Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in 2006. And with that she became Africa’s first elected female president.
From being Malawi’s vice president, Joyce Banda became its president in April 2012 after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika. There have been others, but they were acting presidents.
So West Africa and Southern Africa have female presidents. Not so Northern, Central, and East Africa. The closest a woman has come to the presidency in East Africa is in Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Dr Speciosa Kazibwe was President Yoweri Museveni’s vice president from 1994 to 2003.
However, in Rwanda, Agathe Uwilingiyimana beat Kazibwe to the prized slot when she was appointed prime minister in July 1993 as part of a short-lived government to end the war between the now-ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Juvenal Habyarimana regime in Kigali.
Habyarimana officially sacked Uwilingiyimana just 18 days after her appointment as PM, but she stayed on in a caretaker role until she was assassinated in a most horrific way by extremist forces in April 1994.
Stop anyone in an East African capital and ask who is Sylvie Kinigi, and the chances that you will draw a blank are 100 per cent. Except, of course, among current affairs junkies in the Burundi capital Bujumbura.
Melchior Ndadaye appointed Ms Kinigi prime minister in July 1993. Ndadaye was killed in October of the same year during Burundi’s civil war by insurgents. As the highest-ranking next official, Kinigi became acting president on October 27. She stepped down from the role in February 1994 after parliament declared that Cyprien Ntaryamira would take the helm.
All these East African women leaders, however, were appointed to their positions.
Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua hopes to change this picture at the Kenya March 4 elections, where she is the only female candidate in the field alongside seven men.
That fact is a reminder that presidential politics in East Africa, as in the rest of the continent, is still dominated by men.
If Ms Karua emerges victorious, though, it will partly be testimony to just how many women prepared the ground before her– a fact often forgotten because they all lost. But also, Ms Karua is running in an era in which many social dynamics have changed in ways female presidential candidates would never have imagined just 10 years ago.
To begin with, today it is no longer big news that a woman is running for office. The surprise would be if there were no female candidate. This “routinisation” of female candidates is down to the many women who threw their hat in the ring at a time when the environment was very hostile.
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Charity Ngilu, running on the Social Democratic Party ticket, was Kenya’s first female presidential candidate. Her candidacy caused a stir not just in Kenya, but East Africa. Today, Karua has to jostle with seven men. Not so Ngilu. When she ran in 1997, she went up against 14 men in dark suits, woollen berets, and elaborate flywhisks although most of them were just also-rans.
She came third, leaving the bulk of the men in her dust. More importantly, she beat veterans of the Kenyan democracy and radical movement like Martin Shikuku and George Anyona. She won 7.71 per cent of the vote, the best a female presidential candidate in East Africa has bagged to date.
Ngilu, though, had to endure comments about her legs, and jokes about neglecting her husband and abandoning wifely duties like cooking. It is commonly forgotten that in the same election Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai (she died September 2011) was also on the ballot.
But her story demonstrates just how the odds were stacked against women then. Her candidacy was marred by internal a wrangles in her Labour Party. One faction of the party announced that it had withdrawn her nomination for the presidency just days to the election, but Maathai’s name still ended up on the ballot paper. She got 0.07 per cent of the vote.
In a sign of how changed the times are, it is highly unlikely that any self-respecting critic would comment publicly on the shape of Karua’s legs or her dress, as they did with Ngilu in 1997; or whether she is a good or bad wife, as happened with Maathai. And her grip on Narc-Kenya is firmer than any other woman’s has been on a party till now.
No woman entered the historic Kenya election of 2002 that ended nearly four decades of KANU rule, but in 2007 the women rejoined the fray. Nazlin Umar, running as a candidate of the Workers Party Congress, became the third Kenyan woman to give the presidency a shot.
Her slogan was “President wa mtaa” (the president of the streets), as part of a campaign to persuade voters that she was able to address the everyday concerns of ordinary folks. She came in sixth out of nine candidates, managing to collect just 8,624 votes – 0.09 per cent of the vote. Ms Umar’s campaign was undermined by her own farcical theatrics.
