Africa needs its own #MeToo moment

Africa needs its own #MeToo moment
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Today, as a wave of women come forward to break their silence on cases of sexual misconduct and abuse of male power, and America navigates an inflection point driven by the #MeToo movement, the fastest growing social crusade in decades, I am considering my international work through a new lens: a feminist one.

I have watched several political transitions unfold in Africa over the past 12 months, and analyzed some for The Hill, reporting that the movement of democracy in Africa is unstoppable but noting that obstacles remain, like autocratic leaders finding new ways to hold on to power, reflexive voting by ethnic and tribal affiliation, and the buying and selling of loyalties.

But it turns out, I missed something. When I looked anew, I saw that when women depart from designated “safe spaces,” and become a real threat to the interests of entrenched power, they are subject to a particularly egregious level of abuse and attack, when compared to their male counterparts. This level of hatred and dehumanization can be attributed to a legacy of sexism and misogyny and this too, is an obstacle to democratization.

Kate Manne, in her newly-released book, “Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny” explains that misogyny should be understood as the law enforcement branch of a patriarchal order which maintains the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology. Misogynists’ primary targets are women who overtly undermine that power imbalance, those who are perceived as insubordinate, with the primary objective of controlling, policing, punishing, and exiling the women who challenge male dominance.

“Sexism wears a lab coat, while misogyny goes on a witch-hunt,” Manne concludes.  

This assessment resonated with me as I considered the Africa women who dared to ascend, (or who try to ascend) to the highest level of power like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Joyce Banda of Malawi, and Diane Rwigara of Rwanda.

In September of this year, a few weeks before Liberia’s presidential and legislative elections on October 10, CNN published an opinion piece entitled, “Why Africa owes a debt of gratitude to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Sirleaf is the first woman democratically elected to lead an African nation and a Nobel Laureate for peace. She has governed for two six-years terms and is stepping down next month consistent with the country’s constitution.   

The article spoke of the “moral courage” of an African leader in not automatically handing the presidency to her sitting vice president, but telling him that he needed to work for it. For her party, the Unity Party, Sirleaf’s decision was hardly courageous. It was seen as a betrayal — a breach of the normal order in Africa where party loyalty is based upon patriarchy, and patronage.

Since then, Sirleaf has been subject to blistering, hate-filled public attacks, with the ruling party, in alliance with others, accusing her of  interfering in the electoral process.  

Sirleaf, known as Africa’s “Iron Lady,” is resilient, as are the institutions of democracy her government has built over the past 12 years. In January 2018, if all goes as expected, she will hand-over power to an elected successor. It will be the first-time since 1944 that presidential power will have been transferred democratically and peacefully in Liberia.

Dr. Joyce Banda, Africa’s first elected woman vice president, assumed Malawi’s highest office after the death of the president in 2012. Once in power, Banda took on corruption, a move applauded by Malawi’s donors, with investigations implicating many in her party. As in the case of Sirleaf, where some saw a principled crusade, her political cadres saw a mortal threat. And they would make her pay, including with a failed attempt on her life.

Banda lost her re-election bid in 2014 to the dead president’s brother in highly disputed election. She accepted the results. But the party wasn’t satisfied. As Cherie Blair writes in the London Guardian last month, “death threats and ghosts warrants hound the former Malawian president as she is forced to stay in exile amid a culture of fear and impunity in Malawi.”

The circumstances of Diane Rwigara, the jailed former female presidential candidate of Rwanda, seem a contradiction in the context of a country that boasts the largest representation of female candidates in parliament in Africa, some 64 percent. But it is not. Rwigara, like Sirleaf and Banda, was not compliant with the normal order.

The country’s president, Paul Kagame, who is credited with stopping the genocide of 1994, and with running one of Africa’s most efficient, high-growth economies, has been willing to tolerate only a certain degree democracy, limiting both political space and dissent. He presided over a change in Rwanda’s constitution, which enabled him to run for a third consecutive term in August 2017, the same election where Rwigara challenged him.

When Rwigara first made her announcement to run for the presidency, nude photo-shopped pictures surfaced in an attempt to disable her in a society where modesty is a virtue. Not deterred, she collected the requisite 600+ signatures to confirm her candidacy, only to be disqualified by the National Electoral Commission which claimed some of the signatures were fraudulent

Kagame eventually won by 99 percent of the vote, but even so, Rwigara, like Banda, would remain a target. In September, she was arrested on charges of tax evasion and forgery.

#MeToo has changed the paradigm by which women are viewing sexual assault in America. It’s no longer about being the victim, but about the courage to speak out, as Time Magazine recognized in its person of the year designation. Women are feeling empowered to share their truth, and through them, the world has been awakened to how frequently they are targeted, abused, and silenced by fear of repercussions.

Africa needs its own #MeToo moment, a reckoning that misogyny and sexism, however manifested, however disguised, must be defeated, as it remains a fundamental impediment to women’s participation in politics in Africa. Exposing it, and shaming those who perpetrate it, should be a shared obligation of men and women alike, who wish to see the continent continue on its unstoppable march towards  participatory democracy.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her on Twitter @rivalevinson.