Ethiopia’s footwear marches on
Bethlehem Alemu is making great strides in creating employment and developing artisanal skills
The flagship soleRebels store in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is a hipster shoe haven. A lilting reggae soundtrack pervades the air. The wooden décor is splashed with Ethiopia’s warm national colours: green, red and yellow. Hundreds of funky shoe designs, their price tags ranging from $40 to $100, festoon the shelves.
In its midst sits Bethlehem Alemu, 34, the company’s founder and owner, sipping Ethiopian black coffee and boasting breathlessly about the fast rise of her foot- wear empire. “Our business model centres on eco-sensibility and community empower- ment,” she explains with self-confidence. “Our model maximises local development by creating a vibrant local supply chain while creating world-class footwear.”
Ms Bethlehem launched soleRebels with only five employees in 2005. She now employs more than 200 people who make shoes from Abyssinian hemp, organic cotton and recycled car tyres. These shoes, a combination of Ethiopian heritage crafts and modern design, are exported to 55 countries and sold in more than 65 stores. Ethiopia’s 20th century anti-colonial fighters, who wore sandals with rubber-tyre soles, inspired the shoes’ design and name.
Today, in addition to the flagship store in Ethiopia, 13 stand-alone soleRebels stores are selling shoes in five countries: Canada, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan. Last year’s company sales reached $2m. Ms Bethlehem says she is expecting $5m in store sales this year as well as more than $6m in online sales over the next 18-36 months. Ms Bethlehem was born and raised in Addis Ababa, the daughter of a cook and an electrician. After gaining a degree in accounting from Unity University in 2001, she worked for three years in the apparel and leather sectors, gaining experience in production, design, marketing and sales. It was during these years, she says, that she developed a strong desire to focus her business skills on helping people from her community to escape poverty.
Footwear became her platform to harness the local artisanal workforce. With a $5,000 loan from her family, she opened a workshop in 2005 with five employees on her grandmother’s plot of land on the leafy edge of Addis Ababa.
For the first six years soleRebels produced shoes for large online fashion retailers such as Amazon, Endless, Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters. In 2011 Ms Bethlehem opened her first store in Addis Ababa. The next year, the company launched an outlet in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, followed by a shop in Vienna, Austria.
Ethiopia is today one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Since 2004, its GDP has grown at an average of more than 10% a year, according to government figures. Conversely, its per capita income remains one of the world’s lowest and it is also one of the largest recipients of development aid, according to the OECD, an international think-tank.
Despite Ethiopia’s impressive economic growth, investors are grappling with a less impressive business environment. In the World Bank’s 2014 “Doing Business” survey, Ethiopia slipped one place to a lowly 125 out of 189 countries. In the bank’s “Ease of Starting a Business” index it fell four places to 166.
Graft, corruption, cronyism and a byzantine regulatory environment explain the country’s low ranking. Corruption permeates many of Ethiopia’s major institutions, with energy, tax, financial and transport sectors identified as having the highest levels of sleaze, according to a draft report released last January by the World Bank.
“Ethiopia suffers from high corruption risks because of the private sector’s dependence on the government,” says Ed Hobey, east Africa analyst for Africa Risk Consulting, a pan-African consultancy based in London and Nairobi. “Under Ethiopia’s state-led business and fiscal model, close contact with government officials is necessary for big businesses to operate successfully,” Mr Hobey explains. Local investors complain that the government continues to offer favourable treatment to certain ethnic groups. Ms Bethlehem is uncharacteristically silent when asked if the government was a help or a hindrance in starting and maintaining her business.
Ethiopia’s textile sector is the nation’s third-largest manufacturing industry after the food and beverage and leather industries, according to Bantihun Gessesse, spokes- man for the Ethiopian Textile Industry Development Institute. Over the last five years the government has offered many incentives to promote textile businesses, he adds.
“Ethiopia offers textile investors free factory rent, cheap electricity, duty free import of machinery and goods, favourable rules and regulations and cheap air freight,” Mr Bantihun says.
