Lewis Gould, a pioneering scholar on the history and legacies of presidential first ladies remarked “[b]eing first lady requires a woman to act … as a mixture of queen, club woman, and starlet.”
The president, according to Gould and others who advocate for first lady remuneration, is a “team.” This group is made up of different presidential advisers and institutions. As part of the “plural presidency,” the first women must be included. This argument has its merits in more equal societies.
When a man becomes the president, his wife is expected to give up her life to support her husband’s political ambitions. That includes her job. In Ghana, one of the more stable democracies in Africa, first ladies have evolved into “active political partners” who have pushed for and impacted national discussions on education, healthcare, and other issues.
These responsibilities have been acknowledged, and as a result, different governments establish offices for first ladies as well as pay their employees. To conduct their numerous advocacy and charitable activities, these women have also relied on donations from public and private entities. Another essential topic to have is the effectiveness and long-term viability of these programs, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.
Until last month, the remuneration of first ladies was outside of the national discourse. It had been a practice since 2001 by virtue of executive instruments. But Rebecca Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s current First Lady, refused the offer of allowances on July 12 and also opted to repay monies given to her as allowances from the date of the President’s assumption of office, i.e., from January 2017 to date, totaling GH899,097.84 or about $150,000.
A Presidential Committee on Emoluments for Officeholders made the proposal to pay the First Ladies. The committee recommended that the First Lady be paid the salary of a Cabinet Minister who is a Member of Parliament (MP) while her husband is in office, and that the First Lady be paid a salary equivalent to 80% of the salary of a Minister of State who is an MP if the spouse served one full term as President, or 100% of the salary of a Minister of State who is an MP if the spouse served two full terms as President. If the Vice President’s spouse served one full term as Vice President, the spouse will be entitled to a salary of 80% of that of a Minister of State non-MP, or 100% of that of a Minister of State non-MP if the spouse served two or more full terms as Vice President.
The committee’s recommendations were approved by a very partisan legislature, thereby putting Ghana in this fix.
The reactions to these recommendations have relied on the legal basis of such payments. Former President John Dramani Mahama and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Ghana’s largest workers’ union, have chosen this path.
This essay makes a moral case against compensation for first ladies or presidential spouses.
Presidential spouses are not to be compensated. When political parties and candidates travel through Ghana to campaign for votes, we do not find these spouses on the ballots. They don’t have any defined obligations and aren’t accountable to the people.
The choice to pay first ladies is a common tactic used by politicians and the wealthy to prioritize themselves when they don’t have to. Between 2012/13 and 2016/17, the number of poor individuals in Ghana grew by around 400,000, according to the most recent Ghana Living Standard Survey (GLSS) study. The gap between rich and poor in Ghana continues to widen. According to Oxfam, Ghana’s wealthiest 10% spend 32% of the country’s total consumption, which is more than the bottom 60% combined. It’ll be difficult to argue with a straight face that the families of Ghana’s four presidents aren’t in the top 10%.
Ghana is a low-income nation that cannot afford to continue paying large sums of money to its political class and elites while the bulk of its population struggle to make ends meet – a zero-sum game is what the people are up against. The more money the rich and powerful make, the less we make.
Both Mrs. Akufo-Addo and the Vice President’s wife Samira Bawumi have refused the salaries and pledged to refund the allowances they had previously received. Why, in good faith, would they accept them in the first place if they can afford to refund so much money without breaking a sweat?