Political Watch

Lessons from Africa’s first female president’s legacy

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.jpg

Throughout modern history politics has been a male dominated domain and it is only recently that women have entered the profession and are making their mark.

Although their numbers have increased substantially, women are still grossly underrepresented in politics. The number of women that have risen to the top to become the political head of their nation remains scant.

Significantly though, some of the world’s most powerful and influential countries had, and still have, women as heads of state including Britain, Germany, India, Brazil and Australia to name but a few.

Under a different electoral system, the United States, the world’s most powerful nation, could now have had a woman as president. Hillary Clinton overall pulled more votes than Donald Trump, but the way the electoral system works, prevented her from becoming America’s first female president.

Some female heads of state left their mark on the international stage, starting with Israel’s Golda Meir, once famously called “the only man in my cabinet” by Ben-Gurion.

Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher – love hate her – was one of the most influential political leaders of her time and, then there is Germany’s Angela Merkel, already a colossus in her lifetime.

Perhaps less illustrious, but not less impressive, is India’s Indira Ghandi, who became prime minister of one of the world’s most populous and complex countries. In neighboring Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto did the almost impossible, becoming prime minister in 1988 and again in 1993 in a Muslim and patriarchal dominated country.

Africa’s first female presidents

Africa got its first female elected head of state 2005 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, better known as ”Ma Ellen” under her followers, became president of Liberia.

Some seven years later, Malawi became the second African nation with a female president when Joyce Banda took charge. There was much hope she would bring stability and good governance to a country reeling under a seriously corrupt political system.

High expectations, however, turned into despair as Banda’s presidency fell victim to corruption and ineffectiveness. She was heavily defeated in the 2014 election, charged with corruption, which she denied. 

South Africa could potentially become the third country in Africa to have a women president after the 2019 general election. That is if one of the three women contesting the ANC’s leadership position wins at its December national conference – that is if the does go ahead, and if the ANC wins in 2019.

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps an appropriate time to look at the Sirleaf presidency – being considered a trailblazer setting the bar for future African women heads of state.

Last Tuesday after two six-year terms, Liberians went to the polls to choose Sirleaf’s successor.  

Judgement on Sirleaf’s presidency alternates between high admiration and stiff disapproval. Notably, admiration comes mainly from outside Liberia, particularly the West, criticism mainly coming from local sources.

When historians and political pundits finally write the history of the Sirleaf presidency, it will be punctuated with many contradictions – remarkable accomplishments and massive failures and promises fulfilled and promise betrayed, opportunities taken, and others squandered.

However, it should be remembered that Sirleaf inherited a failed state in the true sense of the word. It remains unresolved – her impact is undeniable, but her legacy mixed.

Sirleaf faced a political Everest rather than an uphill battle when she took power in 2005. The country was ravaged by years of civil conflict and gross misrule under Charles Taylor – currently serving a 50-year jail sentence after the International Criminal Court found him guilty of war crimes. It is the same Court that the ANC-government decided is worthless and biased.

Sirleaf inherited a failed country with roughly 8% of the population (250 000 people) killed in 14 years of brutal civil war, with many more displaced by the violence. The economy had shrunk by 90% and there was no proper infrastructure left. Schools, hospitals and government buildings lay in ruins, and some people ate tree bark to survive.

Sirleaf made admirable strides in institutionalizing democracy. She promoted and upheld the principles of a free press, presided over a robust political process and, for that she deserves accolades.

The Economist wrote: ”The fact that Liberians now complain of failing students instead of child soldiers, and of massive corruption instead of mass rape, is progress.”

 But, not everyone agree.

One of the goals, if not the main goal, of Sirleaf was to advance the plight of women in Liberia, but in the world of politics, on both the local and international stages, symbolism does not always translate into practice and policies. Her critics say that although she tried and introduced legislation, plans, and programs to improve the lot of Liberia’s women, little tangible was achieved.

Criticism that, “The international media and Sirleaf’s supporters continue to hoist her up as the matron of women’s rights in Africa… and that she however, she does not deserve this title,” is often heard.

Expectations were perhaps too high, particularly after in 2011receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to further women’s rights.

In regard to presidential hopeful, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, also a gender activist, Carien du Plessis made this telling observation in Daily Maverick: ”By campaigning on a gender ticket, Dlamini Zuma raises legitimate expectations. Like Sirleaf, she should expect, in the end, to be judged by these standards too.”

In criticism reminiscent of South Africa, Liberians complain about the lack of service delivery. Despite massive international aid and grandiose plans and projects on many fronts, Sirleaf can show little improvement. Most Liberians still live without basic amenities like proper sanitation, electricity or internet access, and an environmental crisis loom in the country.

She also failed to deliver on an election promise to fight and eradicate corruption, which she described as “enemy number one.” She fell victim to her own anti-corruption campaign when she appoints three of her sons to important posts. The result, is she will be remembered more, for her failure to fight corruption than for any of her other accomplishments.

With the tragedy of Edisimeni and a deteriorating healthcare system haunting South Africans, it is easy to relate to a similar situation in Liberia. The World Health Organization ranks the country 186 out of 190 countries. The unprecedented spread of the Ebola virus, that affected 10,000 Liberians and killed 4,500 in 2014, is blamed on official corruption and a precarious national health infrastructure.

Liberia’s example for South Africa

Liberia is an example that running a country is most challenging task, and requirements such as popularity, competence, honesty, integrity, ect. should be the determinants of leadership and not the arguments currently promoted by some ANC factions, like “ANC traditions,” or “it is time for a woman to be president.”  

It also tells us what lies ahead in the post-Zuma era. It is going to be challenging time for whoever wins in December or whichever party (maybe coalition) wins the election in 2019.

by Garth Cilliers

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