By adding value to raw materials and localising production, soleRebels is challenging the overwhelming propensity of African countries to export raw commodities that are manufactured into products overseas. This business ethos is in line with the Ethiopian government’s goal to transform the country to middle-income status by 2025 by boosting private investment, increasing trade and industrialising the agriculture-based economy.
As a successful retail chain from a developing country, soleRebels is an example of “how grassroots African companies can build successful global powerhouses literally from the ground up”, Ms Bethlehem boasts. For her efforts, CNN named her one of the “female entrepreneurs who changed the way we do business” in 2013 and Forbesmag- azine named her a woman to watch as part of its World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named her as one of Africa’s five leading innovators at the 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa.
Submission Deadline: 15 October, 2019
Good Governance Africa (GGA) invites interested participants to submit a paper proposal in the form of an abstract of up to 500 words on the Complexities of Land Tenure and Land Reform in Africa.
Selected papers will be published in the second edition of GGA’s Rights to Land book. The first edition of the book examined land restitution procedure in South Africa’s post-apartheid era (William Beinart, Peter Delius and Michelle Hay, 2017).
The second volume of the book aims to consider the phenomenon of land ownership, tenure and restitution in Africa. It proposes to highlight the successes and challenges African countries have faced with their land restitution policies and identify the factors influencing the procedures of land tenure and land reform on the continent.
This includes, but is not limited to, legal frameworks, customary land tenure and the land rights of women, and land restitution mechanisms, which are reducing poverty and securing sustainable livelihoods. Given the differing historical backgrounds of many African countries, the book also intends to consider the current trajectory of land reform and restitution in post-colonial contexts.
The book aims to examine original and contemporary perspectives on land tenure and reform in Africa by focusing on the achievements and challenges of these mechanisms. Contributors may provide an analysis into a number of areas surrounding land ownership, tenure and restitution with the intention of shedding new light on these critical issues and providing concrete policy recommendations for governments, civil society, and other relevant stakeholders.
The proposals may apply a comparative or case study approach, considering single or multiple countries or sub-regional contexts in Africa. Topics should be centred exclusively on African countries (excluding South Africa).
This second volume will be published by a prominent South African publishing house. Both GGA and the publishing team include experienced authors and editors, and all team members take seriously their responsibility to ensure the book’s chapters are of high-quality scholarship and writing. \
The proposals and chapters will be subjected to careful editorial scrutiny and, where appropriate, the editors will ask authors to revise their chapters for the purposes of clarity and focus.
Your submission should include:
- A 500-word abstract, including references
- A brief 100-word author biography and list of publications
- Full contact details
The abstract must be in English and submitted in Microsoft Word Doc format – Times New Roman 12.
Each contribution must be original and unpublished work not submitted for publication elsewhere. Please submit your proposal by sending your abstract to both email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
References: William Beinart, Peter Delius and Michelle Hay. 2017. Rights to Land: A guide to Tenure Upgrading and Restitution in South Africa. Johannesburg: Fanele.
People displaced by Boko Haram conduct their daily businesses at a government-run camp in the Bulunkutu area of Maiduguri, Borno state, north east Nigeria, February 2019 (Photo by INI EKOTT)
Boko Haram: fight or talk?
Last year, the Nigerian military persistently denied media reports of an upsurge in attacks by Boko Haram in the country’s northeast. Then, in November 2018, the Islamist militant group raided an army base near the border with Niger and Chad and killed over 100 soldiers, according to Reuters news agency. The army admitted the attack in the town of Metele, but said the death toll was 23. But even that relatively lower figure represented a devastating turn for the Nigerian military.