In Tanzania, the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM, or Party of Revolution) has got such a stranglehold on the country’s politics, and the party’s male patriarchs hold so much sway, you rarely hear about female candidates sticking their heads up to seek the top job.
Yet, even in Tanzania, women have tried to wreck the men’s merry go round.
In 2005, Anna Claudia Senkoro, of the Progressive Party of Tanzania-Maendeleo (PPT-M), became the first woman in Tanzania’s history to run for president, and so far, the only one who has stayed with her bid till election day. Running as the PPT-M flag bearer, she placed eighth out of 10 candidates, with 18,741 votes – 0.17 per cent of the vote.
Other Tanzania women jumped in the presidential pool, but didn’t swim far. CCM’s Amina Salum Ali was Zanzibar island’s Minister of Finance when she entered the race to be the party’s candidate for the Zanzibar presidency. Amani Abeid Karume, who went on to clinch the job, beat her in that race for the CCM nomination.
In 2005, Ali came up to try for another bite at the CCM Zanzibar apple, but the party was not in a sharing mood. It stuck with Karume who won a second term. Ali never got her day in the ring.
If Ngilu was Kenya’s pioneer female presidential candidate, then Tanzania’s first aspirant was Ms Naila Jiddawi.
Jiddawi announced her intention to contest the Tanzanian presidency in 1995 as an opposition candidate. She was then running a resort hotel on Zanzibar’s main island of Unguja. However, weeks into her quest, Jiddawi claimed the CCM government tried to burn down the resort and, sensibly, withdrew from the race.
Tanzanian women never give up after the first try. Jiddawi was back 10 years later in 2005, as Edmund Sengondo Mvungi’s running mate on a Convention for Construction and Reform (NCCR-Mageuzi) ticket. Mvungi lost his shirt, winning 0.49 per cent of the vote.
It took Ugandan women nearly 10 years to follow in Ngilu and Maathai’s footsteps. In 2006, Maria Obote stood as the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), in the 2006 presidential elections.
Mrs Obote formally returned to Uganda in October 2005 after nearly 20 years in exile to bury her husband, former president Milton Obote. For most of those years she lived in Nairobi, while her husband was in exile in Zambia.
Two months later, she was elected head of, and presidential candidate for, the Uganda People’s Congress, a party founded and led by her husband until his death. She was the first woman in Uganda to vie for the presidency, putting up a valiant albeit ultimately unsuccessful campaign. She got only 0.08 per cent of the vote.
At the next election in 2011, the younger and feistier Beti Kamya of the Uganda Federal Alliance mixed it with a large field of men. Her take of the vote ended up being smaller than Mrs Obote’s in 2006, at 0.06 per cent.
In Burundi, female presidential candidates have had quite a good inside political track, but rarely end up in the ring.
Alice Nzomukunda of the Democratic Alliance for Renewal (ADR), was set to run in 2010. She had cut her political teeth as state vice president from 2005-06, and vice president of the National Assembly 2007-08. She became leader of ADR in 2009 and was named presidential candidate in 2010. However, she withdrew together with all the opposition candidates before the elections.
Likewise Pascaline Kampayano won the internal vote to be the Union for Peace and Development (UPD-Zigamibanga) candidate in the 2010 race with a hefty majority of 80.5 per cent against 18.8 per cent for her challenger, Alfred Ndarigumije.
But all the opposition candidates boycotted the 2010 elections, leaving Pierre Nkurunziza to walk home with the trophy without a challenge.
In Rwanda, Uwilingiyimana was prime minister, but she was handpicked, not elected in a popular vote.
Though Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of women in Parliament, their record in the presidential race has not been a happy one. Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party of Peace and Concord, made a try in 2003 and 2010.
She was the first woman to run for the presidency in the 2003 General Election but withdrew on the eve of the elections and joined forces with President Paul Kagame who sailed home with a landslide victory.
In 2010, she tried again, but again, Kagame won with over 90 per cent of votes cast. She got 0.04 per cent of the vote, the lowest of any female presidential candidate in East Africa so far.
