Many gender-progressive Africans would have rejoiced last week at the outcome of Malawi’s parliamentary elections that produced a new speaker, Catherine Gotani Hara, the nation’s first female occupant of that office. To make the victory democracy-sweet, she defeated her closest challenger, Esther Mcheka Chilenje, of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Hara, waving her party’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) flag, scored 97 votes to Chilenje’s 93.
Think about that: beyond one woman emerging, two of them were frontrunners in the election. Even harder, think about what Dr Saulos Chillima, Malawi’s recent ex-vice president and leader of the DPP said to legislators two days before the elections: “let’s have a female Malawi speaker.” In a surprising development, both majority constituents of the legislative house listened to the statesman and decided on electing a woman.
Of course, the hotshot CVs both leading women brought to the game can’t be ignored. Hara is a six-year veteran of the house, a former health minister, environment minister, and deputy minister of gender, children and social welfare, as well as transport and public works. Chilenje is no slacker, either, having held two terms of deputy speakership over ten years. The common thread, in fact, with all the women who have made the sharp ascent up the legislative ladder is this: they all arrive sufficiently prepared and with many outstanding accomplishments behind them.
Take Hara for example. She has co-chaired a global health intervention programme with Bill Gates. Besides her ministerial jobs, she has also deployed her negotiation talents on such successful projects as: the Banja La Mtsogolo network of health clinics in Malawi, the multi-million Kwacha First Starter Pack programme funding to the Malawian government, the Safe Motherhood programme, as well as being a major influencer in the increment of fishing export deals between Mozambique and the EU. Unlike most men, many women can’t just get up and start going up. Nowhere is this more obvious than in politics. So, because of historic, gender-based exclusions, most women in Hara’s position arrive as decorated as any five-star general worth his rank.
On top of that, there’s a hideous twist to gender inclusion in politics. There are instances when women have only been voted into these offices to legitimize administrations, which, in many cases, involves mopping up a man’s mess. For instance, one of speaker Hara’s first duties, merely two days after her big victory, was to call her party members to order as they protested president Peter Mutharika’s state of the union address. Mutharika would’ve foreseen that the MCP legislators were still aggrieved from the alleged mandate-theft of Malawi’s recent presidential elections, which he won by a smidge four percent.
While it might be a stretch to suggest Hara was only so elected to foil her party and legitimize Mutharika, it is not a conspiracy theory by any metric. Sometimes, a female speaker can be recruited for a dirty job, then discarded. Just last year, former speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly Margaret Zziwa, was awarded $1.2 billion in special damages cost, after her forced removal from office in 2014, following bloated corruption allegations. After being elected to much fanfare in 2012, Zziwa had been unceremoniously evicted two years later.
The other ugliness of gender inclusivity in politics is an alarming penchant for making women pay somehow for rising. In South Africa, where Thandi Modise recently became the parliament’s first female speaker, weeks after her election, rumours began circulating of an arrest warrant. Of all things, for an unresolved claim from 2014. Thandi was said to have left her farm unattended, which caused the deaths of 50 pigs. Parliament spokesperson Molotho Mothapo called the story “a malicious distortion.” There’s a strong desire to attach women to scandals. The intensity rises the more ambitious she gets.
One example is Nigeria’s Patricia Etteh, who was and remains the country’s first speaker of parliament. Etteh was practically hounded out of office in 2007, spending only about 140 days in office. She was forced to resign following outrages from several quarters over an alleged $5 million expenditure on home renovation. It was as if her colleagues, and the society at large, were outraged that a woman in power dared to behave like the men in power did. They chanted “thief, thief,” in English and her native Yoruba, and she had to be hurriedly escorted out of the chambers by her aides, fearing an escalation of violence by her colleagues turned faux puritans.
Etteh’s aides were wise to expect violence. Not even in positions of power are women safe from assault. Not even from men placed below them. Just two weeks ago, Kenyan MP Fatuma Gedi was slapped multiple times and verbally abused by her colleague Rashid Kassim. Gedi heads a committee that had, according to him, failed to disburse money to his constituency. After she explained why to him, Kassim reportedly called her “stupid” and punched her in the mouth. The saddest part of it is that Kassim would not have needed an explanation if he had actually bothered to attend the committee deliberations, which he constitutionally should do. In mopping Kassim’s mess, MP Gedi was rewarded with abuse.
Kenyan MP Sabina Chege, who was a witness to the assault, said, “It’s sad that male members of parliament are threatened by our presence, they are thinking we are taking their territories and they are not ready to accommodate powerful women leaders coming up. Instead of being scared they should all do their job of service delivery like we do, not hit women.”
MP Kassim has been arrested, but that barely scratches the deterrence scale. Men need to stop using gender equality as a stick for beating women, or using women in power, or anywhere, as an outlet for their rage. Esther Uzoma of Proactive Gender Initiatives said of Etteh’s time, “We saw what happened. Her time was sensationalized; allegations and counter allegations. But at the end of the day, in that hallowed chamber, her colleagues exonerated her and even apologized. So, this is what happens when a woman does not have the necessary support. She is usually sacrificed on the altar of politics.”
But there’s progress. Malawi becomes only the fourteenth African parliament to elect a female speaker. Hara’s election means that there’s now been a female leader of parliament elected once every two months since 2019 began. Togo had Yawa Tsegan in January, DRC had Jeanine Mabunda in April, South Africa had Thandi Modise in May, and now Malawi gets Catherine Hara in June. If we’re getting eight new female top MPs every year, Africa can certainly be said to be headed in the right direction.
But beyond just getting women into places of power, men need to accept the very vital contributions of women to achieving any sustainable economic success. After all, the indices are backed up by many success stories. Mauritius, which happens to have a female president and female speaker of parliament is Africa’s least risky economy. More than half (45 of 80) of Rwanda’s parliament are women. Rwanda owes a huge chunk of its revolutionary emergence as a global economic force to its fierce women advocacy. According to Sewanee Hunt’s book, Rwandan Women Rising, the country’s post-genocide female population of seventy percent ignited the economic revolution being envied by many countries around the world today.
There is no doubt that a female-powered revolution is quietly ongoing in Africa. From Gambia (Belinda Bidwell, Fatoumata Jahumpa, Mariam Jack-Denton) to Botswana (Margaret Nasha, Gladys Kokorwe), to Mozambique (Veronica Macamo, who’s been speaker for nearly a decade), to Tanzania (Anne Semambo Makinda) to Uganda (Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga) and Ghana (Joyce Adeline Bamford-Addo), women are stepping up in parliamentary power. This is an important moment. These women’s victories are all massive steps for Africa’s future. These formerly flaccid and afterthought political spaces are becoming national firecrackers because of changes in tenancy. And this continent might just be the better for it by day’s end. But, it is not yet Uhuru. We’re still travelling. We’re still on the way.
By Caleb Ajinomoh