restricted access Introduction to the Special Issue: Women, Leadership, and Peace in Africa
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Introduction to the Special Issue:
Women, Leadership, and Peace in Africa


Are women empowered enough to make peace in Africa? Despite over two decades of multiparty politics, the answer appears to be “no,” if we start by looking at the formal political realm. In general, women remain marginalized within African political systems. To date, there have only been three female presidents (i.e., not including “acting” presidents) on the continent since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s: Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in Liberia, Joyce Banda in Malawi, and Bibi Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakim in Mauritius. Of these three, only two—Sirleaf Johnson and Gurib-Fakim—secured their position by winning an election (Joyce Banda assumed power after Bingu wa Mutharika died in office and lost the next general election). In many countries, the picture at the legislative level is similarly bleak. In 2015, there were many countries in Africa in which women made up less than 10% of members of parliament. For example, that year only 5.6% of the Nigerian legislature was female (Tripp forthcoming).

To be clear, this is not an African problem: a number of established democracies also lack gender parity. In the United Kingdom, for example, only 22.5% of those returned to parliament in 2010 were female, while men are even more dominant in the United States of America [End Page 1] (Cheeseman 2015). But this caveat notwithstanding, levels of female political representation in most African states are disappointing, especially when one considers that even fewer women tend to get elected at the local than at the national level.

A similar story emerges if we turn our attention to the role of traditional leaders. Aside from elected political leaders, traditional leaders are perhaps the most significant form of authority in the rural parts of African states. Moreover, in some cases traditional leaders enjoy greater legitimacy than their elected counterparts. Carolyn Logan’s (2013) research on the roots of traditional leaders’ resilience, which uses Afrobarometer data to assess citizens’ attitudes toward their chiefs, finds that in most countries people want traditional leaders to play a greater role in resolving local conflicts and disputes. This is significant because, with a small number of important exceptions, chiefs tend to be men.

The consequence of vesting power over local disputes in customary rules enforced by men has been significant. Most notably, it has tended to mean that women lose out in disputes over land and inheritance. Along with the male domination of the executive and legislative positions, this has also tended to reinforce the assumption that the decisions that shape the lives of African populations are not taken by women. Consequently, in many countries there is a chronic lack of women in leadership positions.

At a first glance, then, women do not appear to be empowered to make peace. However, as with many matters in African politics, the situation is much more complex than it appears. First, a number of African states have achieved levels of female political representation that are not only impressive, but they are actually world leading. In Rwanda, for example, 63.8% of the legislature was female in 2013—the highest figure in the world. The performance of Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda has also tended to outstrip their European counterparts, and on average female representation in parliament has increased remarkably, from just 1.2% in the 1960s to 21.3% today (Tripp forthcoming). If this trend continues, Africa will start to eclipse other parts of the world when it comes to legislative gender equality.

Similarly, if we move away from a focus on female presidents to look at other leadership positions, it becomes clear that women have held a number of important posts. For example, there have been female prime ministers in Burundi, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, and Rwanda. African women have also held very high-level positions in international organizations. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma has been the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, after holding ministerial positions in South Africa, and Vera Songwe has [End Page 2] been appointed Executive Secretary...