African Countries Continue to Bypass Real Reform in Favor of Affirmative Action Programs

As a result of the Western media’s appallingly deceptive news template of covering the supposed violence and backwardness in Africa, news about Kenya’s general election on March 4th was buried underneath stories about Al Qaeda in Mali, modern day pirate attacks, and suicide car bombings.

Kenya has been undergoing much unrest after the election of their fourth president, with protests breaking out over the questioned legitimacy of the voting process. Here, I wish to discuss an even lesser known constitutional issue of gender representation that is also manifesting itself in the aftermath of the election.

Despite the constitutional requirement that “not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender,” none of the 47 county assemblies reached this threshold. In the coming weeks, it is likely that government officials will be discussing possible plans of action modeled after the steps other African countries such as Rwanda and Uganda have taken on behalf of gender equality.

Rwanda and Uganda have seen dramatic increases in the number of women in public office. While women only make up 18.6% of parliaments globally, 25% of Ugandan members of parliament are women and in 2008, Rwanda became the first country to elect a female majority (56%) to parliament. While Uganda and Rwanda have succeeded in increasing women’s representation in politics, they have failed to see significant political reform. Their failures should be a lesson to Kenya that they should scrap the affirmative action clause altogether and focus instead on increasing overall accountability.

The truth is, Uganda and Rwanda have only succeeded in rapidly increasing the number of women in public office through non-democratic means. Neither country has legitimate political parties, nor is there a healthy respect for the rule of law. Elections are marred with ballot box stuffing and an overall lack of transparency that allows powerful leaders to push through their favorite candidates. Both governments maintain support through patronage and quell dissent through political repression.  It is unsurprising then, that their efforts to include more women in politics were equally underhanded. Both countries implemented “add on” constitutional amendments in which women were granted their own exclusive public seats and appointments. Both men and women welcomed this arrangement, men because they remained unthreatened by new competition and women, because it offered a counter to the historic lack of interest in women’s issues. However, women in both countries soon discovered that the amendments represented yet another attempt of the central government to extend its reach through patronage.

Uganda has a “no party” system in which candidates are supposed to run on individual merit to support broad based governance. In reality, the no party system furthers clientelism and squashes dissent. Women have no means of developing political clout around a gendered voting gap so the very isolation from competition that they sought has been their undoing. Their elections to national assembly are held two weeks after the general election and are determined not by popular suffrage, but by an electoral college composed of mostly male leaders. Unsurprisingly, they have been unable to pass new legislation that would improve women’s lives.

Similarly, the Rwandan government created “women’s councils” and appointments to promote women’s inclusion in politics. While Rwandan women have successfully improved women’s property rights, there have been no substantial changes in policy outcomes to disrupt the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s larger agenda. Every woman who has challenged abuse of power with unpopular legislation has lost her job and has been labeled a ‘genocidaire’ or a committer of genocide. Additionally, there have been many reports of ‘disappearances’ of politicians who have attempted to circumvent central government control.

The limited ability of Ugandan and Rwandan women to affect change is rooted in the fact that it is their gender rather than their politics that is their admission ticket to power. The affirmative action programs rest on the common assumption that women’s increased political presence will automatically improve their governments. However, unless real reform is implemented, the words of one anonymous Rwandan will remain true: “[The government] puts women in the National Assembly because they know they [the women] will not challenge them.” Let’s hope Kenya learns from Rwanda and Uganda’s mistakes going forward.