Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty Images

Africa Specific: All About The Presidents

Past, present, and (hopefully) future female heads of state talk what it takes to lead — and share their thoughts on America's 2016 race

It’s a big, wide, complicated world out there. And for most of us, it’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s going on. We get ground down. We get distracted. We get on Snapchat and spend half an hour making our friends look like lions. It happens.

Meanwhile, out in the world, there’s a lot happening, and a ton of it is happening in the 54 countries that make up the African continent. Six of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa, as are three of the world’s fastest-growing cities. The world’s second-largest movie market — bigger than Hollywood — is in Nigeria. Nairobi, the tech capital of the continent, is known as “Silicon Savannah.” But for a lot of reasons — including racism, the lingering effects of colonialism, and a mass-media culture that ignores a continent of 1.2 billion people — you probably haven’t seen much about Africa in your news feeds lately.

This is a series about the African continent, because what happens in Niger or Nigeria has implications for all of us, and vice versa, whether it’s good, bad, or Brexit. This is just a slice of what’s out there, so keep reading and keep learning. This is Africa Specific.

Hillary Clinton is the first woman to become the nominee for president from a major party in United States history. That's a terrific achievement — in the United States. “Maybe that’s where Hillary broke the glass ceiling,” says Fadumo Dayib, “but there have been many women — almost 33 women presidents in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America — so I think that it’s about time that America caught up with the rest of the world.”

Dayib is the first woman ever to run for president in Somalia, and one of a number of pathbreaking African women who have stepped up to the most visible positions of political leadership.

Just 22.7 percent of elected officials worldwide are women, and both Africa as a whole and the United States hover around this (low!) average. Yet from Malawi to Liberia to Somalia, women have been taking on establishment candidates, post-conflict transitions, and the heaviness of being “the first” for years — and they’re still moving forward. Here’s what past, present, and potential future presidents had to say about their experiences, and what they think of Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination.

Joyce Banda became the first female president of Malawi in 2012.

“I almost died giving birth to my fourth child,” Joyce Banda says, “and I decided that I would refuse to accept that a woman should die giving life. I spent 10 years in an abusive marriage, and made [addressing] gender-based violence my personal fight.” That fight led her into politics, and then all the way to the presidency.

Banda stepped into her role after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, becoming only the fourth president since independence. Malawi’s cabinet tried to get a court order to keep her out of power so that Mutharika’s brother — whom he had groomed for the presidency — could take on the position. In response, Banda personally called the commander of the army, asked for protection, and prevented a coup.

During Mutharika’s presidency, while the country was still in the midst of an economic crisis, he had told foreign donors to “go to hell.” When Banda came into office, she sold the country’s presidential jet and much of its luxury car fleet to save money, and tried to bring back much-needed foreign investment. And in a region where leaders try to hold on to power for decades, Banda acknowledged being voted out of office in 2014 and congratulated her successor.

After her time in office, Banda believes that “having women in positions of leadership is key.” When asked about Clinton’s presidential nomination, she says, “That space was created for African women 10 years before the United States. Not one president but two!” She adds, “When I see what is happening in America, I have hope. I think it’s long overdue, and I truly believe that she is ready and qualified.”

After a civil war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned home to Liberia, ran for president, and won — leading to a cascade of firsts.

Getty Images

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president since 2006, was the first female head of state in Africa, and the first black woman to become president anywhere. She has led Liberia during a time of intense transition — from 14 years of civil war to post-conflict peace-building — and during one of the most challenging threats imaginable for a leader: an outbreak of Ebola.

Supporters of Sirleaf point to her achievements — and the incredible obstacles she’s faced — as evidence of the strength of her leadership. “Ellen has been in the political struggle for over 40 years,” says Liberian journalist Wade Williams. “She has been a champion for social justice. She fearlessly stood up to dictatorial regimes in the past ... even when it was evident that she was putting her life at risk.”

