish and run the office invites constitutional challenges. The AG however noted its potential in championing charitable and humanitarian courses, through private funding. Despite this, the institution nudged itself into being. The County First Ladies Association (CFLA) was launched in 2015.  

And now, the role of County First Gentleman (CFG) – Baba wa County – is gaining prominence. 

Inevitably, questions about the role are emerging. Compared to the FL, there is a dearth of role models hence operation manuals. Though not an FG per se, the late Sir Dennis Thatcher, husband to the late Lady Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister (1979-1990), kept a low public profile. He might have taken his cue from the late Prince Philip, husband to the late Queen Elizabeth II, who patronised hundreds of charitable causes, but maintained a subdued public profile. It did not help that the first female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (2006-2018), ascended and served, without a FG. 

Beyond the legal, the institution seems unconventional and socio-politically strange due to perceptions about gender and politics in Kenya. Whereas the FL is expected to be a Mama (care, affection, helper), the FG – a Baba, is publicly imagined to be inherently powerful and ‘the head’. This is perhaps why low profiling best animates the role, lest the FG is deemed to overshadow his spouse.  

Enter Murega Bauchi, Meru’s inaugural FG, and our national inexperience is exposed. 

He is husband to Governor Kawira Mwangaza, who initially attended official meetings with him (Mrs. Carter sat in President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet meetings), and appointed him, with censure from the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, to her cabinet. His entitled rhetoric, which attracted battles with Members of the County Assembly (MCAs) and his prominent performance and reactions, have exposed its opaqueness within a constitutional scope. 

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Clarity is needed. 

Currently a metaphorical squatter in state administration, the FL/G institution is gradually and conventionally possessing legitimacy, however adversely. Beyond socio-cultural, especially for the FG (to be ‘Baba’ (powerful, authoritative) or ‘Uncle’ (affectionate, caring)) perceptions, profound constitutional questions about the relevance of the CFL/G arise; source of authority, role, and appropriation (use of public money) remaining key. 

Sharing a clumsy fence with discrimination, nepotism, corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of office, this is an institution requiring proper rumination (to be or not to be?), and regulation (if to be – function? funding?) if its potential of mobilising resources around certain public issues is to be realised. 

For now, however, the FG are left to their own devices.

Author

  • Bobby Mkangi

    Bobby Mkangi served as a Commissioner in the nine-member Committee of Experts for Constitutional Review (CoE) in Kenya that delivered the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 (CoK-2010). In that process Mkangi convened and chaired the human rights, and civic education and public engagement sub-committees of the CoE. Thereafter, Mkangi worked on various transitional justice constitution-making processes in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Gambia. In 2012, Mkangi spoke at Tokyo’s Toyo University on Constitutions as Platforms of Change in Africa: The Kenyan Case, and is concluding a semi-autobiographical book, provisionally entitled It Was Written: Personal Reflections on Constitution Making Process in Kenya. A children rights advocate, Mkangi participated in an Experts’ Meeting convened by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Violence against Children and the Office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights (OCHR) on Legal Framework for the Prohibition, Elimination and Response to Violence against Children in Geneva, Switzerland in 2012. On the same issue, Mkangi has finalised two manuscripts provisionally titled The Legal Framework for Child Protection in Kenya and The Anatomy of Child Sexual Abuse: Kenya’s Silent Monster. Mkangi is affiliated to the African Network for Constitutional Lawyers (ANCL) and serve in various boards including the National Democratic Institute (NDI)/Kenya Board (Secretary), the Kampala based Eastern Africa Centre for Constitutional Development (Kituo Cha Katiba -KcK) in which he chairs the board, and Moyo Children’s Centre (MCC) where he sits as Chairperson. Mkangi previously served in the board of the African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) – Kenya Chapter as Treasurer. In 2010, Mkangi was awarded the Member of the Order of the Burning Spear (MBS) by the President of The Republic of Kenya for exemplary service during Kenya’s constitution-making process. In similar context, Mkangi was awarded the Shujaa Wetu (our hero) Award by the National Council For Community Based Organisations. In 2004, he was awarded Honorary Membership (2004-2006) by the International Society for the Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN). Mkangi works as an independent legal consultant, and lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

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