In Foreign Parts: Kenyans lap up war of the wives after a rare peek into an African President's bedroom

Declan Walsh
Saturday 24 January 2004 01:00

Good tidings have been sparse for Kenya's President, Mwai Kibaki, in the new year. Dogged by frail health, he was already wrestling with a fractious cabinet whose ministers have an unpleasant habit of contradicting him. Now the septuagenarian leader finds himself enmeshed in a sex scandal of a kind rarely seen in African politics.

The fireworks began as 2004 dawned. The Kibaki family, like many monied Kenyans, was enjoying a seasonal break on the Indian Ocean coast. All was merriment and cheer at a party to see in the new year, until the Vice-President, Moody Awori, opened his mouth, spectacularly inserting his polished shoe inside.

At a state dinner party, Mr Awori turned to Mr Kibaki's wife, Lucy, and raised a glass to Kenya's "second lady". The blunder ignited a Semtex box of passions. The President, it turned out, had been married for years to a "second wife", named Mary Wambui. Previously unheard of but no secret in the Kibaki family, Mrs Wambui quietly followed Mr Kibaki after he swept to power 13 months ago. She left her country home in Nyeri for a plush house in Nairobi, where state bodyguards kept watch, apparently at taxpayers' expense.

In the months before Christmas, tensions with Lucy, a strong-willed woman famously protective of her husband, were rising steadily. Mr Awori's festive slip of the tongue triggered a volcanic outpouring of rage. Lucy stormed from the party, and no amount of cajoling by the President, his aides or his grovelling deputy could placate her over the mistake. Since then a very public and "un-African" spat has played out among the ménage à trois, with a rather gormless Mr Kibaki caught in the middle. Kenyans, unused to seeing their President's private affairs publicly exhibited, like one of the cheap American soaps that fill daytime television, have lapped up the escalating war of the wives.

Lucy initially demanded the resignation of her husband's chief aide and longtime confidante, Matere Keriri, apparently on grounds of favouring her rival. Mr Keriri was dispatched to London for unknown "urgent" business, where he remains. Lucy also cemented her primacy through a terse statement, insisting that Mr Kibaki had only one wife and imploring the press to "kindly refrain from making references about any other purported member of my immediate family".

Chat shows, cartoons and opinion columns have been filled with fiery opinions of Mr Kibaki's plight. Some feel he is an unfortunate man, trapped between two strong women; others castigate him for being a spineless wimp unable to bring them into line. Mary's family produced photos of a young Mr Kibaki paying a dowry to her family. It was, they said, a normal African arrangement.

But Mary maintained a dignified silence. A recent shopping trip, however, was covered by a phalanx of journalists who had been tipped off. The following day, photos of a composed Mary, flanked by her bodyguards, plastered the front pages. Intrigued readers were spared no detail, right down to the £36 worth of groceries in her basket: beef sausages, bananas, water melons, flour, bread and cooking oil.

The disclosure of the President's second wife shocked few Kenyans; polygamy is illegal yet flourishes through a loophole allowing traditional second marriages. But many were dismayed by Mr Kibaki's handling of the dispute. Men still rule the roost in this conservative society, and many feel the President should have imposed domestic harmony.

As one woman put it to me: "How can he run a cabinet if he's not even in charge of his own kitchen?"

Newspapers are full of comparisons with Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and even the wife of King Louis XIV. Meanwhile the Catholic Church, of which Mr Kibaki is a member, has kept a deafening silence.

The unseemly spat would never have occurred under Kenya's last two leaders, the strongmen Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, whose private lives were treated with great circumspection by the press.

The flap has also raised more serious doubts about Mr Kibaki's managerial abilities. Long-running health problems - he was taken to hospital last year, reportedly with a stroke - have combined with deep cabinet divisions to undermine public confidence.

A year after Mr Kibaki's election, many Kenyans are disappointed at continuing reports of corruption and economic stagnation in the country.

And the sudden closure of the "independent" press, which revelled in the scandal and racy stories about philandering ministers, has worried advocates of free speech. Still, their stories could be extreme. A recent front-page lead in the eight-page Dispatch said: "Police Nab He-Goat Minister in Hot Sex with Greedy Slut."

Many Kenyans feel that their leader is being browbeaten by a woman they did not vote for. Reflecting a widely held view, Lucy Oriang, a columnist, recommended that the fiery Lucy should step back from the limelight, not as a matter of choice but as "a step she needs to take pronto".

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