Still, when Sirleaf steps down in 2017, Liberians are likely to say her record was mixed. As the country continues to recover from the Ebola outbreak of 2014 through 2016, an event that illuminated the fragility of its health systems, Sirleaf’s government is working to make Liberia a leader in public health moving forward. In 2016, Liberia launched the National Community Health Assistant Program under her watch, which will send over 4,000 health workers across the country to reach people who live farthest away from healthcare centers. It’s formidable, but if successful, it will make it easier for everyday Liberians to get healthcare.

Yet Sirleaf has been hit hard by her opposition for not doing enough to fight corruption, and for appointing her sons to key government positions. The president is overseeing current efforts to reform Liberia’s education system, but critics say the changes are turning teachers into robots with no freedom to adapt to the needs of their students.

Ultimately, Sirleaf is a president who has seen some things, and who hasn’t backed down. When it comes to the U.S., Sirleaf, a longtime friend of Hillary Clinton, believes that the next president should be more, well, “presidential” than Donald Trump, and is looking forward to not being the only woman at the table at international meetings.

Fadumo Dayib, the first woman ever to run for president of Somalia, is part of a new generation of leaders.

As the first woman to become a candidate for the Somali presidency, Dayib is already making a real impact. The stakes are high, as Somalia is working toward political recovery after years of war, and the 2016 elections, slated for August, will be a marker of how far that recovery has or has not progressed.

It was in Liberia, where she worked with the United Nations from 2010 to 2012, that Dayib realized what kind of contribution she wanted to make to public life. “I saw how [Liberia] was rebuilding and reconstructing itself — the sense of optimism, people from the diaspora going back — and generally the feeling of unity, patriotism, and optimism made me pause and say, ‘Why can’t we do the same in Somalia?’” Dayib then decided to step forward and run for president in her own country. “I realized that I can’t wait any longer for an outsider or somebody else to come,” she says. “The change that I had been waiting for all along was actually me. I have to step forward and take on that responsibility.”

As president, her first objective would be to stabilize the country’s security. For Somali youth, however, she understands that life is “really one of survival, of fighting the odds, day in, day out” — and she’s determined to change that. “I decided that I don’t like the work that the politicians that we put in office are doing," she says, “and since I put them there and I know what I want, I believe I can do a better job.”

There are big challenges ahead for Dayib. For one thing, she is a diaspora candidate. Born in Kenya but deported to Somalia with her parents, her family later received asylum in Finland. “My story is very similar to that of 1.3 million Somalis [who have left the country],” she says, adding that people in Somalia feel “a sense of frustration, of ‘how dare you come back, you weren’t here when it mattered the most.’” She also sees gender as playing a big role in how she’s received by her country. “Women are informally leaders in Somalia,” Dayib says — something she likes to point out to men who feel uncomfortable with the idea of her as a president. “You have no problem with us putting bread on the table for you, you have no problem with us working while you sit under a tree drinking tea, but as soon as I tell you we are going to formalize this relationship — and that means also leading you as a president — then all of a sudden people wake up and start telling you no.” But Dayib is undeterred. “The path for myself that I am negotiating,” she says, “is one that will benefit all of us.”

All three of these leaders are remarkable — but 22.7 percent isn’t enough, anywhere.

Dayib is encouraged that the U.S. is grappling with the issue of female leadership and representation. “I think it’s great progress that the United States is now walking the talk,” she says. Yet just as having a black president didn’t signify the end of structural racism in this country, having a female president in Malawi, Liberia, or, one day, in Somalia or the U.S., won’t remove the barriers women face to full and equal participation in our political, economic, and social worlds on its own. Malawi, Liberia, and Somalia each remain below the global average when it comes to the percentage of elected female representatives. We need more representation on every level — down-ticket and in courts and legislatures around the world, including in the U.S.

Of course, it would be reductive to praise female leaders simply because they’re female; doing so diminishes the actual achievements of each of these women. Nor can we fall into the trap of assuming that female leadership is inherently good leadership. Even so, each of these remarkable women have scaled high barriers to entry in order to achieve amazing things, despite being confronted with pervasive biases that don’t consider women to be legitimate sources of authority in public life.

“Hopefully, other parts of the governance system will also see an increase in women in leadership, and not just at the presidential level,” Dayib says. With women like her at the forefront, that’s a guarantee.