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Washington Post, 2004

Posted by Popular Ombudsman on April 29, 2009

New Kenyan Soap Opera: The President’s Two Wives

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 30, 2004; Page A01

NYERI, Kenya — In rural churches and urban back-room offices, the first lady of Kenya, Lucy Kibaki, was teased for being a pushy political wife. Call-in radio programs asked listeners whom she most resembled, and among the responses were Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan and Marie Antoinette.

Just months after her husband, Mwai Kibaki, became president, she shut down a pub inside the State House, Kenya’s White House, that was a watering hole for ministers. When she thought she wasn’t being listened to, she ordered the president’s advisers out of the building, saying they were trying to push their personal agendas rather than the national interest.

But recently the first lady has had to face in public a little known fact about her husband — that he has a second wife.

On New Year’s Eve, the vice president, Moody Awori, toasted a stunned Lucy Kibaki as Kenya’s “second lady.” He has said it was a slip-up and apologized profusely. But his toast made public reference for the first time to the fact that the president of Kenya has two wives, and while Lucy is actually the first wife — and first lady — she is definitely not the only wife. From that moment, newspapers have been full of stories about the “war of wives.”

That there was a little known second lady is not what is enraging many Kenyans. They are furious over what they see as a president who can’t control either woman in what has turned into a saga as dramatic and spicy as the homegrown soap operas watched here on daytime television.

It is a clash of modernity — represented by an outspoken first lady and a democratically elected president — and tradition, in which men are firmly in charge in most households in Kenya’s male-dominated society. Many say the president should be more aggressive, not only with his wives but also with affairs inside the State House.

Kenyans say they feel the incident is symbolic of a slew of troubles brewing for Kibaki, who is 72 years old and said to be in poor health. It highlights the crumbling of Kibaki’s political coalition — put together originally to fight Daniel arap Moi — and the delaying of a new constitution that would balance tribal power in the country, Kenyans say. A year after he was elected president, the mild-mannered Kibaki seems to be struggling to control his own affairs as well as the country’s.

In Africa, taking a second or third wife, known as a co-wife, is not unusual. Although Kibaki’s 32-year polygamous relationship was common knowledge among his inner circle, the country at large was unaware of his other wife, Mary Wambui. Lucy Kibaki lives in the presidential mansion; Wambui lives in a villa in the capital, protected by security guards.

Lucy directed the State House to put out a statement saying that Kibaki had only one wife. The press was directed to “kindly refrain from making references about any other purported member of my immediate family.”

The statement, which was unsigned, only caused more chaos in a country where the previous president’s romantic affairs were kept quiet.

“The president came out of the Wambui saga looking weak and indecisive,” said Jonah J. O. Oyugi, a professor of law at the University of Nairobi. “The statement that was alleged to have been put out with his knowledge did him in, as it makes him look like a man who is not assertive. That is not a good sign for a president, especially if he has to intervene and quell the wrangling within his cabinet.”

“True Colors,” the country’s Sunday evening TV political farce, showed Lucy Kibaki in control as her ill husband napped. Kenya’s largest newspaper, the Nation, ran a cartoon showing a smug Moi, the former president, shouting “I told you” at Kibaki and advising him to lock his wife outside the State House gate and move her to a rural farm where she could be with the cattle.

In African custom, the first wife is given the utmost respect. She and her children are considered above any other wives and their children. But Kibaki’s daughter from his second wife, Winnie Wangui Mwai, works at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and enjoys VIP treatment, with special areas reserved for her and her mother at national occasions. She is often escorted around town in limos with national security guards, and she accompanied the president on a trip to Nigeria late last year.

“I don’t think such a statement was sent out by my dad,” she said in an interview. “If he wanted to do something like that, he could have consulted us first. And by the mere fact that he never signed it, I am more emphatic that it was from another source.”

The tensions between the wives reflect a divide in parliament at a critical moment in the country’s history. Lucy tends to favor members from outside the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest and most powerful, such as the outspoken Ralia Odinga. Odinga, the popular roads and public works minister, represents the country’s Luo tribe, the second-largest ethnic group. He was promised the office of prime minister if he backed Kibaki for the presidency and set aside his own ambitions.

That appointment has been stalled during the rewriting of a constitution that was scheduled to be finished last year.

Wambui, the second wife, is close to the family of the president’s chief aide, Matere Keriri, who are Kikuyus from the Mount Kenya region and who want the constitution to remain without a prime minister slot.

In the green hills of Nyeri, nestled below Mount Kenya, the Kikuyus enjoy a noticeably better life than in many other areas of the country. Roads and schools are repaired, and homeless street children, a frequent site in Nairobi about 100 miles south, are rarely seen.

This is Wambui’s home turf.

“His first wife, Lucy, is misbehaving and talking too much. She shouldn’t be forcing her man to do anything,” said Maurice Mwangi, 39, director of Radio Citizen, a Kikuyu station in Nyeri’s lively town square. “To speak from the heart, the Kikuyus — the Mount Kenya mafia — do know best. Honestly, for the sake of the country.”

His comments drew laughter from fellow Kikuyus, who pointed out that he was once again being tribal, not national.

“We have to let it go,” argued Peter Ndiritu Gitongn, 37, a teacher. “Lucy is right in many ways. We have to put the tribal stuff aside and share more power. We are on the right road.”

Even the staunchest critics say the country under Kibaki has shown some improvements, although corruption is still the easiest path to a paycheck in a country where unemployment hovers at about 70 percent. The Kibaki administration has made primary school free. Police who were among the lowest paid in the world at about $80 a month were given raises this week in order to discourage them from asking for bribes. Earlier last year, corrupt judges were kicked out of office.

“As far as I am concerned, there is a silver lining in every cloud. For the first time ever, Kenyans have been allowed a glimpse into the private life of their leader,” wrote Lucy Oriang, the deputy managing editor of the Daily Nation. “The institution of first lady is here to stay. We might as well work out how to relate to it in these so-called democratic times.”


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