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Women Gain Power in the African Union, While Rwanda’s President Strives for More Too


Monique Nsanzabaganwa
Dr. Monique Nsanzabaganwa, a Rwandan and the first woman to be elected deputy chair of the African Union Commission, participating in the 34th session of the African Union Assembly, held in Kigali, Rwanda, Feb. 6, 2021. For the first time, women will dominate the commission, which runs the daily operations of the African Union. Yet the body is being scrutinized for charges of corruption and abuse, including sexual harassment.

The African Union, living up to its longtime promise to improve the gender balance in its leadership, has elected the first woman as deputy chair of the organization’s operating commission. She is Monique Nsanzabaganwa, an economist who was deputy governor of the National Bank of Rwanda and earlier Rwanda’s minister of trade and industry.

Nsanzabaganwa, with a Ph.D. in economics from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, one of the continent’s premier institutions, will not be alone as a woman in a power structure heavily dominated by men. In addition, two women were re-elected to the commission, which has been reduced to six members from eight, plus the two top administrators. Two more women remain in office as commissioners until July, when the next election occurs.

For the first time, women will be in the majority on the commission, which runs the daily operations of the African Union and carries out the policies and decisions of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, the supreme policy-making body. The AU, based in Addis Ababa, has 55 member nations from across the continent.

Changes in the commission are happening as the African Union is being scrutinized for allegations of administrative corruption and abuses, including sexual harassment of women employees. This is where Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, comes in.

In 2016, responsibility for reforming the organization was given to Kagame, a military and intelligence strategist and political autocrat who has been president of Rwanda since 2000. So far, however, reports from his team have concentrated primarily on institutional fixes and not gender or human-rights issues.

The two women re-elected to four-year terms as African Union commissioners are Amani Abou-Zeid of Egypt, who holds the portfolio of infrastructure and energy; and Josefa Sacko of Angola, the commissioner for rural economy and agriculture. Both women are highly regarded internationally for their expertise.

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The remaining two women who will remain on the commission, at least until elections in July, are Amira Elfadil of Sudan, commissioner for health, humanitarian affairs and social development; and Sarah Agbor of Cameroon, for education, science, technology and innovation.

Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, the manager of a master’s degree program in human rights and democratization in Africa at the University of Pretoria, expressed reservations in an analysis for The Conversation publication about the impact of the progress of women in the African Union Commission.

“To ensure that gender equality is achieved throughout the continent, the AU Commission must mainstream gender equity and equality into all its work,” she wrote. There are also internal issues to be addressed, she added. “One issue that the AU has not resolved is the sexual harassment faced by junior and short term staff members at the secretariat and other AU organs.”

A recent independent external investigation confirmed that such laxity appeared to be business as usual for the African Union.

On Feb. 19, Rumbi Chakamba, a Botswana-based associate editor at Devex, a development news service, wrote in an exclusive report that the auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded in 2020 that malfeasance was wide and deep in the management of the African Union.

“In many ways,” Chakamba wrote, “the report confirmed the extensive allegations of nepotism, corruption, financial mismanagement, power abuse, and sexual harassment which have consistently plagued the commission.”

Furthermore, a report by the International Crisis Group, released shortly before the Feb. 6 African Union summit of member nations — held virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic — referred to a debate in Africa over whether the commission’s chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad, should get a second four-year term.

“Member states have been concerned about accusations lodged during his tenure of a culture of sexual harassment, bribery, corruption and bullying within the commission,” the report from the Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization, said. “Faki formed a special committee in 2018 to investigate the allegations of harassment in the commission, and has strongly denied complaints against him of nepotism and corruption.

“Faki has also sometimes found it difficult to bridge the divide between Anglophone and Francophone caucuses at the AU that developed under his predecessor,” [Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa] the report added. “Southern African states in particular are wary of what they see as his close relationship with France.”

The east-west divide — linguistic and geographic — is part of the negative legacy of European colonialism and the competition for territory and influence in Africa, still primarily between the British and the French.

Nevertheless, Faki prevailed and won a second term despite the doubts about his record. His candidacy received an early endorsement from Kagame, whose role as an African powerbroker is growing, some African specialists say. Kagame appeared willing to support Faki, despite his flaws, at least partly to ensure that Monique Nsanzabaganwa, a fellow Rwandan, would be elected Faki’s deputy.

President Paul Kagame at the African Union Assembly gathering in Kigali, Feb. 6, 2021. While he tries to elevate his country’s power in the African Union for various reasons, challengers to his own presidency have disappeared over the years.  

Susan Thomson is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, in Hamilton, N.Y. In 1994, she was a program officer for the UN Development Program and present in Rwanda during the genocide crisis. In an interview with PassBlue, she described the importance to Kagame of playing a bigger role in the African Union for Rwanda, a country about the size of the American state of Maryland or the countries of North Macedonia or Haiti. His importance in the organization also helps polish his image.

