Ethiopia and Rwanda: Presidency and Patriachy in the African Climate
On Thursday 25th of October, Ethiopia’s two houses of parliament unanimously voted to make Sahle-Work Zewde President of Ethiopia.
This marked a revolutionary moment for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in Ethiopia and acted as a testament to the global onlookers of the world. As, for the first time in Ethiopia’s modern history, a woman, Sahle-Work Zewde was named Ethiopian’s first female head of state.
Zewde has served both as the special representative of the United Nation’s secretary general and head of the UN office to the African Union, being the second woman to hold an ambassadorial position in the history of Ethiopia.
Even though it’s early days, for many, she has not failed to live up to the high expectations of being the first female president. In her first address to parliament, Zewde did not shy away from stressing the importance of unity and promised to be a voice for women:
[Source Al Jazeera]
“Government and opposition parties have to understand we are living in a common house and focus on things that unite us, not what divides us, to create a country and generation that will make all of us proud,” Zewde said in her speech to the Parliament on Thursday.
Intentionally addressing gender equality right away, the new president wittily told MP’s that if they thought that she was talking too much about women, she had only just begun.
“The absence of peace victimises firstly women, so during my tenure, I will emphasise women’s roles in ensuring peace and the dividends of peace for women.” (Africa.com)
“When there is no peace in the country, mothers will be frustrated. Therefore, we need to work on peace for the sake of our mothers,” Sahle-Work told parliament after her approval.” (Reuters)
“I urge you all, to uphold our peace, in the name of a mother, who is the first to suffer from the absence of peace.” (TravelNoire)
The Case of Rwanda
While Zewde’s achievement is an example to other African women young and old, the reality of this is that the structures of African society are still rigidly patriarchal, and we need only to look to Rwanda to notice this.
Rwanda may have more women in political positions than any other country in the world, but when one activist tried to run for the country’s highest office, president, the was loud and clear: no.
For example, Diane Rwigara, a 37-year-old Rwandan businesswoman, women’s right’s activist and fierce critic of President Paul Kagame, launched her election bid three months ahead of the August 2017 vote. In this presidential race, she was the only female candidate at that time challenging Kagame.
Yet, shortly after announcing her candidacy, nude photos, allegedly of her, emerged across the internet. Rwigara and her family have stated the defamatory images were part of a smear campaign to discourage her.
"They are fake nudes, altered in Photoshop, and it is one of many tactics that has been used to silence me," Diane Rwigara told CNN in an August 2017 interview.
Her campaign was then cut short as electoral authorities deemed her ineligible due to the use of unfair tactics. Authorities disqualified her on account of doctoring the number of signatures needed to qualify in the campaign and accused her of using the names of deceased people in her signatures, all of which she denied.
As a result of this, Rwigara launched the People’s Salvation Movement, an activist group dedicated to encouraging Rwandans to hold their government accountable. But, shortly, after its inception, she was arrested, along with her mother and sister, on several charges, including ‘inciting insurrection’.
Diane Rwigara has said these charges are intended to silence her family and supporters as punishment for her political ambitions.
Victoire Inagbire Umuhoza
Umuhoza, married mother of three and former Rwandan politician was elected by her party for the Rwandan presidential election in 2010. But, in April of that year, she was placed under house arrest and charged with "threatening state security and 'belittling' the 1994 genocide,”(BBC). The Supreme Court also found her guilty of spreading rumours intended to incite rebellion - charges on which she had earlier been cleared.
On the note of ‘belittling the 1994 genocide’, Umuhoza, a Hutu herself had questioned why Rwanda's official memorial to the 1994 genocide had omitted the Hutus’ from the record from one of the largest genocides in history.
The Rwandan prosecution accused her of:
“Forming an armed group with the aim of destabilising the country, complicity to acts of terrorism, conspiracy against the government by use of war and terrorism, inciting the masses to revolt against the government, genocide ideology and provoking divisionism”.
All of which she Umuhoza denies, claiming that the charges were politically motivated.
Nonetheless, in October 2012, she was sentenced to eight years in prison by the High Court of Kigali.
In 2013 the Rwandan Supreme Court heard Victoire's appeal and ruled that she was to serve an additional seven years, increasing her jail term eight to 15 years.
When things were looking up on September 14th 2018, as President Paul Kagame exercised his pardon and granted early release to Umuhoza (alongside 2000 other prisoners), there have been reports that Umuhoza has yet to be freed.
According to the Rwandan:
“The Presidential Order Number 131/01 of September 14, 2018, which supposedly freed Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is a big lie. On the contrary, the Presidential Order Number 131/01 demands that Ingabire is under 24/7 surveillance at the by the Village, Cell, Sector, and District levels. Furthermore, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza must appear before the prosecutor once a month. Most critically, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza cannot freely travel outside Rwanda— to do so; she must receive permission from the Rwandan minister of justice. This is what Kagame calls freedom.”
Thus, Zewde’s phenomenal achievements are a very stark comparison to the realities of women like Diane Rwigara and Victoire Ingabire who have been made example’s for other women who try to challenge Rwanda’s male-dominated government.
So, Zewde’s win is a win. Yet, it was a win for one but not for all.