One of my favorite women leaders in Africa was never elected to political office. She is 71-year-old Tereza Mbire, fondly known as Mama Mbire, chair of Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Ltd. Mama Mbire has six children, one of whom is Charles Mbire, chairman of MTN Uganda Ltd., the country’s No. 1 telecommunications services provider. She also has 10 grandchildren, a diploma in hotel management from Tadmora Hotel in Israel and a teacher’s certificate from Kinyamasika Teachers’ College in Uganda.
This is a woman who likes to start and run businesses. In 1973, she opened a flower shop, Kampala Florist, after that was a garment-manufacturing operation called Pop-In and then came Home Pride, a bakery that introduced sliced bread in Uganda. She later went into interior design with her launch of Habitat Interiors, which is still operating. Asked by a reporter if she has achieved all she wanted to in life, she replied: “I have not achieved all, otherwise I wouldn’t be here working. If I was 30 years younger than I am today, I would have gone into bigger businesses, and instead of the sky being the limit, it would be my beginning.”
Women’s leadership in Africa is at a new beginning with last October’s election of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson as president of Liberia. Sirleaf-Johnson, a Harvard-educated economist, former finance minister, former president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, former World Bank economist and former director of the U.N. Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Africa, is Africa’s first woman head of state.
Contrary to conventional thinking, however, Africa is no stranger to female heads of state—that is, if you put those who hold the office of empress, queen, chief and sultan on the same footing with president or prime minister, and if your definition of a nation state takes into consideration precolonial history. You can find a list of no fewer than 200 African female heads of state at the Web site www.guide2womenleaders.com/women 
inpower/Africa.htm. The list goes back as far as 4530 B.C., when Queen Eyleuka succeeded King Borsa in Ethiopia and ruled the country for 45 years. The difference between Sirleaf-Johnson and the likes of Eyleuka is the word “elected,” and its supposition of democracy as defined in certain circles.
Virtually sure of how Sirleaf-Johnson will govern, the United States could not be happier. “The Liberian people had an opportunity to elect new leadership last fall, and people voted for freedom; they voted to have a voice in their national government. The U.S. government policy is to support and encourage democratic rule abroad, and for that reason, the United States spent $10 million in support of last October's election…The peaceful and fair election of Ellen Sirleaf- Johnson is encouraging,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi E. Frazer said, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations of the International Relations Committee on Feb. 8.
“President Bush intends to remain engaged with Liberia while this restored democracy finds its footing. For that reason, the administration plans to allocate nearly $43 million in fiscal year 2006 Economic Support Funds money, including some $6 million to be made available immediately for quick-impact projects, including rebuilding schools, courthouses and hospitals,” Frazer added.
To be sure, there is much to shout about over the election of Sirleaf-Johnson, who clearly has the experience and academic pedigree for the office of president. A welcome side benefit of her election is the emergence of female presidential candidates in other African countries, and the fiery debate it has triggered on the continent, among women in particular, over which country is ready for the next woman president.
Even Sirleaf-Johnson’s supporters still wrestle with the notion of a woman president. “Ellen is our man,” their placards declared as they marched though the streets of Monrovia. “Iron Lady” is another epithet.
In Uganda, Miria Kalule Obote, president of the Uganda People’s Congress, was a candidate in this past February’s presidential elections, marking the first time in the country’s 43 years of independence that a woman ran.
In Zambia, meanwhile, Vera Tembo-Chiluba, former first lady and national women’s chairperson of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy, Zambia’s ruling party, is quoted in the local press as saying that Zambia is not ready for a woman president “because it is President Mwanawasa’s time…It is not yet time for a woman to rule.”
In like voice, Beatrice Kayuni, secretary for women’s affairs for the opposition United National Independence Party, is quoted as saying that “Zambia is not ready to have a woman president” and that “the current attitude among women and men showed that people would not allow a female president to rule this country.”
My bet is that Mama Mbire, observing all this from her business empire, is having a good chuckle.
By Rosalind McLymont