The recent election in Liberia is momentous in more ways than one. Most remarkable is the fact that the election itself took place at all in the wake of a long and bloody civil war. Equally significant is the emergence of Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the victorious candidate and thus, the first elected African female president. We must congratulate Mama Ellen on her victory and learn from her perseverance given the fact that this was not the first time she contested elections. For me, the salience of this historic event is the fact that Liberian presidency is no longer out of bounds for women, or to use the language of Nigerian political discourse, the Liberian presidency is no longer a no-go area for women. Perhaps, the surprise is that Liberia beat even Germany, which had its elections more than eight weeks ago, in this great achievement of electing a female leader. And Americans? In the United States, the so-called mother nation of Liberia, female presidency remains a possibility only on a TV Drama, not even a TV Reality Show!!! Against this background, the significance of Mama Ellen's political success in Monrovia, then like Mama Wangari's Nobel Peace Prize cannot be over-celebrated. Please, pass the palm wine.
Nevertheless, the relationship between gender and politics is more complicated than it would seem. The worldwide modern male dominance in all spheres of human endeavor is normally negatively correlated with women's participation in politics. The higher the level of male dominance in society, the lower women's participation in politics. Put another way, it is assumed that in any given society, the more equal (forgive my Orwellian language) women are to men, the greater their political participation, and the greater their political participation the more equal they are. Articulating the issue in these terms, necessarily raise a chicken/egg question of which comes first, female equality or political participation, a matter which will not detain us here.
Even so, the election of a woman to the commanding heights of national office and certainly, the presence of women in the upper echelons of government are often seen as sure sign that women are less subordinated in that particular society. In turn, such a development is also believed to herald a period of governmental responsiveness to women's interests and concerns. But the evidence around the globe in regard to the relationship between the visible numbers of women in political office and the general well being of the female populace remains inconclusive; at best it is a mixed bag. Many commentators have pointed out that the reign of T, a.k.a Margaret Thatcher in Britain was not particularly good for women. Similarly, few gender benefits have occurred for women under the administrations of Indira Gandhi in India, Mrs. Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, and Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines.
In Africa, the most interesting question to pose at this moment in history is the following: What has given rise to this spate of women in political office in a noticeable number of African states? The female composition of Rwanda's legislature stands at 48%--the highest of any country in the world. Both South Africa and Zimbabwe have female deputy presidents, and Namibia has a female speaker of parliament. Affirmative Action policies in South Africa and Uganda have helped in focusing women's political participation and have ensured the increase in the numbers of females in public life. Such positively discriminatory policies on behalf of women are necessary to open up the political process, which is dominated by old boys networks that perpetuate particular political parties, and same old entrenched political elite, which are totally closed to "outsiders," including women. Arguments in favor of quotas targeted at traditionally marginalized groups such as women rest on the premise that democracies for the sake of legitimacy must reflect the social diversity of the citizenry. These are fundamental and laudable ideals.
Until the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, the strong presence of women in elective offices in Africa appeared to be more an East and Southern Africa phenomenon than continent-wide. What is disturbing though, is that all the trail-blazing countries have been through catastrophic conflicts that almost totally destroyed their societies. Apparently, post-conflict states in Africa are better positioned to elect women into political office because they had to more or less rebuild from scratch. It is in the post-conflict period of reconstruction that women are increasingly visible as leaders in all sectors of the society. Perhaps, this should come as no surprise given the fact that women were not only victims of civil wars; they were also combatants, fully participating at all levels. Many women also played significant leadership roles in the resolution of the conflicts and such leadership must be rewarded in peacetime. Rwanda may represent a unique case in which women are called upon to take up leadership in the wake of war and genocide that have taken a disproportionately high toll on men.
Undoubtedly, enlarging female representation and leadership in elected offices, and public life in general is surely a welcome and overdue trend. But one cannot help but ask the following question: In other African countries, do we have to go through such devastation before government becomes more gender-inclusive? Is tragedy a prerequisite for remaking democracy in our own image? Can positive trends spread as a natural evolution rather than as a consequence of makeover after extreme devastation? Whatever the case may be, regardless of the gender, age or ethnicity of the leadership, the challenges are daunting.
To return to the question of whether gender is a good barometer of responsive and responsible leadership, I offer the following observation: In many parts of Africa, the few women who have been in positions of authority and are visible in public life have not given us any reason to believe that female leadership will be radically different from the rampant oppressive, and irresponsible male rulership that the citizenry has unfortunately become accustomed. Most remarkable are experiences in Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya of that nightmare spectacle called "First Lady-ism" in which the wives of the Heads of State arrogate to themselves powers that the constitution does not grant them, and then proceed to loot the treasury, abuse journalists and citizens alike, or peddle their influence in awarding no-bid contracts, and generally behave badly. These women have been blessings neither to women, nor the nations as a whole. I do recognize that we must make a distinction between women in elected offices and those whose claim to fame is that they sleep in the corridors of power. This is surely the dilemma in understanding the bifurcated nature of female identity. If anything, the emergence of autonomous women, elected on their own merit and in their own right, challenge the female-subordinating, postcolonial process of what I call the "wife-ization of citizenship": the idea that the only route to power for women is through association with a man.
There is no question that the presence of women in elected offices and indeed in leadership positions in all spheres of life is a thing of value in and of itself. But we cannot assume that being women makes them innately attuned to gender discrimination and more favorably disposed to promoting women's interests and concerns. Consequently, we must not get bogged down by facile gender debates that do not address the most fundamental questions and pressing issues facing African societies. For a start, leaders and followers alike should work to put the structures of inclusive and responsive governments in place. We must build, strengthen, and democratize political as well as social institutions. Ideally, this will shift the focus away from individual leaders and their personal identities to the more important matter of what a particular leader wants to accomplish and how s/he goes about meeting those goals. Ultimately, given our history, the search is necessarily for social transformation and social justice. The first line of action has to be for an inclusive political process incorporating not only women and ethnic minority groups, but also the majority of Africans who remain disenfranchised and outside the political process.
Oyeronke Oyewumi, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Director, Women's Studies Program
SUNY, Stony Brook
(631) 632-1762 (Phone)
(631) 632-8203 (Fax)