WASHINGTON, D.C. — The world celebrates women political leaders when they ascend, but what happens after they leave office and their lives are threatened? Don’t we have a duty to protect?
Take the case of Joyce Banda, a former president of Malawi. Since leaving office, Banda has found herself in the cross-hairs of the current president, Peter Mutharika, and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Banda was the No. 1 target on an alleged Democratic Progressive Party hit list recently published by a British-based Malawian digital publication.
Whether the list is propaganda or a legitimate intelligence leak, the allegation indicates a toxic political climate not unique to Malawi. All too often, this is how entrenched political interests deal with party outsiders, particularly women.
When Mutharika’s brother, President Bingu wa Mutharika, died in office in 2012, Banda, the sitting vice president, was constitutionally mandated to succeed him. Harboring his own presidential ambitions, Peter Mutharika, the late president’s brother, unsuccessfully tried to block her succession. Banda was eventually able to take her rightful place as president of Malawi, after securing the support of the army’s commander, Gen. Henry Odillo. Mutharika was arrested to stand trial on treason charges. Today, he is Malawi’s elected president.
When Banda was transitioning from vice president to president she became the target of malicious public attacks on all forms of media seeking to discredit her and implying that she lacked the requisite credentials to govern. This was despite the fact that she had served as a member of parliament and as minister of gender and community services, foreign minister and vice president while also being a dedicated activist for women’s rights for many years.
Banda’s story is cautionary. While an increasing number of women are politically engaged in Africa, they face great difficulty in winning public office and, once elected, maintaining their posts. Political culture in Africa remains a man’s game with entrenched loyalties and deep financial and social networks that do not avail themselves to women, particularly those who promise to bring change.
In the 50-plus years since African countries began to achieve independence, only one woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, has been democratically elected president. We need to ask ourselves why. From the local level to the global arena, women’s political participation is restricted.
As the 2011 United Nations General Assembly resolution details, “Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women.”
During her brief time in office, Banda enacted economic reforms that enabled a rapprochement with Malawi’s international donors. She overturned repressive laws restricting individual rights and began a crusade against corruption.
After the 2014 election results were announced, Banda did what was right for Malawi. She peacefully handed power to the newly elected president. Since then she has found herself, once again, the object of intense political harassment. She has not received the salary and benefits mandated under the constitution. Her house has been ransacked and a deliberate climate of fear has been manufactured, targeting her and her family.
How do we protect people like Banda, leaders who operate with integrity and respect the constitutional demands of political transition? What is our obligation as an international community? Do we conveniently shrug off the “internal matters” of a country, in which we have no business interfering? How is this a just course of action?
Every Malawian president since Hastings Kamuzu Banda has been put in prison at the end of his term. No wonder no one wants to leave office in Malawi or in other countries across Africa. Who will protect the next Joyce Banda? Can we expect the same treatment for President Sirleaf, a Nobel peace prize laureate, when she departs office in 2017?
While stories of venal African politics are unfortunately common, the gender dimension of Banda’s harassment is difficult to ignore. The reality is that being a politically ambitious woman on the continent is still more likely to earn scorn than to command respect. Until this changes, it will act as a disincentive for those who would choose the calling of higher office.
Western donors, the European Union, the UN, the World Bank and especially the African Union all have an obligation to support those who seek office in Africa, those who serve their country with respect for the constitution and the rule of law and those who leave office peacefully.
This essay appeared originally in All Africa.