Menu Close

Theresa Kufuor: Ghana’s former first lady was a quiet and unobtrusive champion of change

President John Agyekum Kufuor, Queen Elizabeth II, Theresa Kufuor and Prince Philip. Alistair Grant/Getty Images

Flags have been flying at half mast in Ghana in tribute to Theresa Kufuor, the wife of John Agyekum Kufuor, president of Ghana from 2000 to 2008. Born Theresa Mensah, the former first lady passed away on 1 October at the age of 87.

As a scholar of political science and international relations I followed her public career with keen interest.

In my considered view, Theresa Kufuor in her own unique way transcended the ceremonial role of first lady and quietly exercised considerable political power in the Ghanaian political arena. She also endeared herself to Ghanaians through her self-effacing and unobtrusive style.

She will be remembered for devoting herself to national development and to steering the country through turbulent waters.

Who was Theresa Kufuor?

Theresa Kufuor was born on 25 October 1935 in Wenchi, a town in the Bono region of Ghana. She was the youngest sister of Ghanaian statesman and politician J.H. Mensah, point man for the remarkable seven-year development plan set out after independence by the country’s first president. She studied as a registered general nurse in London and qualified as a state certified midwife.

Her marriage in 1962 to Kufuor after meeting him a year earlier in London at a dance seemed natural, given that Kufuor served as deputy foreign minister in a government in which her brother (J.H. Mensah) was a more senior official.

Kufuor’s political rise to the Ghanaian presidency in 2000 brought Theresa more directly into the often acrimonious world of Ghanaian politics. Kufuor set about delicately trying to uproot all vestiges of the Rawlings era, with his wife by his side. She seemed to take it all in her careful stride, with her taciturn, reserved, behind the scenes approach.

A 19-year rule (the first part of which was rather bloody) had come to an end and Theresa Kufuor came across as just the right first lady to help navigate a sensitive and difficult change of the political guard.

She proved up to the task. Her well cultivated public persona in key aspects had a calming effect on the nation and its politics. Her sartorial style was less gaudy and very conservative compared with her predecessors. Her speeches were not meant to rally the troops to battle; she simply spoke to the nation with impeccable diction and a rather quaint British accent which recalled colonial times long gone.

She was content to be the dutiful wife who helped the president steer the Ghanaian ship of state to a safe berth in choppy waters. Tapping into her training as a nurse, she made it clear her sole focus was social matters affecting Ghanaian women; she had no pretensions of setting up political machinery to help her husband’s electoral fortunes.

She was a devout Catholic. She was also a strong advocate for a free compulsory universal basic education programme for kindergarten children, as part of the government’s educational reforms in 2007.

Ghana’s first ladies

Fathia Nkrumah, wife of Kwame Nkrumah, was the first of postcolonial Ghana’s first ladies. She held a special fascination for Ghanaians – because of who she was, rather than what she did. She was the niece of the noted Egyptian pan-Arabist advocate and leader Gamal Abdul Nasser.

After 1966 a more activist, even militant, Ghanaian first lady emerged in the person of Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings. Nana Konadu pursued far reaching civic, social and economic ventures to better the lot of Ghanaian women and children. However, describing her as “first lady” in the revolutionary years of 1981-1992 was technically a misnomer, given that her husband, then military ruler Jerry Rawlings, was not an executive president.

This anomaly was fixed with the elections of 1992. The election of 2000 ended the rather ebullient Agyeman-Rawlings era. Theresa Kufuor was to follow as first lady. The contrast could not be greater.

Why she mattered

Ghana has celebrated its 30th year since a return to constitutional rule in 1993. Theresa Kufuor played her part in the still ongoing effort to build some of Ghana’s sorely needed social infrastructure for the welfare of women and children.

In her own way she spared no effort and in so doing provided an inspiring example of what it means to be a first lady and what to focus on.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,100 academics and researchers from 4,998 institutions.

Register now