In the guest post below, Robtel Neajai Pailey and Korto Reeves Williams argue that Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has done little for the African feminist agenda. It is a convincing argument and I am delighted to share it on MsAfropolitan especially because if there is one space where African feminists cannot afford to coddle with the status quo, it is female leadership.
In a public statement in August, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s first woman elected head of state – vowed to campaign actively for female candidates running in presidential and legislative elections in October. While her pronouncement may appear praiseworthy, it is too little, too late.
In this year’s high-stakes elections – the country’s third since the end of a devastating 14-year armed conflict – only 163 out of 1,026 (16 percent) approved candidates are women, including one running for president in a crowded field of over 20 men. This represents only a marginal increase since 2005 and 2011, when women accounted for 14 percent (110/762) and 11 percent (104/909) of candidates, respectively.
During a meeting with 152 female contenders, Sirleaf lamented the abysmally low number of women in elected office. In 2005 when she triumphed over footballer-turned-politician George Weah in a duel for the presidency, only 13 women were elected to the national legislature. That number dropped to eight in 2011, when the president secured a second mandate to lead Liberia. There is a strong likelihood that fewer women will win seats come October 10.
This is as much Sirleaf’s doing as it is a reflection of Liberia’s acutely patriarchal political system. In the past 12 years, she has done next to nothing to position women favourably to win votes.
In 2009, when female politicians petitioned Sirleaf to support a woman in her party during a by-election to replace a deceased female senator, she campaigned instead for a man (the candidate Sirleaf supported eventually lost to a woman from the opposition).
Though a 2014 elections law amendment encourages political parties to increase their representation of women in leadership roles, Sirleaf’s own Unity Party ranks below smaller, less-prominent parties in fronting female candidates this year.
This is in part due to Sirleaf’s lukewarm response to a gender equity in politics bill similar to the ones that propelled women in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa to high public office. When in 2010 the Liberian women’s legislative caucus sponsored an act mandating that women occupy at least 30 percent of political party leadership with a trust fund established to finance their electoral campaigns, Sirleaf did not actively support the proposed law and it was never ratified. When a less radical bill allotting five seats for women in special legislative constituencies was rejected as “unconstitutional” by largely male legislators this year, Sirleaf remained conspicuously silent.
In high-level political appointments, Sirleaf has also failed women. Although she hired a few female technocrats for executive positions in previous years, only four of her 21 cabinet officials are women, with the strategic ministries of finance, public works, education and commerce led by relatively inexperienced and underqualified men.
Despite these glaring missteps, much has been touted about Sirleaf’s crusade for women’s empowerment before and after assuming the presidency, with a Nobel Peace Prize win in 2011 serving as the ultimate stamp of approval.
Sirleaf’s cheerleaders may have some, but not complete, cause to celebrate. Her administration has built or renovated hundreds of markets across the country for thousands of female informal traders called “market women” – the Liberian president’s largest voting constituency.
Sirleaf has also instituted policies to protect women and girls from male aggression – including the implementation of the most comprehensive anti-rape law in Africa, with the establishment of a fast-track special court to deal specifically with gender-based violence.
Despite the existence of the court, however, there remain gaps in access to justice for Liberian women and girls, including the lack of viable forensic facilities. Liberian authorities’ recent failure to swiftly investigate and prosecute the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a sitting member of the national legislature is a clear example of the Sirleaf administration’s inability to address sexual violence. Liberia’s dual legal system – customary and statutory – has also presented significant challenges in implementing the rape law. Furthermore, a decade after the court was set up to expedite gender-based violence cases, it remains in the capital, Monrovia, and inaccessible to most women across the country.
Moreover, the person nominated by Sirleaf in May and approved by the legislator to head the court, Serena Garlawolu, has gone on record endorsing female genital mutilation(FGM), saying the practice “is not a violation of anyone’s rights culturally”. Liberian women’s rights activists petitioned to criminalise the harmful procedure, but the proposed ban was omitted from a recently passed Domestic Violence Act.
