Africa has been slow to embrace women leaders in politics, but there is an exclusive group of female presidents who have laid the foundations for future female leadership in Africa.
These include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who served as president for 12 years, and Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde, currently the only woman among the 54 presidents in Africa.
Nine women have held the presidential title in African politics, some through the election process and others in an interim capacity at a time of need.
All of them have made their mark on politics in their respective countries while their presence as heads of state has been positive for gender equality in Africa.
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Here are the nine times a female president took charge of an African country.
The first female president in Africa was Sylvie Kinigi. She served as prime minister of Burundi from Feb. 10, 1993, to Oct. 7, 1994. During this period, she also served as the acting president of the country from Oct. 27, 1993, to Feb. 5, 1994, after Burundi President Melchior Ndadaye was shot and killed. Following Ndadaye’s death, Kiningi continued to govern the country as acting president for three months.
Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri served temporarily as the acting president of South Africa for four days in September 2005 when President Thabo Mbeki and his vice president were out of the country. She would be in the same position three years later for 14 hours on Sept. 25, 2008, acting as interim president between the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki and new President Kgalema Motlanthe taking office. She was South Africa’s minister of communications from 1999 to 2009.
Rose Francine Rogombe served as interim president of Gabon from June 2009 to October 2009 after the death of President Omar Bongo. As president of the senate at that time, Rogombe automatically became the head of state. The country’s constitution sets out that this position is first in line for presidential succession if the president is unable to fulfill his or her duties, according to VOANews.
The longest-serving female president in African history, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa. She initially ran for president in 1997, losing to Charles Taylor. Sirleaf ran against almost a decade later, winning in January 2006 and serving two consecutive terms until she left office in January 2018.
Mauritius has gained a reputation for embracing female presidents, with two women already serving as president, although in the island country that remains a ceremonial figurehead rather than a position of great power. The real power holder in Mauritius is the prime minister. Monique Ohsan Bellepeau was the acting president of Mauritius from March 31, 2012 to July 21, 2012, during the transition period between the resignation of President Anerood Jugnauth and the inauguration of President Kailash Purryag. She was acting president once again between the resignation of Purryag and the inauguration of new President Ameenah Gurib from May 29, 2015 to June 5, 2015.
Joyce Hilda Banda was the first female vice president and president of Malawi. In 2011, she founded the People’s Party. Between April 2012 and May 2014, she served as president after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died suddenly in office. As vice president at the time, Banda was next in line to be president according to the constitution and took over. Two years late in May 2014, Banda was heavily defeated in the next presidential election. An educator and social activist, Dr. Banda advocated for gender equality as a member of Children’s Affairs and Community Services.
Catherine Samba was the acting president of the Central African Republic from 2014 to 2016 after rebel leader Michael Djotodia resigned from his self-appointed presidency, according to Reuters. Before becoming president, Samba was the mayor of the Central African Republic’s capital city Bangui from 2013 to 2014.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was the first elected female president of Mauritius. A Muslim woman, she was unanimously voted into power by the country’s national assembly in June 2018 and served until March 2018, though it is important to note that in Mauritius the position of president is largely ceremonial and the prime minister is the most powerful office in the country. Gurib-Fakim is a scientist and she holds an honorary doctorate from Pierre and Marie Curie University — formerly known as the Sorbonne.
Sahle-Work Zewde was the first elected female president of Ethiopia and remains in that position at the time of this article being published. At the moment, she is the only female out of the 54 presidents in Africa. Zwede took office on Oct. 25, 2018, after being unanimously elected by members of the country’s national parliamentary assembly, according to AlJazeera. The position of Ethiopian president is largely ceremonial. As prime minister, Abiy Ahmed is the most powerful figure in Ethiopian politics and commander in chief of the Ethiopian Armed Forces. Zwede has previously worked as a special representative of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to the African Union, and head of the U.N. office to the African Union.