Making Strides: Women in African Politics

Written by Abi Adegboye Ph.D

Happy Women’s History Month! This is a great time to reflect on our accomplishments and to celebrate as African women.
The 2000s brought unprecedented political opportunities for African women. Many countries strived to make good on their ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which called for, amongst other things, equal access to women in politics. To level the playing field, some states initiated quotas into their constitutions, others implemented appointments, incentives, or quotas at the party or legislative levels. For example, Kenya’s 2010 Constitutional Article 81b states, “not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender.” Similarly in Mauritius, new gender quota in the Local Government Act requires one-third of candidates in local elections to be women. At the regional level, SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries set a quota of 50% female representation of which South Africa leads with 45%, Mozambique 39.2; and Angola 38.6. In East Africa, Rwanda made history first in 2004 with a 49% female representation in its parliament and then 56% in 2008!
These quotas have significantly changed the political landscape by increasing the numbers of women candidates and office holders, opening up a gendered dialogue, and creating space for women even in ultra-patriarchal states like Niger and Senegal which fielded women presidential candidates in 2010 and 2012 respectively. It also increased women’s participation in public discourse as evidenced in the fact that women were at the forefront of the Arab Spring!
Before we rejoice in the numbers however, let’s review the substance. In Rwanda, where women hold the majority of seats in the parliament, we have witnessed a focus on socioeconomic issues such as domestic violence, micro lending, healthcare, and education. The government-initiated Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Programme (EDPRS) is reported to have moved 1 million Rwandans above the poverty line!
Gone are the days when women in African politics were concentrated in the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture, Women and Social Affairs, and other ministries without cache. The 2000s heralded juggernauts including: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , Nigerian Minister of Finance (2003-2006; 2011) and Foreign Affairs (2006); Baleka Mbete, Deputy President of South Africa (2008-2009) and Speaker of the National Assembly (2004-2008), Odette Nyiraimilimo, Minister of State for Social Affairs of Rwanda (2000-2003) and Senator (2003-2008), and of course, Madam President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (2006 -). These women prove/d that African women were up to the task of debt restructuring, corruption reduction, peace brokerage, and even rebuilding a war-torn country.
As their portfolios grew, so has the impact of women in African politics. For example, without the vision of Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria wouldn’t have successfully negotiated an exit debt strategy from the Paris Club in 2005. Further, Liberia’s rapidly progressing recovery from war is attributable to President Johnson Sirleaf’s coalition-building capabilities and forthright leadership.
Not to be outdone by the politicians, wives also access power via relational connections. It has become typical for the first lady to have a pet project or two which provides her with a platform to weigh in on policy issues. Further, members of the first ladies club meet to lend their support to causes which promote the welfare of women and children.
For the majority of African women however, democracy and in all its permutations whether gendered or not has yielded paltry dividends. During elections, they may get a bag of rice here or some starch there from male candidates but no long term gains. From female candidates who have less money to throw around, they get a lot of promises which they hope will pan out on the long run.
Arguably, Africa would benefit greatly from women’s leadership particularly in the areas of conflict resolution, peace building, and restructuring because women are good at coalition building and tend to operate flattened or web hierarchies. They organize well at the grassroots and pay better attention to details. Further, Africa could benefit from closer attention to socioeconomic, environmental, and human challenges and a reduction in defense spending. Finally, women leaders could introduce much needed transparency in governance.
These are definitely interesting times and there’s more to come as we move further into the African Women’s Decade (2010-2020).