Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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The Forgotten Half of the African Sky

NAIROBI - In Kenya, my home country, there is a popular saying that when two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers. Nowhere is that more evident than in the numerous conflicts Africa has seen in the past 50 years.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, marauding gangs purporting to be freedom fighters, and the government armies they fight, have for decades used rape as a weapon against defenseless women. Following the end of the Rwandan genocide, the heavy burden of rebuilding a devastated society was borne by the country's women.

Yet, when it comes to efforts to avert such crises, African women often get left out. Consider the African Union's current efforts to find a solution to the post-election political impasse in Côte d'Ivoire. Of the five African leaders picked at the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to coordinate negotiations, not one was a woman.

What is even more insulting to African women is that the AU bypassed them to pick men whose commitment to democracy and human rights may be worse than that of Laurent Gbagbo, the man clinging to the Ivorian presidency despite losing the election. Of the five men appointed to lead the mission to persuade Gbagbo to step down, only two - Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and South Africa's Jacob Zuma - can claim to have come to power democratically. The remaining three, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Idriss Déby of Chad, and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, grabbed power in coups, some of them violent.

The irony runs even deeper. The AU is filled with still more men who are no more righteous than Gbagbo. Meles Zenawi, who hosted the summit, has ruled Ethiopia for nearly 20 years and has convinced no one outside his circle of cronies that his country's elections have been free and fair.

Even Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan, who heads the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and supports military intervention against Gbagbo, cannot escape such scrutiny unscathed. Jonathan is President of Nigeria today because Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, his deceased predecessor, came to power through what many consider rigged elections.

And what would Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga say if Gbagbo asks him why he - unlike Alassane Ouatarra, whom the AU recognizes as Côte d'Ivoire's rightful president - accepted a power-sharing agreement after a 2007 disputed presidential election?

As long as Africa is full of such dubious men, applying “African solutions to African problems,” as they like to say, will do the continent no good. I know that many would argue that the pool of well-known African women is limited to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Nigerian minister of finance and current World Bank vice president, Graça Machel, the former First Lady of Mozambique and South Africa, and a few others. They might be right, but any of those four women would be more effective at mediating conflicts in Africa than all the presidents of AU countries combined.

The trouble with Africa is that the highest-ranking government officials often do not have the best solutions. In many cases, lower-ranking officials, or even someone outside government, might be more effective. Sometimes what Africa needs is more common sense and people who - unlike African's powerful “Big Men” - are willing to set aside their pride and ask simple questions that others don't want to face.

A woman at the Addis Ababa summit might have asked those calling for war, for example, to explain how, given their failure to control poorly armed militias in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and elsewhere, they planned to defeat Gbagbo. A woman might have reminded those threatening Gbagbo with war that when the conflict begins, men will take the fight into the jungle, leaving women behind to take care of children.

It is women who will then have to pack what little they have and flee to neighboring countries that are already struggling to feed their own children. And it is women who will be raped, maimed, and killed as the world saw recently in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, when Gbagbo’s forces massacred seven women during a peaceful protest.

Had women been in charge of the AU, they would have known that the machismo of African men doesn't allow them to be shaken by threats of violent confrontation. A woman wouldn't have said to Gbagbo, “Step down or face war.” Instead, Graça Machel might have started by telling him about how happy her husband, Nelson Mandela, has been in retirement. Wangari Maathai might have told Gbagbo about former African leaders like Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, who, despite a bad human rights records while in office, was forgiven because he chose to respect the will of the people.

As Thomas Sankara, the man Compaore overthrew in 1987 to become President of Burkina Faso, “Women hold up the other half of the sky.” Unfortunately, the men of the AU have marginalized us, and the sky in Côte d'Ivoire is about to come crashing down again.

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