As Joyce Banda, Malawi’s First Female President and Head of State, was sworn in this month, many Malawians were ecstatic. During the spectacle that occurred after late President Bingu wa Mutharika’s heart attack which resulted in his death, foreign journalists debated whether Malawi was “ready” for a female president. Some Malawians asked the same question, speculating that a constitutional coup would occur that would prevent her from assuming this role. Forgotten was the role that women such as former Official Hostess (First Lady), Cecilia Kadzamira played in the nation. She was the most powerful woman in Malawi for three decades. Towards the end of Kamuzu Banda’s presidency, she essentially run the country and was the de facto president. Therefore in recent history, Malawi has had a precedence of a strong female leader. However, what was also forgotten was a long tradition of female leadership in Malawi and Africa as a whole. As Africans, I think that it’s important for us to have a common, accurate and collective memory with regards to historical events on the continent, including societal issues. As Malawi ushered in the First Female Head of State in SADC, the media and public were mis-educating each other about the real progress of female leadership in Africa in various ways.
I will start with the terminology. In order to have a head of state, there needs to be a state. Prior to the Berlin Conference of 1884, where African states originated, there were no states in Africa. However, there were other forms of political units that had leadership like Kingdoms, Empires, Chieftaincies, clans, or ‘tribes’. Many of these political arrangements in Africa were matrilineal (traced ancestral descent through the maternal line), matrilocal (husband goes to live with the wife’s community), or matriarchal societies (A woman who rules a family, clan, or tribe). These arrangements lead to a long list in history of African leaders like Cleopatra of Egypt, Queen Nzinga M’Bandi of Angola, Princess Grace Matamba of Congo, Queen Nana Yita of Nsuta (Ghana), Queen Nana Aberewa Ampen of Juaben (Ghana), Sultan Fatimah of North Zanzibar (Tanzania), Ret Abudok nya Bwoc of Shilluk (Sudan). Over the years this history of female leadership in Africa, has continued in many rural areas. Therefore, if we are to only look at our history, we may conclude that Africa has always been ready.
In fact, prior to colonialism Africa’s real traditional culture, was more gender progressive then the hybrid system that was introduced during the colonial era. Traditional African culture has always been more gender neutral then the cultures of the global north where patriarchy and capitalism have created inequalities that have challenged for female leadership. Gender roles in African culture have traditionally more fluid. Africans women were serving as spiritual leaders (contemporary day pastors, priests), healers or sangomas, (midwives, nurses, doctors), herbalists (pharmacists), traders (business women) and other prominent positions. Women were also able to own property and had political participation. During this same era, western women were not able to play these roles in their own societies. Therefore when colonialism was introduced state sponsored patriarchy, African women legally lost their social and political positions. This means that women’s leadership in Africa has been more about reclaiming rights we lost under colonialism rather than achieving them for the first time.
In contemporary times, challenged with regaining female leadership on the continent under new political formations, the modern state, African countries have made considerable gains. I compiled a descriptive list of contemporary women Heads of State in Africa that have been head of state that we can draw on to begin to pull our collective memories together:
1. Ruth Sando Fahnbulleh Perry (Liberia) – Appointed, First Female Head of State in Africa, Second Female Head of State in West Africa.
2. Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson (Liberia) – Elected, Second Female Head of State in Africa, First Elected Female Head of State in Africa, Second Female Head of State in West Africa.
3. Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda (Malawi) – Appointed, Third Female Head of State In Africa, Second Appointed Female Head of State in Africa, First Female Head of State in Malawi, First Female Head of State in Southern Africa.
In addition, there have been African women that have acted as head of state like President Rose Francine Rogombé of Gabon who served as interim head of state and Sylvie Kinigi of Burundi, and Carmen Pereira, of Guinea Bissau. Perhaps, the difficulty in including them on the list is can be explained by terminology. The titles ‘Interim’, ‘Acting’, and ‘Elected’ Heads of State may suggests a short term, temporary arrangement. It can also imply that the person is not the ‘real’ head of state. What is also problematic is confusion that arises over who is the head of state in political units. African countries have mixture of heads of state that have the title of President or Prime Minister – some countries others have both positions. However there is evidence that there is room to extend this list in the African context. Therefore, as journalists frantically try to meet deadlines in the corporate media houses, there is little time for them to take an accurate survey or analysis of female leadership. In addition, many journalists in the global North already have a limited knowledge of Africa. They seldom take the time to do their own research on the history of the continent outside of highlighting data centered on societal factors like the level of poverty, disease and women’s oppression. Therefore, this often leads to the misrepresentations and distortion about the dynamics of topics like gender and leadership on the continent. Many have never heard of Ruth Perry, the first African Head of State in Africa (1996-1997) who was succeeded by Charles Taylor in Liberia. She is sometimes not regarded as Head of State, however, many do differentiate Sirleaf-Johnson by noting that Sirleaf-Johnson is the first elected head of state. However we must decide how we want Perry to be remembered because she is in danger of being forgotten in our collective memories in spite of this achievement. In addition, because of the global practice of sourcing news from a few media outlets like Reuters or the Associated Press, at times, African journalists often source their material from these media outlets and end up unintentionally doing the same. This is why Africans need to have a collective memory about their history in terms of female leadership.
It is important to note that there have been a countless number of women that have been serving as Prime Ministers, Presidents (that may not necessarily be head of state) or vice-president in Africa in recent history. However, there needs to be recognition that these women, including Sirleaf, Perry and Banda, are following in the footsteps and tradition of Africa’s long record of female leadership. In order to answer burning questions about our countries’ “readiness” for female leadership, we need to understand our own histories outside of the ‘popular imagination’ of what Africa is. This question is based on assumptions on the level of gender equality in Africa. The assumption is that African men and African societies are sexist due to gender inequalities inherent or rooted in African traditional societies. This is simply untrue. African women in traditional societies have been leaders, healers, priestesses, and property owners. These rights that were increasingly denied to them under colonial patriarchy, and this then carried on beyond colonialism. African Women larelgy lost their rights and never regained them. There are several accounts of women’s participating in the political process by signing treaties as well as accounts of colonialist refusing to negotiate treaties with African women. These attitudes reflected gender relationship inequalities in western societies. These attitudes also continue to affect western women in countries that are highly capitalist and therefore, highly patriarchal. Therefore, our challenge today is to reclaim and regain traditional role as leaders for African women. However, we must have a collective memory with regards to our history. This means learning about African history and recognizing the achievements of all our women.