“Kagame, as the head of a party with regional and international aspirations, sought the leadership of the AU to expand the reach and influence of Rwanda, and to put the tiny country on a bigger stage, in line with Kagame’s ambitions to lead on the world stage,” she said by phone to PassBlue. “I think he has long sought the leadership by populating the AU with his party loyalists over the years, to allow Rwanda to play a vital role in protecting its interests at the AU.”

“The AU also provides a platform for Rwanda to frame itself despite much evidence to the contrary that the country is an economic development miracle,” she added.

Thomson, who was declared persona non grata and barred from Rwanda by the Kagame regime in 2008, has written an exceptional book about the country, its people and its hierarchical, class-conscious society that goes well beyond an outsider’s standard understanding of why and how the 1994 genocide happened. The book, “From Genocide to Precarious Peace,” traces through human stories what followed as Kagame and his ethnic Tutsi-led army, trained in exile in neighboring Uganda, took over the country in 1994. The Tutsi are a minority in Rwanda, which has an ethnic Hutu majority, though Thomson argues that ethnicity is not the whole story or even a main factor in the genocide.

Kagame, a military strategist of royal lineage from the years when Rwanda was a Tutsi kingdom, routed the remnants of the mostly ethnic Hutu death squads that had shattered the country, killing as many as 800,000 people, mostly innocent civilians from the country’s Tutsi communities.

Thomson’s book also offers glimpses into Kagame’s personal story.

Born in October 1957 in Rwanda, he was only two years old when his family fled to Uganda after a 1959 Hulu-led uprising left an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Tutsi dead.

“Many Rwandan exiles hailed from a group of hereditary nobles, meaning that many were unfit or unwilling to engage in ‘low’ farm labor — hoeing and harvesting — to provide food for their families,” Thomson wrote in her book. “Lore of the time highlights the bravery and resilience of those Rwandan refugees who could put aside their traditional royal status to work the fields and do other menial tasks. Paul Kagame experienced this at firsthand — his mother dismissed her privilege to work, while his father languished. A hereditary Tutsi noble, Kagame’s father withered in exile, and died when young Paul was just fifteen years old.”

After taking power with his party loyalists of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Kagame was praised internationally as a developer who plunged into projects that appeared to heal some deep national scars from the genocide. But from the start, he was an uncompromising, quick-tempered political authoritarian, Thomson told PassBlue. In her book she wrote:

“Kagame was every bit the caricature of a military intelligence officer — politically astute, emotionally distant and whip smart. He also had a reputation as a fighter, someone who could explode if he felt misunderstood or pressured.”

Over the years, people who challenged him began to disappear or die abroad in mysterious circumstances. In one case, after a former Rwandan intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was found murdered in a South African hotel room in January 2014, Kagame’s high commissioner in London brushed off the case by telling the BBC that Karegeya was “an enemy of the state.”

At this moment, the most high-profile case is that of Paul Rusesabagina, the man who saved at least 1,200 lives at the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, by holding a Hutu death squad at bay with bribes of liquor from the bar and money from the hotel’s safe. His story became the acclaimed 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda.” He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

But Rusesabagina went on trial in mid-February in Rwanda on charges of terrorism.

The hero of the “Hotel Rwanda” story, a Hutu with a Tutsi wife, according to media reports, had become an outspoken critic of Kagame. In exile, he was the acknowledged leader of an opposition political movement reported to have an armed military-style wing. His rise to international fame and adulation after the film was released, which gained him more followers, could not have been missed by Kagame.

Though Rusesabagina was living in exile in Texas in August 2020 with a United States residence permit, he was tricked into accepting an offer of speaking engagements in Burundi, a neighboring country to Rwanda. After a commercial flight from the US to Dubai, he boarded a charter plane, which he was told would fly him to Burundi. Instead, it landed in Kigali and he was taken away in handcuffs, according to local reports.

Thomson said that the Kagame government “doesn’t tolerate the building of a political constituency outside of Rwanda” and that Rusesabagina was in serious jeopardy and not likely to survive. Thomson’s suspicion is that the trial may be allowed to run its course, but sooner or later, Rusesabagina will die somewhere, somehow.

Daniel Magaziner, an historian of 20th-century Africa at Yale, heard Kagame speak at the university in 2016, eager to take his measure despite protests over Kagame’s appearance on campus.

Magaziner heard the familiar, justifiable accusations of the hypocrisy of foreign countries and the United Nations that did nothing to come to Rwanda’s rescue in 1994 and stop the genocide. Magaziner wrote about what the 2016 event meant to him in an essay for Africa Is a Country, an online platform for intellectual exchange. He concluded:

“Paul Kagame came to my campus today,” Magaziner wrote. “I did not condemn my university for inviting him and I did not boycott him. Instead I shook his hand and I smiled at him and I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with us. Because I needed to hear him to confirm what, as a historian, I have long suspected — we’ve seen his kind before. And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that — because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994.

“People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake. And bodies and human suffering are the cursed currency of history, as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has taught and regrettably continues to teach.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Women Gain Power in the African Union, While Rwanda’s President Strives for More Too
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