The popular rhetoric that women are too emotional to hold leadership positions is outdated and sexist. Throughout the years history has seen amazing, inspirational and brilliant women who have championed human rights and racial equality movements and have made immerse contributions to science, arts, mathematics and politics.
If we consciously let go of the internalized misogyny holding us captive, we can normalise women holding leadership positions without it being perceived as radical. It is until then, I believe true gender equality can be truly achieved.
Congratulations to Kamala Harris, Vice-President Elect of the US, as she joins the enviable and relatively small league of female presidents. The news is especially joyous because Kamala happens to be Black-Asian, and a daughter of immigrants. She got married at 50, kept her last name and currently has no kids. She shattered the box of what society views as a ‘respectable woman.’ Also at a time when the world, most especially America, is dealing with racial injustice, her win sends a message of equality.
In Africa, women politicians have to fight prejudices in an environment not conducive to progress—From cruel traditions, lack of opportunities, poverty levels, sexism and gender based violence, these are systemic prejudices that make it difficult for African women to get and stay at the top of leadership positions.
Join me in paying homage to the 9 fiercely intelligent women who have held the highest political titles in Africa. Some through election processes, others in an interim capacity. Despite Africa’s backwardness in embracing women in politics, these women made their mark as Presidents of their respective countries:
1/ Slyvie Kiningi, Acting President of Burundi (October 1993- February 1994):
We cannot succeed when half of us is held back.
At 41 years old, Slyvie Kiningi became the first female President in Africa. She served as Prime Minister of Burundi from 10th July, 1993 to 7th February, 1994. While serving as PM, the then President of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, was shot and killed. As the highest-ranking next official, Ndadaye’s death led to her appointment as Acting President of the country from October 27th, 1993 to February 5th, 1994. Slyvie was both President and Prime Minister at the same time when Burundi was marked by intense conflict. She is the first, and to date, the only woman in Burundi to hold such positions.
2/ Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburri, Acting President of South Africa (September 2005 and September 2008)
Women are always judged by whether they are married or not, how many children they have or what they look like.
For four days, Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburri served briefly as South Africa’s acting president in 2005, when both President Thabo Mbeki and his Vice were outside the country. She would be in the same position three years later for fourteen hours on September 25th, 2008, acting as interim president between the resignation of President Mbeki and President Molanthe taking office. Ivy died of natural causes on 6th April, 2009 during her term in office as the Minister of Communications, a position she held since 1999. She was the first in many things: first woman in The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (South Africa), first woman and Black in The South African Broadcasting Corporation, the first, and to date, only woman to have held the post of President in South Africa and the first woman to be head of state of South Africa since Elizabeth II’s reign as Queen of South Africa in 1961.
3/ Rose Francine Rogombe, Interim President of Gabon (June 2009-October 2009)
Rose Francine Rogombe served as interim President of Gabon from June 2009 to October 2009 after the death of President Omar Bongo. As President of the Senate at that time, she automatically became the Head of State because she was constitutionally the first in line for presidential succession. Rose, nicknamed “Madam Iron Lady”, passed away on the 10th of April, 2015.
4/ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia (January 2006-January 2018)
All girls know that they can be anything now. That transformation is to me one of the most satisfying things.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a household name, a well-deserved recognition seeing that she is Africa’s first female elected President. Ellen, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, served two consecutive terms after winning the 2005 and 2011 Presidential elections. During her tenure, she was also elected Chair of the Economic Community of West African States in June 2016. The Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had.”
In 2010, Ellen released her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.
5/ Agnes Monique Ohsan Bellepeau, Acting President of Mauritius (March-July 2012 and May-June 2015)
Mauritius has proven to be more progressive than a host of other African countries. The Island country has gained a reputation for embracing female presidents, although the presidency bestows only ceremonial powers. The real power lies in the office of Prime Minister.
Monique Ohsan Bellepeau won the Mauritanian parliamentary elections and was appointed as Vice President from November 13th, 2010 to April 3rd, 2016. She was elected unanimously by all members of the National Assembly to be the first female Vice President of Mauritius. Three days after she was sworn in as Vice President, she lost her husband.
