A woman’s work

All three female presidents in Africa have different problems to deal with

The Central African Republic (CAR), Liberia and Malawi are thousands of miles apart, separated by huge tranches of desert, jungle and mountain range. But of the 56 or so African countries, they are the three nations where a woman rules the roost right now. The Liberian president kick-started the trend – in 2005 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected head of state on the continent. She won a second six-year term in 2011. A year later, the first woman in the hot-seat in sub-Saharan Africa, Joyce Banda, took over in Malawi and this blog covered the transition of power in Lilongwe at the time. The most recent of the three into her job is Catherine Samba-Panza, who was sworn in as interim leader of the CAR in January.

Her job is the most pressing and the most dangerous. Since Muslim rebels ousted François Bozizé from the presidency in March last year, there has been ongoing unrest, which has been characterised by gruesome tit-for-tat killings by the Muslim Séléka rebels and the Christian ‘anti-balaka’ vigilantes. France has tried to organise a move back to stability for the poor, landlocked country by providing more than 1,500 soldiers to support the African Union force in the CAR but the situation that Ms Samba-Panza has to deal with is chaotic. Thousands of people have been killed and a million others have fled their homes. The president has been dubbed ‘Mother Courage’ and there are hopes that she can use her non-partisan, maternal touch in trying to broker some sort of deal between the rivals and bring an element of calm to the mayhem.

2,600 miles to the south-east, Joyce Banda is at the opposite end of the scale, where she has been subjected to calls for her resignation over what has been known as the ‘Cashgate’ scandal. She has been Malawi’s leader for a year but faces a tough time ahead of national elections in May, when voters may punish her People’s Party for the disreputable practices – an apparent siphoning off of taxpayers’ money into civil servants’ accounts. She has vowed to clean up the coffers and root out the looters, saying that dealing with the cash issue (and not the impending elections) is the only thing occupying her mind right now. This is an admirable claim but one that must stand up to the test: the trappings of power can be a strong lure for politicians who want to extend their time in office just that little bit longer. Banda asserts that she did not know about ‘Cashgate’ and she has not been implicated. But as international donors saying they will withhold aid until the scandal is sorted out, this is an urgent and debilitating problem for the president.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, or ‘Ma Ellen’, was the first female leader elected in Africa and the Nobel Peace Prize-winner has such a standing that the CAR’s new president Catherine Samba-Panza has mentioned the Liberian as a model upon which to base herself. Johnson Sirleaf is halfway through her second term in office and will have to stand down in 2017. The country is rich in resources and there has been healthy GDP growth over the last few years. However, this output is only now recovering to 1988 levels (pre-civil war), and there are still many other issues to look at, for example Liberia ranks only 174 (out of 187) in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Another irritance for Ms Johnson Sirleaf are the ongoing attacks carried out from inside Liberia on towns along the western border with Ivory Coast. In the latest deadly incident, on Sunday 23 February, four Ivorian soldiers (and several attackers) were killed in a raid inside Ivory Coast on the town of Grabo. The gunmen suspected of making the assaults are believed to be allies of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, who is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court over crimes committed during the 2011 post-election civil war. Johnson Sirleaf had called for a non-military solution to that crisis and backed Alassane Ouattara, who had come out top in the vote.

These three women are leading the charge for female presidents in Africa and while that is a grand point for the continent, the different problems they face demonstrate the dissimilarities in the politics throughout the continent from the religious conflict in the CAR, through to the misuse of public monies in Malawi, through to a post-war structural recovery in Liberia.

Heart of darkness

Another anti-government rebellion is under way in the middle of Africa

This time it is in the Central African Republic (CAR) and so far nearly a dozen towns, including the major settlement of Kaga Bandano, have fallen into rebel hands. The dissidents, who are threatening to march on the capital, Bangui, complain that the CAR president, Francois Bozize, has not stuck to the terms of the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement (LCPA), which was forged between the government and all but one of the country’s armed groups. (The one gang which did not sign the original LCPA belatedly put its pen to paper in June this year.)

But this upsurge in violence has worried Western nations. The US has moved its ambassadorial staff to safety and on 26 December protesters threw stones at the French Embassy building in Bangui, tearing down the tricolore in anger at the rebellious movements in the north of the country. The CAR government has asked for help from Paris in sorting out the malcontents but the French leader, Francois Hollande, is reluctant to get back involved in the internal politics of his country’s former colony. (On a recent trip to Algeria, another ex-French subject state, Mr Hollande described colonialism as “profoundly unjust and brutal”.)

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the ‘Seleka’ rebel attacks and called for both sides to come to a peaceful solution. Surprisingly, the rebels seemed to have been aided in their assaults on many places due to the withdrawal of the troops stationed there, many of whom are from the CAR’s northern neighbour, Chad. But the idea of an internal rebel advance, taking towns and villages along the way, feels remarkably familiar and fresh in the memory. Just to the CAR’s south is the huge rough rectangle that forms the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and this other acronymed African country has had recent rebellious problems of its own.

On 20 November soldiers from the M23 rebel army stormed the town of Goma, in the far east of the DRC, close to the Rwandan border. The M23 group defected from the Congolese army in a dispute over a 2009 peace agreement that saw rebels reintegrated into the military; the group takes its name from the date of these accords (23 March). After the fall of Goma, the M23 soldiers wrested control of several other towns in the region from the UN-backed national Congolese forces. The M23 rebels retreated from Goma at the start of this month after a frail peace deal was agreed between the two sides.

The rebel movements in both the CAR and the DRC arose from peace accords that were meant to have put a stop to all this mutiny. The incendiary nature of fractured rebel factions, government crackdowns and other cross-border rebel influences mean that the current situation of a fragile peace in DRC and an ongoing insurrection in CAR is dangerous. Added to this mix are further international groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. These outlaws are headed by globally wanted man Joseph Kony and they are infamous for mass recruitment of child soldiers and for a growing list of crimes, from robbery to rape. They are based around and about this general central/east-central African region.

This region is certainly bubbling. CAR shares a frontier with the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, which is still completing a slow, complex and often violent divorce from Sudan. Al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants Al-Shabaab have been willing to pop over the south-western border to Kenya to carry out suicide attacks in markets and nightclubs. When a few nations are involved, it is more likely that they will be able to get together themselves and sort out their problems. But the growing entanglement of national influences and interests amongst the jungles and red-dirt roads of the area may now signify the moment for an ‘outside’ power to step in and mediate. However, as we have seen from the plea from the CAR for help from their former colonial master, it would be nearly impossible to find a mediator who is not tarnished by current, former, overt or covert ties and partialities.