At the time of writing this piece, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had just arrived in Botswana on a three-day official state visit. This piece serves as a tribute to Sirleaf whose election as the first female head of state in Africa should inspire African women.
Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the 24th Liberian President in 2005 after she trounced former soccer star, George Weah, in the second round of presidential elections. She further affirmed her political mettle in 2011 when she triumphed to re-election against the nephew of William V.S. Tubman, Liberia’s longest serving President, Winston Tubman. Sirleaf is erudite, smart and self-confident woman. She is an experienced international civil servant, human rights activist and politician. It was not by mistake that she was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she set up to investigate Liberia’s violent and horrid past and to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation blamed her for backing former Liberian President and war lord, Charles Taylor, she unreservedly apologized to Liberians. She has not adequately addressed gay rights for political expediency and she should be encouraged to put human rights, in the form of gay rights, above political convenience. Women empowerment is still elusive, particularly in Africa.
There are only two women Presidents; Johnson Sirleaf and Joyce Banda. According to Women’s Campaign International (WCI), presently, women’s representation in legislatures around the world is 18.3%. Sub Saharan Africa ranks number five with 17.2% according to International Women’s Democracy Center (IWDC), ahead of the Pacific and the Arab world. According to IWDC, there are only 13 women in the highest positions of State out of 189 governments and women ministers remain concentrated in social areas (14%) rather than legal (9.4%), economic (4.1%), political (3.4%) and executive (3.9%) areas. As of December 31st 2011, Botswana ranked number 121 with a pathetic 7.9% percent women representation in parliament. South Africa ranks number seven in the world with 42% women representation in parliament, beaten by only two African countries; Rwanda at number one with 56.3% and The Seychelles at number five with 43.8%.
Sirleaf and others must continue to advocate for women empowerment to reverse the aforementioned disturbing figures. Sirleaf inherited a poor and war torn country. The two successive intra-state wars devastated the economy and left a quarter of a million people dead. Even though it was never colonized by an outside power, today Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries with worrying economic development indicators. Sirleaf has been successful in reducing Liberia’s foreign debt and has embarked on a sustainable borrowing and fiscal discipline. Significant progress has also been made in Foreign Direct Investment. However, like any other African country, Liberia finds itself in a quagmire of neoliberalism as espoused by the US and international financial institutions of the IMF and the World Bank as well as the World Trade Organisation.
Botswana women should be inspired by the likes of Banda and Sirleaf by making themselves available during elections at national and party levels. As argued before, a quota system is not a panacea to women empowerment. It should be supported by resource empowerment and poverty alleviation, education, training and the appointment/election of strong women who know how to lead.