Three years earlier, it had put the group on the back foot under the new government of Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general who came to power on a promise to defeat Boko Haram. Those early wins allowed the Buhari government to feel upbeat about rescuing hundreds of abducted schoolgirls and ending the conflict through negotiation. By 2016, the new president was urging the United Nations (UN) to mediate and offering to “bend over backwards” to solve the crisis. The talks that followed led to the release of 103 schoolgirls, but further negotiations failed. Over 100 of the girls kidnapped in 2014 from Chibok town amid global outrage remain missing.
Many analysts have linked the partial success in the negotiations to the recent rise in attacks on military targets, pointing at the huge payments the group received as ransom and the release of its commanders in exchange for the schoolgirls. “Going into negotiation with terrorists gives [them] a psychological sense of control over the authority, and somewhat legitimises their activities,” said Anietie Umoren, a psychologist and researcher at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Nigeria.
Indeed, critics argue that the group has used the resources to regroup. With attacks persisting and the military response not as effective, such ironic outcomes raise the question of how the Nigerian government can best engage the group and end the crisis.
Only a few countries admit negotiating with extremists. Most western countries, for example, adopt a “no negotiation with terrorists” policy, especially with regards to the payment of ransom. Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel maintain this policy, but do sometimes negotiate secretly, according to Alan Steinberg in a 2015 paper in the Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development. On the other hand, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland are more open to negotiation, according to various reports. The successful Nigeria negotiation for the abducted girls was mediated by the Swiss government.
For decades, many policymakers feared that negotiating with extremists would weaken governments, legitimise extremism and incite violence, but some recent studies have countered that claim. Ostracising extremists may do more harm than good, argues Harmonie Toros, an expert on conflict resolution, in a 2008 research paper. Rather, a preparedness to engage in dialogue with extremists could help resolve conflicts. “Negotiations also enable groups to voice their grievances and strengthen factions interested in non-violent solutions,” she writes. “In contrast, naming groups as terrorists with the intention of delegitimising them can radicalise such groups and curtail attempts to resolve conflicts non-violently.”
Nigeria’s experience with extremism dates back decades, but it was the advent of Boko Haram that required the Nigerian government to formulate some form of official position on negotiating with radical groups. The jihadist sect, which emerged a decade ago, has now become one of the world’s most brutal extremist groups. Its activities have left over 30,000 people dead and more than 1.6 million people displaced, according to the UN’s 2018 Nigeria National Human Development report.
While the Nigerian government does sometimes admit to engaging in negotiations with Boko Haram, it denies paying ransoms. In 2016, Information Minister Lai Mohammed acknowledged the negotiation to free the Chibok girls succeeded after the mediation of the Swiss government and the International Red Cross, but denied that a ransom was paid. However, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC reported that between two and three million euros were paid to the group and also that some of its top leaders had been released.
That approach showed early signs of trouble. By March 2017, a Boko Haram propaganda video showed a man clutching an AK 47, claiming to be one of five commanders freed and threatening fresh attacks. The group, which has split into two factions, soon intensified its attacks in 2018, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Security analysts point to several reasons for the new attacks, among them poor military strategy, demoralised troops and poor equipment. They also traced the problem to the government’s negotiation model, which funnelled millions of dollars to the militants and freed their skilled fighters, allowing the group to rebuild its arsenal and manpower.
The recent uptick in attacks by Boko Haram, also known as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) in recognition of the group’s allegiance to the terror group ISIL, has three main causes, according to Cheta Nwanze of the Abuja-based SBM Intelligence. “The funding received by Boko Haram from the federal government came with the added benefit of experienced commanders being returned,” he told Africa in Fact. In addition, the security forces were increasingly attending to threats elsewhere, including clashes between herders and farmers in the central region and deadly attacks on villagers by bandits in the northwest. The government’s attention was further distracted by the looming general election in February this year. Moreover, Boko Haram was marking the 10th anniversary of the death of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf.
In March last year, Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the government was negotiating a possible ceasefire and an end to the conflict. But after the Melete army base attack and other similar raids, the government appeared reluctant to negotiate and pay ransoms. It gave a hint of this in August 2018 after the sect abducted three female aid workers and demanded a huge amount of money for their return, according to government insiders. The government rebuffed the threat and the militants murdered two of the workers in response.