She then served as acting president of Mauritius from March 31st, 2012 to July 21st, 2012, during the transition period between the resignation of President Anerood Jugnauth and the inauguration of President Kailash Purryag. She was acting president once again between the resignation of Purryag and the inauguration of President Ameenah Gurib from May 29th, 2015 to June 5th, 2015.
6/ Joyce Hilda Banda, President of Malawi (April 2012-May 2014)
The seeds of success in every nation on Earth are best planted in women and children.
Following the sudden death of President Bingu Wa Mutharika, Joyce Hilda Banda who was serving as the first female vice president of Malawi and was next in line to be president according to the constitution, took over the post as President between April 2012 and May 2014. In the midst of an economic crisis as President, Joyce slashed 30% of her salary to prove that she is one with her people in their suffering. She was the country’s first female president. In June 2014, Forbes named Joyce as the 40th most powerful woman in the world and the most powerful woman in Africa.
In 1975, Joyce who was in an abusive marriage for 10 years, took her three children and left. Now, she is involved in many grass root projects with women, bringing about policy change, particularly in education. Prior to her post as Vice President and President, she was appointed as Minister for Gender and Community Services. As minister, she fought to enact the Domestic Violence Bill, which had failed for seven years.
7/ Catherine Samba, Acting President of Central Africa Republic (January 2014-March 2016)
Girls have to get much more interested in public matters, in international matters, and [they must] affirm themselves by making frank, open, honest commitments in the area of the protection of women’s rights, in the area of politics and in all other sectors.
Catherine Samba became interim president from 2014 to 2016 when rebel leader Michael Djotodia resigned from his self-appointed Presidency. Before she took this role, she was the mayor of the capital city Bangui from 2013 to 2014.
8/ Ameenah Gurib Fakim, President of Mauritius (June 2015- March 2018)
I guess at some level I have shattered the glass ceiling. But, there are many more glass ceilings that need to be shattered. We need more women in politics and other areas of work. If you asked me, I would never wish to be a man… women are multi-taskers and can get so much done in a day by comparison.
Ameenah Gurib Fakim is the first female elected President of Mauritius. A muslim woman, She was unanimously elected President by the country’s National Assembly in June 2015 and served until March 2018. Before she became President, Ameenah was a biodiversity scientist and the founder of the centre for Pytotherapy research. She stepped into her presidency role with virtually no political experience on her resume, just the passion to bring her perspective and concerns as a scientist to a larger audience.
9/ Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethopia (October 2018- Present)
Trust women, that is the first step in making room for them.
Sahle-Work Zewde is the first elected female president of Ethiopia and currently the only female president out of the 54 Presidents in Africa. She took office on October 25th, 2018 after being unanimously elected by members of the National Parliamentary Assembly. Her role as president is purely ceremonial. Prior to her election as President, She worked as Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union.
Worthy of Note: Victoire Tomegah Dogbe was appointed as Togo’s Prime minister on the 28th of September, 2020. She is the first woman to hold that position in Togo.
From 1993 till date, Africa has only seen 9 female presidents. That is not to say we lack genius female minds. There is a deep rot in Africa—a largely patriarchal society which debilitates our women limiting them to the lackluster confines of domestic work and placing hurdles to prevent them from flourishing in socio-economic spheres.
A large part of the blame must be apportioned to our pre-dominantly male African leaders, who continue to mismanage and abuse their power since colonization ended. They must be blamed for not only being apathetic in engaging women in politics, but also actively working against them when they do indicate interest. This attitude, the dangerous idea that a woman should not be ambitious, stems from home, where gender roles are commonplace.
Unfortunately, some of the women who are privileged to hold governmental positions reinforce this harmful notion, trying to preach to young women where their place ultimately is—beneath their spouses. We all have some unlearning to do. Chimamanda says it best,
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.
These 9 women have defied the odds against them, and so can you. Black girl, as the simulation glitches, as the patriarchy disintegrates, as you discover how exquisite you really are, it is time to work tirelessly towards your most chaotic, senseless and seemingly unrealistic dreams. See you at the top.