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.
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  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.”
Still, Geisler agrees that African women deserve a place in democracy and governance. “After joining Africa’s colonial-era movements to struggle for freedom for their countries and themselves, they were marginalized after independence. Many went into nonprofit or civil society, or ended up just singing and dancing at airports as part of arrival ceremonies for male politicians. But now, with voter dissatisfaction rising, they are increasingly moving into politics,” she explains.
Anne Marie Goetz, writing in “Political Cleaners: How Women Are the New Anti-Corruption Force. Does the Evidence Wash?” (2003), also questions “the notion that more women in government will result in lower levels of corruption.” Goetz comments that the earlier papers that point to women as the fairer sex “fail to acknowledge the very real ways in which gender relations may limit the opportunities for corruption, particularly when corruption functions through all-male networks and in forums from which women are socially excluded.”
The presence of women in government could, however, ensure that the most important things are placed on the front burner. Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda of the Kenya office of UNIFEM, the United Nations’ women development agency, says, “Because of their nurturing responsibilities,” women tend to value “education, health, water, food—things having to do with social security. Those are priorities before making the borders secure and the defense ministry well-resourced.”
Besides, women have a vested interest in stamping out corruption. Transparency International says corruption has a disproportionately negative effect on women. “While women are less involved in corruption themselves, they are even more disadvantaged from the consequences of a corrupt system.
“Corruption decreases national budget resources. It also reduces, for example, the amount of public spending on health and social security, which affects women disproportionately. If there is a cut in public spending, maternal and child health services are more likely to be the worst-hit victims.”
Roslyn Hees, senior advisor to Transparency International, stresses: “A corrupt legal system reinforces existing gender discrimination in many countries. Women’s civil rights are grossly unfair with regard to marriage/divorce, family law, child custody, financial independence and inheritance and property rights.
“In many countries, those who win cases tend to be involved with corrupt prosecutors and judges. Women simply do not have the means to compete in this way. Corrupt judicial procedures and the prevalence of ‘old boys networks’ makes it in many cases impossible for women to win legal battles in a transparent and open way.”
Sirleaf herself believes that women bring transparency to governance. “There has been no woman’s name associated with major corruption. In fact, all the prominent role-model women have had integrity as one of their key attributes,” she once said when asked whether a female president would indeed rid Liberia of official corruption.
Rwanda, with 49 percent, has the world’s highest number of women in parliament. Of the 50 legislatures with the most female members, 11 are in Africa. South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have female vice presidents. Five members of Sudan’s new cabinet are women.
A word has been coined to describe this emerging form of government, “Femocracy,” a democracy headed by women—mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and grandmothers like Mama Ellen.
Sirleaf is not unaware of either her place in history or the heavy load of expectations on her shoulders. “We know expectations are going to be high. The Liberian people have voted for their confidence in my ability to deliver ... very quickly,” she told Reuters news agency after she was elected.
She has continually promised to “bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency.” She said at her inauguration, “We know that your vote was a vote for change, a vote for peace, security ... and we have heard you loudly.” Her vow to wage a war on Liberia’s “major public enemy,” corruption, was applauded by the large crowd that witnessed the ceremony.
She announced that leading civil servants and ministers would have to declare their assets. “I will lead by example—I will be the first to comply,” Sirleaf promised as she declared “zero tolerance” of corruption.
Sirleaf is on course to deliver on her promises. Everyone in Liberia seems to agree with her stance that nothing can be done unless corruption is stamped out. Recently, the lower house of the Liberian parliament ratified both the African Union and the U.N. international conventions against corruption. Both instruments are expected to create environments that will enable the civil society and the media to hold governments to the highest levels of transparency and accountability in the management of public affairs.
“All the men have failed Liberia; let’s try a woman this time,” Sirleaf says.
Olujobi, a journalist since 1984, is a Pulitzer Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, and a research associate at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AP / George Osodi
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2005.