In Malawi, there is no constitutional role for Presidents’ wives, but the citizenry must critically monitor what they do.
The first lady’s role has evolved based on her unique personality, capability and passion.
From experience, the first lady is part of the leader’s inner circle where she influences big decisions and policies.
From Anne Muluzi to Gertrude Mutharika, some have been philanthropic while others were obsessed with public appearances and influencing social trends and policies.
The late Ethel Mutharika was mostly occupied with ceremonial responsibilities, especially attending events with the President and hosting social and charity gatherings.
By contrast, Bingu wa Mutharika’s second wife, Callista, extended her influence beyond the State House walls and quickly became the President’s political partner as she attacked his perceived critics, including his then deputy Joyce Banda.
After the July 20 2011 anti-regime protests, Callista told civil society leaders opposed to her husband’s impunity to “go to hell” and Bingu gave her more prominent roles than the embattled Vice-President.
Callista also came under fire for drawing government salary for doing charity work.
It is unacceptable for anyone to assume unwarranted political power simply because he or she is a president’s spouse. Malawians elect an individual to the presidency, not a couple.
The charity work first ladies do beyond State House should be supported, but its financing, coordination and execution demands greater transparency and accountability.
Since the unconstitutional office of the first lady is not funded, their partnerships with private and philanthropic organisations that finance them should be audited without any secrecy.
Here is why they need more checks and balances: Several times, Getrude Mutharika’s Beautify Malawi (Beam) Trust has exacted public wrath for alleged abuse of public funds.
Recently, activists pressured the trust to return Covid response funding to the government.
Last year, the charity came under fire for leasing out trucks to Blantyre City Council without following procurement and fair competition laws.
In 2014, first lady Getrude Mutharika refused to refund money Beam got from the National Aids Commission (NAC).
If left unchecked, the first ladies’ charities can be vehicles for corruption, fraud and money laundering.
Moreover, corrupt businesses can use donations to these foundations to access the Head of State.
Therefore, these foundations need to disclose their donors and how the financial inflows benefit the people they claim to help.
Periodically, first ladies should declare their assets to the public and publish critical data.
The accountability of the first ladies’ charities should also extend to their aides.
Since 2018, the media exposed the toxic impunity of Beam aides pressuring city officials to give them town plots without any competition.
When their projects are divorced from national strategic goals and development agenda, the personal inroads speak of disharmony in the house of power.
This is also the reason such projects do not live beyond their founder’s term.
Regulating first ladies’ work can help in the development of strategic goals and guidelines that can help them come up with relevant projects.
We do not expect to have an uninvolved first lady, but she requires the necessary transparency and accountability structures.
Most importantly, her projects must contribute to national development goals, not personal whims.
As we are on the path of transforming our country, this area requires special attention. Keep first ladies in check.