The meaningful political participation of women is crucial in the quest to consolidate a flourishing democracy in Africa. Generally, and in the historical context, women’s dwindling voter turnout in elections largely centers on stereotypical social constructs of exclusion.
Contemporarily, women’s increasing role and influence in democratic electoral processes are no longer confined to their participation as mere voters but as equally deserving candidates and duly elected public officials, distinct and competitive against men. In any form of society, the epitome of public office is the candidates’ election into the position of President (and in certain countries, the position of Prime Minister).
Fascinatingly, Africa has witnessed ten women serving as presidents. The first female President in Africa was Sylvie Kinigi of Burundi. While serving as Prime Minister of Burundi, President Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated, forcing Kinigi to devise strategies of gathering ministers and managing to effectively govern the country as acting President from 27 October 1993 to 5 February 1994.
In South Africa, Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi briefly served as Acting President in the absence of both the President and the Deputy President, who were out of the country for four days in September 2005. In addition, after the resignation of Thabo Mbeki as President, Matsepe-Cassaburi again served as the constitutional and official head of state for an interim period of 14 hours on 25 September 2008.
A major milestone in women’s ascendancy to the presidency in Africa is the case of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is Africa’s first woman to be elected President and served for two consecutive terms after winning the 2005 and 2011 Presidential elections.
Out of the ten female presidents in Africa, only three were democratically elected as President.
After the death of President Omar Bongo, Rose Francine Rogombe became the Interim President of Gabon from 10 June 2009 to 16 October 2009.
Agnes Monique Ohsan Bellepeau served as Acting President of Mauritius from 31 March 2012 to 21 July 2012. She served again as Acting President from 29 May 2015 to 5 June 2015. In the aftermath of the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Hilda Banda became the President of Malawi from 7 April 2012 to 31 May 2014.
The Central African Republic’s Catherine Samba Panza was the Acting President from January 2014 to March 2016. In Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was elected as the ceremonial President between June 2015 and March 2018. Since October 2018, Sahle-Work Zewde similarly assumed the largely ceremonial role of being the President of Ethiopia.
In the aftermath of the death of President John Magufuli, Samia Suluhu was sworn in as his successor on 19 March 2021. She will serve the balance of Magufuli’s second five-year term.
Out of the ten female presidents in Africa, only three were democratically elected as President. The trend of placing women presidents in an interim capacity or as ceremonial figures perpetuates their marginalization from clinching the main executive authority of the state on a full-term basis.
International, regional, and domestic human rights laws certainly cater to women’s political rights to contest in presidential elections, within internal party structures, and in the broader multi-party democratic arena. The political culture of exclusion must come to an end.
Paul Mudau is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Public, Constitutional, and International Law at the University of South Africa. Twitter: @fpmudau.