Africa has continued to achieve great successes in many areas, including economic and social accomplishments; however, for a long time, women in Africa had been relegated to the background. This is true especially when it comes to key issues such as politics and development.
Unlike their male counterparts, in order to be where they are today, a lot of women politicians in Africa have had to overcome many challenges such as social stigmas and economic setbacks. In Africa it is said that a woman belongs to the kitchen. Nevertheless, successful African women politicians have been trying to change this narrative to prove that women can also succeed in politics and be good leaders.
In most cases, women who venture into politics often have less money than their male peers, and some are even abused based on their body orientation and private lives. Evidence has proven that African female politicians have played a key role in redefining the politics of their respective countries, as well as the entire continent.
This enormous contribution has gone a long way to shape the political landscape of African nations. For meaningful development to be achieved, women have to be involved- seeing as they constitute a majority of the population. They also need to be part of making decisions that directly affect the population.
It is encouraging to see how many women have ventured into politics thanks to increased political awareness, re-awakening, and empowerment of the feminine gender. Despite being discriminated and humiliated, African women politicians have defied the odds and are no longer political spectators.
Here we take a look at seven women politicians who didn’t give up on their political ambitions, and, as a result, have continued to influence national politics and drive economic change in their own way.
Most of these women have gone through enormous challenges in order to realize their political achievements. Many have also been involved with women empowerment agenda, which is to better the lives of young African girls. Their stories of resilience are evidence of how they’ve met their political objectives despite having personal challenges, limited resources, and support at their disposal.
1. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Liberia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf entered the history books when she became the Liberian President and the first democratically-elected female president on the African continent. She is Liberia’s 24th president and has successfully won two terms in office. Sirleaf is also one of the three personalities that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2011.
Throughout her political career, Madam Sirleaf demonstrated her passion and commitment to hard work, good governance, and integrity. She has also played a key role in advocating for women’s rights, stressing the value of education as a means to end poverty, and driving economic development.
Born in 1938, Ellen was the daughter of a market woman, as well as the granddaughter of a famous Western Liberian chief. She grew up as an ordinary African girl in the Liberian countryside and attended a local high school. Ellen swam in the local village river, attended school in the city, and spent vacations in her father’s village.
She got married when she was only 17, and had four sons by the time she was in her early twenties. Her first job was a bookkeeper for a car repair shop, but she later left for the United States with her husband to pursue further studies. However, in 1961, Sirleaf divorced her husband because of domestic abuse.
She came back to Liberia and worked in top government positions, including Liberia’s finance minister. Johnson Sirleaf later became a fierce critic of the corrupt and nepotistic government, which landed her in jail twice. When Liberia went to civil war in the 1980s, she fled the country and went into exile where she worked for top organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Aside from being held under house arrest, Ellen was also jailed for ten years after she complained of electoral fraud in the 1985 elections. She continued with her struggle to ensure peace and democracy prevailed in Liberia. Ellen Johnson’s passion for the country kept her hopes alive until she became the President of Liberia in early 2006.
She fought tirelessly for decades to ensure equality, freedom, and justice in Liberia. Today she is praised for revamping Liberia’s economy, improving national security, strengthening ties with foreign partners, and promoting good governance. Ellen never gave up on her struggles, and once said,”The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough”.
2. Aja Fatoumata Jallow- Tambajang – Gambia
Fatoumata is a famous Gambian politician. Having been appointed in September 2017, she is also the country’s current Vice President. Born in 1949, she grew up in the countryside and later went to school in Gambia, Senegal, and France. Tambajang is a mother of eight children and is known to be a strong defender of human rights.
Aja had been advocating for women’s rights for most of her life. She even engaged in political activism in Gambia to press for freedom from the 21-year dictatorial regime of Former President, Yahya Jammeh. On her recent trip to the United States after being sworn in as Vice President, she said, “There was no freedom of expression or freedom of association. Institutions were dormant because of his dictatorial handling of the state. There were lots of political persecutions”.
She consistently fought for poverty alleviation, social justice, and equity. Because of her excellent mediation skills, Fatoumata was appointed as the mediator to engage with various opposition parties in order to realize gender balance. As a result of these efforts, in 2016, she was appointed a chair of the coalition that pushed for regime change. After 2 decades of dictatorship under Yahya Jammeh, the opposition coalition finally won the election in December 2016.
Jallow has worked with various international organizations such as the UNDP and various Women NGO’s. Before being appointed Vice President to Adama Barrow, Aja Fatoumata Jallow held various high profile positions including Advisor to Gambia’s First President on Women and Children affairs and Chair of Gambia National Women’s Council.
She worked in volatile, war torn regions, and she was once a victim of a rebel hostage situation; she luckily survived the ordeal. Her passion for women empowerment earned constant threats to her life, as well as the lives of her family. Her movements were also often monitored by the military. During her engagements, she had to negotiate with warlords and work in areas under rebel control in order to assist women.
