Fahamu (Oxford)

7 March 2013

African Women Holding Enviable Leadership Positions

Photo: Ky Chung
Women celebrating International Women's Day in Cote d'Ivoire (file photo).

analysis

In honor of International Women's Day the achievements of some remarkable African women in politics, business and literature are celebrated in defiance of the stereotypical depictions of African women

Today, who would think that African women are backward or subservient? Indeed, they have evolved from playing more traditional and cultural roles to relatively impressive, if not enviable leadership positions.

Invariably, some of them are outshining men in the pursuit of their dreams and destinies. Education, activism and awareness have helped to empower others into playing dynamic roles in a long struggle for emancipation of women towards achieving a reasonable level of advancement and appreciation.

But a lot more needs to be done to close the leadership gap with men. There is no surprise that more African women than men are enrolling in institutions of higher education and closely competing with men in achieving advanced education. But in several traditional African societies women are stalled and woefully uneducated or undereducated.

This group of women lives in squalor, if not abject poverty in ignorance and under the tyranny of men.

But my focus here is to recognize and celebrate the achievements of African women as a whole, often downplayed as naïve, gullible and less conscious of their fundamental rights and their role as nation builders and magnets that hold family units together. I may appear subjective in choosing the women included in this piece.

AFRICA'S FIRST FEMALE HEAD OF STATE - ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF

Africa has elected two women presidents in Malawi, Southern Africa and in Liberia, West Africa. A former World Bank economist, 70 plus year-old Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was re-elected to a second term as president of Liberia, a former settlement for freed American slaves. For decades Liberia before her was a paternalistic society where men dominated its affairs, especially politics.

Her leadership doesn't go down well with less informed men hooked on rigid tradition and vehemently opposed to a woman occupying the pinnacle of power. Johnson Sirleaf is transforming Liberia into a more peaceful and hopeful society. But corruption and nepotism are stubborn cancers that refuse to go into remission, despite the therapy of democracy and promotion of human and women's rights.

Rebuilding and some development are taking place there as Liberians living in the Diaspora are returning home. But this once prosperous nation bearing the moniker 'little America' has an enduring fight on its hands to restore its past glory, after its long untold anarchy and wreckage due to decades of war.

The complete story will never be told in trying to evaluate both the human and damage to infrastructure it suffered. Presently, there's relative peace. But what happens when the mantle of power switches hands?

AFRICA'S SECOND FEMALE HEAD OF STATE: JOYCE BANDA

Recently, Joyce Banda was sworn in president of the southern African nation of Malawi. She's Africa's second female president. This peaceful transition of power is a great relief in Malawi where a political crisis seemed averted after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.

Malawians have blamed him for the current economic crisis, and see the transition as a moment of great hope for change. Appearing at a news conference as vice president, she was flanked by army, police, and other government leaders.

And hours later she took the official oath of office at the National Assembly in the capital. But Banda did not directly answer the question of whether she would assume the presidency, but she did say, 'The constitution is prevailing.' Malawi's constitution stipulates that the vice president should assume power if the president dies. Immediately after Mutharika's death by cardiac arrest, it was unclear if that would happen because Banda had issues with Mutharika in 2010.

But she remained vice president, though she was kicked out of Mutharika's political party and forming her own. Mutharika, meanwhile, appeared to have been grooming his brother to replace him.

Banda ordered the nation's flags to be flown at half-staff for10-day mourning period. Though there were reports of Malawians celebrating Mutharika's death.

The 78-year-old former World Bank official was elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2009. But was accused of economic mismanagement, becoming autocratic, and souring relations with important donor - especially the United States and Great Britain - who stopped hundreds of millions of dollars of much needed aid. Banda, who is 61 is a longtime campaigner for women's rights and better education in Malawi.

Inheriting a herculean task, she will run the nation until elections take place in 2014. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and most people live in abject poverty. And the nation is prone to natural disasters--the extremes of drought and flooding- and is facing fuel shortages and rising food prices.

To govern effectively, Banda needs cooperation from elected members of Mutharika's political party, which she was expelled from after growing critical of the late president. She's the daughter of a popular musician and married to a retired chief justice. Her sister was hired by Madonna to run a school for girls in Malawi, but the project failed and she was later fired.

WOMEN IN SIERRA LEONE STEP UP

Sierra Leonean women are playing enviable roles in the nation's recovery, rebuilding and reconciliation. The Chief Justice- Umu Hawa Tejan Jalloh started life from humble heritage and was appointed by President Ernest Bai Koroma who was recently re-elected.

Tejan Jalloh administered Koroma's oath to a second term in office, and women played a major role in his re-election. Though politics still plays behind the scene in the justice system, but under her administration new courts are emerging around the country to ensure that justice is served to all. Koroma has been promoting free health care for pregnant and lactating women and providing postnatal care for them and for children until they turn five.

This resulted in a fifty percent reduction in the death rate of women during the ordeal of child bearing. Women's issues affect the family, nation and the world. Definitely, freedom and women's rights are on the march here.

Everyone gets a fair day in court to resolve both criminal and civil cases. Women are demanding a 30 percent quota in high leadership positions and play major roles in government and party politics.

ASPIRING NIGERIAN WOMEN

Nigeria, the most populous African nation, now boasts of 61 year-old Folorunsho Alakija, the first African woman billionaire who's worth about $3.3 billion and richer than Oprah Winfrey the famous US talk show host.

