Until colonization and the introduction of Christianity by white missionaries in Africa, polygamy, the custom of marrying more than one spouse, was prevalent and culturally accepted by a majority of the tribes in the continent.
There are two kinds of polygamy: polygyny and polyandry. The latter is the least popular custom which is when one woman marries more than one man. This was practiced in the Lake Region of Central Africa and among some Maasai people in Kenya.
However, polygyny – which is when a man marries more than one wife – is the widely accepted practice in Africa, yet abhorred by the New Testament of the Bible which was preached by the colonialists.
Christianity is the only major religion in Africa today, besides Islam and traditional African religions, that has rejected polygamy. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, Christians represent about 45% of the continent’s population.
This explains why 21st century Africa sees everything wrong with the age-old custom that has contributed to the creation of large families, and traditionally curbed the problem of single motherhood.
Here are some popular polygamist African leaders and heads of state.
Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya)
Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and father of current president Uhuru Kenyatta, was a polygamist who was married to four wives in his lifetime.
He married his first wife, Grace Wahu in 1919 before he travelled to England. In 1942, he married English woman Edna Grace Clarke and they divorced four years later. In 1950, a Senior Chief gave Kenyatta one of his daughters to take as his third wife. Grace Wanjiku died the same year while giving birth to his child.
In 1951, Kenyatta married his fourth wife, Mama Ngina, who was one of the few female students at the teacher training college where he was teaching at the time. They were married until his death in 1978. He had 8 children in total.
Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria)
Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe, who served between 1963 and 1966, was a polygamist. He married three wives.
His first wife Flora Azikiwe died in 1983 and he died in 1996 leaving behind two wives, Uche Azikiwe and Ugoye Comfort Azikiwe. He had seven children.
Yahya Jammeh (Gambia)
Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, who was ousted by a West African joint force in 2017 after refusing to accept election defeat, is a polygamist.
The dictator divorced his first wife Tuti Faal in 1998 after four years of marriage and then married Zineb Jammeh in the same year.
In 2010, he married Alima Sallah who was believed to be 18 at the time. He divorced her after a year of marriage following a strained relationship with his first wife.
It cannot be independently verified if he married a 22-year-old Ghanaian called Nora in 2012, as widely reported by Ghanaian media.
After over 20 years in power, Jammeh was exiled to Equatorial Guinea with his family after he was guaranteed immunity.
Jacob Zuma (South Africa)
Former South African president Jacob Zuma is a popular polygamist whose planned 7th marriage was revealed last month by the wife-to-be, 24-year-old Nonkanyiso Conco, from KwaZulu-Natal.
Conco will be Zuma’s 4th wife after the marriage as he is currently married to three women: first wife Gertrude Khumalo whom he married in 1973 after he was released from prison; Thobeka Madiba and Gloria Ngema who he married in 2010 and 2012 respectively.
The troubled ex-president was married to the former African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a marriage that ended in divorce. He lost his second wife, Kate Mansho, to suicide in 2000.
Zuma separated from his youngest wife Nompumelelo Ntuli whom he married in 2008. She was removed from his house in Nkandla in 2016 after she was accused of infidelity and planning to poison him.
Adama Barrow (Gambia)
Gambia’s third and current president, Adama Barrow, who was historically elected into office in 2017 is a polygamist.
The 53-year-old Muslim has two wives: Fatou Bah, Sarjo Mballow. His marital status was of interest during his election in 2017 when it was unclear as to which of his wives would be the First Lady.
He clarified the matter after the election by saying the first wife, Fatou Bah, will be the First Lady. Barrow normally attends formal events with one wife interchangeably.
King Mswati III (Eswatini/ Swaziland)
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch who rules Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, as its King.
The 50-year-old is a polygamist and has married 14 wives. He has divorced three of them and has 24 children.
Senteni Masango, his eighth wife, is reported to have committed suicide in April after overdosing on amitriptyline, a drug used in treating chronic pain and depression and related disorders.
King Mswati III married his latest wife, 19-year-old Siphele Mashwama, a few weeks after last year’s annual Umhlanga or Reed Dance ceremony participated by about 40,000 maidens.
He is traditionally mandated to pick a new wife every year from the virgins who partake in the traditional chastity rite held at the Ludzidzini Royal palace near Swaziland’s capital Mbabane.
Mswati became the Crown Prince in 1983 and then in 1986, he was crowned King at the age of 18. He succeeded his father King Sobhuza II who married 70 wives and had 210 children.