44 African leaders made history in Kigali, Rwanda on 21 March 2018, 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 for 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.

Outside of South Africa and Malawi, no woman has run for president in the Southern Africa region- @tanaforum @nanjala1 Click To Tweet

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 learned 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.

Today, South Africa is the most un-equal country in the world according to the World Bank, with entrenched poverty directly linked to the “enduring legacy of apartheid”.

Madikezela-Mandela was punished for doing exactly the same things that her male counterparts did- @tanaforum @nanjala1 Click To Tweet

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. She was punished for doing exactly the same things that her male counterparts have done throughout the ages.

Women were at the center of liberation movements across the continent; not just in supporting roles but also leading political and military organizations.  Madikezela-Mandela was branded a murderer and denied a seat at the table of power in post-apartheid South Africa.

Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament at 63.8%.- @tanaforum @nanjala1 Click To Tweet

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.

Read the concluding part of this article here


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This article was originally written by Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya for the Tana-High Level Forum on Security in Africa 2018.

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