Akyaaba Addai-Sebo

This time African Leaders have bitten the bullet and put their critics to shame by scoring a world-first as regards equal representation of women and men (gender mainstreaming) in the affairs of the African Union (AU). For, nowhere else in the world, whether at national, regional, continental, or even global level – has such a decision been taken – that the top echelons of an inter-governmental organisation, shall have a 50% representation of women and men. This is equal opportunity in practice.

At their Inaugural Session in Durban, South Africa, from 9th to 10th July 2002, the Heads of State and Government of the Union made the following historic and unprecedented decisions. That, the commission of the African Union, the secretariat which will drive the Union’s agenda, will have ten (10) commissioners. As regards the gender composition of these commissioners, Article 6 of the statutes of the commission stipulates that “at least one commissioner from each region shall be a woman”. The 10 commissioners to staff the commission will come from the five regions of the Union. The region that produces the chairperson will provide the chairperson and only one commissioner; the region that produces the deputy chairperson will also provide the deputy chairperson and only one commissioner. The other four regions are entitled to two commissioners each.

Concerning the modalities for selection of the commissioners, the leaders decided that there will be a pre-selection process at the regional level. The candidates selected at the regional level will form part of the continental pool, from which the ten commissioners to serve in the commission will be selected. In this regard, again the statutes of the commission are quite clear that, while the pre-selection process at the regional level shall be on the basis of a nomination process and modalities agreed to by the region, the end result must be that “each region shall nominate two candidates including a woman for each portfolio”.

In seeking clarification on this decision, I approached the interim chairperson of the commission, Mr. Amara Essy and also the head of the Gender and Development Division, Dr. Mary Maboreke. Mr. Essy said, “The gauntlet has been thrown out. Quite clearly, therefore, there is the need for a multi-tiered process to begin immediately. First, there is the need to disseminate this information as widely as possible, to the farthest reaches of the world, to ensure that no eligible individual is unaware of these decisions. Second, it is imperative that eligible women and men act on the information before national and regional positions are taken on the matter. Third, there is the need for eligible Africans to rise up to the challenge: we should not continue to criticise from the sidelines; let’s give our expertise and experience to the continent that has invested so much into us. We cannot afford the laissez-faire attitude of business as usual. Let’s get out there and make a difference by seizing the challenge, time and this opportunity.”

Dr. Maboreke added, “We cannot afford to be found wanting at this crucial historic juncture. We have to rise up to the challenge and ensure that competent and credible women and men are found to lead our continental organisation at this crucial stage. There is no room for passengers in this endeavour. Too often we have complained that the continental body excludes popular participation. Now we have an opportunity to change this. One of the crucial differences between the OAU and the AU is that the AU is conceived as a connection of the peoples – not just leaders of Africa. The AU is an opportunity for a dynamic, mutually reinforcing partnership between, not only the member states of the AU and their various peoples, but also between the general populace, government and civil society for the betterment of our continent. Our destiny is in our hands. We no longer have to wait for an invitation to participate. We own the process. We have the right – and, indeed, the obligation – to knock on all doors, demanding entry and the right to participate. But that right carries with it responsibilities too – the duty to act responsibly, to realise that we are part of the whole, and our actions – or inactions – matter a great deal. So we have to come out en masse, from everywhere, and participate. We need competent women and men of Africa to lead us in this new dispensation. While issues of political legitimacy cannot be entirely ignored, the most important consideration by far will be whether we have the competence, the credibility and the commitment to lead our continent through Africa’s Century.”

Yes, it may be true that African women, like women the world over, still lag behind their male counterparts in many critical spheres – education, employment, remuneration, promotion opportunities, decision-making, to name a few. However, if Africa’s foreign ministers who constitute the executive council of the Union live up to the challenge – and make judicious use of the window of opportunity that has been created by the leaders, the Twenty-first century shall truly belong to all her children, girls and boys alike. Africa shall therefore benefit from this release of all the incredible potential that resides in all her human resources – the women and men of Africa, both at home and abroad.

One of the impediments that is likely to be faced in implementing the decision of the leaders is not being able to identify enough eligible women to make up the 50% gender representation. The qualifications for the post of commissioner require someone who has had considerable progressive executive experience at a sufficiently high level whether at the national or regional level. As we are all aware, however, in the majority of cases the cultural, social, educational disparities that women suffer usually translate into disparities at other crucial levels, and generally result in women’s absence from the decision-making arena, especially at top levels. In other words, women who are invisible at that national level can hardly be expected to be present and visible at the regional and continental levels. In this way, discrimination becomes the basis and justification for other manifold discriminations. Consequently, the women we are looking for are not likely to be found in the places that one would look for their male counterparts. But this is not the kind of continued discrimination that our Leaders would countenance and condone. One way of dealing with this hurdle is to look beyond the traditional parameters, such as to the Diaspora, for instance. In Durban, our leaders issued a call to Africans in the Diaspora to be an integral part of the African Union in all its aspects; certainly we can also look to the African Continent as well as the Diaspora for men and women to take on the responsibility of leading the continent.

“It is important to make this one clarification,” Dr. Maboreke added. “The fact that our leaders have mandated 50% gender representation does not mean that it is these female commissioners who will be charged with responsibility for mainstreaming gender in the African Union. Not so. While ultimate responsibility for promoting gender equality in the Union rests on the chairperson, the deputy chairperson, commissioners, senior management and officers will all be assessed on the basis of their gender performance. They will, of course, have technical backstopping from the Office for Gender Equality Promotion. All this widening of responsibility for gender performance will be critical, especially given that instead of the 4 Organs which the Women, Gender and Development Division which the OAU serviced, the Office for Gender Equality Promotion will be servicing 17 Organs.”

Mr. Essy concluded that, “Africa is so fortunate at this crucial time to have a formidable foreign minister as the chairperson of the Executive Council of the Ministers of the Union, in the person of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa. I shall be working with her to ensure that the goal of equal representation of women and men (gender mainstreaming) in the key organs of the Union is achieved starting with the choice of commissioners.”

And so, if you are reading this, be you a male or female, and want to be part of the process, why don’t you think of who needs to know this information, who can be part of identifying the right men and women to lead our premier continental political Organisation? It is important for you also to note that your President was part of this progressive decision-making process. But, the challenge and responsibility is more with the respective foreign ministers of each of the 5 regions who have to ensure public awareness in their respective states and publicise the eligibility criteria and see to it that the recruitment and selection process is transparent.

Copyright 2003 Africa Resource Center, Inc.