President Buhari, who was at the time of writing seeking a second term in the February elections, has not stated clearly what, if any, non-military approaches he may apply in dealing with the crisis if re-elected. The government would, however, “consolidate on [Buhari’s] first-term achievements”, according to the campaign manifesto of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress.
Meanwhile, Buhari’s main challenger in the election, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, says he will use “diplomacy, intelligence and border controls” in tackling the problem. Taunting the Buhari administration for its prisoner swap policy, Abubakar added that he would not release captured Boko Haram fighters back into society. “It makes no military or practical sense to release hardened terrorists, who have taken the precious lives of members of the Nigerian Armed Forces, on the flimsy excuse that they have been deradicalised or are repentant,” Abubakar said on 12 January, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
Analysts say the crisis may ultimately not be resolved militarily. Any negotiations, however, must be done from a position of strength, they warn. “You cannot rule [negotiations] out, but … you don’t negotiate from a position of weakness, which is where we are now,” Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer and former head of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, told Africa in Fact.
The United States Institute of Peace, an American federal institution that promotes conflict resolution worldwide, says negotiations with extremists can help governments to gain intelligence and influence, and so ultimately contribute to ending conflict involving extremists. “The greatest benefit of engagement is to end the conflict, or at least its terrorist form. If the terrorists can agree to stop violent acts, the state can reciprocate by softening its ‘no engagement’ stance. This initial exchange can lead to further exchanges,” it says on an undated page of its website, Engaging Extremists.
The fact that a split has recently emerged within the group may, however, make talks more difficult. One faction is led by the better-known Abubakar Shekau – a former deputy of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf – who has been reported killed several times, only to re-emerge as apparently alive and well. The other faction is led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of Yusuf’s, who acted as the spokesperson of Boko Haram before it split in 2016. Shekau has repeatedly turned down previous attempts at negotiation, while al-Barnawi has been open to dialogue. In 2016, President Buhari admitted that the split had made it difficult to find credible leaders with whom to negotiate.
“We have to find a way to draw the more pliable faction into local politics, in a manner that is not hostile to the Nigerian state and its citizens,” says SBM’s Nwanze. “This is because [the extremist group] is increasingly gaining acceptance among some locals as an alternate government.”
One community where such an alternate government may operate is the fishing town of Baga in Borno state, where the militants launched a deadly attack in December 2018. The army, which initially denied the group had taken control of the town as widely reported in the media, later announced it had recaptured it. Weeks after that claim, residents said Boko Haram militants remained in control of Baga, and were issuing “movement permits” that allowed residents to move in and out of the town, the newspaper Premium Times said in a 5 February report.
Negotiating with a Boko Haram faction that operates as an alternate government raises the fear that the Nigerian government is flirting with a threat to its legitimacy, or even the possibility of a secession, if it allows the group to consolidate its gains. Whether it decides to do so will be determined by a range of factors, including whether Buhari successfully retains the presidency. In the meanwhile, though, Nigeria’s approach to engaging with the extremists looks more like dithering than purposeful, considered action.
A billboard in Maidugari, Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram, shows Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and other politicians ahead of recent general elections. Political leaders will play roles in deciding on possible talks with the deadly Islamist group. February 2019 (Photo by INI EKOTT)
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) shakes hands with the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition opposition leader Raila Odinga after a news conference at the March 9, 2018 at Harambee house office in Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
Kenya: out with the old
On 6 February this year, Miguna Miguna, a Kenyan-born attorney and a solicitor in Canada tweeted that Kenya was in danger of becoming a Kenyatta-Moi private estate. “Patriots,” he added, would have to “mobilise” to stop the takeover of the country, by creating a “vibrant people-focused and merit-based society … built on the principles of social justice and governed by individuals of integrity”.
