Putting African Aspirations First

By Ebenezer Obadare

African aspirations, not African leaders, should be the focus of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

This week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit could not have come at a more opportune moment. The first since President Barack Obama hosted African leaders in 2014, it is taking place against the backdrop of a certain urgency, induced by a noticeable shift in the temper of U.S.-Africa relations.  

The reasons behind this shift are not far-fetched, the most predominant one being a newfound assertiveness on the part of African leaders owing to the changed diplomatic and strategic milieu in the region. While differences between Africa and the United States over the Ukraine conflict have been pivotal, it is clear that they have merely brought to the surface tensions that were already simmering.

In part, those tensions pertain to African countries’ long-standing disgruntlement at the perceived sanctimony of U.S. foreign policy on the one hand, and persistent neglect, if not outright dismissal, of African agency on the other. To the extent that it instigated African countries to seek partnership and support elsewhere, this situation may have prepared the moral ground for the positive reception accorded China and Russia, to name just two of the major powers whose influence in Africa has grown over the past decade. Since 2009, China has overtaken the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner, bilateral trade between the two topping $254 billion as of 2021.

Efforts by the United States to regain affections or, where necessary, strengthen existing bonds with its African allies—something that became imperative in the aftermath of the African reaction to the Ukraine conflict—have hinged on underscoring the perceived ideological opposition between Washington and Beijing. The West has portrayed the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative, perhaps not inaccurately, as liable to trade short-term economic benefits for long-term concentration of political power. This is contrasted with U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights, an approach that, in this telling, guarantees economic prosperity and enduring political stability in the long run.

The recently released U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa [PDF] enshrines the identified shift in tenor. In the first place, its overall conciliatoriness speaks to a rare, if refreshing, readiness on the part of U.S. officials to accept African countries as partners and collaborators, and, consequently, defer to African leadership and concerns in matters affecting the region. More to the point, the strategy affirms U.S. willingness to leverage all of its “diplomatic, development, and defense capabilities” in the pursuit of four main objectives in Africa: fostering openness and open societies, delivering democratic and security dividends, advancing economic opportunity, and supporting climate adaptation and the transition to renewable energy.

If the outbreak of amity in Washington has prompted questions about U.S. intentions, correspondingly, it has increased pressure on African leaders to leverage it. In this spirit, a valid insistence on political and economic inclusion has led to calls for greater transparency and accountability within African countries themselves, since, for example, it is difficult to imagine democratic dividends being delivered where a basic commitment to democratic values does not exist.

The overwhelming pattern across Africa would seem to suggest a readiness to maximize U.S. promise. For one thing, Africans’ enthusiasm for democratic values contrasts sharply with skepticism about liberal democracy—or, in some worrying cases, broad sympathy for autocracy—in Europe and North America. For another, a slew of recent examples points to a growing emboldening of the judiciary and civil society against statist pressure. Targeted U.S. material and moral support will give these institutions much-needed inspiration and sinew.      

This by no means suggests that the region is in the clear. The recent spate of military coups d’état in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, and Mali is a reminder that old habits die hard. At the same time, the fact that a handful of gerontocrats continue to hog power in a number of African countries signals that the old order will not go away quietly.

Besides, Africa continues to grapple with profound economic challenges.

Yet, never has a genuine African need for assistance coincided with a greater U.S. desire to oblige, a desire seemingly tinged with a measure of contrition for past malfeasance. Against this backdrop, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit offers an excellent opportunity for both sides to begin a new diplomatic chapter.

Accordingly, while U.S. policymakers should, in the spirit of the new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa, seek to work in Africa’s shoes, they should be careful not to conflate the wishes of African leaders with the yearnings and aspirations of ordinary Africans. What ordinary Africans want is clear enough: economic opportunity; security; political accountability; an end to corrupt Big Man rule; and improved investment in health, education, and infrastructure. Working with local partners and investors across the continent, the United States can help stimulate a new era of foreign direct investment in projects and initiatives that will spark economic growth and reduce dependence on frequently wayward states such as China.    

For their intervention to be meaningful and effective, U.S. leaders and policymakers cannot afford to limit themselves to official interaction with African leaders. That is already the nub of China’s African diplomacy.

While the resolve to “amplify diaspora ties” is a step in the right direction, it should be seen as a first step toward incorporating young people and the remnants of civil society into the core of policymaking as it relates to the region. There is no other way to go if Washington takes seriously its vow to “bolster the region’s ability to solve global problems alongside the United States.”

Origin Source: CFR

Climate Change And Regional Instability In The Horn Of Africa

Climate change and climate-induced migration in the Horn of Africa could seriously exacerbate security risks in the region. The sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reiterates the grim facts of climate change in Africa. The continent has contributed little (less than 4 percent) to total greenhouse gas emissions but has already suffered serious consequences, from biodiversity loss to reduced food production. In East Africa particularly, drought frequency has doubled. Yet, between 2010 and 2018, most Horn countries received less than the average amount of climate adaptation funding per capita for lower-income countries, despite ranking at the top of climate vulnerability indices. Not only is financing for adaptation measures insufficient, but climate research in the region is also under-resourced.

