In the height of the now protracted Syrian conflict, when Bashar Al Assad unleashed chemical weapons and terror against dissidents, and sent bombs flying over the Syrian airspace leveling skyscrapers
, killing poor innocent citizens indiscriminately, and running the nation amok, his significant other, Asma Al-Assad, the 36-year old London-bred investment banker, was busy splurging monies from the nation’s coffers on luxurious exotic goods. With the aid of a fake American address, the first lady bought an assortment of apps and music from iTunes, shelled out over $10,000 on exotic furniture from Paris, and an even more obscene figure on bespoke dresses.
Leila Trabelsi, the former hairdresser who became the detested wife of deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was greedy and wasteful, too. She extorted lots of money from shop owners and had a stake of a whopping $ 4.1 billion in the nation’s businesses. She’d the habit of sacrificing chameleons to cast spells on her husband. She was so terrible that she once punished a chef by dipping his hand inside boiling oil. Once the husband was deposed, she looted 1.5 ton of gold bars worth $4.6 billion (Sh 460 billion) from Tunisia’s Central Bank before fleeing to join her disgraced husband in Saudi Arabia. She denied the allegations, but her greed and taste for fine things was reprehensible.
Grace Mugabe epitomizes the vanity that characterizes the lives of despots’ wives. When the Zimbabwean economy was tottering on the verge of total collapse, Grace misappropriated funds set aside for low-cost housing and built herself an imposing palace of 30 rooms. After much prodding from her, Uncle Bob balked and agreed to inject $5.8 million (Sh 580 million) to build a palace in China. At one time, she splurged a whopping $117,000 (Sh 12 million) on a single Paris shopping spree. The former first lady has a vast wardrobe and more than 3,000 pairs of exotic shoes.
Then there was the unforgettable Imelda Marcos. Together with her husband, they looted Philippines anything between $5-10 billion (Sh 1 trillion). Imelda once spent $2,000 on chewing gum at a San Francisco International Airport. One day she forgot to buy cheese in Rome and a plane had to make a u-turn mid-air to go and buy. But she is more famous for her appetite for shoes, that warranted storage in the National Museum of the Philippines. An unknown amount of money and gold is stashed in Swiss accounts. Presently she is ranked the second richest Filipino behind boxer Manny Pacquiao.
Across the world and throughout modern history, dictators’ wives have always manifested a certain inexplicable penchant for the very fine but vain things of life, even at the cost of manifold livelihoods. Their glamor often rears itself against a backdrop of widespread poverty, famine, disease and suffering- and in some cases, bloodshed and civil strife – providing a stark contrast between obscene opulence and pitiful paucity. But why do these women display such insensitivity? Thriving on the woes of their people, dancing on their graves?
Does uninhibited access to resources suddenly turn a hitherto demur lady to a shameless and wasteful Jezebel? Is wastefulness and lavishness and extreme showiness a quality that dictators and would-be dictators look for in a woman before betrothal? Why is it that almost always despots’ wives are the most insensitive, wasteful, and diabolical – standing by their husbands as they commit grave atrocities against their people in murderous abandon?
In fact, Asma Al Assad disclosed to a friend in 2012 that she is the real dictator, not her husband. For Eva Braun, the mistress of Adolf Hitler, she stood by her husband as his sole pillar while the man went on a rampage killing 6 million Jews, herding them to concentration camps, and subjecting them to one of the most gruesome deaths in all of history. Once their game was over, they both bit cyanide and died together.
So, do despots always go for narcissists or the women turn narcissist once they settle down in the palace? Or, actually, the men are benign and well-intentioned, but get manipulated by the women they marry and turn against their people?
There is a big chance that some of the dictators are in fact genuine, well-meaning, and noble men who desire the best for their country, but whose only mistake is to marry overly ambitious and despotic women. These women are very manipulative and force their demands through their men. Look at King Ahab and Jezebel, Al Assad and Asma Al Assad, Mugabe and his Grace, and closer home, Mwai Kibaki and his Lucy (even though Lucy was not overly materialistic compared to know who…)
When Naboth refused to sell to Ahab his ancestral land, Ahab fell into depression and despaired of ever getting the vineyard – until his wife hatched a diabolical scheme of forcefully wresting the land from Naboth by killing him like a dog. Same as the admission of Asma Al Assad to being the real dictator, not her husband, the soft-spoken Al Assad.
Mugabe and his first wife ruled Zimbabwe well. They’d a wonderful vision for the country. But once she died and Uncle Bob married Grace, things took a wrong turn as Uncle Bob suddenly morphed into a harsh, imperial, and diabolical dictator, crushing any form of dissidence with utmost cruelty. As for Mwai Kibaki, while he wasn’t a dictator, the first lady, Lucy, it was said, was the one ruling the country. Left unchecked, she could have turned him into one if her storming the offices of Nation Media Group and calling a press conference to declare her the only wife is anything to go by. Even the attack on Standard Media Group may have been instigated by a woman. One what wonders, what if it was Mary Wambui who was the first lady.