In an earlier tweet, Miguna had claimed that certain “Anglo-American imperialists” were working with Kenya’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga, to “mutilate the Constitution” with the aim of turning President Uhuru Kenyatta into a “theoretical monarch”. The social media posts expressed a widespread perception in the formally democratic country that its governance is currently threatened by a dynastic takeover, following a rapprochement between Kenyatta and Odinga, his erstwhile arch rival for the presidency, in March 2018.
Besides stimulating unity and numbing the opposition, critics say a widely publicised handshake between the two leaders created a platform for the germination of a form of dynastic politics that brings together the scions of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the first president and first vice-president of Kenya, respectively. Kenyans had effectively been left “at the mercy” of the government following the handshake, Ayub Savula, a member of parliament told Africa in Fact in a telephone interview. The deal would “erode” the legislature’s oversight role in parliament, said Savula, who represents a district in western Kenya. “The democratic strides that Kenya has made since independence in 1963 will go to waste,” he added.
The engagement with Odinga was part of a long-term plan aimed at ensuring that “we develop a society that is politically inclusive”, Kenyatta said during a round-table interview with media houses at State House in Mombasa at the end of 2018. For his part, Odinga told the media in Nairobi on 28 December last year that “The Handshake”, as it has become known in Kenya, was the foundation of the unity and development of Kenya. Details of the agreement have not been made public.
Nandi County Governor Stephen Sang said in a phone interview that the rapprochement was contracted between two individuals who represented the private interests of two of Kenya’s rich and famous families, and that it was “not wholesome”. The politicians’ concerns reflected widespread perceptions among citizens of East Africa’s biggest economy that the country will be run by two individuals for their own gain. Many are now rallying behind the “Hustler Movement”, an amorphous grouping that supports Deputy President William Ruto.
Many Kenyans see Ruto – who worked as a kuku (chicken) seller to supplement his parents’ income while at school and went on to earn a doctorate in ecology from the University of Nairobi – as their emancipator. He is seen as a hardworking and aggressive politician who responds swiftly to their needs. The deputy president has pushed for the installation of electricity in businesses and homes under the Last Mile project, which seeks to supply every Kenyan home with electricity. He has overseen road construction projects and very visibly inspected them. Addressing residents of Tharaka Nithi County in June 2018, for instance, he bluntly told road contractors whose projects were behind schedule that they should try their hand at other businesses, “like roasting maize”, if they were unable to complete road construction.
Ruto has facilitated the installation of critical services such as renal units in health institutions across different parts of Kenya and shown a critical interest in the country’s agriculture. “Farmers must change with the times; they must embrace forms of agriculture whose returns are high and the market for produce readily available,” he told the African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda in September last year.
His energy and boldness in addressing issues that other politicians prefer to avoid or leave to the slow operations of a cumbersome bureaucracy has won him many supporters. Ruto’s frequent pronouncements on issues that affect people’s daily lives have “made the deputy president’s political star shine”, says Julius Bosire, a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
“For a long time, Kenyan politics has been in the hands of leaders who lacked the balls to call things as they are,” Bosire told Africa in Fact. “Taxpayers’ money has been stolen, not merely by the million, but in billions, without principled opposition from many lawmakers. This lazy, hands-off leadership has made Kenya’s economic prospects nosedive, leaving Rwanda and Ethiopia on top.” Ruto’s apparently genuine interest in popular issues makes him virtually unique among Kenya’s current crop of senior political leaders, Bosire argued.
Ruto’s frequent visits to districts around Kenya keep him in touch with problems that affect citizens on the ground, said Amos Kirong, a political analyst in Nairobi. “He sees and feels what the common man goes through in a typical day, and offers solutions,” Kirong told Africa in Fact. “This has promoted dialogue between the government and members of the public. Public participation is a crucial component of our Constitution. It stimulates democracy because it provides the public with the opportunity to take part in critical decision-making processes in government.”
