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Female Leadership in Africa – Nibbling Away at the Glass Ceiling

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Published in the authors' personal capacity.

A no woman vote recently contributed to crashing Mrs. Clinton’s aspirations to smash the glass ceiling in the world’s largest super power. This is not unique to the USA: many qualified women have been unsuccessful in rising to presidency through the electoral process in other countries. A few have made it, but many female leaders have risen to presidency only accidentally. The latter could be argued in the case of United Kingdom’s Teresa May whose ascendancy to head of government is owed to Mr. Cameron’s ‘I quit’ resolve, when fellow Britons voted with a 51.9% nod to Brexit last June. Malawi and the Central African Republic (CAR) share the UK’s fortuitous fate of 2016.

Gender equality advocates continue to push for women in leadership arguing that an equal seat at the table will make an essential difference in social, political and economic realms.

How Africa has fared.

In countries such as Liberia and Mauritius, female leaders are defying culture, custom, and tradition, claiming seats, one at a time, at the political table. Notable names in Africa's political spheres are Catherine Samba-Panza, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Joyce Banda, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. A measure of their success is the interest of this article, which reveals the realities of female leadership in 21st century African politics. The article examines the trends through the eras of the four female African leaders mentioned herein that the continent and the world have been talking about in recent years.

In 2014 in CAR, religious tensions took Christians and Moslems to the streets, creating one of the most dreadful massacres the African continent has ever seen. The sectarian violence came with the ousting of a failed interim president (Michel Djotodia) and the installation of Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president in January 2014. She was faced with the difficult task of bringing an end to months of bloodbath that left her country in tatters. She played a great role during the transitory period to bring back peace and stability, to boost the economy and to gradually restore the rule of law. She registered momentous progress in regards to social cohesion and national reconciliation. With the help of 12,000 international troops, Pope Francis, a new constitution and her own sturdy hand, Mrs. Samba-Panza was able to hand over power to civilian leadership in a peaceful democratic process in 2016. The single-most takeaway from Mrs. Samba-Panza’s short reign validates the notion that political will has the ability to turn a nightmare into a fairy tale. The CAR’s socio-political landscape remains fragile, and President Faustin-Archange Touadera will require a lot of support to continue the healing process that Mrs. Samba-Panza began.

Malawi, the South-Eastern land-locked African nation, accidentally conferred power to a female head of state, Mrs. Joyce Banda, during a transitory period in 2012. Just as was the case with Mrs. May and Mrs. Samba-Panza. Mrs. Banda, a women’s rights activist and veteran politician, received nature’s gift when Bingu wa Mutharika suddenly died in 2012. Bingu, as branded by Malawi’s people, transformed from fame to infamy in a country that voted him an almost absolute mandate in 2009 following a successful first term. On Bingu’s demise in April 2012, Mrs. Banda inherited the legacy of a decayed economy laminated with energy shortages, depleted foreign exchange reserves, unrelenting inflation and an ODA community that was wary of investing in a corrupt and autocratic government. Her ascendancy was hard-fought, as Bingu’s loyalists questioned her loyalty to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). She stood firm, and the constitution triumphed.

Little wonder, in 2014, Forbes named Mrs. Banda the 40th most powerful woman in the world and first in Africa. She had managed to resuscitate the economy in a year, restoring fuel and foreign exchange, restoring international relations to allow for more increased development financing. Playing by the rules, she gave way to contractionary spending, and ordered an excruciating Kwacha devaluation that got the business sector limping. She reluctantly sold a disputed presidential jet, slashed 30% of her salary and dismissed some corrupt cabinet members. Her accounting helped lift monetary suspensions and restored International Monetary Fund support.

Mrs. Banda’s presidency only lived to complete Mr. Mutharika’s second term. She handed back power to the late Bingu’s estranged young brother, Peter Mutharika together with the largest corruption scandal Malawi was ever to experience in its history yet, branded the Cashgate. Forbes summarized Joyce Banda’s time in office was marred by financial scandals, arrests and prosecutions in her own government. To date, Mrs. Banda cringes at the idea of returning home from the United States to face criminal prosecution by the incumbent DPP government.