In most cases, these are sensitive and genuine men who lack a spine and, therefore, are vulnerable to the wiles and machinations of their crafty wives.
It is an unfair fact of life that sensitive people are often attracted to narcissists – they end up marrying each other. The narcissist will manipulate and control their partner so much so that the unwitting partner has no mind of their own and has no spine to carry out their wishes. When that happens on a higher level- where a genuine and sensitive president or would-be head of state marries a narcissist, then that spells trouble for any nation.
But it could also be the other way around. Psychopathic or narcissistic heads of state marry shy, timid, submissive, and oft philanthropic women who they can easily manipulate, or who’ll appeal to the world and the electorate. There are certain characteristics that dictatorships need to espouse.
It so happens that the spouse of the dictator is often well-tailored, attractive, and foreign educated. Take for instance the wife of China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, Ms. Soong May-Ling. He ruled with an iron fist, trying to fend off communists who wanted to seize power. And so, Chiang Kai committed numerous grave atrocities, and he is credited with at least a million deaths.
However, his wife duly worked very hard to smooth over the slaughters with charm and pure ambition. She was highly educated, by the way. She built special orphanages for children whose parents were killed in the Chinese Civil War. The children enjoyed luxurious facilities such as swimming pools and she fondly referred to them as ‘warphans.’And she might have been genuine in all these, without doing it solely for obtaining any political mileage for her rogue husband.
There are several examples, including that of Madame Nhu, who effectively served as first lady to dictator Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam. She received many accolades for her charitable work, and was aptly described as ‘beautiful, coiffed, and petite.’ The same can be said about Ana Paula dos Santos, wife of José Eduardo dos Santos, the Angolan strongman who retired earlier in the year. She is a known do-gooder. The same cannot be said about her step daughter: Isabel Dos Santos, who will talk about briefly.
A research by Wolfgang Merkel shows that a dictator’s consort has a very important role to play in the success or failure of a dictatorship. A glamorous spouse, for instance, can help to cement legitimacy by establishing and reinforcing the cult of personality that so often surrounds a dictator. The benevolent spouse plays a role as the positive representative of a state, a mother figure sort of thing for the state, which wins the normative approval of those who are subjected to the rule. She can also help to deflect criticism of the state.
Sometimes both the president and the wife are disagreeable lot. Riccardo Orizzio in his rare book, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, he managed to meet the wives of East European deposed dictators.
One of them, Nexhmije Hoxha, wife of former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha and Mira Milosevic. Nexhmije helped the husband turn Albania into the most closed country, akin to North Korea today. According to Orizio, she used to order Customs officials to shave the beards and moustaches of foreigners, not for any reasons, but because she had the power. By banning religion in Albania, they protected their country from splitting, Yugoslavia way. Despite being disagreeable, she compared herself to Mother Teresa, the much-admired Albanian nun.
Then there was Mirjan Milosevic, a PhD no less, who is still unapologetic to her husband’s role in balkanizing the Balkan Region in the 1990s genocidal wars that broke up Yugoslavia.
Not to forget Elena Ceausescu wife of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. At one time she served as the Assistant Prime Minister. Despite flanking her school examination, and being a poor student, she would be awarded a PhD in Chemistry, no less. Grace Mugabe’s three-month PhD comes to mind. Even though not as materialistic as some first ladies, she subscribed into the personality cult bullshit, where she was forcibly called the mother of the Nation and she was so vain, and craved for honours, and was never supposed to be shown in a special way on TV, so as not to show her large nose and her homely appearance.
Back in Africa, sometimes it is not necessarily the wives. Daughters have as much capacity, like the aforementioned Angolan daughter of dos Santos, a key member in the Futungo Inc, the organ responsible for the looting of resources in Angola. She is worth $3.5 billion (Sh 350 billion), and that is what is documented. She is famous for giving the government of Portugal, former Angola colonizer, a loan in 2013. Last week she was dismissed from the Sonangol, the state’s oil company.
Though Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto aren’t outright dictators, their spouses have helped to secure the mercies of most of the gullible public. You’ll find Rachel Ruto praying here and see Margret Kenyatta fundraising for running for maternal health care charity there – and their charm and benevolence is sometimes powerful enough to undo the stain of disapproval their husbands’ rogue nature might have brought to our hearts. It is unthinkable how many people have been won over just by Mrs. Kenyatta’s genial smile and lovely personality.
It seems that there is always a balance in the palace of any dictator. A strong and diabolical king gets a submissive and kind woman while a passive and sensitive king gets a tyrannical and ambitious spouse, so that, while the king would’ve have governed well by himself, he now doesn’t thanks to the overbearing and roguish thug he has for a spouse. And for the king who is from the outset despotic, he looks for a quiet, reserved, and well-mannered woman given to philanthropy to smooth over his atrocities.
The best thing is that wives of dictators, like dictators often get so stuck up, they never see the end coming. They are always caught by surprise at the terminal end of their husband's rule.
Kevin Omwanza is a Nairobi based lawyer who loves reading, traveling and getting angry at the government when he can.
Silas Nyanchwani contributed to the reporting of this article.