The Horn of Africa is extremely vulnerable to climate change, as it encompasses vast drylands, numerous pastoralist communities, multiple border disputes, unresolved trans-boundary water-rights issues, and porous land borders. The region also has a traumatic and politically contentious history with natural disaster, famine, and conflict, including the 1983–85 Ethiopian famine and the controversial 1992–93 humanitarian intervention in Somalia. In fact, the impetus for forming the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in 1986 was to address drought and desertification from a regional perspective, with peace and security issues added to the organization’s mandate in 1996 due to the obvious interconnection of those issues. The Horn’s history informs and sometimes politically distorts perceptions of current climate-related threats.

Ongoing conflicts in the region add complexity to any effort to envision future scenarios. The Horn is not just at risk for conflict and instability—conflict and instability are its current reality. In Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan, multiple ongoing conflicts involve violent clashes between military and militia forces. The region already hosts nearly 2.9 million refugees and asylum seekers and over 12 million internally displaced persons. The Horn is currently the site of one of the world’s worst food insecurity crises; in August of 2022 the number of highly food-insecure people in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia reached twenty-two million, and some already face famine conditions. Although conflict and crisis prevention is at the heart of efforts to identify interconnected climate and migration risks, for many in the region, the present is already characterized by insecurity, and the future by uncertainty.

Demographic, economic, political, and environmental pressures all intersect in the Horn of Africa, driving popular unrest and resource competition and destabilizing migration patterns that exacerbate tensions within and between states. Regional disorder will have implications far beyond the Horn, affecting the politics, security, and relative power of external actors and constraining the prospects for effective global governance. The United States and others should act now to mitigate those risks.

This is the tenth Discussion Paper in the Managing Global Disorder series, which explores how to promote a stable and mutually beneficial relationship among the major powers that can in turn provide the essential foundation for greater cooperation on pressing global and regional challenges.

This Discussion Paper was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Origin Source: CFR

The Complicated Role of Religion in Nigeria’s Democratic Transition

Horrendous killing of college sophomore highlights the country’s ethnoreligious fault line, but interdenominational rivalry in the south is of no less momentous.

Ebenezer Obadare

All in all, reactions to the murder of Ms. Deborah Yakubu, a 200-level home economics student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, have exposed Nigeria’s deepest political fractures and lingering questions over citizenship, national identity, and secularity. On May 12, following disagreement over a WhatsApp voice note deemed to have been blasphemous against Islam and Prophet Muhammad, a mob comprising some of the twenty-two-year-old’s schoolmates brutally clubbed and stoned her to death, after which they proceeded to incinerate her body.   

While the killing has been greeted by horror and almost universal condemnation across the largely Christian South, with many individuals and groups calling for the prosecution of the killers; notably, several commentators across the largely Muslim North have technically defended the killing, suggesting that the victim got what she deserved for “insulting” Prophet Muhammad. Jamil Abubakar, son of former Inspector General of Police Mohammed Dikko Abubakar, who appeared to justify the killing in a now deleted tweet, has not been an isolated case.

The day after the killing, Ibrahim Ahmad Maqari, Islamic cleric and Imam of the National Mosque in Abuja, tweeted: “It should be known to everyone that we the Muslims have some redlines (sic) which MUST NOT be crossed. The dignity of the Prophet (PBUH) is at the forefront of the redlines. If our grievances are not properly addressed, then we should not be criticized for addressing them ourselves.”

For southern Christians and commentators horrified by the brazenness of the killing, if the fact that the Sokoto Police Command only brought a charge of “participation in a public disturbance” against two suspects, Bilyaminu Aliyu and Aminu Hukunci, is an indication that the authorities are reluctant to bring the full weight of the law to bear on Ms. Yakubu’s killers, the fact that the suspects were able to mobilize a legal team of thirty-four senior lawyers led by a law professor at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University within a short period of time shows that their action has broad societal support.  

Conflict over identity and citizenship apart, north-south dichotomy also reflects differences in the character and reflexes of civil society, with the north seemingly more prone to respond to “religious” as opposed to “political” provocation. The #NorthIsBleeding protests that broke out and quickly fizzled out across various northern cities in December 2021 were remarkable for being historically rare.   

Nonetheless, the aftermath of the killing has also shown up cracks in ostensible southern unanimity. For all the denunciation in the legacy media and across social media, major religious and political actors have been conspicuously silent, while the rare dissenters have been extremely careful in their choice words. For instance, the accustomed blood and thunder was noticeably absent from the statement released by Pastor Tunde Bakare, overseer of the Citadel Global Community Church, who made sure to emphasize that “what was done to Deborah Samuel is nowhere justified in the religion of peace that was handed down to me by my grandfather…”

A friend and one-time running mate of President Buhari, Bakare is seeking the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to contest for the presidency in 2023.

