Simone Gbagbo’s trial on charges of crimes against humanity begins today in the Côte d’Ivoire.
The country’s court recently rejected her appeal against her 20-year sentence that followed a conviction for, as her lawyer Rodrigue Dadje put it, ‘disturbing the peace, forming and organising armed gangs and undermining state security.’
Gbagbo stands out for her fierce activism and untamed thirst for political power.
This previous sentence was over her involvement in the post-electoral violence that shook the country in 2010. Her husband, former President Laurent Gbagbo is currently being judged in the International Criminal Court. The current president Ouattara refused to hand Simone Gbagbo over to the ICC saying he would ‘not send any more Ivorians’ to The Hague.
In the list of wives of African despots – and it’s long – Gbagbo stands out for her fierce activism and untamed thirst for political power: she was tortured, and jailed several times in the course of her husband’s ascension to power. She never hid the influence she had over her husband’s presidency.
There’s something about Lady Macbeth that stirs the imagination. On TV at the moment, Cersei Lannister and Claire Underwood are the ones we love and loathe at the same time. They’re power-hungry, reckless, yet classy and fascinating: we’re all obsessed by the woman behind the man, whether he could have done it without her, and what that means for female empowerment.
If it takes a woman to make a president, what does it take to make a tyrant?
IRL those questions become more intriguing and the answers more vital… if it takes a woman to make a president, what does it take to make a tyrant?
In the messy games of politics, First Ladies do more than creating promoting human rights and gardening – as the media likes to portray. The ‘mother’ of the nation is in fact a strong element of her husband’s rise to power. In the case of African first ladies, they become an essential component, if not the essential cause, of their husbands’ rise and remaining in power.
We just have to think of Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe, Cameroon’s Chantal Biya, Angola’s Ana Paula dos Santos. They may have kept their first lady role in its traditional scope – whether by working on the empowerment of women or being awarded for their work on human rights – but they remain extremely influential. So should they be held accountable for supporting their husbands’ deeds?
Afro-optimists see the Gbagbo case as setting an important precedent in holding first ladies to account. But I think it is unlikely that they will ever face their country’s justice. Because Mugabe, Biya, Dos Santos weren’t so overt in their desire for power right from the beginning, their husbands’ political defeat will probably not cost them as much as it has cost the Ivorian Iron Lady.
Gbagbo’s indictment is not a message for first ladies across the continent that they can’t count on marriage to give them immunity. It’s more of a message to hide their political ambitions behind some shopping bags… To act like a first lady and think like a ‘man’.