While Sirleaf’s record on socioeconomic empowerment of women remains contested, her record on enhancing the political stature of Liberian women is woefully inadequate. Her brand of femocracy – a term coined by Nigerian feminist scholar Amina Mama – has severely stifled women’s political participation.
Mama makes an important distinction between feminism and femocracy, arguing that while feminism attempts to shatter the political glass ceiling, femocracy deliberately keeps it intact. Her 1995 preoccupation with African first ladies as femocrats remains relevant now that Africa can boast of women presidents, including Sirleaf and former Malawian head of state Joyce Banda.
The over-glorification of Sirleaf as a feminist icon is particularly troubling since her 12-year presidency has actually served the interests of a small, elite group of women and men in politics and thus upheld long-standing patriarchal norms (pdf) in Liberia. This is particularly evident in Sirleaf’s defence of nepotism (she has appointed three of her sons to top government positions), failure in fighting corruption and continuous recycling of mostly male government officials. Other development challenges which have intersectional feminist linkages to women’s abilities to participate fully in politics at community and national levels have either been compromised or ignored, including the right to education for young women and girls free of sexual coercion and exploitation.
Having recently gone on record rejecting feminism as “extremism“, Sirleaf has publicly distanced herself from the very movement that got her elected in the first place. In her 2005 campaign, Sirleaf aggressively evoked her gender as an alternative to the previous throng of authoritarian and brutal male leaders. Twelve years later, the euphoria of electing Liberia’s first female head of state – twice – has completely lost its lustre.
Sirleaf and others like her have demonstrated that a woman’s assumption of the highest political office in a country does not inevitably result in gender equity. Her legacy on women’s political participation, in particular, is characterised by an individualistic approach that betrays the hard-fought gains made by women’s rights movements across the globe.
Though the international media machinery continues to hoist Sirleaf up as the matron of women’s rights, she is far less deserving of this title. That Liberia currently has no viable female presidential candidate is a glaring indictment of her two terms in office.
In a recent presidential debate, four male candidates presented very concerning responses to questions about how they would address gender-based violence in Liberia. If the first female president in Africa was not able to resolve this quagmire, we have little confidence that the bevy of men vying for the presidency will succeed.
If the current political landscape in Liberia is any indication of future trends, it may well be a century before we elect a female (or male) head of state who is truly committed to a feminist agenda.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author of the anti-corruption children’s book Gbagba.
Korto Reeves Williams is a Liberian feminist and a strategic civil society leader in Liberia and the sub-region.
This commentary was originally published in Al Jazeera English.
Pray tell, where is the ‘African Feminist Agenda’ to be found? i mean the blueprint that all of ‘Africa’ (the single country) agreed to. Missed the memo appointing Sirleaf to be our leader. And really, Is madam Sirleaf suddenly president of just women in a nation devastated by the most inhuman of wars, that destroyed family units? The desire to bleat and blurt out positions without reference to reality and to the actual needs of a society is such an atrocious instinct. Well at least it does provide a score card for marvelous soundbites, eh? Africa, is NOT a country. Let us please start there. Thank you.
Ten points for grandiloquence but few for the disjointedness of your rant. Are you suggesting that Liberia is not in Africa? Or that Africans share no mutual agendas? Are platitudes about ‘Africa not being a country’ really the best retaliation we have to Africa being lumped into one?
You write, “The desire to bleat and blurt out positions without reference to reality and to the actual needs of a society is such an atrocious, diminishing and destructive instinct.”
I’ll tell you what’s an “an atrocious, diminishing and destructive instinct” – the stridently misogynist idea that gender equality is not an “actual need of a society” and the fantasy that patriarchal leaders will ever fix this destructive injustice.