Bakare’s caution is partly dictated by political prudence: Having designs on the highest political office in the country means that he can ill afford to antagonize the electorate across a predominantly Muslim northern region. The power of this constituency can be seen in the reaction of Atiku Abubakar to criticism of his tweet expressing horror at the killing and demanding that those involved be “brought to justice.”

Following attack from northerners who threatened to punish him at the polls, Abubakar quickly deleted his tweet.

Beyond political prudence—and perhaps a genuine wish not to further inflame ethnoregional passions in an extremely delicate moment—the reluctance to antagonize the northern Muslim electorate may also be a function of perennial strains between the mainstream and Pentecostal factions of southern Nigerian Christianity. Flaring up from time to time, these strains have something to do with denominational envy, to be precise the success of Pentecostalism as the most successful Christian movement in the country over the course of the Fourth Republic. At the same time, they have to do with the not unfounded perception that Pentecostals can be all over the place on matters of doctrine.

Tensions between Pentecostals and mainline Christians have resulted in lingering ill-will between the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN).

Not only has the religious marketplace declined to punish Pentecostals for their doctrinal disorganization, they seem to have been rewarded for it, with the result that today, Pentecostalism’s imprint is visible not only in politics and economics, but also in popular culture.

The more successful Pentecostalism has become, the more gentrified, which means that not only is it noticeably more accommodating of the failings of the system, its leading lights have effectively merged with the political elite in a new theo-political elite constellation. Since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999, Pentecostal power has waxed. Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (1999- 2007) and Goodluck Jonathan (2010- 2015) were card-carrying members. Tunde Bakare ran with Muhammadu Buhari on the ticket of the Congress for Progressive Change in 2011. The current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo—and APC presidential aspirant—is on sabbatical from the Lagos Province 48 (Olive Tree Provincial Headquarters) of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria and Africa’s foremost Pentecostal denomination.

This February, in an unprecedented move that was at the same time a tacit admission of its success in the political space, the Redeemed Church announced the establishment of an Office of Directorate of Politics and Governance “to help coordinate the engagement of our people who are willing to be involved in politics as well as mobilise support for them when required.”

Not counting the political ambition of some its members, it would seem that the Pentecostal elite has little to lose and everything to gain from stabilizing the system, hence its unmistakable conservative impulse, and a reluctance to rock the boat, something that an uncompromising denunciation of the Deborah Yakubu killing may well have put in jeopardy.

Except for Bakare (the exonerative tone of whose statement is instructive), the Pentecostal elite has been cryptic. Postponing a crusade previously scheduled for Sokoto, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Church, announced on social media: “Postponed but God turned it around… We Trust in Our God’s Big Picture Plan! When God turned against the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. We serve A God who specializes in using the impossible situation for His glory.”

By contrast, and understandably reflecting their relative marginalization in a Pentecostal saturated ecosystem, mainline Christians under the aegis of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have adopted a more radical rhetoric. From the beginning, the association has been muscular in its condemnation of Ms. Yakubu’s killing, which it characterized in a strongly worded statement as “ungodly, satanic, foolish, reprehensible, and totally unacceptable.”

Last weekend, CAN organized a series of peaceful protests across the country.  

What all this portends for the stability of the country in the near term remains to be seen, especially if another religiously motivated killing were to occur. Early this week, several houses and shops were set on fire in Katangan Wargi, headquarters of Warji Local Government Area (LGA), Bauchi state, after some Muslim youths apparently took umbrage at forty-year old Rhoda Jatau for posting “a video of someone who renounced Islam on a WhatsApp group.”

Nor is it clear how long the rank and file of the Pentecostal congregation will continue to abide with their leaders’ pacifism. In defiance of an apparent order from above “not to speak,” members of the Abuja RCCG Central Parish symbolically protested “with their lips sealed with sellotape.”

Nigeria’s fate hangs on the interaction of these forces in an increasingly volatile political environment.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

The Horn of Africa’s Dubious Dialogues

The dialogues in the Horn of Africa inspire little confidence to resolve the region’s crises while U.S. diplomatic efforts seem insufficient in an area of strategic interest.

Michelle Gavin

It’s a matter of conventional wisdom that the crises gripping the Horn of Africa are fundamentally political, and that viable, sustainable solutions can be found only through inclusive political dialogue. But in both Sudan and Ethiopia, current dialogues—one internationally backed and one a domestic project—inspire little confidence. The United States has real interests at stake in the region that are ill-served by relying on these processes to stabilize these two fragile countries. 

