Where are Africa's women leaders?

PUBLISHED: Thu, 05 Jan 2017 13:18:09 GMT

Why has Africa had so few women leaders? Teresa Chirwa-Ndanga examines a new study by a lecturer in Public Administration at the University of Malawi Tiyesere Mercy Chikapa and comes to some startling conclusions. Below is her article – it first appeared on The Global Communiqué and is republished with its permission.

The world had its first elected female leader in 1960 – Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike. Africa’s chance of an elected female president only came in 2006 when Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf contested in the presidential election and won. In 2015, Mauritius had its first elected female president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, who was elected through a parliamentary vote.

Out of nine female heads of state and government that Africa has had, only these two secured an actual vote to lead their countries. The rest assumed their positions in acting capacities – which is probably why the fact that Africa has had up to nine female heads of state and government may be a surprise to any reader.

Malawi’s first female president Joyce Banda assumed office in 2012 after the death in office of an elected president, Bingu wa Mutharika. By virtue of having been the vice president at the time, the Constitution of Malawi granted her the mandate to govern for the rest of the presidential term. As a result of the constitutional directive, she served for two years – thereby being the longest time-period a female president has had to serve in an acting capacity in Africa. However, in 2014 during the election period in Malawi, Joyce Banda failed to garner sufficient votes to legitimize her mandate at the ballot box. She ranked third having secured only 18 percent of the total votes.

Female Heads of State around the World

Europe had its first democratically elected president in 1980 through Iceland’s Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served until 1996. She remains the world’s longest serving female head of state.

Europe has produced the highest number of female heads of state and government. This is evidenced by the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index ranking, which reveals that six of the top ten stellar country performers are in Europe.

Other female leaders in the region have included Ireland’s Presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, Finland’s President Tarja Kaarina Halonen, the United Kingdom’s Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and currently Theresa May.

Europe’s comparatively exceptional performance with regards to gender parity, emanates from domesticating gender equality in its culture. Many European countries incorporate either party or legislative gender quotas in politics. Although parliamentary representation still remains relatively low, the rate has steadily improved. Over the years, the quota system has allowed female politicians a platform to showcase their capabilities, such that it is no longer uncommon for women to rise to the positions of heads of state and government.

Latin America has also produced a number of female heads of state and government, partly due to the gender quota system which has been a stepping stone for women’s political careers.

In Asia, there are cases where women have led their nations by virtue of family succession. In 1960, the world’s first female head of state, Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was the widow of former Prime Minister, Solomon Bandaranaike who was assassinated in 1959. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaranatunga later served as president between 1994 – 2005. India’s Indira Gandhi was the daughter of the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Corazon Aquino of the Phillipines, was the wife of assassinated senator Benigno Ninoy Aquino, Jr. Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan’s 11th prime minister) was the daughter of former president and prime minister of the country.

Malawi does not have the gender quota system. The country has also not seen a considerable number of women rise from family traditions to take up leadership positions such as that of the presidency. Therefore, a female candidate wishing to run for the presidency in Malawi would need to seek her party’s approval through a party convention to be its presidential candidate and then only later contest in a presidential election.

But the situation was different for Joyce Banda, the country’s first female president. In 2012, then Vice President Banda suddenly found herself becoming a head of state following the death in office of President Bingu wa Mutharika. She assumed office at the height of economic turmoil in the country.

Within the two years of her tenure, Joyce Banda was able to ensure that fuel and foreign currency were available in the country – prior to her tenure, foreign currency was scarce and there was no stable supply of fuel. However, within the same two years, Joyce Banda also witnessed the worst financial scandal to ever hit Malawi. Many analysts have argued that this financial scandal cost her the presidency in the ensuing elections of 2014. Many have played down the fact that gender may have played a role, rightly so perhaps as opinion polls of women representation in Malawi indicate strong support for women’s political rights and for equal female representation in politics. A 2013 Afrobarometer study indicated that 52 percent of respondents were in support of equal female representation.

But a new study by a lecturer in Public Administration at the University of Malawi Tiyesere Mercy Chikapa suggests the opinion polls on equal female representation may not be accurate reflections of voters’ inner beliefs, which is why in Joyce Banda’s case, the voter could not give her another mandate to govern through the ballot.

