Africa has had a quiet 2017 with economic growth slowly picking up, but that does not mean there is not much happening on the ground…quite the opposite, in both an economic and political sense, as certain influential women have played their part in the African context.
Behind the scenes, these are the top five women with the greatest influence thus far on the African continent in 2017:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian)
The Nigerian novelist is the face of Boots No7 beauty line both because of her name notoriety and her unhidden love for make-up. If make-up holds “wonderful possibilities for temporary transformation,” as Adichie famously espoused, then her influence is specifically made-up (pun intended) of possibilities for lasting transformation in Africa and beyond. She makes feminism a “hot” subject (which she openly dislikes as a comment on her influence).
Adichie’s writing and speeches are not simply feminism in words but rather a public manifestation of the dreams of many young African and non-African girls and women in this world…even Beyonce quoted Adichie in the famous music single Flawless. She has an international microphone to influence public policy on sex and gender issues and beyond…and she is doing a great job of using it.
Isabel dos Santos (Angola)
Her father José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled Angola since 1979, is stepping down next month with the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) Party’s top candidate, João Lourenço, the Minister of Defense and vice-president, likely to assume power. But this should not suggest any disappearance from the political and social Angola scene and larger African business sphere.
There are many critics within Angola that still believe that her presidential run is still in the making and that she is building an international business empire and reputation to underscore her later ascension. Being the richest women in Africa (and a shrewd businesswoman) is definitely a great launching pad.
Her experience as head of Sonangol Group, the Angolan state oil company, is also another notch in the belt for state management experience. Critics will continue to come after her for family ties and the unlikeliness of her wealth if her father had not been president. Yet that sole attack on her wealth and business empire is not enough to minimize her stature on the African continent. Family ties and business connection are part of her political background and story, but surely not the entire thesis.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia)
Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, at 78 years of age, is the elder stateswoman in Liberia and African politics. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She will step down this year with a new Liberian president and House of Representatives to be elected in October. Having spent 30 years or so on the political scene, she has been involved in everything Liberian.
She contested the 1985 general election, returning to Liberia as a vice presidential candidate under Jackson Doe on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party. She would be placed on house arrest during the election process, removed from the presidential ticket and forced, as an alternative, to choose a run for senator in Montserrado County. She would win, refuse to assume the seat (contesting that the election was not free and fair for all), and effectively have to flee to the U.S.
President Johnson-Sirleaf would return to the Liberian political scene in 1989 – first supporting the now convicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor and later renouncing support after his treatment of opposition leaders. After losing the 1997 presidential election, she went into exile in Cote d’Ivoire but returned to contest and win the 2005 presidential election. Her story now stands as one of resilience, patience, and political will.
Her absence from the presidential palace has her supporters and critics both arguing that she will have more power and sway on the international scene, with access to large crowds and political benefactors and influencers through speaking engagements and interviews. It may be hard for her to drift away to retirement with so many supporters waiting to hear her opinion on everything Liberian and African.
Folorunsho Alakija (Nigeria)
Florunsho Alakija is the founder of Supreme Stitches, a tailoring company grabbing a significant market share in Nigeria’s emerging fashion industry. She is also managing director of The Rose of Sharon Group, executive vice chairman of Famfa Oil, and Africa’s second richest woman.
The Rose of Sharon Group is a major player in the downstream space in Nigeria while Famfa Oil is in one of Nigeria’s largest deep water oil plays. But it may be her emergence in the fashion industry with Supreme Stitches as the epitome of her resilience. Her first company was a fashion label that supplied Nigeria’s power women, including wife of former military president Ibrahim Babangida, back in the early 90s, which most supporters and critics suggest helped Famfa Oil win its first oil prospecting license in 1993.
Today her wealth is down due to low oil prices, but her influence remains afloat due to her creativity and internationally recognized business acumen. Nigerian political and business leaders consistently rank her highly for influence right up there with Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote, owner of the Dangote Group, with operations across numerous African countries.
Grace Mugabe (Zimbabwe)
Grace Mugabe is the wife of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and first lady of the country since her 1996 marriage to the president. President Mugabe, at the ripe age of 92, plans to contest for the 2018 presidential election in Zimbabwe. First lady Mugabe contends her husband could win the election “as a corpse”, causing significant speculation at home that she is prepared to see his continued stay in power and maneuver her way into his seat upon his death. Four decades younger than the president, the first lady has been actively building a profile that will carry into 2018.
She received her doctorate in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in 2014 (albeit contested by critics) and, in the same year, assumed the head role of the Zani-PF’s Women’s League and became a member of the controlling party’s Politburo. Critics have blamed her for swaying her husband to oust the former vice president Joice Mujuru and her supporters for allegedly plotting to overthrow President Mugabe. She is also allegedly linked to the G40 group that opposes vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa to the presidential palace when President Mugabe leaves office.
Sanctions by the European Union and the United States may be a barrier, but it is hard to ignore the power she would assume (and sway) in the immediate aftermath of any end to president Mugabe’s regime. Her public appearances and speeches in Zimbabwe draws larges applause, suggesting she is a growing force to be reckoned with.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s finance minister under former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. She earned international acclaim for implementing reforms in the financial sector during Obasanjo’s time as president, and international respect when she contested for the World Bank presidency (where the unspoken rule is that the position is generally allocated to a U.S.-backed candidate while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) head role is generally allocated to a European).
Okonjo-Iweala may have relatively retreated from public life, most notably this year as Nigeria still struggles to regain its economic footing. But many supporters and critics believe she is working behind the scenes to maintain her support for another return to power.
Where that power will be is surely up in the air…some commentators imagine her returning to become finance minister again, while some commentators believe she is working towards the Nigerian presidential palace in 2019. People know you are influential when you have to shoot down speculation that you will run for president in Nigeria with Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, as a running mate.