In Sudan, where a more just and accountable political dispensation has been a U.S. priority for decades, the administration seems determined to defer to the United Nations (UN)-African Union (AU)-Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) tripartite mechanism, which the State Department recently described as “the most inclusive mechanism to achieve an urgently needed agreement” on a way forward in Sudan. But urgency does not appear to characterize the process that has prompted no meaningful change in political power dynamics in Sudan since the military coup of October 2021. The junta is still in charge, is still violently repressing pro-democracy protestors, and has even felt free to threaten multilateral negotiators. Insecurity has worsened in Darfur. Rumors abound of rifts between the UN and AU facilitators, important civilian actors have been reluctant to engage in political dialogue in an atmosphere of violent repression, and plans for direct talks among the Sudanese actors have been postponed. Playing a supporting role makes sense when an effective process is delivering results.  It’s hard to argue that is the case in Sudan. The Unites States cannot impose a political settlement on the Sudanese people. But perhaps policymakers should be willing to get caught trying to establish some clear redlines for those currently wielding power, articulate reasonable conditions that should enable all relevant parties to participate in a dialogue process that has some integrity, and clarify both how the U.S. will lead an effort to isolate those who impede a genuine civilian-led transition, and how it will provide concrete financial support to a Sudan engaged in a viable transitional process.

In Ethiopia, critics maintain that the National Dialogue Commission, created to address divergent viewpoints on “the most fundamental national issues” and to “engender national consensus”, is insufficiently inclusive to win the trust and credibility of the country’s diverse population. The backdrop of the unresolved war in Tigray and ongoing civil unrest elsewhere in the country raises questions about authorities’ overall commitment to resolving disputes through dialogue and compromise. Moreover, the government’s arrest of Ethiopian journalists and expulsion of international correspondents indicates an intolerance for free expression, and even for acknowledging facts, that is antithetical to any serious political dialogue. The United States is right to continue to focus on grossly inadequate humanitarian access in Tigray, but also needs a strategy to address the broader powder keg of an Ethiopian state rife with ethnically-affiliated militia forces, historical grievances, and disputes over access to resources and opportunities. Again, this is not a case in which the United States can or should impose solutions. But given the potential costs of state collapse in Ethiopia, the United States cannot afford to ignore the trendlines headed in the wrong direction, and should carefully consider the signals sent by financial support for recovery in areas where conflict persists and underlying causes remain unaddressed.

When the United States named a special envoy for the Horn of Africa over a year ago, Secretary of State Blinken explicitly stated that the appointment “underscores the Administration’s commitment to lead an international diplomatic effort” to address interlinked crises in the region. Thirteen months and two envoys later, it is fair to question whether that commitment to leadership persists, particularly in Sudan. Meanwhile, the political dialogues underway in Ethiopia and Sudan inspire little confidence that the region is climbing out of crisis toward the peace and prosperity the United States wishes to promote.

COVID-19 Is Gender-Blind, But Not Gender-Neutral

MELINDA GATES is Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It began as a mysterious disease, a novel coronavirus soon designated SARS-CoV-2. As countries shut down their economies to slow its spread, it became a global recession as well. Then, in April, the United Nations warned of another dimension to the emergency—a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women raging behind closed doors.

History teaches that disease outbreaks—from AIDS to Zika to Ebola—play out with a certain grim predictability. As they infect societies, they expose and exploit existing forces of marginalization, seeking out fault lines of gender, race, caste, and class. It is no coincidence, for example, that in the United States, black Americans are dying at disproportionate rates. Or that although more men are dying of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the broader impacts of this crisis threaten to disproportionately affect women’s lives and livelihoods.

Every day brings new examples of the ways in which women are being left behind by the world’s response to the pandemic. There are women in labor being turned away from overburdened hospitals; domestic workers whose lost income won’t be replaced by stimulus funding; adolescent girls who cannot continue their education online because their communities frown at the sight of a phone in the hands of a woman.

“Gender-blind is not gender-neutral” is a refrain among advocates for women and girls. In this crucial moment, it must also be a call to action. If policymakers ignore the ways that the disease and its impacts are affecting men and women differently, they risk prolonging the crisis and slowing economic recovery. But if they use this emergency as an opportunity to replace old systems with new and better ones, countries can build back more prosperous, more prepared, and more equal.


By nearly every measure, there had never been a safer time to be pregnant in Sierra Leone than February 2014. The country’s health system had historically been one of the world’s worst, but the maternal death rate had dropped more than 50 percent since 1990, and some level of antenatal care was almost universal. Then in March, the World Health Organization declared an Ebola outbreak in the region, and progress started to unravel. By November, you could plot the story with two terrible and mirrored curves: one that showed an exponential rise in Ebola cases; another that showed a corresponding crash in the number of pregnant women receiving care.

When the crisis ended, the silent death toll of women and babies was even higher than its official one: 3,589 people in Sierra Leone had been killed by the Ebola virus itself. The number of additional newborns and mothers who died during childbirth was somewhere between 3,593 and 4,936.

That is what epidemics do: they not only overwhelm immune systems but also overwhelm health systems. And because the parts of those systems devoted to caring for women are often the most fragile and underfunded, they collapse first and fastest. Early data suggest that in low- and middle-income nations, the cutback in maternal care during COVID-19 could claim the lives of up to 113,000 women.

