A win for the women of Africa

A win for the women of Africa

THE Mo Ibrahim Foundation recently awarded the Prize for Good Governance, after a four-year hiatus. The award is presented to African heads of state who step down from office after completing their constitutional term limits and demonstrate exceptional and transformational leadership.
It is understandable then that the prize is not awarded annually as exceptional leadership on the continent is few and far between. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was deemed worthy by the committee of the prize, $5 million.

Sirleaf, a freedom fighter, activist, economist, peace-maker, became Liberia’s president in 2005. She came into office through democratic elections following a fourteen-year civil war.

Johnson Sirleaf was also Africa’s first elected female president who remained at the helm of Liberia for two terms spanning twelve years.
Her election was met with elation by gender activists on the continent and worldwide. Unsurprising as it was women, at the centre of the peace process in Liberia, who mobilised and contributed to much of the votes that elected her. This came at a time when the African Union (AU) had declared fifty percent representation of women in decision-making and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region was engaged in a steady campaign to do the same.

She and then Chairperson of the AU, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, would appear as lone female figures amongst men in dark suits ‘family pictures’ at the AU Heads of State Summits.

Together, they would “take the testosterone out of the room”. They would soon be joined by Joyce Banda of Malawi and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim of Mauritius. To have these women reach the highest echelons of decision-making signalled an important win and a turning of the tide in the campaign for gender equality.

In them hope was bestowed. Hope for a meaningful change in the lives of African women; hope for a change in dispensation; and perhaps, importantly hope for young African girls.

Through them young African girls would be able to dream new dreams of a reality where anything they put their minds and hopes to would be possible.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize Committee in awarding the prize did so stating that “during her 12 years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf laid the foundations on which Liberia can now build. In the process, she restored Liberians’ dignity and pride in their country.
Throughout her time in office, she staunchly maintained her priorities and her determination to succeed on behalf of the people of Liberia. Since 2006, Liberia is the only country, out of 54, to improve in every category and subcategory of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance”.

The prize is not the first to recognise her exceptional leadership. In 2011 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2006 she was recipient of the Africa Prize for the Eradication of Hunger Award. Part of her exceptionalism also lies in her sheer audacity to directly challenge patriarchy by her decision to contest the presidency. A decision that came at a great personal cost to her.

There is a certain pressure that comes with being ‘the first’. As the first female African president, we need to question whether she rose to the occasion or whether hope in her was misplaced; what was expected of her as a president, and particularly as a woman who is president.
During her campaigns she was reported to want to bring a “motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency” and to encourage African women to seek political office. That there were no female candidates (especially from her party) contesting her seat, suggests a failure on her part to deliver on this mandate.

There is a strong feeling among women activists in Liberia that the women’s agenda was not a priority in her administration and more could have been done in this regard. However, it is not something she should be judged too harshly for. Looking elsewhere on the continent, elections held in 2017 did not yield any dividends in terms of advancing women’s leadership at the highest levels and the 2018 election outlook bears no such hope either.
Despite this, she held her own as a president, as a first female president, and did her job to the best of her abilities reducing Liberia’s debt and maintaining peace. As expected her legacy is not without criticism. Her administration came under fire for allegations of corruption, nepotism and its handling of the Ebola crisis.

And, she was unceremoniously expelled from her party in her last days of office. Clearly no saint, the prize committee in awarding her notes that “Such a journey cannot be without some shortcomings. Today, Liberia continues to face many challenges.”

The prize will afford her the opportunity and resources to cement her legacy and to build on the ideas she was not able to actualise during her presidency. Ellen Johnson’s Sirleaf’s win of the Good Governance prize goes beyond exceptionalism and is more than the novelty of having had her as the first female African president. It is a validation of what has always been known but conveniently forgotten that women can lead.

Great women have led African nations in the past and more will continue to do so in the future. She will remain an example for others who come after her, with her legacy offering motivation and also practical lessons in tenacity, leadership and power.

Through her we will be reminded of women’s triumphs on the continent and continue to celebrate them with great pride. Well done, Madame President.

Tebello Ralebitso

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