3. Joice Mujuru – Zimbabwe
Born in 1955, Joice Teurai Mujuru is a famous Zimbabwean politician. She was also Zimbabwe’s Vice President between 2004 and 2014. Mujuru deputized Robert Mugabe, and she was the Vice President of ZANU-PF as well; in fact, she was appointed Vice President after the death of Simon Muzenda. She also previously served in various government institutions and was once considered to be President Robert Mugabe’s successor.
Some of the portfolios she held included: Minister for Youth, Sport and Recreation between 1980 – 1985, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office between 1985-1988, and Minister of Community Development, Co-operatives, and Women’s affairs between 1988 to 1992. In addition, she served as the governor for Mashonaland Central between 1992 and 1996.
In 2014, her continued criticism and frosty relations with Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, caused her expulsion from the ruling party. Along with losing her position as the Vice President, she was also relinquished of her Deputy Party leader position. The ruling party accused her of plotting to overthrow Robert Mugabe’s government.
After her exit from the ruling party, she formed a new political party, the Zimbabwe People First Party. “Today we confirm our existence as a viable, home-grown political party. Zimbabwe People First Party is here. We are not fighting one man, but a system: that system which is unjust”.
Mujuru’s political career received a major boost when she was appointed a minister in 1980, at only 25 years of age. She was among the few women in Zimbabwe who managed to penetrate the country’s political landscape and make her voice heard, especially at a time when the country was recovering from war.
Mujuru has an interesting past, and she is commonly known by her war name Teurai Ropa, which means “spill blood”. Born to a peasant farming family with 11 siblings, Joice only schooled to the 2nd year of high school. She dropped out of school in 1973 and joined Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA).
In 1974, she reportedly shot down a helicopter using a machine gun, killing all occupants on board. “Incredibly, I hit the machine and there was a lot of black smoke and it crashed. A big explosion followed,” she quoted. It is this incident that earned her the name of Teurai Ropa. In the same year, she became a Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) member of general staff. In 1976, she was appointed as the commander of Chimoi’s camp in Mozambique.
4. Sophia Abdi Noor – Kenya
Sophia Abdi Noor has gone down in history as Kenya’s first elected female Member of Parliament from North Eastern Kenya. Considered to be a marginalized region, Sophia won the Ijara Constituency seat in Isiolo County, Northern Kenya, in the August 2017 election after beating the male incumbent, her closest rival.
Born to a family of Somali pastoralists, the member of the 10th Kenyan Parliament became popular because of advocating for the rights of marginalized women. Noor has spearheaded and participated in numerous gender equality campaigns, and was among the very few women from her community to complete high school and enroll for a teaching course.
For many years, communities living in North Eastern Kenya had always downgraded women and held strong conservative views against them. For instance, women leadership was seen as a taboo, both from a religious and cultural perspective. Because of this perception, the conservative Somali community was against women contesting for elective seats. Those who defied the odds typically had no financial resources to compete, were viewed as disrespectful of the culture, and were often belittled.
The promulgation of Kenya’s constitution encouraged Sophia to continue fighting for women’s rights, which are now fully enshrined in the constitution. “The new constitution allows us to openly seek votes, and I believe that recent civic education has sunk into the community because I personally campaign from village to village”.
Mrs. Noor is among the founders of Womankind Kenya, a group formed to advocate for issues pertaining to women and girl child education. Throughout her life, the former teacher has fought hard against retrogressive cultural practices such as early marriage, wife inheritance, and female genital mutilation.
She previously tried to run for the Ijara parliamentary seat in 1997 and 2013, but lost it. After graduating with a diploma in community development, she worked with numerous international organizations such as Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE International, and World Vision among others.
Her primary reason for contesting a parliamentary seat was to use parliament as a means to introduce legislation that would help to deal with challenges faced by women, especially those from marginalized regions. 1n 1997, her nomination was cancelled due to cultural and religious arguments that prohibited women from becoming leaders.
Noor’s journey of hard work and resilience has caused many women to benefit from her numerous initiatives. She has also won various international awards that recognize her efforts towards women empowerment.
5. Diane Shima Rwigara – Rwanda
Diane Rwigara was born in Kigali in 1981, and she is known to be a fierce critic of Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, and his government. Rwigara, who is Tutsi, was born into a family of three. She came into the limelight after Assinapol Rwigara, her father and Kigali business tycoon, died mysteriously in a car accident in Kigali. Her dad was a key financier of the ruling party, Rwandan Patriotic Front. She and her family believe their father’s death was politically motivated.
The US-educated politician openly accused the government of masterminding her father’s death. She sought help from both international human rights organizations and foreign diplomatic missions in Kigali to help her get justice. Rwigara is an accountant by profession;however, she is also a vocal women’s rights crusader who has openly criticized the government for bad governance, oppression, and various forms of injustice.
In May 2017, Diane announced she was going to be a presidential candidate for the August 2017 elections. She intended to run on an Independent ticket, but things took a turn for the worse: nude photos of her were leaked online only 72 hours after her announcement. However, Rwigara was not deterred, and she accused the government of leaking the photos in order to humiliate and intimidate her. She insisted she would still go for the top seat and focus her energy on eradicating poverty, advocating for free speech, and championing human rights.
