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Power in Africa, time for women

‘More power to women, means more power to humankind’, said Boutros Boutros Ghali, the then Secretary-General of the UN, in 1996. The same concept has been expressed, in a lighter tone, by Oley-Dibba Wadda, executive director of Women Africa Solidarity, who once said ‘when things are in a mess, women are asked to get in and tidy up’. However, no matter what words we use: women and power are two increasingly linked words, also in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Eight years ago, in various African countries (including Mozambique, Tanzania and Rwanda), women MPs numbered 30%, while the European average rate was 19%. And, if Scandinavian countries were not to be taken into account, Europe (16,9%) would have beaten Africa (16,4%) by a mere 0,5%. That was the point, in 2006, of an article that appeared in the French magazine Jeune Afrique, commenting on the election – in November 2005 – of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the new Liberian head of State. Many things – both positive and negative – have been written about ëMama Ellení, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, together with her fellow countrywoman Leymah Gbowee and Yemen-born Tawakkul Karman. Notably, Johnson-Sirleafís role in the civil war years, her poor track record as a president in fighting corruption and some inconsistencies on the iconic anti-female genital mutilation struggle have created controversy.

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It is undeniable, nevertheless, that the sitting Liberian president has achieved an historical result, having been the first African woman ever to lead a government in its full powers. Before her, women had only managed to act as interim presidents, as Burundi’s Sylvie Kinigi did from October 1993 to May 1994. In Gabon, Rose Francine Rogombè, as president of the Senate, led the country during the transitional period that followed the death of long-time president Omar Bongo Ondimba, prior to the accession to power of the late leaderís son, Ali. The same happened to Liberia’s Ruth Perry, who led the Council of State between 1996 and 1997. Also in Portuguese-speaking Africa, a woman was able to (shortly) gain power. Carmen Pereira acted as the supreme magistrate in Guinea Bissau forÖ two days, from 14 to 16 may 1984, when a new constitution was being adopted.

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Unlike Johnson-Sirleaf, the other two African women currently leading their countries have not been yet voted by their respective peoples: Malawi’s Joyce Banda was the deputy of Bingu wa Mutharika (who died in April 2012) and, despite the late president’s brother and others allegedly tried to derail the process, she constitutionally succeeded her predecessor. She will run in the elections planned for next May, and her political future will depend mainly on the citizens’ judgement about her ability to fight the looting of state funds which led to the so-called ‘cashgate’ scandal.The latest African female president in chronological order, Catherine Samba-Panza, former mayor of Bangui in Central African Republic is a lawyer and businesswoman who already led the National Dialogue in 2003, but the problems she must face are slightly more difficult to handle than Banda’s: in the light of the conflict currently ravaging the country, also the fact that women make up almost a third of her government appear as just a symbolic move.

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Beyond any doubt, however, African women ‘are winning’ as The Economist wrote in its November 2013 issue: among them one can find vice-presidents (as Zimbabweís Joyce Mujuru who was at the side of Robert Mugabe since the years of the liberation struggle, or Isatou Njie Saidi, who in 1997 became the first woman in Gambia to hold the post), prime ministers (recently, Senegal’s Aminata ëMimií Tourè was asked to form a government by president Macky Sall), but also skilled economists (Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Nigeria’s Finance minister, in 2012 ran for the presidency of the World Bank), leaders of international institutions (Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chairs the AU Commission), and magistrates (Gambiaís Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Nigeria’s Supreme Court president, Aloma Mariam Mukhtar).

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Laws aimed to boost female participation in political life may have played a big role in this outcome. ‘Female quotas’ are a standard adopted in many legislative assemblies and they have proved – strictly speaking regarding numbers – to be successful. Almost one third (11 out of 36) of the Houses of Parliament in the world with more than 30% of women MPs is African and Rwanda is the flag bearer: 64% of its lawmakers are women. Even first ladies in Africa were often able to go beyond a mere ceremonial role: Winnie Mandela was a deputy minister in her former husband Nelsonís administration, but was dismissed following allegations of corruption; GraÁa Machel, the wife of the first Mozambican president, Samora Machel (and, after being widowed, of Mandela himself) married him in the same year in which she became Education Minister of Mozambique.

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