There is still time to avert such an outcome. In every country—and for every woman—sexual and reproductive health care must be classified as “essential” services. Even during a pandemic, someone suffering a heart attack would never be told that a trip to the emergency room was optional. Yet the message millions of pregnant women receive during a crisis is that it’s okay to deliver at home, alone. It isn’t. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, by far the biggest driver of maternal mortality was the fact that women were increasingly giving birth without medical assistance. Health ministers need to find ways to provide safe maternal care even in pandemic conditions. In some countries, that might mean designating separate health facilities—some for those suffering from COVID-19, others for mothers and newborns who are COVID-free. In other places, it may be easier and safer to bring the expertise of the clinic to the mothers themselves.

Sexual and reproductive health care must be classified as “essential” services.

Protecting the contraceptive supply chain is crucial, too. Early estimates also suggest the pandemic will cause 49 million additional women to go without contraceptives, leading to 15 million additional unplanned pregnancies. Part of the responsibility for addressing this rests with the international community. A small group of countries manufactures most of the active primary ingredients for generic contraceptives, and since the pandemic hit, they’ve been stockpiling those ingredients, even though there’s no evidence they are running short on them. It’s a heartless trade policy—and a senseless one.

A health system isn’t just a network of supply chains or a bundle of essential services. It’s made of people. Health workers on the frontlines need tools to keep themselves safe. Eventually that will require giving them first priority to a COVID-19 vaccine. For now, it requires supplying them with personal protective equipment that fits. The PPE that’s delivered to hospitals and clinics is often designed for men, even though 70 percent of health workers worldwide are female. Manufacturers should ensure they’re making enough PPE that will fit the people who need to use it, and health systems should make sure they’re buying enough.

Leaders should also use the pandemic as a forcing mechanism to integrate women’s health care. In many low-income countries, a random calendar dictates how people receive care: Monday is for vaccinations, Tuesday for antenatal care, Wednesday for family planning. Instead of scheduling one appointment, a woman is expected to show up at the same time as everyone else who needs some service, spend all day awaiting her turn, and then come back again the next morning to do it all over. This block scheduling never made much sense, and it makes even less during a pandemic, when no one should be spending any more time in a crowded waiting area than necessary. 


If health policymakers had to choose a place that most clearly illustrates the 2014 Ebola outbreak’s disproportionate impact on women, they would probably point to a maternity ward. Economists, though, might answer the same question by looking somewhere very different: food stands.

A few months after the epidemic subsided, Oxfam International and UN Women examined the economic impact on the region where Ebola hit. The virus, they found, caused the Liberian unemployment rate to nearly triple for both men and women. But whereas men’s incomes tended to bounce back quickly, women’s took much longer to recover. The majority of women were self-employed—many of them as food sellers—and no one wanted to “eat in the street” when a deadly virus was circulating.

COVID-19, too, appears to be affecting women’s livelihoods more drastically than men’s. Early estimates suggest that around the world, women’s jobs are 1.8 times as likely to be cut in this recession than jobs held by men. What’s more, right as women’s paid work is evaporating, their unpaid work caring for children and family members is increasing dramatically. Before the pandemic began, unpaid work was already a major barrier to women’s economic equality. Now, with many schools closed and health systems overwhelmed, more women may be forced to leave the workforce altogether.

If the pandemic stalls progress toward gender equality, the cost will be in the trillions: even a four-year wait in taking new action to improve parity—for example, by introducing interventions to advance women’s digital and financial inclusion—would erase $5 trillion in opportunity from global GDP in 2030. As policymakers work to protect and rebuild economies, their response must account for the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women—and the unique roles women will have to play in mitigating the pandemic’s harm.

Take food systems. This year, owing to a confluence of catastrophes—a warming planet, a plague of locusts, a global pandemic—over 100 million people may require emergency food assistance. (The central problem is not a shortage of food; it’s the ability of families to pay for it.) This particularly affects women for two reasons. First, many depend on the food system for their livelihoods. Second, cultural norms mean women are usually the last ones to eat in their families—and therefore, when food is short, the first to go without it. Social protection programs, then, should make sure that women can afford enough nutritious food to feed their entire families. Policymakers can also support women farmers by scaling up insurance, savings, and other financial tools to protect them from the worst impacts of this shock while insulating them against the inevitable next one.

Another way to ensure that families can meet basic needs is by designing emergency cash transfers with women’s realities in mind. While efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have interrupted the flow of goods and services around the world, the World Bank estimates that over one billion people have received a COVID-related cash transfer from their government since the crisis began to help them meet basic needs. Yet the most economically marginalized women are often invisible to their governments—they are less likely to appear in the tax rolls, have formal identification, or own a mobile phone—and thus at risk of missing out on these benefits. Research shows that social protection programs that ignore gender can exacerbate existing inequalities. Well-designed cash transfers, however, can yield significant benefits. A 2019 study in India found that when cash benefits were deposited into a woman’s account (rather than her husband’s) and the woman was shown how to use that account, female labor-force participation rose.