Public interest in participating in discussions around the national budget, public procurement and tendering, and the legislative process has grown in recent years, says Joseph Ole Lenku, the governor of Kajiado County. According to the governor, the region held more than 15 public forums between 28 May, 2018 and 3 June, 2018 in more than 50 locations to discuss the county’s 2018/2019 budgetary estimates. Kenyans now feel more able to question and appraise government claims and projects, and their experience of this has gradually changed their attitude to the question of accountability in particular, says Ole Lenku. Long accustomed to dynastic-style rule, with its entrenched secrecy, they have come to expect a more open approach to governance.
This, and Ruto’s demonstrated contact with “ordinary citizens”, has seen him faced with hostility from the establishment, whose leaders include the Kenyattas and the Odingas, as well as the families of former president Daniel arap Moi, who ruled for 24 years, and Musalia Mudavadi, a former deputy prime minister and vice president.
Moi senior’s son Gideon Moi is a polo player, senator and chairman of the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), which was the country’s ruling party for 40 years until its election loss in 2002. His brother, Raymond, is an MP.
The opposition leader, Raila Odinga, a former prime minister, is the son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a former vice president. Raila’s elder brother is a member of the East African Legislative Assembly and a former nominated senator, assistant minister for finance and an MP. Mudavadi, a member of the opposition coalition, National Super Alliance (NASA), inherited the Sabatia parliamentary seat from his father, Moses Mudamba Mudavadi. He is said to be planning to run for the presidency in 2022.
The public demonstration of unity between two members of two of the country’s major political dynasties has sparked fears among ordinary citizens that the country will return to the days when national resources were unfairly distributed and tribalism was rampant in the award of public offices. To many, Ruto represents the advent of a “hustler era” in which the country’s political offices will be more open to people without a privileged background.
Dynasties are not a uniquely African or a Kenyan phenomon, says Godfrey Sang, a political analyst based in Nairobi. He points to the Bush family in the US, the Trudeaus in Canada and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India. But, he argues, that Kenyan dynasties have limited interest in, or tolerance for, democracy and often seek to block opportunities for lesser-known candidates of greater merit. This approach is “a form of birth-based exclusion that is antithetical to democracy,” he adds.
Faced with Ruto’s apparently unstoppable rise to influence, proxies of political dynasties have come up with a plan to prevent him from succeeding President Kenyatta in 2022. In 2013, President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto entered into an agreement that promised the former a two-term presidency of five years, which would expire in 2022. After this, Ruto would be the Jubilee Party’s candidate to run for president for the years from 2022 until 2032.
Central Organisation of Trade Unions Secretary General Francis Atwoli has told audiences at several barazas (public meetings) and media interviews that the Constitution should be amended to allow Kenyatta to continue as president after 2022, arguing that he “has much to offer” the country. Senator Irungu Kang’ata has also said that the president will be “too young to retire” by the time he concludes his constitutionally mandated terms. And in February this year, the former vice chairman of the Jubilee Party, David Murathe, claimed at a meeting of leaders of the Kamba people at Kalonzo Musyoka’s Yatta farm that “no law bars President Kenyatta [from] serving as deputy to another president”.
However, in the same month, President Kenyatta said he would not be running for any political seat after 2022. Speaking as he left for a meeting of the East African Community summit in Arusha, Tanzania, he called on Kenyan leaders to discard politics that had “no impact on the lives of Kenyans”. But the apparent indirect reference to Ruto’s popular connection with citizens, which is in such contrast with many of his peers in Kenyan politics, and the implicit claim that establishment leaders could co-opt it for their own purposes, wasn’t lost on commentators.
“Whichever way you look at it, we are not about to change our mindset; we will support one of our own, son of a pauper, to be Kenya’s president in 2022,” says Didmus Barasa, an MP for Kimilili, western Kenya. Like many of his fellow citizens, Barasa feels that a Ruto presidency will free Kenyans of the archaic leadership of dynasties.