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 24th and current President of Liberia, has experienced similar corruption troubles that have kept her presidency busy. Her 2005 presidential campaign bid to end civil strife and corruption, establish unity, and rebuild her country’s infrastructure made her the continent’s first female elected head of state. Residual effects of these promises won her a re-election in 2011, as well as many accolades. Forbes ranked her the world’s 70th most powerful woman in 2014. She received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and Tawakkol Karman (Yemen) for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work. In addition, India’s President conferred her the Indira Gandhi Prize in 2013.

Having inherited a fragile state, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf wittingly built strong relations with the international community. Her Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) probed corruption and helped heal ethnic tensions. In 2010, she got the pardon of her country’s creditors for the US$4.6 billion owed, while securing more dollars through Foreign Direct Investment. The United Nations lifted trade sanctions to allow Liberia’s access to international markets once again. Her national budget grew 8.4 times between 2006 and 2012, with an annual GDP growing to 8.7 percent. She attracted over $5 million of private resources to rebuild schools, clinics and markets as well as scholarships for her people to acquire more complex skills. In 2016, Liberia's House of Representatives passed the Equal Representation and Participation Bill, creating five seats for female politicians, one for youths and one for people with disabilities in the nation's lower house of parliament, an outcome that boosted UN Women’s empowerment agenda.

Critics of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf note the miscorrelation between her expertise and support from the international community and the wanting development trajectory, despite a notable 2014-2015 Ebola crisis. Her fight against corruption is reckoned to be deliberately weak and, as critics claim, the legacy of Africa’s first freely elected female president will be forever and inextricably tied to uncontrollable corruption.

In a slight shift of our analysis, we recognize another of Africa’s phenomenal women, Mrs. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. South Africa’s ambassador extraordinaire to the African Union, Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma has chaired the African Union Commission since 15 October 2012. With early enthusiasm to thrust Africa to sovereignty, Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma looks grimmer today as she leaves office after a single term. A weathered politician and once wife to South Africa’s embattled president, Jacob Zuma, she wrestles Africa’s depravities on a man’s playground. Despite the difficulties, she has managed to pull some noteworthy successes. Her commitment to reduce conflict and boost democracy through anti-corruption and credibility-enhancement saw the establishment of the African Peer Review Mechanism to evaluate member states on successes and failures across some measures. About 62% of African States have signed up.

Conflict, the largest affliction that has frustrated the continent’s prospects, such as in the Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, the DR Congo and Kenya, has been on the decline under Mrs. Zuma’s watch. She continues to haggle with militias in some hotspots to hand back power to civilian regimes. Mrs. Zuma has ensured the authority of the AU, through the Peace and Security Council, to promote peace and defend democracy, including deploying military force where genocide and crimes against humanity continue unswervingly.

Our take.

Our four African women leaders have defied the odds in many ways and have started chipping away at the glass ceiling, albeit only a few are elected. These female heads of state took office at a time their countries were undergoing political, economic or social crises. They provided their countries with a new model of leadership, considering the challenges they had to face. They helped to facilitate reconciliation both internally and externally, regenerate their economies and rebuild public administration structures. However, as the fire died down and the countries returned to normalcy, it was reversion to leadership as usual – the patriarchy reigned again.

The role of patriarchal norms is rarely disputable in governance of African countries. Our female leaders fall in long chains of masculine dynasties and traditions. Their failure to challenge the established norms typifies the dominance of the patriarchy and its prowess to advance its interests beyond the gender differences of its stewards. Others argue it is simply a matter of character. For example, that Mrs. Banda or Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf may be weak at the sight of a government account, like their male predecessors and successors. Or, that it could be the result of inherent weakness, as women are mostly perceived to be.

A crucial lesson is the impact this has on the future of women in African leadership. Mainly because of the opportunity a substantial departure from the norm that female leadership presents. We would like to argue for the evaluation of individual cases of leaders as fairer. On the other hand, we emphasize promises that female political leadership represents, not only to the world, but to all young women aspiring to rise to the top. This is exceedingly crucial to the discourse of gender equality and women’s empowerment that need not be conflated with the demeanor of respective office holders.

For all incumbent and aspiring women leaders, there remain enormous challenges. In this piece, however, we demonstrate the possibilities. There is always something to learn from the pioneers herein.


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