More controversially, in 2010, Victoire Ingabire returned home, and almost immediately announced that she would be seeking the Rwandan presidency on the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF) platform.
Days later, she was accused of fanning genocidal and sectarian sentiment, and was ultimately barred from running. She was arrested and charged with terrorism and threatening national security. She was found guilty of both charges and is currently serving an eight-year jail term.
Clearly, then, it is not for lack of trying that a woman has not won the presidency in any one of the East African Community states. They have shown the ambition, and are definitely hungry enough for the job.
The same picture emerges in the rest of Africa. The list of women who have run for president in Africa, is actually more impressive than Asia’s, Europe’s, or the America’s
READ: They gave the presidency their best shot – and still ‘won’ in defeat
Yet, only two of them have made it to the presidency this way. Critics, scholars, and activists argue that this locking-out of women from top positions is because African society is still very patriarchal, and women thus have less political and economic power than men.
This is true, but only partly so. Many countries have taken constitutional and administrative measures to improve women’s role in politics, yet somehow after more than a decade, these have not yet produced a female presidential winner — or even a front-runner in the opinion polls.
Several African countries, including Rwanda, Burkina Faso and Uganda, have constitutional provisions reserving seats in the national parliament for women.
Others, like Sudan, have quotas written in election law. And, in others, dominant ruling parties have internal quotas for women in leadership. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) and Mozambique’s long-ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) being the best examples.
The result of these reforms is that 56.3 per cent of the Rwandan Parliament is comprised of women, making it, by far, the most female-friendly legislature in the world.
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South Africa has the world’s eighth highest proportion of women in parliament, at 42.3 per cent. Mozambique is 12th, at 39.2 per cent.
Uganda is 21st, at 35 per cent. The Kenya Constitution of 2010, which adopted Rwanda and Uganda-type laws for women’s representation, will bring a record number of them to Parliament after the March 4 elections.
Yet presidents Kagame and Museveni, have still seen off their female opponents easily. The case has been that in addition to patriarchy, the seemingly strange tendency by women voters not to support their womenfolk in large numbers means female presidential candidates are unable to leave a deep impression on elections.
However, there is no doubting that if the RPF put up a female candidate in a Rwanda presidential poll or in South Africa the ANC did the same, they would win. The problem then is not that in most of Africa voters are not ready for female presidents, rather it’s the entrenched parties that aren’t.
Thus most female candidates, in order to ensure they get nominated start their own parties, or seek platforms on the minor parties with little chance of success, where the leadership race is not cut-throat. Or, sometimes, they get to stand on old parties that are in decline, as was the case with Mrs Obote being UPC candidate in Uganda in 2006. They thus run for elections on parties that are too new or not robust enough to mobilise victory for their candidates – male or female.
The exception here, being Liberia. Johnson-Sirleaf’s victory in 2006 seemed to demonstrate yet again that the conditions that break barriers for women in politics could be very unusual. One of them being conflict.
War is usually waged by men, and it seems that male chauvinist societies that have gone through hell, are often shocked into being more willing to experiment with the more peaceful and less militaristic approach associated with female leadership.
Secondly, in countries that have had war, men are usually unequal to managing many of the crises that consume these societies – e.g. looking after families in refugee camps – and are forced to cede power and space to women.
In some cases, because men are the targets of rebels and avenging government troops, many will flee and hide out in the forests and mountains during wars, leaving women to run the show back home, thus shoring up their social capital.
Thirdly, rebel armies with their backs to the walls, need every pair of hands they can get to fight. The reservation about women fighting usually collapses, and in Rwanda and Uganda for example, there were many women in the frontlines, and they emerged from there as commanders. It seems when both men and women see a woman shooting and killing in war, it alters the gender philosophy of many of them.
Johnson-Sirleaf’s rise was possibly party due to these factors that are thrown up in countries that have been at war and are seeking a nurturing hand to lead them.
Indeed, very good proof of this comes from Somalia, which is recovering from 20 years of bloody conflict. Its new prime minister, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs, is Fowsiyo Yussuf Haji Adan.
