Addis Ababa — Africa's first pan-continental parliament was inaugurated in Addis Ababa today, and immediately took a bold step, amid stirring and emotional scenes that may give a clue to the future tone and approach of the new body.
The MPs' first act, after being sworn in, was to elect a woman as president of their parliament. Tanzania's Gertrude Mongella is a veteran CCM politician, ambassador and educationist who in her 34-year career has strongly supported the advancement of women.
The move reinforces the strong image of the African Union as determined to advance gender equality. Half the members of the 10-person African Union Commission are women.
The legal steps towards creating the PanAfrican parliament were taken at the AU summit in Maputo, Mozambique in July 2003.
By late February this year, 38 member states had ratified the protocol and most of those had submitted the list of their five members of parliament. At least one of the five had to be a woman but several delegations chose two or more women, a fact which drew approving comment from Mozambique's president Chissano, chairing the inaugural session.
The nomination of Ms Mongella first came from the Nigerian delegation leader who made a powerful speech in her favour, demanding to know, at one point, whether there was any point in any other candidate being put forward; seconded by Sierra Leone, his address drew loud applause and shouts of support from the surrounding delegations.
The Ghanaian delegation came next, to say that they had intended to put their candidate up for the parliament's presidency but that "imbued with the spirit of unity, solidarity and sharing" they had decided to withdraw in favour of Ms Mongella.
Delegates cheered even more loudly, apparently believing that her election was in the bag.
But then the Sudanese delegation took the floor. They described the history and qualifications of their favoured candidate, Angelo Beda - deputy speaker of Sudan's parliament - at length, stressing his suitability for the task. The disappointment in the hall was almost palpable.
But then, said the speaker, "when we decided to propose him we thought that we were proposing a man of caliber. Now we have noticed that this august hall wants a lady" I would like to tell the august hall that for the last two days we had vigorous negotiation with our colleagues from Tanzania when we never agreed to withdraw; but we are now withdrawing on the will of the house."
The concession brought the house down and there were several minutes of banging, cheering and clapping as - mostly - women streamed out of their seats, weaving among the desks towards Gertrude Mongella and the Tanzanians for victory hugs and impromptu dancing, stopping en route to shake the hands of the Ghanaians and Sudanese who had so handsomely climbed down.
A tiresome hour of technicalities followed as delegates argued about whether they could elect Mongella, now the sole candidate, by acclamation or whether they had to hold a secret ballot. In the end, Chissano and the lawyers won out against those who wanted to buck the rules and display complete unanimity; a lengthy ballot was held in which members scrutinized every vote cast.
The result? Twenty-one against, 13 abstaining but a stunning 166 votes for Mongella, an outcome that somehow managed simultaneously to vindicate both Chissano's view that those voting against must be allowed to be register their view, and those who had argued that her supporters were so numerous that the ballot wasn't needed.
Mongella, dressed in sober blue but clearly delighted, took the oath in a clear, deep voice at the podium and then gracefully received the gavel from a Chissano apparently relieved to be handing over the cares of office to the proper official.
In a graceful speech she stressed her commitment to women's equality but praised the men for having done most of the changing needed to reach today's vote. Then promising to be guided by the principles of partnership between men and women, and peace, she firmly sent everyone off to lunch.