Flashback: The African Iron Lady takes over

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf made history on this day 11 years ago by becoming the first female head of state in Africa. 


From the archives: On this day in 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first female head of state in Africa. This is how African Business reported that historical event.  

Although some results from outlying districts have not yet been collated and the National Elections Commission (NEC) is to hold an investigation into fraud allegations, it appears that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is to become the first female African head of state in the post-independence era.

At the time of going to press and with the vast majority of votes counted, Johnson-Sirleaf has accrued an unassailable lead, with 59.4% of the votes cast to George Weah’s 40.6%. Can the former World Bank economist tackle the country’s daunting economic problems and could her election promote the cause of female politicians elsewhere in Africa?

Despite positive reports o f a free and fair election from international observers, the NEC is right to investigate any claims of electoral fraud. Gyude Bryant, the country’s interim president, commented that protests by supporters of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) were destabilising the country and so it was vital to investigate any irregularities.

He said: “In light of the persistent street protests, which are causing panic among citizens[…] resulting in intermittent closures of schools and business houses, government can no longer allow this situation to continue.” But he added: “Government will not under any circumstances accept a situation where some citizens decide to hold the rest of the country hostage because they do not agree with a particular issue or course of action.”

Assuming that Johnson-Sirleaf takes up the post of president, her election should mark a breakthrough for women in Africa. Although there were female leaders of African polities prior to the colonial period and Ruth Perry served as a transitional leader in Liberia during the run up to the 1997 presidential election, there have been no other female African heads of state elected under a modern democratic system.

There are also remarkably few women in key cabinet posts and most of the women who do hold ministerial posts have responsibility for women’s affairs, the family or children, rather than serving as prime minister, finance minister or minister of foreign affairs. However, it is important not to overestimate the gap between female political representation in Africa and the rest of the world.

Despite the recent election of Angela Merkel in Germany and the longevity of Johnson-Sirleaf’s namesake as ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher, in the UK, very few countries have ever had women heads of government or heads of state. Outside north-west Europe, several women have reached the top in South Asia, but only when they have been members of powerful political families that have already achieved prominence through the success of male politicians.

It is interesting to note, however, that Africa’s various political dynasties have almost exclusively aimed to transfer power from father to son, rather than from man to wife or father to daughter. When it comes to female parliamentary representation, Africa fares somewhat better.

While just 14.9% of all African members of parliament are women, this figure is very close to the global average of 15 .2%, yet these figures mask massive differences across the continent. Just 1 .2 % of MPs in Niger and 3.1% in Swaziland are women, but following legislative elections in October 2003, women secured 48.8% of all seats in the Rwandan parliament, the highest proportion in the world and a source of pride for Africa.

This was partly because of an electoral system that reserved 24 out of 80 seats for women, but the success of female candidates in the remaining seats perhaps indicates that the Rwandan population as a whole thought that women could do a better job than men.

The tools to do the job?

Providing that the Liberian NEC does not uncover electoral fraud on a massive scale, the Liberian people certainly seem to have preferred their female candidate over the male option in the presidential run-off but it is difficult to determine what role gender played in the election. Certainly, the leaders that have brought the country to its current unstable and economically unsuccessful situation have all been men.

Yet the choice seems to have mainly been one between a successful economist with a great deal of political and economic experience and a superstar former footballer with a reputation as a winner but little political track record.

Unlike some other Africans who have held high office with multilateral organisations before moving into domestic politics, Johnson-Sirleaf brings a great deal of baggage with her, having already played a prominent role in Liberian politics. Her criticism of the Samuel Doe government resulted in a spell in prison, while her support for Charles Taylor has attracted some criticism from political opponents.

In her defence, she points to the fact that she realised her error once Taylor became president and attempted to challenge him in the 1997 presidential election, eventually securing second place. Anyone with a long track record in national politics is bound to make mistakes, but many Liberians seem to have given Johnson-Sirleaf their backing because of her economic experience.

Apart from the World Bank, she worked at US bank Citibank and at the UNDP, and has served as president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment and as Liberian minister of finance. As such, she seems the right person to start rebuilding the shattered Liberian economy.

In addition, her political experience should pay dividends as she will have to work alongside the CDC, which won more seats than any other party in the legislative election. Economic reconstruction will take far longer than the president-in-waiting can give.

At the end of last year, the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia described the economy as “dysfunctional”, after 1 5 years of civil conflict was followed by a 31% fall in GDP in 2004.

Yet while natural resources such as diamonds, iron ore, timber and rubber can provide the basis of a stronger economy in the long term, donor support is vital if the new government is to secure the funds necessary to rebuild much-needed infrastructure and kick-start the economy in the short term.

With her experience at the World Bank, Johnson-Sirleaf should have the contacts and the know-how to secure such support. Aside from purely economic objectives, one of her greatest tasks will be to knit the country back together.

Apart from the various factions that have contested military control of the country in recent years, the associated schism between the original inhabitants of the region and the descendants of the freed US slaves who were settled there and who largely comprise the political elite needs to be healed.

While Johnson-Sirleaf gained a great deal of support from this elite, Weah’s support mainly came from the other half of the Liberian population, partly because he himself comes from the local Kru ethnic group. Some critics believe that a woman cannot have the strength to pull together the various factions but aggression has failed before in Liberia and skills in negotiation are now surely more in demand.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to portray Africa as somehow lagging behind when it comes to women’s rights. The lack of African women with real political power is perhaps a reflection of attitudes towards women in general.

For instance, at the risk of upsetting all our South African readers, it is often commented by foreign visitors to South Africa that one of the few things that white and black South African men have in common is their derogatory view of women. Yet local trade in many parts of the continent is dominated by women to a far greater extent than in most other parts of the world.

It is not Africa, but the world as a whole that has a problem with underestimating the abilities and talents of women. In some parts of the world where women’s rights are legally if not culturally protected, such as the UK, girls are outperforming boys at school by a wide margin, while the superior communication skills of many women are proving more effective in most workplace environments.

Men still run most organisations, perhaps because of their more competitive, aggressive instincts, but such talents are probably not the most useful in top political jobs. Could it be that men are increasingly afraid that they have had their day in the sun? It is as wrong to condemn men as an entire gender for their inability to govern as it is to dismiss the potential of all women.

However, can anyone really argue that women would have done a worse job at governing the African continent over the past 40 years had men been excluded from the top jobs? The election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia and the first female African head of state could be a major step on the road to genuine political empowerment for African women. So which African nation will be brave enough to elect the second?

Neil Ford

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