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Best Medicine for Ailing Africa

Posted on Oct 23, 2006
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
AP / George Osodi

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2005.

By Gbemisola Olujobi

As more women show up in Africa’s corrupt corridors of power, the beleaguered continent may end up benefiting from their particular brand of tough love.

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Liberians may have told the rest of Africa that the best man for the job of president could be a woman.

Winning 59.4 percent of the votes in a presidential runoff in November 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf defeated her arch-opponent, international football star George Weah, and was sworn in as the 26th president of Liberia on Jan. 15, 2006.  She is Africa’s first elected female head of state.

The 67-year-old mother of four and grandmother of six brings impressive credentials to the job. A Harvard graduate, she is a former World Bank economist, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, a former vice president (Africa) of Citibank, a former finance minister of Liberia and a veteran politician. But many say the best qualification Sirleaf brings to Liberia’s presidency is her gender.

Liberia was founded in 1824 by freed American slaves.  The American settlers declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia on July 26, 1847, making it Africa’s oldest republic. The nation has all it takes to be successful in terms of natural resources —tin ore, diamonds and timber. But today, Liberia is perhaps best known for its devastating and debilitating 14-year-old civil war and its role in a rebellion in neighboring Sierra Leone. Sirleaf has vowed to tackle a national debt of about 3.7 billion U.S. dollars and to fight rampant corruption, which experts say has fueled decades of instability.

There is no shortage of problems for Sirleaf to tackle. There are no functioning public utilities, and the vast majority of Liberians have no access to electricity, water, basic sanitation facilities and healthcare. Schools, courts, government/public buildings, roads and bridges have disappeared or been bombed away. Ethnic hatred is still thick in the air.

Apart from the staggering national debt, Liberia has an unemployment rate of over 80 percent. At the end of the civil war, there were 314,000 registered internally displaced persons in the country and 340,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in neighboring countries. Most of them have returned home to pick up the pieces, and many say the only one who can fix the mess is “Mama Ellen,” as Sirleaf is affectionately called.

Sirleaf has been hailed as “a beacon of hope in the worst place in the world to be a woman.” Others describe her victory as “a blow against corruption, abuse of office and conflict,” saying a woman will bring transparency to the murky waters of Liberia’s corruption-riddled governance.

These comments may be dismissed in some quarters as mere sentimentality, but they are not entirely off the mark.  Recent World Bank research submits that “numerous behavioral studies have found women to be more trust-worthy and public-spirited than men. These results suggest that women should be particularly effective in promoting honest government.” (Read the whole research paper here (.pdf file).) 

Another World Bank research team investigated the relationship between gender and corruption and found that women are less involved in bribery and are less likely to condone bribe taking. It concludes that “corruption is less severe where women hold a larger share of parliamentary seats and senior positions in the government bureaucracy and comprise a larger share of the labor force.” (Read the whole research paper at Swamy_gender.pdf.)

Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that monitors official corruption globally, also draws on a study by the IRIS Center at the University of Maryland and posits that “[h]igher levels of women’s participation in public life are associated with lower levels of corruption. It is suggested that women have higher standards of ethical behavior and appear to be more concerned with the common good.”

Observers say Sirleaf’s victory, an unequivocal vote of confidence in a woman by a largely patriarchal nation, is not an isolated coincidence but rather part of a global trend. Are voters around the world indeed turning to women to clean up the mess left behind by “bad old boys” networks? 

Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women, a San Francisco-based organization that distributes grants to women’s groups, says, “The emergence of a women’s political voice is almost directly linked to the exhaustion of alternatives.”

“Some of the biggest gains,” says GFW, “reflect women rising to leadership in troubled lands. Liberia, where the Harvard-educated Johnson-Sirleaf took over, had been ravaged by two decades of instability and civil war that claimed 150,000 lives.

“Analysts say it’s no accident that the world’s parliamentary body with the biggest share of women is found in Rwanda, where women hold 48.8 percent of the seats. In the 1990s, tribal fighting in the central African nation triggered genocide and some of the most horrific human cruelty in recent history.”

Ramdas observes that “in Afghanistan, voters in September [2005] expressed a desire to rid their war-wracked land of male-dominated corruption. They elected 68 women in the country’s first parliamentary election in more than 30 years; a quarter of the 249-member legislative body is reserved for women under the country’s postwar constitution.

“In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet, tortured as a teen during a dictatorship, was propelled to power by voters who were weary of machismo politics and corrupt leaders.

“Angela Merkel, elected ... [in November 2005] as Germany’s first woman chancellor, leaped to power earlier in her career after her mentor, ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was cut down by a slush-fund scandal.

“People say they trust women more than men because they are not corrupt.” 

But Gisela Geisler, a researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, and author of “Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa,” does not think female leaders are necessarily less corrupt by nature. She says, “Women have just had less opportunity for graft, in part because they’re relative newcomers—and because when they do get into office, they’re watched extra closely.” 

Furthermore, says Geisler, politics haven’t fundamentally changed. “Even if you have better ideals when you enter politics, you’ll soon notice you can’t compete if you’re not corrupt.”

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By cris crawford, October 25, 2006 at 8:32 pm Link to this comment
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I don’t think individual men or women are necessarily more corrupt. I think large groups of human beings of male gender only do exhibit anti-social behavior. I’m not sure it’s always the case, or has been the case throughout all history. Unsupervised all-male athletic teams for example.

I think Hillary Clinton took bribes disguised in the form of chicken futures. Nobody makes a killing by day trading chicken futures while simultaneously attending an all-day conference. So she is as corrupt as any man IMO.

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By Zara, October 25, 2006 at 2:35 pm Link to this comment
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Women sucessfully run the majority of households in the world…. so they should be able to do as well with running a country, no?

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By Lisa, October 24, 2006 at 10:54 am Link to this comment
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It’s not amazing to me that there will be a great divide on this subject and on the woman who courageously is heading up the front for Liberia’s socio-economic plight.  It’s a great thing in history but what are her benchmarks, besides heads of state and other political leaders declaring their assets?  It’s a good start but what is her time table?  How much will the United Nations back her as far as resources?  They obviously need help and I applaud her valiant efforts to make people around the world aware of what has been her country’s corrupt disposition for decades.

God bless her efforts and stay the hands of her enemies because there is no way that she has not made any! I hope and pray that she will be able to revitalize her country and educate the women & children (especially the girls as poverty is a she) of her country!

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By Charles Newlin, October 24, 2006 at 10:00 am Link to this comment
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Worth a try.  But so far, women in power act pretty much like men in power.  I think it’s called equality.

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By linus agu, October 24, 2006 at 4:17 am Link to this comment
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I wonder what the writer would say about a seemingly stagnant socio-political movement by females in Nigeria to effect the kind of changes she talks about.
Isn’t ironic that Nigerian Women, whether they are in diaspora or at home who are better positioned than their counterparts from other parts of Africa to bring about change in Nigeria, where unfortunately such changes are most dire are now the ones standing on the sideline commenting on the same subject as it happense elswhere but Nigeria.

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By WAYNE, October 23, 2006 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment
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