Viewpoint: She who must be obeyed?

Tunisia's deposed leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi Did Leila Trabelsi (r) really call the shots in Tunisia?

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and politician Elizabeth Ohene considers the power behind strongmen.

Of course, like the rest of the world, I have been completely hooked on Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution.

Unfortunately some of it sounds like deja-vu.

Every revolution, every hated dictator, indeed, it seems every leader must have its femme fatale, the Lady Macbeth figure who is held responsible for the problems of the regime.

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Leila Trabelsi fits the role of the villain of the piece as perfectly as her designer clothes fit her”

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It is a phenomenon that goes all the way back, French Queen Marie Antoinette with her admonition to those without bread to eat cake comes to mind.

Who can forget Imelda Marcos of the Philippines with her shoes?

Then there was Elena Ceausescu of Romania who pretended to be a scientist and that offended people more than the dreaded Securitate.

And now we have Leila Trabelsi, wife of Tunisia's deposed leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

It is rumoured she of the dramatic designer sunglasses made sure the Ben Ali family left town well provided with an estimated 45m euros (£38m, $60m) worth of gold bars taken from the central Bank of Tunisia. The bank has denied these reports.

She fits the role of the villain of the piece as perfectly as her designer clothes fit her.

I wonder why we always seem to need to find a powerful woman behind every strongman.

The real radical?
Simone Gbagbo, the wife of incumbent Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, dances under a portrait of her husband, during a meeting in his support on 15 January 2011 Simone Gbagbo is a politician in her own right and deputy head of the Ivorian Popular Front

Remember General Sani Abacha, the late unlamented Nigerian military dictator?

To hear some of the commentators, it seemed this powerful soldier could not make any of his proverbial calls to the governor of the Central Bank to ask for millions to be transferred into his account by himself.

He had to be prodded by his wife, Maryam Abacha.

At the height of his powers, Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana couldn't fire a mere minister unless it was at the instigation of his wife, or so we were told.

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Until the arrival this past week of Leila Trabelsi at the top of The Women Behind the Dictator Chart, the spot had been occupied for years by Grace Mugabe”

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The gossip was that many ministers and officials were so worried about offending "Madam" that they would go to extraordinary lengths to please her, even at the risk of upsetting the president himself.

As the Ivorian crisis has escalated, we keep hearing that the problem does not lie with Laurent Gbagbo but with his wife, Madame Simone Gbagbo.

She it is, we are told, who will not allow her husband to compromise.

She is the real radical, she has sworn she will be the last one standing if need be, she has told her husband that under no circumstance should he bow to pressure and step down.

Apparently she is the real ideologue and in caricatures carried in the local press, her husband is shown in absolute fear of her.

Well, that is what those in the know would have us believe.

Well covered
Robert Mugabe (left) and Grace Mugabe (right) Is Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe likely to be bossed around by his wife?

Until the arrival this past week of Leila Trabelsi at the top of The Women Behind the Dictator Chart, the spot had been occupied for years by Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's wife.

This man with such intimidating intellect, who has been known to reduce his opponents to silence in arguments, is apparently under his wife's spell to such an extent that he would do anything she asks him to do.

Collapse the economy, introduce a 10bn Zimbabwean dollar note into circulation, seize commercial farms, empty supermarket shelves, make a strong uncompromising speech in parliament - all orchestrated by Grace Mugabe?

I wonder if it is possible for a man to become autocratic without a strong woman by his side?

As Mr Ben Ali contemplates life suddenly stripped of all his presidential trappings and in Saudi Arabia of all places, doubtless, he will come into his own and offer Tunisians some defence of his actions.

His wife is not likely to have the kind of influence she had in Tunisia, not in Saudi Arabia; she will be well covered there.

Read a selection of your comments.

Its true. Even here in Malawi, the first lady Callista Munthalika is the one rulling the country. Almost all positions belonging to the VP she has taken them. Soonest she got into the state house, there was a Cabinet reshuffle which saw many of her Rivals left their ministerial positions.

Francis Kalonga, Lilongwe, Malawi

Isn't it always the case that in a man's world women are blamed about everything that goes wrong? Very rarely good things men do are attribited to their wives' influence. This has been the case since the times of Justinian and Theodora. She is remembered as the "whore" who seduced him, rather than the woman who influenced him to pass laws punishing rapists. Thank you for a most interesting article Elizabeth!

