The First Ladies of Togo: The Pursuit of Polygamy

| February 13, 2012

Obviously, the fact that there is no picture of a first lady is quite telling. The thought of one human male married to eight women can sometimes be hard to comprehend, however, it is the reality in many countries. It is tradition. It is culture. It is a way of life. And the president of Togo, President Faure Gnassingbe outshines his South Africa counterpart when it comes to practicing his tradition, his culture, his way of life. He is reported to have eight wives, none of them officially serving in the capacity of first lady, none of them visible. Togo is one of the poorest countries in the western part of Africa, yet polygamy is legal and widely practiced.

In the past weeks, we have featured several of Africa’s first ladies, and they each come with their own identity and signature.  Some are passionate about a particular issue, a few are outspoken and politically engaged, a handful have received national and international awards, while one or two have to share their roles as wives and first lady with another.  As we dig further into the lives of Africa’s first ladies, we are aware that depending on the country or part of the continent we feature, the offering coupled with the culture would be different.  In Togo, the issue of polygamy raises its head again, and we wonder about the men who choose polygamy and the women who willingly or, in some cases, unwillingly step into this marriage arrangement.

Polygamy is dictated by different dynamics including religion, culture and tradition. Other reasons cited are the inability of men to stay monogamous, the need to cancel out the ratio of men to women in some societies and it is also a mechanism for a man to flaunt his wealth and status. In the Social institution and Gender Index released by the OECD Development Centre, almost half of Togolese women are in a polygamy union. Practice of polygamy is frequent in the rural areas than in towns and cities, and a Togolese woman’s level of education is also directly linked to whether she will choose polygamy or not. In Togo, half of illiterate women are in polygamous homes, and the number falls to one-third in women who have received secondary education.

If higher education is a factor that leads women to choose monogamy, why do some highly educated woman still enter into a polygamous marriage? A few weeks ago, we profiled the three current wives of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Compared to the unknown or not-widely-talked about eight wives of President Gnassingbe, these women are involved in their communities. His two youngest and newest wives both have post-secondary education, but they still chose polygamy. Where culture and tradition seem to trump education sometimes, other factors like poverty, desperation and the need for security and protection might be at work.

We cannot conclude that all the wives of President Gnassingbe are illiterate, and neither can we determine which factors influenced their choices. However, we question the influence of religion and culture in controlling the choices women are asked to choose from. We wonder if President Gnassingbe’s eight wives are happy with their marital arrangement? It was their choice, so we presume they should be. In contrast, what is the power of education level, status and culture when a man chooses multiple wives? President Gnassingbe completed his post-secondary education at the Sorbonne in Paris and The George Washington University in Washington DC, but he is married to eight wives.

We may never get to know or hear about the wives of President Gnassingbe, and without a clue about each individual woman, we cannot place a judgment call or ascribe a rationale to their choices. We do hope women in Togo, in Africa and around the world continue to have a choice in love and marriage, because when people know no different, they accept what has always been. The practice of polygamy has persisted over time, and we might never be able to wrap our western-oriented minds around the “whys” of polygamy. Education opens up the door to see the world and oneself differently. Our collective demand for human rights and education for the girl child can further help in cementing a woman’s choices.


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AdeOla Fadumiye

AdeOla Fadumiye is a writer, who loves dancing, traveling, reading, cooking, exercising, the outdoors and sports. She is also an adventurer at heart. Her greatest desires are to see women live a life of purpose, and to help bring justice to the poor and oppressed. As editorial assistant at Afrikan Goddess Magazine, AdeOla loves having the opportunity to further stand for the cause of the African woman. She currently resides in Burnsville, MN. Her newest venture includes her freelance writing business called JostWrite; she is also working on a book and blogging at

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