Women gain foothold in Africa's political landscape

Picture of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Screenshot of The Guardian YouTube Channel

Like other parts of the world, the political sphere in Africa offers women little opportunity. However, out of the world total of 60 woman presidents, 12 have come from 10 countries within this continent even so. This includes seven interim presidents.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was born in 1938, is one of the trailblazers in this respect. Having served as president of Liberia from January 16, 2006, to January 22, 2018, she was Africa’s first democratically elected female president. An economist by training, she also held the position of Secretary of State for Finance from 1972 to 1978 and Minister of Finance from 1979 to 1980. In 1980, former president Samuel Doe led the coup d’état that ultimately killed the then-president, William Richard Tolbert, and thirteen of his ministers. This thereby deepened her commitment to combating dictatorship within her country.

After being forced into exile, Johnson Sirleaf later returned to stand against the Doe Regime. Threatened with death, she left for the United States in 1985 to continue her studies. In 2005, she came back to stand for presidential election with the Unity Party. The election on November 8, 2005, saw her win 59.4 percent of the vote against former Liberian international footballer, George Weah. Following her election, she got to work on getting her country removed from the list of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). In 2011, she was re-elected for a second term, which ended in January 2018.

She remains highly active on Twitter:

Another remarkable African woman is Joyce Banda. Born in 1950, Banda and served as Malawi's vice-president under Bingu wa Mutharika. Following Mutharika’s sudden death on April 7, 2012, she subsequently became the country’s president. During her two-year term in office, she undertook the task of restoring good relations with the developed world, mainly by overturning the policy on the devaluation of the kwacha (Malawian currency) for international aid to resume. She also vowed to end the criminalization of homosexual acts. This was one of the conditions stipulated by Western leaders for the resumption of this development aid. Despite suspending laws criminalizing homosexuality in November 2012, no act was passed to repeal the previous legislation.

In 2013, Forbes named Banda the 47th most powerful woman in the world as well as the most influential woman in Africa. To this day, she is still politically active in Africa. She was a member of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) delegation for the observation of the presidential elections, held in Nigeria on February 25, 2023.

Two more women have also been elected as presidents in Africa. During the presidential elections on October 25, 2018, Ethiopia’s Federal Parliamentary Assembly unanimously elected Sahle-Work Zewde. She is the first woman to have held this position in Ethiopia and is currently one of two female head of states in the African continent.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim served as president of Mauritiu from June 2015 to 2018. As a renowned chemist and researcher in phytotherapy and biodiversity, she contributed towards raising awareness about global warming.

Female transitional presidents

Several women have also served as president during political transitions. Following the resignation of President Michel Djotodia, Catherine Samba-Panza led the Central African Republic during the political crisis between January 2014 and March 2016. As a women’s rights activist, she was elected over Désiré Kolingba, who is the son of former president, André Kolingba. Her first address called upon rebels to lay down their weapons in order to build a nation together.

She also became the first Central African woman to hold the position of head of state. Panza, who is not affiliated with any political party, declared her candidacy for the presidential election in August 2020. However, she only received 0.9 percent of the vote. Her message was shared on the Radio France Internationale (RFI) Twitter account.

💬🇨🇫 “Faced with the worsening security and humanitarian situation in #Centrafrique (The Central African Republic), numerous appeals have encouraged me to ask my fellow citizens for their votes once again.” Catherine Samba-Panza, Presidential Candidate.
►Guest on @Kpenahiss #RFImatin 👇 pic.twitter.com/rw6EBxavVE

— RFI (@RFI) August 31, 2020

In South Africa, Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi, served as interim president for the day between September 24 and 25, 2008. LikewiseCarmen Pereira, who led the Cape Verdean parliament (when Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were united) from 1975 to 1980, also served as president for three days in 1984.

Sylvie Kinigi, who was born in 1952, was prime minister of Burundi from July 10, 1993, to February 7, 1994. She also served as interim president from October 27, 1993, to February 5, 1994. The uncertainties surrounding the civil war ultimately led to her holding both positions. In January 1994, the parliament elected Cyprien Ntaryamira as president. Kinigi thereby resigned from her post as prime minister and left the country.

Following the death of President Omar Bongo in Gabon on June 8, 2009, president of the SenateRose Francine Rogombé, served as interim president from June to October that year. This was the preparation period for the elections, which the deceased head of state’s son, Ali Bongo, ultimately won. After leading an exemplary transition period whilst organizing these elections, she resumed her post in the Senate. As president of the Association of Gabonese Women Lawyers and Secretary of State for the Advancement of Women in the 1980s, she won renown for her exemplary career in politics. Rogombé died in April 2015, at the age of 73.

On August 18, 1996, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated a ceasefire between Liberia’s warring factions and announced that Ruth Perry would replace Wilton Sankawulo as Chair of the Council of State of Liberia in the interim government. Following the country's first civil war, Perry thereby served as interim Chair of the Council of State from September 3, 1996, to August 2, 1997.

Tanzania is also familiar with female leadership in state matters. Following the death of John MagufuliSamia Suluhu Hassan became the first woman to lead this country. After being elected as vice-president in 2015, then re-elected in 2020, she will hold this position until 2025.

Although still a minority in this field, the above examples are testament to the strength of Africa’s female politicians.

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