By P.Y. Tsikata (December 14th 2005)
"....Her election to the highest office of Liberia and the first of its kind on a continent, where male hegemony is celebrated, is a testament to the gradual transformation of gender roles and relations on the continent....”
Mainstream gender roles in Africa and many parts of the world have been a major hindrance to the socio-economic and political emancipation of women for ages.
Seen as subservient to man by ancient societies, she was to be seen not to be heard. Feminist highbrowism and extraordinary capabilities displayed by women tantamount to explicit disregard for the male-hegemonic status quo, and a challenge to such societies.
But transformations in gender relations and roles over the years, based on egalitarian principles have unfastened the taboo-like-stricture limiting how far women can go to expand their own horizon, which advertently or inadvertently affects those around them.
One of such women is the 67 year-old president-elect of post-war Liberia, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson-Surleaf, with a political career spanning almost 30 years. Her election to the highest office of Liberia and the first of its kind on a continent, where male hegemony is celebrated, is a testament to the gradual transformation of gender roles and relations on the continent.
The first African female to win the noble prizes and a host of others holding political portfolios, high academic positions and other political offices have already demonstrated that in their own rights but not the singular feat of rising to the highest office of the land, de facto and de jure.
If the question of a female president for an African country, particularly Liberia-due to its history of the civil war-was put to Africans a year or so ago, many would have dismissed its feasibility or likelihood based on the nature of the functional political institutions and structures that have evolved on the continent over the years.
The post-war situation will also have been a strong basis for many to call for a strong, tactful but diplomatic male candidate with the disposition to heal and unite the country.
The bald truth is that political institutions, structures and party machineries in Africa are so lined-up with powerful male voices...
Women from Algeria to Zimbabwe, from the very traditional societies to the most urbanized centres on the continent should realise that the ceiling as to how far they can go in life has been completely and symbolically effaced...
Many are those who would even allude to the acclaimed most powerful democracy on the planet earth, the American democracy, which is yet to see the rise of its first feminist voice to its highest echelons of power, to bolster their argument about the immature nature of African democracies to have a woman manning the highest office of the land.
The bald truth is that political institutions, structures and party machineries in Africa are so lined-up with powerful male voices, from the grassroots to the top hierarchies, that for a female to go through primaries of a political party from the grassroots to the national levels to become even a presidential hopeful is no mean achievement and must be celebrated.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (all imaginable honours attached) has proved to the world that ‘what men can do, women can do it better’. As a trailblazer of this archetype of achievement, she has thrown a big challenge to African institutions to wake up to the clarion call to remove all forms of barriers and impediments in the way of their women to make their emancipation very meaningful.
Women from Algeria to Zimbabwe, from the very traditional societies to the most urbanized centres on the continent should realise that the ceiling as to how far they can go in life has been completely and symbolically effaced, and their challenge is now their’s.
The task ahead is definitely not an easy one. It goes far beyond the euphoria and ecstasy associated with winning a presidential election. Her task of uniting a fragmented country with broken people and shattered economy as a result of long years of civil war will be very daunting and challenging.
The onerous burden of coming face-to-face with male hegemonic resentments in the discharge of her daily mandate is plausible.
We should not lose sight of the fact that she is going to be confronting national institutions and structures which might not have even had a female head since their establishment and, therefore, are embedded with male hegemonic attitudes.
Handy example is African universities where the closest a female head could get to is definitely a head of department and never the enviable position of a Vice-Chancellor. Many of such institutions abound on the continent and for that matter Liberia.
In my native Ghana, the president is the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, a role most people will rather see a male perform to the letter. If this is the case in Liberia, then we wish our first African female president well.
She must quickly rise to the occasion in order to discredit critics and adversaries who may envisage lapses in the performance of these duties as a woman. However, being a former Finance Minister, there is no doubt that she will rise to the occasion to prove to the world that the African woman has come of age.
At the international level, clearly, she is definitely and effeminately a special voice that is to carry the message of the African woman to the international corridors of power.
Johnson-Sirleaf's performance will help encourage and enhance women’s participation in politics across the continent...
The iron Margaret Thatcher had already proved to the world that women have the potentials to match men in all departments of life, but not without egalitarian Britain offering the right platform.
Other examples existed/exist elsewhere but for Africa it is the first of its kind. She is therefore rightly the trailblazer of female involvement in the highest representative form of office on the continent in modern history.
At the West African sub-regional level and the African regional level, what reception is she going to be accorded among her colleague presidents with entrenched male hegemonic attitudes?
Would she be able to find a true voice of solidarity among these leaders on issues bothering on the emancipation of women in her own country and across the continent?
Would she carry enough leverage in transforming the geo-political landscape of the continent to make the voice of women part and parcel of vital political processes?
The answer will depend largely on the kind of reception her president colleagues will accord her as the only female voice among them and her own leverage and expertise on issues.
Leading on from the above, projections are, however, that her performance will help encourage and enhance women’s participation in politics across the continent.
If she is able to deliver the needed political healing, transformations and reforms that her country so much needs within the period of her mandate, The message will go out clearly to a continent that is fatigued by underperformance, civil war, political instability and most of all corruption caused by misrule of her (male) leaders since most African countries gained independence from their colonial masters.
On the other hand, her non-performance and lack of success, which I doubt will be the case, will be a big blow to the advancement of the socio-economic and political course of women across the continent.
Critics will have a solid ground to underrate female potentials and achievement, especially in the highest office of the land whilst projecting that of the males, who in most cases have already proved failures.
Madam President, may I use this opportunity to add my voice to the teaming number of your supporters, sympathisers, admirers, well-wishers and loved ones to say we all cherish your achievement; it is enviable, inspirational for women and the continent as a whole, we are solidly behind you.
We do believe strongly that this feminine voice will bring the needed peace to a country in dire need of it.