The Imelda Marcos of Africa

“As far back as 1992, Robert Mugabe was talking about retirement. Within government, people were preparing for a changeover. All that changed when Grace came onto the scene. Eventually, he announced he was going to stay on. A lot of people think it was Grace’s doing” – A former Zimbabwean civil servant quoted in UK’s Daily Mirror.

“Behind every successful man is a wise woman,” goes the old adage. Perhaps for no one does this quote apply more appropriately than a man holding political office. A politician’s wife could determine whether her husband wins or loses an election. Once in power, the First Lady could also determine the extent to which Mr. President abides by the Oath off office he took or simply ignore it.

Their roles are changing from merely being hostesses, homemakers, beauty and fashion icons, to campaigners, policy advocates and social activists. In Africa where despots are common, some first ladies are gaining a reputation of manipulating and aiding their spouses in sustaining dictatorships for their own benefit.

Take Grace Marufu Mugabe for instance. Aged 43, she is married to Robert Gabriel Mugabe of the troubled Southern Africa country, Zimbabwe. Her husband has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980. Half the age of the 84-year old President, Grace was formerly Mugabe’s secretary and mistress. She later married him in 1996 after the death of his wife of 30 years, Sally, a Ghanaian intellectual. They have three children, Bona, Robert and Chatunga.  

Mugabe’s influence?

Critics believe Zimbabwe’s current economic, political and social turmoil has been triggered partly by Grace. They argue that Mugabe is actually lost without the stabilising influence of his first wife Sally who was described as an intellectual and social thinker. It is said that Mugabe will now do anything to please his demanding young wife who literally, they argue, controls the ageing leader’s mind. Grace has often been accused of influencing her husband’s political decisions and encouraging his extreme views.
Robert Rotberg, an expert in Zimbabwean politics, said: “Everyone, including those close to Mugabe, claim Grace has changed his (Mugabe’s) character. His priorities have changed. He has a family now. He is establishing a dynasty.”

Rotberg, who teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said Grace “has made Mugabe dangerous since the death of Sally…Sally was a strong, intellectual woman, who stood by his side throughout the years of struggle. She was a brake on him, his super-ego. No one else could tell him, ‘No, don’t be stupid,’” he told UK’s Daily Mirror. The article also quoted one former civil servant as saying: “As far back as 1992, Mugabe was talking about retirement. Within government, people were preparing for a changeover. All that changed when Grace came on the scene. Eventually, he announced he was going to stay on. A lot of people think it was Grace’s doing.”
“He is utterly obsessed with this woman (Grace) and cannot make the simplest decision unless she gives the go-ahead,” another aide said.

Grace’s influence on the Zimbabwean leader is legendary. For instance, she was reportedly behind his land reform policy which saw the expulsion of several white farmers from the country a few years ago where she claimed large chunks of land. Last year, it was reported, Grace declared that her husband “would never surrender power” even after the alleged rigged elections.
“Mugabe will never vacate his office for Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai even if he loses a run-off election…Even if people vote for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai will never set foot inside State House. …He will only get to hear about what it looks like inside State House from people who have been there. Even if Baba (Mugabe) loses, he will only leave State House to make way for someone from ZANU-PF,” she declared. Mugabe made sure her dreams came true.

‘First Shopper’ of Zimbabwe

Like her name suggests, Grace loves elegance, style and beauty. Because of her extravagant lifestyle, she has now come to be known as the ‘First Shopper of Zimbabwe.’ Despite the poor economic situation in a country enduring hunger, disease and extreme poverty, the First Lady remains extremely extravagant.
Since she became First Lady, Grace has spent a fortune on foreign shopping trips and built mansions in Zimbabwe, records show.
After getting married to the President in 1996, it is reported “Grace began regularly commandeering jets from Air Zimbabwe to ferry her around the world on spending sprees, tearing out seats on return flights to accommodate the spoils of her trip.”
It is estimated that in just a few years in State House, she spent over £200million (Shs 600bn) on jet fuel alone. She also reportedly owns a private jet once owned by Playboy tycoon Hugh Hefner.

