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.

Exorcising the past

Joyce Banda has been formally sworn in as the President of Malawi. What can she bring to an unsteady table?

Her ascent to the top job follows the death of Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April after the president suffered a heart attack. As the vice-president – and in line with normal democratic procedure – Banda stepped up and assumed the presidential office.

However, there have been a few calls for the new woman to step down from politics, abandon the People’s Party she founded in 2011 and call fresh elections. Wa Mutharika’s chosen successor (his brother Peter) has been sidelined. The (just replaced) Minister of Information, Patricia Kiliati, has claimed that the 61-year-old Banda is ‘incapable of running the country’. And there are many MPs who were close to wa Mutharika and may not stand back so willingly as Banda moves behind the leader’s desk.

Banda has dealt with many of the old guard already by clearing them out and forming her own, refreshed cabinet. This is always a tricky game to play and she has kept in a few wa Mutharika ministers. (But you could argue that they got to stay on only because they had questioned the late president’s economic mismanagement.)

But Malawi has bigger fish to fry than the search for a perfect ministerial mix. There has been a worrying economic mirroring of neighbouring Zimbabwe, with the healthy agricultural policies and surpluses of a few years ago turning into hyperinflation and fuel and food shortages. Homosexuality is illegal and sexual discrimination laws, which are coming into force on the other side of the continent in Angola, are far from appearing in Malawi. The country receives an average of £93m annually in aid from London, which goes some way towards trying to combat the high rates of maternal mortality and the fact that 12% of the working-age population is HIV-positive.

To his credit, Bingu wa Mutharika did seem spend much of his first term in office, from 2004-2008, trying to sort out the national nourishment situation and using government subsidies wisely to feed more of the poorer Malawians. But sadly, in recent years, the good governance of the mid-2000s had been eroded by wa Mutharika himself. Some of his comments and methods of running the nation edged on dictatorial, others have been plain odd. He threw out the British High Commissioner for criticising him and tried unsuccessfully to get parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to emulate his “brother” next-door, Robert Mugabe, and continue as president indefinitely. He moved out of the presidential palace in 2005 because he felt it was haunted by invisible animals and summoned exorcists to cleanse the building.

With Joyce Banda taking over in the hot-seat in Lilongwe, the lake-side nation has become the first country in the region to have a female president. This is welcome progress and there has been warm encouragement from the global community for her to seize this opportunity to drive Malawi forward. She has been an ardent defender of women’s rights and is a powerful voice for her country. The death of the president is unfortunate but does provide a chance for the small nation to focus efforts once more on development and important domestic issues such as advancements in education, health and governance. Exorcisms can wait for now.