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Kenya's Lands Minister and principal secretary in the Lands and Physical Planning Ministry welcome a group of women on October 13, 2016 who will climb Mount Kilimanjaro on October 14 as part of a campaign for land rights in Nairobi, Kenya. © 2016 Reuters

As the issue of sexual harassment takes center stage in the US presidential election, many Africans were deeply shocked over sexist and offensive remarks today by one of Africa’s few democratically elected presidents.

Rather unusually for a politician’s spouse, Nigeria’s first lady, Aisha Buhari, publicly criticized her husband, President Muhammadu Buhari, and warned that she will not campaign alongside him for re-election again unless he reforms his leadership.  President Buhari, who was on an official visit to Germany, shocked multitudes in Nigeria and beyond when he publicly shot back, saying, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to. But she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room."

Social media almost immediately lit up with expressions of anger and disgust. Was this remark a bad joke or a personal spat between a long-married couple that had wrongly gone public? Or was it symbolic of the underlying gender relations beyond the everyday niceties about the rights of women and gender equality? Some of President Buhari’s supporters, including his spokesperson, quickly jumped to his defense, claiming it was just a joke, he has appointed female ministers, he was not talking about all women, etc.

But for anyone who watched and listened to the president’s interview, it looks anything but a joke. Under the veneer of his smile, he actually looked intent on crushing his wife’s resolve for daring to criticize him in such a public manner. Leaving aside why the first lady chose to criticize her husband in public, President Buhari’s statement is deeply offensive -- objectifying his own wife as a kitchen tool, a living room ornament and a sex object in his “other room.”

Ironically, the African Union has declared this a year of women’s rights.  While Buhari was speaking in Germany today, African women from across the continent were in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania in a landmark initiative to advocate for the rights of women. As a symbol of the difficulties faced by African women, some of the participants even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro itself with a list of demands aimed at securing real respect for the rights of women but only to hear the news that one of Africa’s major leaders was telling them they belong in a kitchen and a bedroom.

A strong response is urgently needed from Africa and beyond to condemn President Buhari’s statement objectifying women. He should urgently apologize for his words and act in a manner that demonstrates his apology is genuine.

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