The most economically marginalized women are often invisible to their governments.

Policymakers can also target stimulus funds at women by steering funds toward the businesses they own. Sometimes, gender discrimination hides in the fine print. For example, because women’s businesses tend to be smaller and earn less revenue than men’s, they may be ineligible for government loans or procurement schemes that require companies to meet certain capitalization requirements. Governments can follow Canada’s lead and ensure that some benefits are set aside specifically for women’s enterprises. Other nations are wisely directing funds toward sectors where women are heavily represented: Argentina is procuring masks from home-based workers, and Burkina Faso has waived utility fees for fruit and vegetable sellers.

Reaching women with many kinds of benefits also depends on their having equal access to mobile phones. A mobile phone is increasingly where goods are bought and sold, information is supplied and demanded, vital issues are debated, and money is moved between mobile bank accounts. Yet across low- and middle-income countries, women are ten percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and 313 million fewer women than men use mobile Internet. The result is a vicious cycle: gender inequality leads to digital inequality, which further entrenches gender inequality. To break the cycle, governments should look to Kenya and Bangladesh, which have offered special phone and data packages priced and marketed with women’s needs in mind.

Finally, the burden of unpaid work must be recognized, reduced, and redistributed. There is a global expectation that a woman should spend hours every day doing cooking, cleaning, and caregiving that keeps her family going but generates no income. The unequal distribution of unpaid work disempowers individual women, hurts economies, and will slow down the post-COVID-19 recovery. Globally, a two-hour increase in women’s unpaid care work is correlated with a ten-percentage-point decrease in women’s labor-force participation. Governments can make sure this work is valued by enacting policies such as paid leave for working parents and prioritizing infrastructure investments, such as electricity and piped water, that make unpaid work less time-consuming. Employers can offer employees flexible schedules, the opportunity to work remotely where possible, and options such as onsite childcare for those whose jobs must be done in person. All of these policies should be extended to both men and women, so that they upend gender roles instead of reinforcing them.


“Listen to the experts”—it’s another refrain that the pandemic has made popular. The curves remain flattest where people have heeded the guidance of public health officials on everything from the wearing of masks to the closing of restaurants. Scientists, however, are not the only experts that need to be listened to right now. Consider the proposals in this article. Nearly all of them involve acknowledging blind spots and raising new questions: If we shift health workers to treating COVID-19 patients, what are we shifting them away from? Do the economic data driving our nation’s response reflect women’s experiences, too? Can domestic violence shelters stay open under our definition of “essential services”? Questions such as these are more likely to be asked when women are there to ask them.

Most heads of state are men, by a wide margin. Three-quarters of the world’s national lawmakers are, too. Some of these men are indeed gender champions (South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, has been vocal about ending gender-based violence even during his country’s COVID-19 shutdown). All of these leaders now have a stake in ensuring that women are involved in decision-making about the COVID-19 response.

The virus has created an explosion of blue-ribbon commissions, kitchen cabinets, and other ad hoc bodies that are helping decide everything from when economies reopen to how a vaccine will be distributed. Women—and, importantly, women from diverse backgrounds—must be equally represented in all of these conversations. Governments should reach beyond the typical halls of power to partner with grassroots women’s organizations, whose deep understanding of marginalized populations can help ensure the official response leaves no woman behind. Some governments have already found these groups to be important allies in the fight against this virus. In India, thousands of members of grassroots women’s organizations had, by early May, manufactured more than 100 million masks, 200,000 PPE kits, and 300,000 liters of hand sanitizer.

This is how we can emerge from the pandemic in all of its dimensions: by recognizing that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one.

Africa’s ‘Leaders for Life’

Brittany Brown and Nathalie Bussemaker contributed to this report.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state, but civil society and regional blocs may be slowing the trend of extending presidential terms in some areas.

Backgrounder by Claire Felter

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state. Some postcolonial leaders in the 1960s and 1970s sought to become “president for life,” with several managing to remain in power for three or more terms. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the trend of entrenched leadership had spread across the region, spurring corruption, instability, societal fractures, and economic stagnation. But the trend may be reversing, in part due to sustained pressure by civil society groups and regional blocs.

How prevalent is this trend?

Many African countries struggled with transfers of power in their first half century after independence. Leaders who gained recognition during national movements for independence consolidated power and bound their own positions in office with their countries’ national identities. By early 2019, three African heads of state had been in power for more than three decades each: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya in Cameroon, and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. More than a dozen other African heads of state have been in power for at least ten years. In August 2017, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after thirty-eight years in office, and in November of that year, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was forced from office after thirty-seven years by a military coup. In 2019, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was ousted after three decades in power.

Military coups were once common [PDF] as a means to seize power, with both Mbasogo and Museveni entering their presidencies this way. They have declined during the last two decades; there were twenty-seven successful coups from 1970 to 1982, but only twelve from 2000 to 2012. Since 2012, only Mugabe and Bashir have been ousted in military coups.

