April 24, 2019
Written by Adwoa Ohemeng, edited by Ntama Bahati
Who is the first female President in Africa? How many female Presidents has Africa had so far? This is one of many unknown great stories of African women. In fact, the narrative we hear often is negative, portraying African woman’s struggle and never the triumph.
This profile of African Women Heads of State aims at telling the other side of their story and most importantly inspiring today and tomorrow’s generations of African woman to be greater than those who came before then. These are African Women Heads of State as of 2019.
Slyvie Kiningi, Acting President of Burundi (February – October 1993)
The first female President in Africa was Slyvie Kiningi. She was the Prime Minister of Burundi from February 10, 1993 to October 7, 1994. During this period, she served as the acting President of the country from October 27, 1993 to February 5, 1994 when the incumbent President Melchior Ndadaye was shot together with 6 of his officials. After his death, Kiningi gathered 15 ministers to continue to govern the country. Thus, technically making her the first female president on the continent.
Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi, Acting President of South Africa (September 2005)
Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi also served temporarily as the acting President of South Africa when the President and his vice were out of the country for four days in September of 2005. She was also selected by the cabinet to serve as the constitutional and official head of state for an interim period of 14 hours on September 25, 2008. This was the period between the resignation of the current President Thabo Mbeki and the taking of office by the Kgalema Motlanthe.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia ( January 2006 – January 2018)
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first elected President who served two consecutive terms after winning the 2005 and 2011 Presidential elections. She had initially run for Presidential office in 1997 against Charles Taylor, but she lost. During her tenure she was also elected Chair of the Economic Community of West African States in June of 2016.
Rose Francine Rogombe, Interim President of Gabon (June 2009 – October 2009)
Rose Francine Rogombe served as interim President of Gabon from June 2009 to October 2009 after the death of President of Omar Bongo. As President of the Senate at that time, she automatically became the Head of State because she was constitutionally the first in line for presidential succession.
Agnes Monique Ohsan Bellepeau, Acting President of Mauritius (March – July 2012 and May – June 2015)
Agnes Monique Ohsan Bellepeau was the Acting President of Mauritius from March 31, 2012 – July 21, 2012. This was the transition period between the resignation of the current President Anerood Jugnauth to the inauguration of the new President Kailash Purryag. She served again as Acting President between the resignation of Purryag and the inauguration of the new President, Ameenah Gurib from May 29, 2015 – June 5, 2015.
Joyce Hilda Banda, President of Malawi (April 2012 – May 2014)
Joyce Hilda Banda served as President of Malawi from April 7, 2012 to May 31, 2014 following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika. She was the country’s fourth President. She was also the country’s first female Vice President (May 2009 to April 2012). In 2014, Forbes named President Banda as the 40th most powerful woman in the world and the most powerful woman in Africa.
Catherine Samba, Acting President of Central African Republic (January 2014 – March 2016)
Catherine Samba Panza was the Acting Head of State of the Central African Republic from 2014 to 2016. She became interim President when rebel leader Michael Djotodia resigned from his self appointed Presidency. Before she took on this role, she was the mayor of the capital city Bangui from 2013 to 2014.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritius (June 2015 – March 2018)
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was the first female President of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018. She was selected to be a Presidential candidate in 2014 following the resignation of then President Kailash Purryag. She was unanimously elected President by the National Assembly.
Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia ( October 2018 – Present)
Sahle-Work Zewde is the first elected female President of Ethiopia and currently the only female out of the 54 Presidents in Africa. She took office on October 25, 2018 after being unanimously elected by members of the National Parliamentary Assembly. Prior to her election as President, she worked as Special Representative of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union.
These African women Heads of State stand on the shoulders of many female giants, known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, who came before them. These include for example, but not limited to the Dahomey Amazons of Benin, an all-female military regiment on whose shoulders stand many women serving in armed services and law enforcement.
The contribution of women to what Africa is today is unquestionable. However, the recovery from the disruptive and brutal colonization and slave trade has been very slow. Partially, African leaders mostly male who mismanaged, abused and continue to abuse their power since the end of colonization equally share the blame for disempowering African women whose contribution is unequivocally needed to build a more prosperous, just and peaceful Africa.