New Trends in Women’s Political Participation in Africa

Aili Mari Tripp
University of Wisconsin Madison
In the 1990s, for the first time in the post-independence period greater numbers of African women began to aspire to political leadership at the national and local levels. Although their impact was still minimal and the obstacles daunting, new female faces and voices began to be seen and heard. The 1990s was a decade of beginnings for women in politics in Africa and all indications are that we will see even greater pressures for female political representation and participation in the decade ahead. Until the 1990s it was unheard of for women to run for the presidency in Africa. Yet in the 1990s, Charity Ngilu and Wangari Maathai ran in the 1998 Kenyan presidential election and Ngilu has announced plans to run again in 2002. Rose Rugendo of Tanzania’s party Chama Cha Mapinduzi sought her party’s nomination in the 1995 presidential primaries as did Sarah Jibril in Nigeria in 1989. Although unsuccessful in these bids for power, these women set an important precedent in their respective countries. The first head of an African state in this century was Zauditu, empress of Ethiopia, who ruled between 1917 and 1930. Other female heads of state have included Dzeliwe Shongwe, Queen-regent of Swaziland, who ruled in 1982-1983, followed by Ntombi Thwala, Queen-regent of Swaziland, 1983-1986. Elizabeth Domitien was Africa’s first female prime minister, serving in the Central African Republic between 1975-1976. But it was not until the 1990s that women claimed national leadership visibility in greater numbers. Ruth Perry has been on the sixmember collective presidency of Liberia, chairing this Council of State since September 1996. She is the first non-monarchical head of an African state. In 1994 Uganda’s Wandera Specioza Kazibwe became the first female Vice President in Africa. Sylvie Kinigi served as prime minister of Burundi from 1993 to 1994, and during this same period, Agathe Uwilingiyimana was prime minister of Rwanda until she was assassinated in office. Senegal also claimed a woman vice president in 2001. By the end of the decade, the Ethiopian, Lesotho, and South African legislative bodies had female speakers of the house and Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa had female deputy speakers. In the 1990s women began to form political parties on their own, partly because existing parties in the multiparty context had not adequately addressed women’s concerns. In many cases women had a different political vision that was not accommodated in existing parties; and in some cases, the women wanted to build more broad-based multiethnic and multireligious constituencies than was possible with existing parties. Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika started the National Party in Zambia in 1991; Margaret Dongo began the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats in 1999; while in Lesotho, Limakatso Ntakatsane formed the party, Kopanang Basotho. Likewise in the 1990s Charity Ngilu and Dr. Wangari Maathai headed parties in Kenya; Ruth Rolland-Jeanne-Marie led a party in Central African Republic and Amália de Vitoria Pereira led an Angolan party. In Zambia, Kenya and severalother countries, the reluctance of political parties to take steps to increase women’s representation has led to serious discussions of the need to form a party led by women with broad based male and female constituencies.
Reasons for Women’s Increased Political Participation
What accounts for women’s new visibility in the political arena as independent actors? No single factor can account for these new trends. Rather, a combination of factors need to be considered. Some of the most important reasons include the following:
1) The move toward multi-partyism in most African countries diminished theneed for mass organizations linked and directed by the single ruling party. Thus, the demise of these mass women’s organizations coincided with the rise of independent women’s organizations that took advantage of the opening up of political space in the 1990s. These organizations had new leadership that began to push for a broader agenda, which included women’s expanded political participation. This dynamic is explored in greater detail below.
2) With the increase in educational opportunities for girls and women there emerged a larger pool of capable women who were in a position to vie for political power.