Unfortunately, her dream to run for presidency was thwarted when the National Electoral Commission refused to clear her, claiming she didn’t fulfill all the requirements. Rwigara found this move malicious and accused the government of frustrating efforts by critics to vie in elections. “The RPF are scared,” Rwigara said, “If they are loved by the people, as they claim, why is that when someone like me announces an intention to run, they resort to all these dirty tricks to try to discourage me and silence me? If they were really popular, then they would have let me compete”.
Diane has landed in trouble with authorities on several occasions. Immediately after the August elections, she was arrested and charged with numerous offences- fraud and treason included. Even though she has faced so many challenges, Rwigara believes she is the voice for the voiceless, and her courageous and stubborn personality keeps her going.
6. Alengot Oromait – Uganda
In 2012, Proscovia Alengot Oromait made history by becoming the youngest individual in Africa, and globally, to be elected as a Member of Parliament. At only 19, Alengot won the Usuk County with 54.2% of the vote. She came into the limelight after the untimely death of her father, Michael Oromait, whose sudden death triggered a by-election.
Keen on fulfilling her dad’s dreams for her to become a politician, Proscovia submerged herself in politics. Oromait was born in 1993 in Katakwi District, and was the second born in a family of ten children. Since childhood, she showed great leadership traits. While at St. Kalemba Senior Secondary School, Alengot was a great and accomplished debater who actively involved herself in writing articles and taking photographs for the school magazine.
Her teachers knew she had great talent and exemplary skills, and they weren’t surprised when they heard she was planning to succeed her father in politics. Some of the issues Alengot is passionate about include education, health policy, gender issues, and environment.
Those who know the family closely said she actively campaigned for her father and even often gathered youths, encouraging them to vote for him. She ended up missing school in the process, but managed to play a key role in ensuring her dad won the Usuk County seat.
In 2013, Oromait was honored by Forbes. In fact, she was among the Top 20 Young Power Women in Africa. She admits her father was a major influence in encouraging her to take interest in politics, as he praised her for being talkative and educated. Alengot won her seat under the ruling party’s National Resistance Movement. At the time she became an MP, she had finished high school and was waiting to join the university. She later joined Christian University in Mukono, where she studied Mass Communication.
While on campus, she had to balance her time as both a student and a legislator. Her decision to vie for a parliamentary seat and get into politics at such a tender age was admirable. Many praised her for her courage and ability to defy all odds. Alengot was brave and forged on despite critics who argued her that candidature was a big joke and that she should have been in school chasing her career instead. When asked how she manages her time, she said, “Because I am a Christian, I do not booze (take alcohol). My free time is for the Bible and reading my novels…that is how my life is”.
7. Mbali Ntuli – South Africa
Mbali Ntuli is a young South African Democratic Alliance Party (DA) politician. She was born in 1988 in Kwazulu-Natal. As a native, she grew up in La Lucia. Her father was the founder of KwaZulu-Natal Taxi Association, but he died because of taxi violence. After his death, Mbali’s extended family was intent on taking over the father’s taxi business.
Both Ntuli and her brother lived a difficult life after her dad’s death. Her grandmother also attempted to poison her, yet she survived. In addition, she survived three assassination attempts, and was constantly worried about her security and wellbeing. Due to the constant impending danger, Ntuli’s mother sent her to a boarding school far away so she could continue with her education. She later graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science degree from Rhodes University.
Right from childhood, Mbali knew she was destined for politics. “It’s been a passion of mine for a very long time. Ever since I was young, I always knew that I would end up in politics”, she states. She is intelligent, well-spoken, and bright, and went through numerous challenges to get to where she is.
While at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, she was the founder of the party’s student organization. After being part of the party’s Youth Leader Programme, she was appointed to be the Chairperson of the Democratic Alliance Party’s youth wing, following the organization’s formation in 2010. Later in 2011, she was elected as a ward councilor after winning the eThekwini local government elections.
In 2010, she was among the 5FM’s Women of the Month. Additionally, in 2011, the Mail & Guardian named Ntuli among South Africa’s Young People to watch. Destiny Magazine also named her among the Top 40 Power Women. The peak of her political career was when she was chosen to be the Democratic Alliance Party’s youth leader. During her political journey, Mbali admitted she had to encounter violence and intimidation, especially since she was an opposition party councilor.
Despite working in a hostile environment, Ntuli never gave up, and no amount of challenges discouraged her from pursuing her dreams. She played a big role in helping Democratic Alliance Party strengthen its political base in townships such as Ntuzuma and KwaMashu. She became the Youth Federal Leader in 2013 after taking over for Makashule Gana, but she resigned from the position in 2014.
Today, numerous countries in Africa have continued to make the political climate favorable for women politicians. However, this is just the beginning. A lot more still needs to be done to ensure that women have a level playing field with their male counterparts. These women, and many more across the continent, have played a major role in guaranteeing meaningful development in their countries.