Kenya’s decades of dynastic politics have constrained citizens’s capacities to contribute to public debate. Above all, its dynastic rulers have never tolerated ideas that deviated from their own. To many Kenyans, the new “hustler era” holds out the promise of a new and more open democratic space in which the role of the government is to focus on issues that affect ordinary citizens.
The African story abounds with great women whose achievements are often reduced to prurient anecdotes
Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter. So, says the Igbo proverb, which became a rallying cry for a generation of post-colonial African historians. But what of the lionesses? Are their tales being told? But enough with animal adages. Neither lions nor lionesses write history, while people do. The key question is: do the current written histories of Africa adequately include the experiences of the continent’s women?
Depends where you look. And who you ask. Since the 1960s, the university-based study of African women’s history has become a dynamic, global field. Where once the economic, social and political contribution of African women was regarded as an historical terra nullius – with women either entirely absent or relegated to minor roles in textbooks and tomes – there is now an ever-increasing body of research that includes analysis on a wide variety of societies, over 50 countries and hundreds of thousands of years.
Academia is acknowledging that African women enter the historical narrative from a variety of geographies and climates and that they carry diverse status, education, culture, age and other attributes. Moreover, all of the above can change or stay the same or circle through a combination of both within the endless ebb and flow that is human life and lives over time.
Academic historians recognise that what they study is not the past per se but rather an interpretation of the past, which is subject to revision and reinterpretation whereby distinct interest groups apply different standards, priorities and values and reach different conclusions. There is general consensus that interest groups with more social, political and economic clout have the power to dominate the narrative.
There is now widespread acknowledgement that the gendered nature of modern power is such that male stories are disproportionately present and that women’s stories are often assigned less value. The growth of African women’s history as a discipline demonstrates that spaces can and have been created to examine and challenge such power dynamics.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that almost all such scholarship sits behind paywalls on university websites. Non-professional historians are largely excluded from this information and the debates that such study stimulates. Outside of ivory tower academe, what passes for historical “knowledge” in the general chitchat of daily life more often than not either ignores them entirely or depicts women in terms of their perceived impact on men.
Historical evidence of African women is as old as humanity. Sometimes older. Humans evolved in Africa and so it is Africa that provides the backdrop for the first minimising of prehistoric women in the paleoanthropological corpus. Until the early 1980s archaeologists overlaid modern Western gender norms and sexual divisions of labour onto pre-historic, sometimes pre-human hominid peoples. Man the Hunter was widely considered to be the key evolutionary driver of human brain development and subsequent tool-making innovation.
Frances Dahlberg’s 1983 monograph, Woman the Gatherer, set forth a strong case for an alternative evolutionary trajectory in which Woman the Tool Inventor played an equal part in the human story. Which is all well and good – but for the fact that, over three decades later, that message doesn’t appear to have gotten through to the masses. Museums are the point at which the public and professional historians ought to intersect, but Africa’s pre-historic women are all but invisible at such sites. Androcentric stereotypes abound. Almost invariably, graphic material explaining the hominisation process depicts individuals of the masculine sex making their way from australopithecine to homo – thereby rendering the earliest African women invisible.
As Myra and David Sadker argued in Failing at Fairness (1995), “each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” How much more so if she isn’t even in the diagram exploring the essence of our species?
Yet it is debatable as to whether exclusion is preferable to defamation. African women who achieved scientific, political or economic success have often been pulled into warped morality tales masquerading as history, which reduce a plethora of complex characters to wicked women who drew men into their beds and on into their death. The deeds of women in times past are subjected to such treatment worldwide but the practice seems particularly prevalent when it comes to telling tall tales about successful African women, who are almost invariably subjected to what amounts to a form of “ye olde” slut shaming. The accompanying character assassination is seldom supported by the sort of historical evidence-based scholarship found on the other side of the paywall.