Maria Chrysanthou, Nicosia, Cyprus

While working with refugees from the Sudan, I got into a friendly but serious debate about women's rights in Africa. I noted that women should have the chance to rule African countries as it was the men who had plundered their wealth through corruption, and it was men who started and fought the wars that brought Africa so much insecurity and tyranny. They stood horrified and said very seriously, "Oh no, they did no such things! Their wives made them do it!" It seems in many parts of the world that women are still viewed as an Eve like character, tempting holy men with their apples and causing sin where before there was none.

Elizabeth M, DC, USA

As usual Elizabeth fantastic!

Dorinda ataa Giwa, London

What an excellent essay Elizabeth Ohene's has written -- and all so true. But tut tut Ms Ohene the phenomenon goes back a lot further than Lady Macbeth. To me the most famous weak-leader strong-wife combo of any note must be Ahab and Jezebel!

Paul Charman, New Zealand

I understand your point of view but if you lived in these countries you might realize there is some truth to these sentiments. I don't know about the other countries but I will definitely say that in Nigeria there was certainly fuel in the allegations of improper conduct by Mrs. Abacha and more recently Turai Yaradua. One proof of this is quite simply the non-constitutional powers these ladies have wielded. Turai was known to chair cabinet meetings. Mrs. Abacha had an office and staff and a separate budget. None of these are provided for in the constitution of the land. The second factor is simply the sheer adulation and psychophancy these positions foster. Many of these ladies will not countenance reverting to just 'another' lady as opposed to the 'first' lady and most powerful woman in the land. That I fear is why they push their husbands, who to be fair usually need little prompting, to go down and take the ship down with them if need be!

James, Lagos, Nigeria

Reminds me that: Man is the Head of the family and Woman is the Neck; wherever Neck turns so does the Head!

Gholam, Toronto, Canada

Thank you for this very interesting piece Elizabeth - I have have always been fascinated by the dynamic between couples in power and what role the person behind the well known face may play in history. One case of interest is that of Robert Mugabe's first wife, Sally Hayfron (d. Jan 1992), who may have played a very large role in the birth of the nation we now know as Zimbabwe. By all accounts from what I have read she comes across as a caring and driven women - she founded the Zimbabwe Child Survival Movement and launched the Zimbabwe Women's Cooperative in the UK in 1986 before being elected Secretary General of the ZANU-PF Women's League at the Party's Congress of 1989. One can only guess at what part Sally played in the implementation of such social objectives and programmes but it does paint a stark contrast to what one reads of Robert Mugabe's second wife, Grace...

Nathan Trousdell, Wellington, New Zealand

This is a wonderful observation! the trend seems to be the same for all dictators in africa or all presidents displaying dictatorial tendencies in africa at least! am not sure about other countries! does this mean women are the source of all evil that happens to us? as for my country, Malawi, its surprising how my president Bingu changed as soon as he got married again! he was good and the country loved him but today he is the most hated because of his dictatorial and selfishness!

Chikondi Kamanga, Leeds, United Kingdom

I suppose Canadian customs personnel now have the perfect excuse to latch on to for letting a bunch of the Tunisian kleptocrats take refuge in our country. Who could have said no after receiving a badgering phone call from an enraged madam Trabelsi?

Jude Kirkham, Vancouver, Canada

Interesting and great article. How we are blamed for bad things! even when kids misbehave they are suddenly your children not the man's!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Annabel, Nairobi

Yes, a lot of strong men have strong women behind them but not all. There is no Mrs. Fidel Castro and do we even know anything about Sadam Hussein's wife or Mahatma Gandhi's wife? I don't think it as universal as it sometimes seems.

Lynn Moreen, Vail, USA

This article brings to mind a bumper sticker that read: "Eve was Framed." As a Christian, I believe the Biblical story. Still, I can't help but wonder. Elizabeth may want to add the name Jewel Taylor to the list of supposedly powerful women behind autocrat. Though ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor is standing trial in The Hague, his wife Jewel ran a successful senatorial campaign. She is one tough female senator in the patriarchy that rules the Senate. Does this tell us anything?

William Allen, Atlanta, USA

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