Previously, Oprah was the world's richest black woman. Mrs. Alakija rose from playing the role of mother, wife, secretary, and fashion designer to oil tycoon and philanthropist. She makes history as an African woman rising to fame and extreme wealth.

She did overcome endless obstacles in her path to attain this level of success. Societies around the world are changing and so are the fortunes of women once considered underdogs.

Some of them are pursuing their personal aspirations, motivations, independence and freedom. This trend is possible because education is making a difference in their lives and influencing various cultures around the world. When we change the way we look at things, then the things around us and beyond will change. Perception plays a pivotal role in today's reality.

OTHER NOTABLE AFRICAN WOMEN

Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow to a British mother and Sierra Leonean father, Sorie Forna a medical doctor and rising star in then All People's Congress party under the tyrannical rule of late Siaka Stevens who framed him of treason and hanged him with 14 others. Amie was raised in Sierra Leone and Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia.

She's the award-winning author of two novels: 'The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones', and a memoir 'The Devil that Danced on the Water. The Memory of Love' (Bloomsbury, April 2010) is a story about friendship, war and obsessive love.

The novel won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize Best Book Award 2011, short-listed for both the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011. It was selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the 'Sunday Telegraph', 'Financial Times' and 'Times 'newspapers and was a 'New York Times' Editor's Choice book.

'The Devil that Danced on the Water' (HarperCollins 2002), a memoir of her dissident father and of Sierra Leone, was runner up for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2003, chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers series and serialised on BBC Radio and in 'The Sunday Times' newspaper.

'Ancestor Stones' (Bloomsbury 2006) was winner of the Hurston Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction (read more about the award in the 'Washington Post'); the 2008 winner of the Liberaturpreis in Germany; the 2010 winner of the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize, and was nominated for the International Dublin IMPAC Award.

It was also a 'New York Times' Editor's Choice book, selected by the 'Washington Post 'as one of the Best Novels of 2006 and 'The Listener Magazine's' Best 10 Books of 2006. Aminatta has also published short stories and was shortlisted for the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award. In 2007 Vanity Fair named her as one of Africa's most promising new writers.

Her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Mandarin. Aminatta has written essays and articles for 'Granta', 'The Times', 'The Observer' and 'Vogue' among others and has written for television and radio. Her television credits include the arts documentary 'Through African Eye's (BBC), the documentary series 'Africa Unmasked' (Channel 4) and in 2009, 'The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu' (BBC). She has been a guest presenter on 'Open Book and Saturday Review' on BBC Radio.

In 2003 Aminatta established the Rogbonko Project to build a school in a village in Sierra Leone, where she now overseas a number of projects in the spheres of education, sanitation, maternal health and agriculture.

Aminatta is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and sits on the Board of the National Theatre of Great Britain, on the General Committee of the Royal Literary Fund and the Council of the Caine Prize for African Writing. She has acted as judge for a number of literary awards and is currently a judge for the 2013 International Man Booker Prize.

Aminatta is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and has often acted as a visiting lecturer and tutor of literature and creative writing, most recently as 2011 Sterling Brown Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College, Massachusetts.

My projection is that she's walking the pathway to capture the coveted Nobel Peace Prize in Literature that would bring laurels to Sierra Leone, where creative writing is gasping for oxygen to become relevant and renewed appreciation of the Arts.

AN IRON LADY OF SIERRA LEONE

Diana Finda Konomanyi hails from diamond rich Eastern province of Kono district. She inherited leadership genes from her father who was chairman of the Kono District Council, a position she bagged recently. She was elected school prefect at YWCA her Alma Mater where she first demonstrated early signs of leadership.

Nursing the school's motto: 'Competence Devotion Service' she offers hope for young women and girls in Sierra Leone who are eager to serve too with honor and distinction in a relatively male dominated society. She's involved in the construction of healthcare centers, provision of water wells, providing scholarships for school children and making micro credit loans accessible to women that could help reduce the scourge of poverty, malaise of economic dependence on men.

During the heydays diamond trade was booming but the township was not developed according to modern standards. Diana was recently appointed minister of Local Government and Rural development. She's a youthful rising star in the ruling All People's Congress party by all assessments. And she stormed the political stage free of any political baggage like a freshly minted coin.

Her name also came up as President Koroma's running mate in the recent elections. As a long-term strategy, if APC wants a firm grip on the tenets of power Konomanyi harnesses the political capital to galvanize the Eastern Province and the women's vote in general, with her no nonsense policy. Hence the reason why she's referred to as 'Iron Lady.'

Diana gave the vote of thanks and was spokesperson of the newly appointed and sworn in new ministers. She also commissioned a rural market and a Community Resource Center for youth in the Sembehun and Moyamba towns, Southern Sierra Leone recently, as part of the UNDP/UNCDF funded Local Government Economic Development Joint Program.

When politicians recognize and appreciate the political capital that women carry they could not afford to ignore and condemn them to the Cinderella status. Women's rights are human rights affecting every nation and the world. To help measure the health of a nation's democracy the status and voice of women is a good indicator we cannot ignore.

- Roland B. Marke is a Sierra Leonean activist in women and human rights, based in the US; author of three books and has written extensively on issues such as wars, healthcare of women, scarcity of water and the need to educate all children.

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