“People are often unwilling or unable to report accurately on sensitive topics for ego defensive or impression management reasons, thus providing answers that the respondent believes are politically correct or socially acceptable,” writes Chikapa in a brief about her study conducted in 2014.

Chikapa’s study and conclusion makes a lot of sense and accurately reflects the dynamics that took place in Malawi in the case of Joyce Banda – where the standard to which she was subjected were higher as compared to those her male counterparts were subjected. For example, Joyce Banda was harshly judged and criticized for what is considered to be theft that took place (arising from the financial scandal) which occurred even under the Bingu wa Mutharika regime.

Instead, the Democratic Progressive Party which had put Malawians under a lot of suffering prior to Joyce Banda’s ascendancy to the presidency, just two years prior, was entrusted with the task of correcting Malawi’s problems once again in 2014.

The financial scandal under the first female president of Malawi made voters doubt a woman’s capabilities of being a leader. “This has made voters to believe that a woman cannot be a political leader,” stated a female respondent in Chiakapa’s study. Another male respondent said the following concerning Joyce Banda:

“What happened under the leadership of Joyce Banda made voters to doubt women’s capabilities. Broad day-light stealing to millions of kwacha (Malawi currency) made voters doubt women’s capabilities in leadership positions like that of members of parliament.”

Theft of public resources was not uncommon in Malawi under all the country’s presidents. While the magnitude of the theft may be a question for debate, the corruption and theft of these resources in the previous regimes under male presidents did not turn out to be a blanket conclusion of failure by men to govern. Furthermore, other male candidates who vied for political office such as that of a member of parliament were not branded as failures for the underperformance of a previous male presidents.

Following from what has been dubbed the ‘underperformance’ of Joyce Banda, the number of female candidates who made it during the parliamentary race tumbled. It dropped from 22.3 percent to the current 16.7 percent, in what Chikapa’s study terms as the ‘Joyce Banda effect’.

Certainly in Malawi’s scenario, a female leader’s failures were tied to her sex and furthermore, fellow female candidates received a backlash, simply for being female candidates at the same time a female president had not performed to expectation, a scenario only unique to female.

Any future for female presidential candidates in Africa?

I admire the courage and zeal of my former schoolmate at Harvard Kennedy School Fadumo Dayib who is running for presidency in Somalia, a country largely built on Islamic beliefs. In this year’s election which was supposed to be the first democratic poll, only about 14, 000 people, representing the country’s clans, are to cast their votes to choose representatives for both the lower house, which together with the upper house will choose a president.

Dayib confessed to Foreign Policy’s online publication that in the current scenario her chances of winning were very slim. I agree.

Somalia’s first female presidential candidate would have a chance in two scenarios; either in a parliamentary system that does not use the clan system or where the gender quotas have been effectively implemented over a long period of time.

The first option may work best for female presidential aspirants in Africa. Just as it has worked in Mauritius for Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, that country’s first female president who took office on June 5, 2015. In such a parliamentary system, women vying for presidential office would mostly struggle at getting their party’s nod to lead their respective political parties. Past that stage, it may be much easier to win the parliamentary vote as long as their political party has a strong representation in the house.

Conversely, the presidential system will remain the toughest for female candidates in Africa to make a breakthrough. Here they would be dealing with multitudes whose attitudes and opinions about women and women leaders may be shaped by societal stereotypes of this gender. Such attitudes, in patriarchal societies in Africa, are difficult to change.

It is true of course that gender quotas, both legislative and party quotas, have largely helped to boost the female representation in elected offices. Rwanda has been a leading example, not only in Africa but across the world. Women constitute 63 percent of the lower house’s representation in Rwanda’s parliament – the highest in the world. The gender quota system is also practiced in a number of Southern African countries including Burundi, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Angola. This generally has helped women’s visibility and as a result has the propensity to change societal perceptions on female leaders, particularly as it relates to African countries’ patriarchal nature. The gender quota system, notwithstanding its positives, it is yet to position women in becoming competitive presidential candidates to reckon with.

In the meantime, the parliamentary system presents best chances for women in Africa to take up heads of state positions.

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