By Nanjala Nyabola*

On 21 March 2018, 44 African leaders made history in Kigali, Rwanda, when they signed up for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). The agreement will create one of the world’s largest free trade areas – a single market for goods and services for a population of over 1.2 million people – if all AU members eventually sign and ratify it. The AfCTA is in line with the broader goals of the AU reforms initiative, which intends to move away from the current situation of multiple, almost competing economic blocs to a single pan-African unit that facilitates the free movement of goods and services across the continent. The AfCTA is a milestone achievement that could change the economic trajectory of the continent.

A celebratory photograph of the various leaders who gathered in Kigali was rapidly shared across various media platforms to commemorate the singularity of events. Yet, anyone paying attention quickly noticed one thing about the photograph: there were no women.

Can the AU reforms process create room for women in the highest levels of political leadership on the continent? The final round of negotiations for the AfCFTA, unfortunately, coincided with the resignation of Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, the first female president of Mauritius. There are now no female heads of state on the continent. Before Gurib-Fakim, we had Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Joyce Banda in Malawi and Catherine Samba-Panza in the Central African Republic. Of the four, only Johnson-Sirleaf completed a full term with both Gurib-Fakim and Banda leaving office under tenuous allegations of fraud and Samba-Panza electing not to run for office after serving as a caretaker president.

If there are any unifying lessons to be learnt from these experiences it is that African women political leaders are often held to higher standards than their male counterparts and that much more work can be done to incorporate women into political governance on the continent.

The subject of equality of women in politics in Africa is complex. In the pre-independence era, there are a number of examples of women rising to the top of their societies, particularly in fraught political moments. These legendary figures include Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba who led the Mbundu people of Angola in resisting the Portuguese; and Somali legend has it that without the wisdom of Areewelo, they would not have survived the terrible Buraan Droughts. There are also more recent heroines. The Aba Women led the first organized protest against British colonization in Nigeria, while Mekatilili wa Mwenza of the Mijikenda and Queen Lozikeyi of the Ndebele led similar resistances in present-day Kenya and Zimbabwe respectively. Together with the unnamed female soldiers who fought in Algeria, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique and other countries, these stories affirm that women have always been part of African politics.

Yet in post-colonial Africa, a patriarchal understanding of the role of women that merely exchanged European patriarchy for an invented African tradition has all but erased the herstories of women’s political leadership. These themes are visible in stark relief in the ongoing mourning for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a leader of the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa. Madikezela-Mandela was punished for doing exactly the same things that her male counterparts have done throughout the ages. As in other liberation and political movements, she put her safety and her private life at risk in order to confront the injustice of the racist regime. She was tortured, exiled and humiliated by the apartheid regime. And while she certainly participated in violence against a violent government, consider her enemy – the most racist and violent political system on the continent. For her tremendous sacrifices, Madikezela-Mandela was branded a murderer and denied a seat at the table of power in post-apartheid South Africa. Today, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world according to the World Bank, with entrenched poverty directly linked to the “enduring legacy of apartheid”.

Madikezela-Mandela’s experience echoes the experience of women on the continent who form a slight numerical majority of the population but are systematically shut out from high-level politics. Women were at the centre of liberation movements across the continent; not just in supporting roles but also leading political and military organizations. Fanon, Cabral, Sankara, and Lumumba all declared categorically that the liberation of Algeria, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso and the DRC, as well as the continent as a whole, would be incomplete without the liberation of women.

But in post-colonial Africa, vague appeals to an invented patriarchal African tradition conspire to keep women out of politics. African women who believed that participating in liberation movements would eventually lead to their own liberation are disappointed because colonial patriarchy has instead been substituted by post-colonial patriarchy.

Today, the situation facing African women in politics is mixed. Between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of women in legislatures in North Africa more than doubled from 7% to 18%, while in sub-Saharan Africa it increased from 15% to 22%. Globally, Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament at 63.8% and, because of the increasing use of quotas, women make up more than 30% of the legislature in most countries in East and Southern Africa. And as mentioned, four countries have put women in the top seat, more than Europe or North America combined.

Nonetheless, there have also been significant losses, particularly where women aim for the presidency. In Southern Africa, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma put up a strong fight for the South African presidency, but despite her individual accomplishments, she was unable to shake the perception that she was her ex-husband’s protégé at a time when many voters wanted a change. Outside South Africa and Malawi, no woman has run for president in the Southern Africa region.

In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, Remi Sonaiya was the first female candidate, and despite a remarkable campaign, she could not break the unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” on religion and ethnic background that shape political viability in the country. In Kenya, Uganda and Somalia, women who have challenged men for the presidency have faced violence and character assassination. In Rwanda, Diane Rwigara and Victoire Ingabire, two women who have challenged President Kagame for the presidency, are currently in prison.

In keeping with the AU’s position that women’s rights are part of a broader discourse on human rights, the ongoing AU reforms process does not explicitly provide for the increased inclusion of women in the organization. Currently, the AU framework on gender is informed by global standards that include instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Union also considers women’s rights to be an integral part of its human rights mechanisms, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Former AU Chairperson Dr. Dlamini-Zuma – the first woman to hold the seat – did make women’s participation a centrepiece of her leadership, and pushed for more women to be appointed to the secretariat.

The reforms process can be an opportunity to get more women into political leadership in Africa. This begins by grounding itself in the long running African feminist tradition of recognizing work that is already being done. A friend once told me something that profoundly altered my own perspective on feminism, “African women have never been stay at home mothers”. The challenge of women’s political agency is qualitatively different from those facing women in the West. The histories of Nzinga, Areweelo, Mekatilili, Lozikeyi and Madikezela-Mandela remind us that African women’s efforts have always been integral to politics on the continent, but that we are dealing with a process of systematic erasure.

For an example of the work women on the continent are already doing to make the goals of the process work, look at the thousands of female traders who cross Goma into Gisenyi to trade every day; they are living proof of what free trade and free movement of goods could look like. Study the chama systems of Kenya as a baseline for what financial sustainability at the continental level could be. Recognize women’s groups in churches and mosques across the continent that demonstrate what inclusive and inter-ethnic political leadership can achieve.

African women are present, political and ready for work. It’s time the leadership took note.

*Courtesy of Tana Forum.Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.

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