3) Women in many countries frequently had longer experiences than men in creating and sustaining associations, having been involved in church related activities, savings clubs, income-generating groups, self-help associations, community improvement groups and many other informal and local organizations and networks. Thus they often found it easier to take advantage of new political spaces afforded by liberalizing regimes. Women in Mali, for example, brought to NGOs their well -developed organizational skills, drawing on a long history of maintaining social and economic networks. As a result, women have a strong presence in the NGO movement both in terms of making sure development associations include programs that address women’s issues, but also in their own organizations that range from legal to health, education, credit and enterprise development associations (Kante et al. 1994, 101). Similarly, in Tanzania, it is no accident that the main NGO networking body, Tanzania Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (TANGO), was started by women’s organizations and has had strong female representation in its leadership. In fact, 80 per-cent of the registered NGOs are women’s organizations in a country like Tanzania (Meena 1997). Thus, women’s long experience working collectively in a number of different arenas has often made it easier for them to seize new organizational opportunities in a liberalizing context.
4) The new availability of donor funds, channelled through international and local NGOs, religious bodies, embassies, and international foundations has been another factor in spurring the growth of national level organizations that support women’s political activities, generally on a non-partisan basis. They have supported efforts of women to participate in civic education, constitutional reform, legislative reform, leadership training, and programs for women parliamentarians.
5) A commitment to women’s increased representation on the part of the leadership of the country is another critical factor in advancing women’s political representation. The enhanced political representation of women is more a question of political will than of world economic standing or any other economic factor. In fact, some of the poorest nations in the world, like Mozambique, do better than many advanced industrialized countries in female legislative representation. Temporary measures, like party quotas and reserved seats, account in large measure for the higher female representation in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, and several other African countries. In fact, most of the higher figures for female representation worldwide have been a result of a quota system of one kind or another. Uganda set an important precedent for Africa by providing for one third female representation in local councils. In the Mozambican elections women won one quarter of the seats in the National Assembly, largely due to FRELIMO’s 35 per-cent
quota, which brought the percentage of women-held FRELIMO seats to 37 per-cent (Jacobson 1994, 40). These affirmative action strategies are as controversial in Africa as elsewhere, but what is indisputable is the fact that where they have been implemented, the popular political culture has gradually become more accepting of female politicians. In South Africa, the large number of women in parliament and other key political appointments is, in part, a result of the efforts of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has stood for women’s political advancement and affirmative action. Thus, 89 of the 117 women in the National Assembly and the Senate are from the ANC party. Today women make up 25 per-cent of the legislature, which represents a dramatic break from the previous apartheid regime, in which women made up less than 3 per-cent of the legislature. Other top appointments followed these changes in parliament. In addition, four out of 25 ministers and eight out of 14 deputy ministers are women. While these are low figures, they are still higher than under apartheid rule. Throughout Africa, women’s organizations have increasingly been calling for the adoption such affirmative action measures. For example, in Nigeria, leading women’s NGOs have become particularly concerned about the low levels of female political representation and political appointments. Organizations like Gender and Development Action, Women Empowerment Movement, the National Council for Women’s Societies umbrella organization, Women Opinion Leaders Forum and other NGOs have sought reserved seats for women in parliament and demanded larger numbers of female appointees to public bodies (Denzer 1999, 3). Malawi women’s groups petitioned the government in 1999 to ensure that women make up at least one third of all decision makers in political positions and key national institutions (Kanjaye 1999).
6) The international women’s movement has played a significant role in encouraging women to seek political office and influence policy making. Although the driving forces for these changes have been internal, international pressures and norms have given added impetus to these new demands. To address the low rates of female representation, the issue was raised at the UN Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the world organization of national parliaments. The IPU adopted a Plan of Action to address the reality that men dominate political and parliamentary life in all countries. One of the proposals adopted by the IPU included affirmative action measures to be advocated on a strictly interim basis. Quota systems, the IPU proposal states, should promote a situation where neither sex occupies a disproportionate number of seats relative to their percentage in the population.
7) Much of formal politics in Africa is underwritten and controlled by informal patronage politics. Most women tend to operate on the margins of clientelistic networks. This means that women have often found opportunities to advance themselves where the clientelistic networks were weakened by economic crisis as has been the case in recent years in Senegal. Economic crisis has forced many women into formal and informal economic associations and into heightened entrepreneurial activity. Having focused on several reasons that explain women’s new-found political muscle, I now shift to one of the most dramatic changes that affected women’s political participation in the 1990s: the growth of independent women’s organizations.