On Friday, November 24, 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as interim leader during a colorful ceremony at the National Sports Stadium in the capital, Harare, following the ouster of President Robert Mugabe in a military coup more than a week earlier.
Sitting next to Mnangagwa is his wife, Auxillia, dressed in a white suit and some expensive-looking gold jewelry. The pair watch as supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party and critics of Mugabe applaud the beginning of a “Second Republic”, “New Zimbabwe” and “New Dispensation”.
At the time, Auxillia, a former Central Intelligence Organization spy and MP who married Mnangagwa in 1984, was viewed by many Zimbabweans as a “loving, peaceful and caring woman,” popularly known as Amai. This Shona name translates to mother.
After the swearing-in ceremony, Auxillia focused on her philanthropic work supporting and uplifting marginalized communities, including women, girls and people with disabilities.
Nearly five years later, however, Auxillia has gone into overdrive and appears to be following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Grace Mugabe, nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ for her lavish shopping sprees in New York, Paris and Singapore.
Auxillia’s philanthropic work is now heavily funded by the state, with space in the state newspaper Herald and Zimbabwe Television, and officiating on official government business.
Zimbabwean journalist and writer Douglas Rogers, in his book Mugabe: two weeks and journalist Geoffrey Nyarota with his Robert Mugabe’s ungraceful fall: the end of a dictator’s reign, captures Grace’s story.
Shy receptionist Grace, who officially married Mugabe in 1996, received a controversial Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Zimbabwe when her ally, Jonathan Moyo, was Minister for Higher Education.
Reports emerged that Grace did not defend her thesis and did not put in enough time to complete a Ph.D., and the award was challenged in court.
Grace rose to power that same year when she became heavily involved in the shameful politics and affairs of the Zanu-PF.
She influenced her husband Mugabe to appoint young politicians from his faction, Generation 40, and even summoned government ministers and attended hearings.
Grace had Joice Mujuru and seven cabinet ministers align with the war veteran, sacked by Mugabe in December 2014 before taking on Mnangagwa in a fierce battle that ended in November 2017, a few weeks after Mugabe fired his attached.
He used the Zanu-PF gatherings to rail against his opponents, including military generals, accusing them of working hand-in-hand with Mnangagwa to topple Africa’s longtime ruler and strongman.
In 2018, Mnangagwa and his Lacoste faction, who accused Grace of assuming government duties before the coup, warned his wife, Auxillia, interfering with his official government duties.
Since then, however, things have changed. At the Herald, a team of reporters appears to have become Auxillia’s personal reporters. They cover her philanthropic work, and the people at the ‘Office of the First Lady’ apparently have the last word on what the the editors publish.
Kudakwashe Munemo, a political analyst, told IPS that there is a lack of transparency about the sources of funds channeled to Auxillia’s philanthropic work.
“As a country, we do not have an official office of the spouses of whoever is elected President. That distinction is key, because we shouldn’t have a conflation between programs run by the president’s wife and those of the government, especially when state resources are involved at the expense of official government business,” she said.
Maxwell Saungweme, a political analyst, said the problem Zimbabwe faces is that there is no clear distinction between Mnangagwa’s family, the ruling Zanu-PF party and state-owned companies.
“What she is doing is part of the rot of the party-state-military merger and, in this case, the first family-state merger,” he said.
“You are certainly not learning from Grace and other first ladies in other parts of Africa who did not stay in their lane while their husbands take care of government and state affairs. Everything you’re trying to do is wrong.”
Auxillia, who travels the country with blue-light security detail and sometimes police motorcycles cleaning roads and blocking traffic, a privilege enjoyed by few top government officials, has held various titles from ambassador to sponsors of some state institutions.
In May the Aid was granted a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree (Honoris Causa) at GD Goenka University in Gurugram Haryana, India, in recognition of his philanthropic work.
Also, in May, Auxillia officially opened the African Elephant Conference, held in Hwange, a resort town 335 kilometers from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, ahead of the 2022 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Although Auxillia is a patron of the Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, political analysts say it took on a government role as the conference was an interstate meeting attended by ministers from 14 African countries.
“The roles of first ladies or spouses of leaders vary across political jurisdictions, with some preferring them to remain in the background, while others allow a more active role,” political analyst Vivid Gwede told IPS.
“Where they are allowed to play an active role, this does not clash or compete with government officials and ministers, who are often ceremonial.”
He said that in Zimbabwe, the active first lady easily oversteps the boundaries and causes trouble.
“This is apart from issues of transparency and accountability in the use of public resources,” Gwede said.
Rashweat Mukundu, a political analyst, said the “Office of the First Lady” should reflect the soft side of the president.
“There is nothing wrong with Auxillia doing philanthropic work. What she worries about is abusing that position for partisan politics. It could be political campaign or any other position that excludes other groups. This is because the Office of the First Lady must be a unifying office. It must be an office that reflects the interests of the general public across the political divide,” she said.
He said that accountability is an area to look at to ensure that state resources are not used for partisan politics.
“The challenge is that we do not have accountability mechanisms to determine how much the State allocates to the Office of the First Lady. If the First Lady is forceful like the current First Lady is, it is an opportunity for the First Lady to pursue activities that bring us together rather than those that further divide us,” she said.
Report of the UN Office of IPS