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Last Updated: 02/15/2006
The Bright Side of Africa: Its Women
Ajong Mbapndah L.

On a continent renowned for its AIDS pandemic and blood-thirsty warlords, this decade is seeing some bright spots emerge. And they're all women.

Africa remains a continent with many contradictions. What readily comes to mind for many is gruesome poverty, endemic corruption, malaria and HIV/AIDS (which claims lives on an alarming scale), and dictatorial regimes. To many there is very little to be seen in positive terms. The continent is certainly at a crossroads, and midway into the first decade of the 21st century, progress - though many people do not see any at all - is proceeding at snail pace. To Afro optimists, however recent events give reasons for hope. For one thing, there is the emergence of an increasingly strong African Union (albeit the with leaders of doubtful legitimacy). There is also the New Partnership For African Development, which stands out as an African solution to the precarious unenviable situation that Africa finds itself in today; the Peer Review Mechanism, with countries opening up their doors for scrutiny of their management; and the increasing emergence of a stronger and stronger civil society. Though there is still much rhetoric compared to action, the sorrowful plight of the continent is gaining in prominence in the international scene, with calls for debt relief, cancellation, more aid etc. The greatest new development, however, remains the vanguard position now taken up by women with the success of Ellen Johnson in the Liberian elections and the Nobel Peace Prize award of Wangari Maathai, shouting loud and clear for all to hear.

Hitherto relegated to the background, women in the African continent have been slowly but steadily breaking the barriers imposed by the traditional male dominated societies (though often to those males’ discomfort). The Hon. Mrs. Gertrude Mongella was elected as first president of the Pan African Parliament and there are several African Union Commissions headed by women. The recognition that women can succeed where men have failed may be late in coming, but better late than never. The year 2005 may go down in history as that year which heralded a new dawn for an African Revolution. Wangari Maathai of Kenya did the continent proud by receiving the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. This placed her in the ranks of great sons like Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Wole Soyinka (literature) who have been honoured by the award in the past. Prof Maathai’s award came about as a result of her great involvement in the fight for environmental, social, economic and cultural reforms.

The euphoria that greeted Prof. Maathai’s award had yet to die down when Ellen Sirleaf Johnson made history by becoming the first woman elected president in Africa (although Ruth Perry of Liberia served as transitional leader for a short time in the 90s). Her electoral victory over famed soccer star George Opong Weah was viewed by many as a sign that women may actually be the ones who usher in that new dawn that Africa needs. Liberia has hardly known lasting peace since the civil war erupted there in the early 90s, but the two round elections which saw the emergence of Ellen Johnson were from all perspectives a lot freer and fairer than what obtains in the bulk of African countries.

Yet ground-breaking as large events like the Nobel Peace Prize of Prof. Maathai and the election of Ellen Johnson are, it must be noted that Africa has been making very significant progress with regards to the involvement of women in public affairs. There are women who are deeply involved in civil society activities and there is greater enrollment of girls in schools in several countries. Rwanda has reportedly led the world in women’s parliamentary representation for the past few years. According to rankings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Burundi, Mozambique, and South Africa have more than thirty percent of their parliamentary seats held by women. Constitutions in countries like Burundi and Rwanda ensure ethnic and gender quotas while political parties like the governing African National Congress in South Africa have quotas for women candidates. The opposition Social Democratic Front in Cameroon also ensures that women are seriously taken into consideration in virtually all positions of the National Executive Committee.

Woman leaders can be found in higher offices as well. In Zimbabwe the Vice President is Joyce Mujuru, who was active in the liberation struggle of the 70s. In South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka was appointed as vice president to replace Jacob Zuma. Former World Bank Vice President Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is the finance Minister of the largest black nation in the world, Nigeria. In Mozambique, which is cited by many as a worthy example in the continent today, the Prime Minister is Luisa Dias Diogo. Gender is increasingly becoming an issue even though some governments use it only to pay lip service and take cheap rides on the international community with the creation of Ministries and structures, which have no direct bearing on the empowerment and welfare of the women. Elections held in most parts of the continent since 2000 especially in Sub-Saharan Africa have seen greater involvement of women in the legislative sphere of government.

Many Africans feel that with the skills that women have in showing care, nurturing and inculcating meaningful values to the society and generally managing homes with great efficiency sometimes in extremely difficult situations, they could do as well as men (if not better) in pushing the continent out of its state of near coma it has been brought to by decades of male-dominated leaderships. It is rare to find a woman who is satisfied when her children are not satisfied. According to UN secretary General Kofi Annan, when women are involved the benefits are immediate: Families are healthier and better fed and their income, savings and investments go up, and what is true for families is also true of communities and, in the long run countries. Women in Africa certainly have the potential to do a lot more for the continent. They certainly out-number the men and in any democratic election their votes should be very decisive despite the traditional practices subjecting women to male dominance, which are on the decline in most societies. Sidney Poitier, the great African American, actor describes the vote as the best weapon in the hands of the poor and oppressed, and women could be helpful in using this tool to rescue the continent from the misery and stagnation that has been the legacy of most dictatorships are.

Blessed with abundant natural resources denied so many other areas of the world, endowed with very hard working people, bad governance has been a hindrance to progress in Africa. As the Greek philosopher Plato aptly puts it, the price good men pay for remaining indifferent to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men. The natural abilities of women and their numerical strength should make them an irresistible force in African politics of the coming years. A greater participation of women and the youth in public affairs in the broadest sense will certainly augur well for an African Revolution.

Ajong Mbapndah L. is a Jurist and a democracy advocate. He belongs to AFRICAphonie, a pan-African organisation with its headquarters in Cameroon