Moreover, the piece hardly “simplifies” Liberia’s profound complexities which anyone who actually read it and does not simply like the sound of their own fingers irascibly punching cocksure comments on a keyboard would know. Last but not least, yes there absolutely is a African feminist agenda that can indeed be found in bookshops, and it includes holding leaders accountable for anti-woman policies even if they manage to achieve other successes. Or are some leaders above all criticism?
Paul Eric says
I debated whether or not to post a comment, decided against it, was about to x-out of the page, then I noticed your response. It gave me pause. Here is a woman ‘living the good life’ and yet she is bitingly sarcastic beyond belief! What does she really want!? Minna, thank God for the blessings in your life. Do you need a purpose? Is THIS your purpose? Battling an imaginary “patriarchy”? Did you volunteer with the Ebola crisis in Liberia? Or the mudslides in Sierra Leone? Neither did I, but the point is to offer a perspective on your life. Those issues are not the fault of “patriarchy”. But I’m sure you could string out some ideas to justify it as the result of “patriarchy”! Let me be simple: women are trapped in a world of their own making. You are not fighting “patriarchy” you are fighting against Power, plain brute power. Women who have it, use it. Men who have it, use it. Simple.
“Anti-women policies” …hmmm! The way politics works, is that we have to be at the table and express our interests. We can do this directly or indirectly. Women have many avenues for their interests to be expressed – directly (get up and bring themselves to the table) or indirectly (influence those at the table for your behalf). Now don’t come to the table as a newbie and get all upset that things didn’t all work as planned and leave in a huff. There is a process to this and some things take time, and give and take. You must have a clear agenda and coherent proposals. Do women (specifically feminists) have coherent proposals and a unified constituency? If not, that’s on them, not on the imaginary “patriarchy”. As socially networked as women tend to be, it is incredible that they claim to lack the power to shape African society to their liking. Could it be that “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman” is a stumbling reality. Don’t rip the author Phyillis Chesler to shreds, she is being truthful. Any male who’s lived with a mother, grandmother, in-law, aunt or sisters (heck even girlfriends or wife) will recognize the truth of her work. You yourself have validated her books point in your treatment of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Please stop the rants against this notion of “patriarchy”. Men live under it too! It’s called POWER. Those exercising it are not “enough” to go around, so the women who feel slighted can choose what attitude they will engage life and their community and significant others with: bitterness, biting sarcasm and endless criticism, or joy, fun, creative, light-hearted, problem solving hearts and attitudes!
Victoria Nwogu says
Was it in 2007 or 2008 that I adressed a gathering of women political aspirants in Sierra Leone? Majority of them appeared passive and unsure of themselves in that gathering. I decided to energize them a bit by asking each woman to stand up and state why she wanted to run for political office. As they each declared as though by rote: because I want to fight for women’s rights, I wasn’t convinced. After all, they had been through two days of Gender 101 training before I arrived. When I’d gone through the room, I asked them, “Do you not know that you’re as much entitled as men to run for any political office?” For me, that was the starting point, but also an entry point for us to examine why they were being limited from enjoying this right and thereby appeal to their awakening to this common experience of marginalization to embrace the women’s rights agenda if/when they made it to parliament.
“Sirleaf and others like her have demonstrated that a woman’s assumption of the highest political office in a country does not inevitably result in gender equity.”
This is the crux of the matter. This is where feminist activists must differentiate between womens inherent human right to political participation and the assumption that more women in political positions will automatically fight for women’s rights or at the very least, convincingly strive to challenge the status quo to be more equitable. It will not happen automatically. Femocracy is alive and well, even in the model countries with high numbers of women in parliament. Here is where we must understand the political and social influences on women in political office, to engage bearing these in mind and device ways to take those influences into consideration.
During the 2007 elections in Nigeria, I and my teams and women civil society partners reached out to as many women as we could who were aspiring to any office in those elections – from the Presidency to district councillors. It was no surprise to me when some of them turned down our overtures or even attend our events to declare to us that they would have nothing to do with the so-called women’s agenda either during their campaigns or when they got into office. It took some serious effort but over the years some of these women were won over.
