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Africa's Leading Ladies

Mar 18, 2012 Written by  Dr. Scott Firsing, Guest Contributor


African women were hoisted into the spotlight in October 2011 when Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni journalist Tawekoul Karman were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is likely that these three women will remain in the news over the coming months, but there are several other African women heavily involved in politics and business whose names you will definitely hear a lot more in the near future. 

Joice Mujuru, Vice President, Zimbabwe

Joice Mujuru, vice president of Zimbabwe, is the widow of retired army general Solomon Mujuru, who died in a mysterious fire in August. His death has been described as the saddest development ever to be witnessed by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) in 2011.

The late General Mujuru was a strong force in ZANU PF circles, and was allegedly leading a faction that included his wife Joice to take over once President Robert Mugabe left office or died, whichever came first. Some analysts see the General’s death as a blow to his wife’s hopes of becoming the next Zimbabwean president. However, others feel there could be a Movement for Democratic (MDC) Morgan Tsvangirai-Mujuru coalition ticket.

The competition is fierce. Zimbabwean Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa is Mugabe’s preferred successor and appears to be the current frontrunner, with the two having worked closely together for decades. There has also been talk of a military element fronted by Zimbabwe Defense Forces Commander Constantine Chiwenga. Regardless, the proposed 2012 Zimbabwean elections will make headlines, and don’t be surprised if you see the Muguru name.

Isabel Dos Santos, Businesswoman, Angola

Angola is scheduled to hold elections in late 2012, and the big question is whether the current Angolan president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, will leave after over 32 years in power. 

With the help of her father, Dos Santos’ oldest daughter Isabel has established herself as one of the most influential figures in both the Angolan and Portuguese business worlds. According to a biography (provided courtesy of Wikileaks) by the U.S. Embassy in Luanda after a meeting with Isabel in 2009, “Isabel is Angola's most successful businesswoman…speaks impeccable colloquial English, and comes across as sophisticated, polished, and extremely articulate.”

Isabel, who in the past was cited as a potential successor to her father, does not appear keen to enter politics, but rather to stay in the business world. However, if her father leaves, Isabel and the rest of her family are trying to ensure that their connections and multi-billion dollar fortunes are not affected. The best way to accomplish this is by getting Manual Vicente elected.

Vicente, the 55-year-old head of state oil company Sonangol, is both Isabel’s and her father’s pick to take over the country upon the latter’s departure. In fact, he is the preferred choice of most of the powerful ruling party who all benefit through Sonangol and other state owned companies. Vicente, by running the oil, is almost a kingpin when it comes to the extensive network of patronage and graft.

In January 2012, Human Rights Watch revealed that some $34 billion in oil revenues linked to Sonangol had disappeared. This was identified via a December 2011 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report showing from 2007 to 2010 government funds were being spent or transferred without being properly documented in the budget. Human Rights Watch asserted that the missing oil billions had been transferred into foreign investments of President Dos Santos and Isabel.

Isabel will obviously not want to lose any of her business interests, which include everything from two Portuguese banks to telecommunications and gambling. Given her reputation as a good businesswoman, be on the look out for Isabel’s name, especially when election time grows nearer. 

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance, Nigeria

Nigeria was thrown into the spotlight on Christmas day for unfortunate reasons, when Boko Haram militants targeted Christian churches in a wave of bombings. Nigeria again made headlines in January this year when police and protesters clashed across the West African country due to a government decision to remove fuel subsidies that more than doubled fuel prices.

The blame for this decision was put on Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. A Harvard and MIT alumni, Okonjo-Iweala was appointed in July 2011 as the new Minister of Finance for the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 

Her resume is impressive. Prior to this appointment, she was the Managing Director of World Bank (October 2007 to July 2011). Okonjo-Iweala also held the position of Foreign and Finance Minister in Nigeria between 2003 and 2006, the first woman ever to hold such positions. She was considered as a possible replacement for former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz.

Given her background, Okojo-Iweala knows what she is doing. In her reaction to criticisms of the fuel subsidies, she stated that the government’s plan is to become more transparent and to channel more money into successfully completing projects.

“This money will be used to improve delivery of services for the people,” she said. “Let us put the money into areas that will facilitate production, such as provision of power supply, providing state-of-the-art hospitals, especially to curb the maternal mortality rate. Government would invest heavily in refineries, which will be sustained by private investors, as well as hydropower projects. This, including others, would create more jobs for our people. 

Okojo-Iweala identified with the pains of her fellow Nigerians, but she is adamant that this decision is one that will result in long-term benefits. The Minister is pleading with Nigerians to bear the temporary pain for a more positive future. Whether they will be able to is yet to be seen. Yes or no, Okojo-Iweala will be in the thick of it 

Gill Marcus, Governor, Reserve Bank of South Africa 

The ninth governor of the South African Reserve Bank and the first woman to hold this position, Gill Marcus has the difficult job of guiding South African monetary policy.

Marcus met with another powerful woman in finance – Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF – in January to discuss the difficult future for South Africa. The main concerns are extremely high unemployment, especially among the youth, and the potential impact of the euro debt crisis.

Marcus is not shy and calls a spade a spade. She told the media on November 15th that "we are certainly living in interesting but difficult times, because the possibility that things can go horribly wrong are very high." Moreover, she believes this “makes policy-making extremely complicated, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to meaningfully quantify the risks, and build them into policy decisions."

The world will be watching Marcus and South Africa closely, as global institutions like the IMF and international investors continue to forge and expand meaningful relationships with the emerging market world.

Dr. Scott Firsing is an American living in South Africa, and a lecturer and acting head of the Department of International Studies at Monash University. His areas of focus are US foreign and defense politics, international security, South Africa and Southern African politics, resource wars, and ethnic conflict management.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April issue.

Tagged under Africa    women    international women's day    World Bank    South African Reserve Bank    oil    Nigeria    Zimbabwe    Angola   
Last modified on Monday, 19 March 2012 18:38


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