- The Accidental PresidentA Conversation With Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritius
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The first female president of Mauritius never planned on becoming a politician. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was a trained biochemist, an author or co-editor of some 28 books, and the founder of a private lab to study the active ingredients of indigenous plants. She had no political ambitions or experience. But to her surprise, she was asked to join the Alliance Lepep coalition prior to the 2015 election. After its unexpected victory, she rose to the presidency in June 2015. And a year into her five-year term, she is focused on attracting science and tech investment to the nation of 1.3 million.
Despite a lack of natural resources, Mauritius, an island 700 miles east of Madagascar, is a middle-income nation that has seen rapid economic growth. But the country has challenges ahead as it tries to adapt to rising seas and a warming world Gurib-Fakim speaks with World Policy Journal’s managing editor Yaffa Fredrick about the importance of integrating science into politics, what prevents women from rising into positions of power, and how Mauritius pulled off its “economic miracle.” [End Page 35]
I have to say it’s been a trying week in the U.S., thinking that we too could have a female president and then being so disappointed. It means a lot to be able to speak to a woman in power and to believe that it’s still possible. To start with, you spent three decades working as a scientist and then went almost directly into the presidency. How and why did you make the transition from science to politics?
I spent 20-plus years working in the university, then I became an entrepreneur, which was a translation of my academic work into an enterprise. Then the world of politics chose me—I didn’t choose to become a politician. The thought was we’re [Alliance Lepep] going for an election, and they asked me whether I would be tempted to serve my country at the highest level, and I said, “Yeah, why not?” Because of my academic notoriety, they went and campaigned with my name as president, and they won. So here I am. I’m an accidental president.
To build off of that, you’ve noted that you aren’t just a biologist turned president, you’re a woman biologist turned president. What’s the significance of both being a woman and coming from a science background in your current leadership position?
When you train as a scientist, you want to have results, and you’re driven to get results. This is what I’ve brought to this presidency, this value of getting results. When you are trained as a scientist and entrepreneur, you also come in with a business plan. You say, “This is what I want to do. This is what I need. This is where I want to go.”
You are a female president on a continent that only has one other female president—in Liberia. One of the things I find so interesting about Africa is that in countries like South Africa and Rwanda you have high female representation at the parliamentary level, yet so few women seem to be able to ascend to the highest office. Why do you think so many African countries are able to have female representation at the parliamentary level but not as president?
There have been other women presidents who have come before, for example in Malawi [Joyce Banda]. But Africa remains, to a large extent, a very patriarchal society. I consider the world of politics as just one institution. And if you look at the case of Mauritius, we find that there are many women in many institutions—the judiciary, academia, business—but in the world of politics, many women tend to shy away. There is increasingly the feeling that they need to be also at the policy-making level. For Mauritius, at least, as an African country, it’s going...