The exit of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson from office in January at the end of her second term as Liberian president left Ameenah Gurib-Fakim as the last African woman president standing.
In a world where women have to prove themselves even for what comes to men naturally, whatever reduces the number of women in power preserves the glass ceiling.
After Sirleaf-Johnson’s exit, I feared it was going to be quite lonely at the top for Gurib-Fakim.
My first indirect encounter with her was an interview she granted The Interview in 2015 shortly after she took office as the first female president of Mauritius.
The chemistry professor, a Muslim minority, in a multi-ethnic, conservative, male-dominated society, spoke passionately about the value of African herbal remedies, market-directed research, innovation and self-help.
A diasporan who had received her American green card just as she was packing her bags from the UK to return to Port Louis, Gurib-Fakim challenged Africans to put their money where their mouth is: build science parks that will be the continent’s response to Silicon Valley.
Last week, this disciple of Descartes was not in the news for herbal remedies or science parks. Gurib-Fakim’s tenure came to an abrupt end over allegations that she had used a credit card issued by a charity where she was an unpaid director to buy clothes and jewelry worth $21,444 in Dubai, and later made some more purchases in Sweden, England, India and Italy.
Gurib-Fakim has denied the allegations, saying, in fact, that she had refunded everything. She is wondering why the matter, which she thought had been settled two years ago, was being exhumed in the week of the country’s 50th independence anniversary.
A ceremonial president with virtually no political base, Gurib-Fakim suspects she’s a victim of a deadly power play by insiders envious of her international clout and frequent-flyer miles.
When I asked a Mauritian friend, Adriana Philips, on Wednesday if Gurim-Fakim was going to be missed, she said, “I don’t know if she’s going to be missed; she was travelling too much for anyone to notice that she was there in the first place.”
The system prevailed over the strong woman.
She can blame her “detractors” for stoking the flame, but she has no one but herself to blame for lighting the fire that consumed her: it was Gurib-Fakim and Gurib-Fakim alone that converted for her personal use the credit card issued by Planet Earth Institute, a non-governmental organisation linked to an Angolan businessman and philanthropist.
After Gurib-Fakim’s fall this week, the sisterhood would have to return to the drawing board to raise another member of the tribe to the AU’s highest decision-making 51-member council of heads of state and government, where there would be no single woman’s voice heard for some time to come.
In what appears to be the mother of all ironies, in the same week when Gurib-Fakim was packing out of the government house in Port Louis, the Chinese parliament, the National Peoples Congress, removed term-limit to the Chinese presidency.
The amendment paved the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely, widening the circle of strong men whose reign is beyond constitutional limits.
It’s like sliding into the dark ages all over again: President Vladimir Putin stirring up the defiant, outlaw image of Ivan the Terrible; President Recep Erdogan ruling Turkey like Ataturk; and Xi Jinping wearing the mask of Mao Zedong in a modern long-sleeve suit and necktie.
In reaction to criticisms against the decision of the Chinese parliament, a Chinese tabloid said, “We’re increasingly confident that the key to China’s path lies in upholding strong party leadership and firmly following the leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core.
“In these years we have seen the rise and decline of countries and particularly the harsh reality that the Western political system doesn’t apply to developing countries and produces dreadful results.”
In a way, the Chinese tabloid is right. The British referendum on Europe, which cost David Cameron his job as prime minister and replaced him with Theresa May (a confused remainer), and a stranded country, is just one miserable example of how the Western political system works sometimes.
Another appalling example, of course, is the emergence of Donald Trump as US president in an election in which he scored 2.9 million fewer votes than his rival Hillary Clinton, scored in the popular vote.
Western democracy may sometimes produce dreadful results but its weaknesses hardly justify the canonization of strong men.
If the courts and the legislative processes are under the control of a politician who does not have to account to citizens from time to time, the politician will ultimately become a danger to himself, to citizens and society. Term limits help accountability and keep politicians on a tight leash.
For all his good works and selfless effort in laying the foundation for a modern China, Chairman Mao, easily the strongest of China’s strong men in decades, left a terrible legacy of abuse of freedom and human rights.
For over 30 years that he reigned as the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao had – and used – the power of life and death; he was accuser, judge and jailor and no one or institution could question him.
Mao got away with absolute power. But the Communist Party would find that in his current reincarnation as Xi – all the more deplorable because he personally supervised the removal of term limit for his own benefit – things would no longer be what they used to be.
The Chinese are more prosperous and more widely travelled than ever before. Also, in spite of restrictions, technology has left the world more interconnected and made power more diffuse than any individual can ever hope to suppress. The hijack of political power by party grandees in a coven will, ultimately, be in vain.
Of course, Xi also has cousins in Africa – from Rwanda where Paul Kagame renewed his own shelf life after two terms, and Uganda where Yoweri Museveni is planning to start afresh after 32 years in power, to Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza has taken the title of “supreme eternal leader”, after 13 years in power.
The world is moving, unstoppably, towards a more open system, one that is not a respecter of tin gods – or goddesses. Politicians who would last are not those who fiddle with their tenure or those who game the system: it’ll be those with a listening ear and a heart of flesh.