When in London, Grace insists on taking over a suite at the exclusive hotel, Claridges. Bodyguards in tow, she cruises through to Harrods before piling her purchases into her chauffeur-driven Mercedes, writes UK’s Daily Mirror. It is alleged that on one of her shopping sprees in London, Grace spent £40,000 (Shs 120m) in just an afternoon.
Before the couple were married, Grace was entangled in controversy after using £500,000 (Shs 1.5bn) of government funds to build a 30-bedroom mansion in Harare.
She named it ‘Gracelands’, in honour of herself and her hero, the American music legend Elvis Presley. When the High Court ruled that the loans taken out on the property were illegal, Grace sold the mansion to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2000, for £3million (Shs 9bn). She kept the profit.

According to a story in UK’s Independent last June, the destination for the ‘First Shopper’ was Eternal City, where she was ensconced on the Via Veneto, a stone’s throw from Rome’s many high class designer shops. Confronted by journalists about her opulent tastes while her fellow Zimbabweans were starving, she told one reporter who tailed her around the boutiques of Paris: “Is it a crime to go shopping? These shops are here for people to shop in.”
Even at the time when America and the European Union imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, Grace still indulged her passion for shopping in designer boutiques of New York, Paris and London. She was reported as spending £75,000 (Shs 210m) in short shopping sprees in Paris and over the past years has withdrawn over £5m (Shs 15bn) from the Central Bank of Zimbabwe.
She is usually spotted in Paris hiding behind £180 (Shs 600,000) Christian Dior sunglasses and a £25,000 (Shs 75m) diamond-encrusted Rolex hanging off her wrist - just shopping.

While Zimbabwean families queue for meagre supplies of rations, the Mugabes reportedly usually enjoy £150-a-head (Shs 450,000) dinners and retire to their £10,000-a-night (Shs 30m) suites in high class hotels like Paris’ Plaza-Athenee.

Imelda Marcos of Africa

“Which dictator’s wife said: ‘When they opened my closet they found shoes, not skeletons. That’s why I am still here?” That is one of the questions in a quiz on www.funtrivia.com. The answer of course is Imelda Marcos, wife of former Philippines strongman, Ferdinand Marcos. Imelda Marcos is perhaps the world’s best known collector of shoes.

Well, Grace too loves shoes. Her favourite brand is the Italian design, Ferragamo. The cheapest pairs cost £200 (Shs 600,000).  Even as her husband’s presence at the UN summit on food in Rome sparked off an international furore in June last year, that did not divert Grace from indulging in her favourite pastime - shoe shopping. Once, when asked why she spent on expensive designer shoes while her people starved, she replied: “I have very narrow feet, so I wear only Ferragamo.”
Aggressively extravagant
With sanctions imposed by America and the European Union, the Mugabes have turned to the Far East, particularly Malaysia, where they are investing in properties and spending millions of dollars on luxurious holidays.

In mid January this year, a British Sunday Times photographer, Richard Jones, was battered by the First Lady herself.
Grace raged and assaulted the photographer when he spotted her leaving the exclusive Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong where she had been staying with her entourage for £2,000 (Shs 6million) a day. According to UK’s Sunday Times, Grace was holding a designer Jimmy Choo bag estimated at £2,000, (Shs 6million) and hiding behind Cavalli Rhinestone-framed glasses with a red cashmere shawl over her head.  
The screaming First Lady joined in an assault of the photographer, hitting him with fists after ordering her bodyguard to attack him and seize his camera. He suffered cuts and bruises caused by her heavy diamond-encrusted ring.

Draining state coffers?

Before she embarked on that Far East holiday, Mrs Mugabe had reportedly withdrawn US$92,000 (Shs 200m) from the central bank in Harare. Accompanied by her children, she first stayed at the Malaysian Island resort of Langkawi and then moved on to Singapore where she was joined by her husband for a few days. According to Sunday Times, while the president stayed there until January 11 before flying home, Grace flew to Hong Kong on January 9 and installed herself in the £600 (Shs 1.8m)-a-night Harbour suite of the Shangri-La where she played hostess to their daughter, Bona [who studies in the city], and a stream of relatives and friends, including Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono (a relative of the First Lady). The entourage were usually ferried around in black limousines costing £60 (Shs 180,000) an hour.
A family friend told the UK press: “Mugabe has spent a lot of time having to restrain his wife from buying more and more luxury fittings.”
This is certainly a First Lady out of control.

Additional sourcing from
www.The Independent.co.uk, www.The Times.co.uk, www.telegraph.co.uk, www.dailymirror.co.uk

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd