Women are Finally Having their Moment in African Leadership

DAKAR, Senegal

The future of Africa is female. Or so it would seem, judging by the various projects launched within a diversity of sectors thanks to African and international institutions during the last few years. From politics to economics, from justice to education, in sub-Saharan Africa the roles and initiatives in which women have gained importance are increasingly numerous. Thanks to reforms undertaken by Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has appointed its first female president: Sahle-Work Zewde.

After an intense diplomatic career, Zewde took up the position two years ago. Although the role of president in Ethiopia has more of a representative value than an executive one, Zewde is proving to be a head of state that is not afraid to express her opinion and act. With respect to the coronavirus pandemic that is still putting the country to the test, the Ethiopian president has repeatedly stressed the delicate role of women in the face of the serious social impact caused by the virus. “While women are in the front lines fighting against this pandemic, they are also being pushed to the edges because of its multifaceted impacts,” commented Zewde at the beginning of October. “In much of the developing world, we know women depend on the informal economy to earn their living, and they find themselves in extremely difficult condition to sustain the lives and well-being of their families.”

In March she decided to pardon over 4,000 prisoners and another 1,500 in April, because of the pandemic. In December 2019, she became the “93rd most powerful woman in the world” according to Forbes magazine  and “the highest-ranking African woman on the list”. At the moment she’s the only female head of state on the African continent. But she was not completely a surprise. Other countries before Ethiopia have made significant progress in this field.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was considered the trailblazing factor that allowed women to aspire to the impossible, especially in many conservative African nations where a woman’s role is greatly underestimated and limited. She became Liberia’s head of state in 2006 and left power in 2018 contributing to the country’s first peaceful democratic transition in decades. After years of fighting peacefully in Liberia, she was awarded, together with her sisters in arms, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

Even though her presidential mandates were marked by various corruption scandals, she is still considered a positive icon for African women. “We’re creating this wave of women who are ready to take high-level leadership positions in society”, she once told the Thomson Reuters Foundation; “they’re going to do it unabashedly, they’re going to go for it intentionally”. But since 1993, with the Burundian Slyvie Kiningi, a number of women were nominated “Acting President” of their countries like Catherine Samba-Panza in Central African Republic (2014 – 2016) and Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi in South Africa (2005). While Joyce Hilda Banda was president of Malawi (2012 – 2014), Forbes named her “the 40th most powerful woman in the world and the most powerful woman in Africa”. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was unanimously elected President of Mauritius (2015 – 2018) by the National Assembly.

Always related to the African political arena, Rwanda was the first country to reach an almost 50/50 gender equality balance in the National Assembly in 2003 with 48% of female members of parliament. In 2004 the percentage grew to 64%. Since then, Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, is in fact viewed by many as the most “feminist leader” on the continent. When he reshuffled his cabinet in 2019, he increased the number of female ministers from 26 to 27, making a 52% of the government composed of women. “A higher number of women in decision-making roles”, Kagame said last year “has led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes”. Another important change was made in Togo where, for the first time in the history of this small West African nation, a woman, Victoire Tomegah Dogbe, and a veteran of Togolese politics, was nominated Prime Minister. This moved was praised by the international community.

In the African economic sector, women’s participation is rapidly rising as well. “We will be making many more loans to female clients”, said Babatunde Ajayi, a senior official at United Bank for Africa (UBA), a Pan-African bank based in the Nigerian city of Lagos. “We will offer our capabilities with respect to technical assistance in concert with other African banks. “Therefore”, continued Ajayi “our approach will be much more inspired by gender equality”. Together with the UBA, Ecobank and the Nigerian Bank of Industry have also signed a protocol with the aim of working together and making up for the funding gap that in the past often excluded African women. The protocol states that “these financial institutions will launch an initial fund of $300 million. This will allow women to launch small and medium-sized enterprises in the sectors of agriculture, livestock and other services”.

For experts, including the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Akinwumi Adesina, women represent the major force in Africa’s economy. Yet, “70% of local entrepreneurs are victims of financial exclusion” Adesina explains “a paradox given that 97% of them are able to repay the loans requested, a much higher percentage than male entrepreneurs”. Many recognize that the African economy has been supported by women during the continent’s greatest periods of crisis and unemployment. “For this reason, the goal is to reach 3 billion dollars for a specific fund of loans to African banks that will facilitate loans to women” as reported in a statement from the AfBD, “we will share the risks together with other financial institutions and local governments”.

In the agricultural sector women have a financial deficit of $16 billion. The same deficit reaches 42 billion compared to all sectors linked to the local economy. This condition forces female entrepreneurs to rely on their savings or to ask for loans from families, raising an amount of money that is almost always insufficient for their business needs. This scenario is seen as a major obstacle to the continent’s development. From Ethiopia to Rwanda, from Kenya to Senegal, however, there are more and more initiatives aimed at financing companies headed by the women. Another evolving sector in which the involvement of African female youth will especially increase is the digital one. A few years ago, the “50 million African Women Speak initiative was launched. The project was discussed at the Global Gender Summit in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. “We want to make known the potential of African businesswomen through technology, using the internet or mobile phones”, explained Paul Kagame. “We are targeting the eastern, western and southern regions of the continent”.

While in the Democratic Republic of Congo the government has just received $100 million in credit from the International Development Association (IDA) to push for more female-friendly economic legislation. Among the most rich and powerful women in Africa there was Isabel Dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s former president, Eduardo Dos Santos. Her business ramifications reached many countries and a great variety of companies. As the political leadership changed in Angola, she became the target of local and foreign authorities but many still consider her one of the greatest businesswomen on the continent.

At the top of the international justice sector there is Fatou Bensouda, a lawyer from Gambia that has been since chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since 2012. Previously she was Minister of Justice in Gambia and a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The ongoing “cold war” between her and the President of the United States, Donald Trump, reached a point where Bensouda, since last September, became a “specially designated national” by the U.S. government, a “persona non grata” unable to travel to the US. Bensouda’s current status “prohibits all American nationals and companies from doing business with her”. A strong reaction mainly to the intention by the ICC to investigate possible war crimes committed by American soldiers during the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Hanging in the balance is the Nigerian former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, another of Donald Trump’s targets. After over two decades at the World Bank and major roles in some of the biggest international companies, she’s one of the two main nominees to lead the World Trade Organization. But while the European Union has already expressed its support for Okonjo-Iweala, the Trump administration is vehemently opposed to her nomination. In a few days the world will know if another strong African woman has reached the top of an international institution.


Cover Photo: Nigeria’s former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Geneva – July 15, 2020 (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

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