Consider Cleopatra. Mary Hamer’s Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (2001) offers us vast quantities of contemporaneous written records demonstrating the diplomatic, naval, linguistic, cultural and philosophical skills of Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-10 BC), the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Her tenure alone speaks to such skills. She ruled for 21 years and at the height of her power controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the region. And yet she survives in the popular imagination through a distorted depiction of her romantic relationships. She built fleets, suppressed several insurrections, controlled a currency and guided a nation through plagues and famines but she is remembered as a bare-breasted seductress bathing in milk.
Linda Heywood and Louis Madureira’s 2015 article, Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo/Matamba: African Leadership, Diplomacy, and Ideology, 1620-1650 offers chapter and verse on their study subject’s skills as a military leader, strategist, diplomat and exponent of realpolitik par excellence. Research reveals the woman who defined and dominated what is now Angola in the 17th century to be a complex and contradictory character. At times, she profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while at other times she protected escaped slaves. For over 40 years, she successfully limited the Portuguese colony at Luanda to a few square kilometres. How is it that her achievements are less well known than gratuitous and unsubstantiated gossip about her immolating a harem of male lovers?
Publicising the achievements of African women from previous generations has the potential to impact on the development of self-respect for African girls and women going forward. There is inspiration in knowing about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Asante-born Nanny of the Windward Maroons (c.1686 – c.1755) who escaped from slavery in Jamaica, led a successful armed rebellion, freed more than 1,000 previously enslaved people and achieved a 1740 peace settlement with colonists, under the terms of which she negotiated a land grant of 500 acres at what became known as Nanny Town.
In the face of Boko Haram’s terror and intimidation tactics, which threaten girls’ access to education across West Africa, there is strength to be drawn from knowing that in 859CE an African woman, Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco. UNESCO describes it as the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree-awarding educational institution in the world. Female alumni include Fatima al Kabbaj, member of the Moroccan Supreme Council of Religious Knowledge.
At its most pernicious, observations of a past that never was are used to support patriarchal practices that exclude women from power in the present. During Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel he responded to a question about his wife’s political opinions with the comment that, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room” because he could “claim superior knowledge over her”.
Indeed, 2016 was a banner year for Nigerian patriarchal put-downs. In the same year, that country’s senate rejected a Gender and Equality Bill that included equal rights for women in marriages, divorce, property ownership and inheritance. Several senators stated that they opposed the law on the grounds that it was “un-African” and “anti-religious” to accord women equal rights with men.
Such statements invoke tradition, but the historical record shows otherwise. Kamene Okonjo’s studies of women’s political participation in Nigeria show that pre-colonial West African women were often much more economically, socially and politically independent and powerful than modern “traditionalists” would have us believe.
Their disempowerment came about by way of colonial Eurocentric, not indigenous African values. Chima J Korieh’s Gender and Peasant Resistance: Recasting the Myth of the Invisible Women in Colonial Eastern Nigeria, 1925-1945 (2003) offers evidence that while Nigerian women had historically participated in the government, the British colonial authorities saw these practices as “a manifestation of chaos and moral disorder” and would only engage with the political institutions headed by men.
Struggles over alternative views on the desirability of female political and economic power sparked significant anti-colonial revolts, including what modern historians tend to call the Women’s War of 1929 (Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo), which was described by colonial authorities as the Aba Women’s Riot.
A watered-down version of the Nigerian Gender Equity Bill was subsequently passed in 2017 but the claiming of tradition to support female subjugation illustrates how a patchwork of patriarchies can cross the hunter/lion duality. There are times when hunters and lions form alliances around their common predator paradigm and call on faux history in support of shared interests. As we recognise and rectify the exclusion and misrepresentation of female African lives from the study of history, let us take cognisance of life’s complexity.
Even if certain sorts of lions and lionesses now have/are historians, accounts of their times past are likely to be incomplete unless the experiences of the earthworms and the elephants and the E.coli are included. Not to mention the valuable perspectives provided by the trees and the reeds. And the wind and the rain. Ultimately, ours is an interdependent ecosystem.