What has been its impact on growth and stability?

Strong correlations exist between sub-Saharan Africa’s entrenched leadership and its developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and democratic backsliding. The Economist’s 2019 Democracy Index finds that more than twenty countries in sub-Saharan Africa have authoritarian governments. Rights abuses in the countries with the longest-serving leaders have included secret or arbitrary arrests and detentions, tight restrictions on freedom of expression, and police brutality, according to monitoring groups. Prominent examples include:

Zimbabwe. Once one of the continent’s richest nations, Zimbabwe tumbled under Mugabe to a place of chronic underdevelopment with a long-struggling economy. Mugabe’s alleged misuse of federal funds has been linked to underfunded and dysfunctional government departments and programs. In the wake of a slew of constitutional amendments granting Mugabe broad power, the country experienced drops [PDF] in life expectancy and per capita income between 1990 and 2005. Two years after his ouster, Mugabe died in Singapore, where he had been receiving medical treatment. Economic instability has continued under Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with a severe currency crisis prompting widespread protests in early 2018. Mnangagwa has also been accused by critics of repressing the opposition.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Under the three-decade-long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the DRC suffered from gross corruption, embezzlement, and neglect of public infrastructure. An economy based almost exclusively on mineral extraction deteriorated as Mobutu forced out foreign-owned companies and embezzled government funds. Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu in 1997 but was assassinated in 2001; his son, Joseph, succeeded him, amassing a fortune by stealing state funds and effectively disregarding the provision of public services. A war in the country’s east, considered the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, continued under his presidency. Kabila stepped down after a December 2018 election, two years after his mandate was set to end, though election observers and many opposition leaders questioned the vote’s legitimacy.

Sudan. Omar al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister. He remained in office despite allegations by international and domestic observers of widespread electoral irregularities and fraud. He presided over a decades-long civil war that ended with the south seceding to become the new state of South Sudan in 2011. Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for involvement in attacks on civilians in Darfur. Following months of protests sparked by the rising price of bread, the armed forces pushed Bashir out in April 2019 and established a transitional military council.

Burundi. Human Rights Watch reported that the humanitarian situation in Burundi remained “dire” in 2019, four years after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term sparked mass protests. The rights group accused the security services and the ruling party’s youth league of widespread abuses ahead of the May 2020 presidential election. Nkurunziza, in office since 2005, declined to run for a fourth term; and in June 2020, the fifty-five-year-old president died of heart failure. CFR’s Michelle Gavin writes that Nkurunziza’s death could “create new opportunities for a less repressive future.”

Why has the problem persisted?

Leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through “constitutional coups,” proposing amendments for approval by the legislature or judiciary, or in national referenda, that allow for additional terms in office. This practice grew more frequent after 2000, when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional term limits.

Since then, at least eighteen heads of state have tried to remain in power by tweaking their countries’ constitutions. Namibian President Sam Nujoma did so in 1998, followed by Lansana Conte, president of Guinea, in 2001, and Gnassingbe Eyadema, president of Togo, in 2002. One year later, the Gabonese parliament voted to remove term limits from its constitution, allowing President Omar Bongo to run for a sixth term. Following these initial instances, attempts to extend terms became fairly regular occurrences, popping up every one to two years on the continent in countries including Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, and Uganda.

Angola’s dos Santos and former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, among others, claimed they were eligible to run for additional terms because the constitutions containing term limits were passed during their mandates; they argued the limits should only apply to future presidential terms. Burundi’s Nkurunziza made a similar claim in 2015, saying that his first term, which he won in a parliamentary vote rather than a popular one, did not count toward the limit. Uganda’s Museveni paired the elimination of term limits with the introduction of multiparty politics to pass a constitutional amendment in 2005, and his party eliminated the presidential age limit in a 2017 amendment.

Many experts say that countries lacking an effective political opposition are vulnerable to constitutional coups. Though several countries across sub-Saharan Africa tout themselves as multiparty states, some, including Cameroon and Rwanda, remain de facto one-party states. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who has effectively been the country’s leader since 1994, secured another seven-year term in August 2017, with the electoral commission reporting he had the support of almost 99 percent of voters. “Executives are able to act with impunity because there is no strong, organized opposition to challenge entrenched incumbents and push them toward a genuine political opening,” American University’s Adrienne LeBas writes [PDF] of these countries.

Kleptocratic incumbents have even more incentives to stay in office; they could lose their wealth if they were to lose power and potentially face prosecution. The network of businesses that Kabila and his family have built in and beyond the DRC has brought them hundreds of millions of dollars. Angola’s dos Santos was long accused of funneling government funds to a small group of elites, as well as to his own family. His daughter Isabel, the wealthiest woman on the continent, was named head of the state oil company by her father in late 2016.