This makes Somalia unique among staunchly Islamic countries in Africa and the Middle East — it is the only one of them with a woman in such a position of political influence.
So, if the ground is shifting quickly in favour of women politicians, why is the “conversion rate” into winning performances in presidential candidates taking so long?
One reason is that many of the other areas necessary for success at the presidential election remains largely unreconstructed enclaves of male power. One of them is “image making.”
Women candidates like Karua, just don’t get sufficient image making through the instrument for that – the media.
Power in East African, indeed African, media is still monopolised by men. It has not been not unusual to see a photo line-up of presidential candidates for the March 4 election, with one short. The dropped one was often that of Karua. As she was being sidelined, male upstarts were basking on the front pages of newspapers.
But even newspapers and TV stations where women are editors, don’t do much better than men. Here it is commercial and rating pressure, plus the tyranny of legacy. It arises of out of the dominant view about what sells.
Most media acts on the assumption that what sells papers or drives ratings is a “cock fight.” A clash between Cord’s Raila Odinga and Jubilee Alliance’s Uhuru Kenyatta as they scramble for votes in the March Kenya election is a vintage cockfight. A battle of the “jogoos.”
A clash between Raila and Karua would be a “cock vs. hen” fight. No one pays to watch such a cock-hen fight, goes the narrative.
But even if a woman were to land her party’s nomination and overcome all these problems, the other hurdles in her way would even be taller. Money does win you votes. If nothing else, even if you are a bad candidate, you can bribe voters and garner a decent number of votes for yourself.
The boys' club
However, the serious money in Africa is still held by the boys. And when it comes to campaign contributions, they give it to other members of the boys’ club, not women.
In addition, while the view that tribe is all-decisive in African politics is very popular, it is an exaggeration. Still, the way constituencies that vote as blocks have evolved in Africa have worked against the emergence of a specific girls’ vote for a female politician.
In the USA, for example, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become very popular with women in America.
The regional, religious, and social forces that determine voting in Africa means that such a gender block has not yet emerged, much the same way as there is no block working class vote.
If this were the case, the fact that women register and vote in much the same number as men – and sometimes more, as in Uganda – would have handed an advantage to women candidates.
Taking a long-term outlook, in some parts of East Africa, the school enrolment for girls is higher than for boys in primary school, thanks in part to the universal/free primary education that most countries have pursued since the end of the 1990s. At the universities, women have all but eclipsed men. More and more women are entering the work force, and owning businesses.
That suggests that we shall start seeing the impact of women’s changed fortunes in elections from about 2015.
For now, technology and the growth of digital media have considerably lowered the barriers to entry for women in politics.
And few candidates understand this the way Karua does. She may not get a fair share from the mainstream media, but is a pacesetter in the use of technology in her campaigns, especially social networks.
Not too long ago, she unveiled Kenya’s first-ever people-driven campaign financing platform on social media. Known as Simama Na Mama Na Mia, the platform became popular on Twitter and Facebook and instantly got Kenyans sending in their donations through M-Pesa from as low as Ksh100 ($1.2). Kenyans in the diaspora, who cannot send money via M-pesa, have the option of sending their donations via PayPal.
She has been lauded by her supporters for choosing this route for fund raising as it is considered more transparent. This is especially important in a political climate where the source of the big campaign money for the presumed front-runners is fodder for scandalous gossip.
Though all the candidates are now leveraging social media, Karua was an early starter. The technology community agrees that she is the most personally involved and active of the presidential candidates. She has a Twitter interaction session through which she receives and answers questions from Tweeps from Kenya and globally.
During its first session some months back #AskMarthaThurs was a trending topic on Twitter worldwide. Just how much these factors will be a game changer, no one knows for sure, because commentators and pollsters in Africa have not yet even developed smart ways of capturing them.
What is certain is that the age when we had all-male tickets, or elections in which there are no female candidates, is coming to an end.
*Additional reporting and research by Christine Mungai and Lynette Mukami