Sirleaf’s record is more disappointing because of her glowing precedent on women’s rights; especially her contribution to shaping the women peace and security agenda.
Thank you for sharing these insights. I co-sign your argument and see the need to critically engage with GAD and similar frameworks with feminist spirit.
“Do you not know that you’re as much entitled as men to run for any political office?” – what a great way to start a conversation in the described situation.
I’d love to know more about your work/organisation if possible.
Victoria Nwogu says
Thank you for your feedback Minna.
I worked with UNWomen at the time of the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean elections in 2007. I now work with UNDP in Somalia, where we supported women through various movements to demand a 30% quota that was promised them in the 2016 electoral process. That process and the eventual outcome of 25% women in the new Federal Parliament was daunting to say the least, but it yielded so many lessons for me as a feminist, for UNDP and the organizations we partner with and for the Somali women’s movement as a whole. We are in the middle of documenting and I fear that we may not capture all that could be told about that event. More so, because the UN’s women’s rights agenda appears to be at odds with its feminist foundations. However, we’re doing our best to document the story for posterity. One thing that stood out for me in that process was the women’s unity in their determination to fight for their right despite the odds. The event also reinforced for me that the GAD agenda is in danger of failure without a strong feminist mooring. I suspect I’m repeating myself but it’s a pet peeve.
Thank you for what you do.
Thanks for your response. I would love to read the documenting if it is made available to press/public. I can truly imagine what a steady crossroads it is working in your field as a feminist, observing once radical ideas become coopted in some cases and in others, do what they were intended to. Women are always the reminders, the champions, the fighters in these situations, and sadly in many cases they have no choice but to be. Thank you for the kind words.
Paul Eric says
MsAfropolitan, I will be extremely simple. Women are trapped in a world of their own making. Stop it! Stop it! Stop blaming this “imaginary patriarchy” … all males live under it too! It’s not “patriarchy” it’s POWER, plain brute power! Women who have it, use it. Men who have it, use it. Simple. Look, 53% of white women in America voted for Donald Trump! You’re smart, read “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman” by Phyillis Chesler. Don’t rip her to shreds, she is being truthful! Anyone of us males who have grown up with a mother or around sisters and aunties or had girlfriends or wives know what she is saying to be true! It is up to women to create the kind of community they want to inhabit! If they raise sons to be studs or power hungry thugs in the name of hunting bigger game, or conquering and raising tribute from more villains/perceived enemies, etc. that is the world they will reap! Then the women who lose out on not being attached to the winning alphas, will spend all their time gripping about the “patriarchy”, while hiding their vicious conflicts with each other! Just Stop!
Why don’t you stop coming on my page telling me what to do or not to do. If you want to debate whether patriarchy is imaginary then make a proper case for your argument, which shows that you have considered both sides of the argument and not just sentimental outbursts.
A Corey Gilkes says
Great analysis….unfortunately. Ms Johnson-Sirleaf’s tenure is a testimony to what Ifi Amadiume described in Daughters of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism. In that book “Daughters of Imperialism” referred to Western-trained and socialised women who seek elevation on a platform of women’s upliftment but in actuality cement patriarchal and elitist forms of governing at the expense of ordinary women in the society.
Neither is this the first I am coming across critiques like this; I was listening to a panel discussion (Amina Mama was one of the panellists) and an observation was made that the people she had as her advisors, particularly regarding stability in the region, were all members of the US military.
These Western models are of almost no use to us, not even my country of Trinidad and Tobago — where we had our first woman Prime Minister (a Hindu, by the way) from 2010-2015, a tenure that was wracked by allegations of corruption, mismanagement of public money and panderings to capitalist elites. Pre-colonised Africa still holds many hidden treasures we can draw from in the way of what I’ve always called “women’s politics” that are grassroots based, focus on food production and security and were a lot more inclusive than anything developed by the supposedly enlightened West.