“Very few African countries—in fact almost none—have any kind of pension or security scheme for former presidents or heads of state. So out of power means out of money,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, then Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Africa, told Newsweek. Dos Santos’s successor, former Defense Minister Joao Lourenco, pledged to crack down on corruption; he removed Isabel dos Santos from the national oil company, and her brother, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, as chair of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. In January 2020, the release of hundreds of thousands of documents, known as the Luanda Leaks, detailed how Isabel used her father’s position to amass over $2 billion. Days later, state prosecutors charged her with embezzlement and money laundering.

During his tenure, Mugabe called the push for term limits a Western attempt to “place a yoke around the necks of African leaders,” and some politicians who concur with him point to Western democracies, including the United Kingdom and Canada, that have no such provisions.

When have leaders failed to extend their rule?

Zambian President Frederick Chiluba’s and Malawian President Bakili Muluzi’s proposals to raise presidential term limits in 2001 and 2003, respectively, were stopped after opposition and civil society groups formed alliances with lawmakers from the countries’ ruling parties. In 2006, Nigeria’s senate rejected an amendment put forth by President Olusegun Obasanjo that would have allowed him to serve a third term.

Citizens have often opposed constitutional coup attempts through protest, at times successfully blocking them. In 2012, large protests in Senegal led to an electoral defeat for Wade, who was running for a disputed third term. After weeks of demonstrations in October 2014, Burkinabe citizens stopped Blaise Compaore from repealing the constitutional provision on term limits and forced his resignation. Polling by Afrobarometer between 2016 and 2018 found that, on average, 75 percent of citizens surveyed in thirty-four African countries believed leaders should be limited to two terms in office.

Gambia’s small size and geography conspired against former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled from 1994 until his ouster in 2017, argues Virginia Comolli, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The country is surrounded by Senegal, which supported opposition candidate and election winner Adama Barrow.

How have regional and international actors responded?

The African Union (AU), which has prevented some military coups by threatening countries with suspension, sanctions, or military intervention, has been criticized for not taking similar actions against attempts at extending presidential terms. In 2012, the AU ratified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance [PDF], which calls on its member states to identify illegal means of accessing power or staying in office, including refusals “to relinquish power after free, fair, and transparent elections” and constitutional amendments that infringe upon “the principles of democratic changes of power,” and sanction those responsible. In January 2017, the AU stated it would not recognize Jammeh, who lost the 2016 election but nonetheless attempted to stay on.

The West African bloc ECOWAS has also become active in some cases. A military offensive by ECOWAS troops forced Jammeh to step down and leave the country. The body often deploys observers to help ensure free and fair elections in the region; in 2019 it sent observers to Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, and Senegal. ECOWAS leaders discussed a proposal to ban presidents from seeking third terms at a 2015 regional summit, but the bloc postponed a decision due to opposition from Togo and Gambia.

The United Nations and European Union have imposed sanctions on several African countries, including Burundi, the DRC, and Zimbabwe, in response to impeded political transitions or fair elections. The United Nations endorsed ECOWAS military action in Gambia and threatened sanctions if Jammeh refused to leave. Millions in EU development aid to Gambia was frozen in December 2014 due to human rights concerns under Jammeh; following Jammeh’s departure, the bloc released the funds.

What is U.S. policy toward extended mandates?

Democracy promotion has long been a U.S. priority in the region. President Barack Obama said in a 2012 brief on U.S. strategy in sub-Saharan Africa that the United States would “not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes.” In an address to AU leaders three years later, Obama urged the body to ensure that heads of state comply with term limits.

President Donald J. Trump’s administration has said it will not “subsidize corrupt leaders and abusers of human rights” on the continent, but a new Africa strategy outlined in late 2018 marked a shift in priority from democracy advancement to countering China and Russia in the region. Still, CFR’s John Campbell writes that the Trump administration has largely continued the Africa policies of its predecessors and has backed pro-democracy initiatives, such as in Sudan following Bashir’s overthrow.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions, including bans on travel to the United States and business transactions with U.S. nationals, on individuals who “undermine democratic processes.” The United States issued sanctions against Mugabe [PDF] and other Zimbabwean officials in 2003. The Obama and Trump administrations have sanctioned top officials from the DRC since Kabila refused to schedule an election in late 2016. Ahead of Nigeria’s 2019 election, the United States and United Kingdom jointly announced they would deny visas to Nigerians involved in vote rigging or electoral violence.

At the same time, analysts contend that the United States has often prioritized security interests over concerns about prolonged rule. Washington has chosen not to penalize long-serving leaders of partners, such as Cameroon, Chad, and Uganda. And in the DRC, CFR’s Gavin points out, Washington accepted disputed 2018 election results to avoid further instability. The U.S. military trains partner nations’ military forces, shares intelligence with them, and helps their troops combat Islamist rebel groups on the continent, including al-Shabab in Kenya and Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. More recently, however, the Defense Department has proposed troop withdrawals in parts of Africa as the Pentagon’s focus shifted to China and Russia.

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