Women, ethnicity and power in Africa

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In many African countries, power is concentrated in the hands of the executive. Therefore, Leonardo Arriola and Martha Johnson  argue, we need to better understand how appointments to the executive are made, and what barriers exist for women who are seeking such appointments. In this blog, they suggest that in countries with a large number of politicised ethnic groups, cabinet posts are often granted to ‘ethnic patrons’ – a role that women are often not well-placed to play. Throughout April, you can access their article on the issue for free here.

The emergence of women leaders such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia and Joyce Banda in Malawi has brought renewed attention to the political empowerment of women in Africa. But these examples of women presidents are noteworthy precisely because they are exceptional in the region. The reality is that women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of national politics, which means the executive branch in most African countries. Because political power remains highly centralized in the hands of the executive in African countries, we need to examine the appointment of cabinet ministers if we are to understand the factors influencing women’s access to power.

Our article in the April 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science analyzes patterns in the appointment of women to the cabinets of 34 African countries from 1980 to 2005. On the one hand, we provide some good news: women’s share of cabinet appointments has grown more than fivefold in this time period, especially since the onset of political liberalization in the 1990s. On the other hand, we find an unexpected trend in the data: there are greater differences today among African countries in their share of women cabinet ministers than there were 20 years ago. Some African governments have moved more quickly than others to incorporate women as decision makers.

To explain the differences across African countries in the appointment of women to cabinet positions, we focus on one of the key dynamics of politics, namely, coalition building. Previous studies of executive cabinets from around the world indicate that women are less likely to become ministers when government appointments are the product of coalition negotiations between parties. In the African context, we argue that ethnic patrons rather than political parties are the relevant coalition partners because most parties remain too weak to consistently mobilize popular support. African leaders use cabinet appointments to co-opt ethnic ‘big men’, the influential politicians who can activate personalized patron-client networks among their co-ethnics, to recruit supporters and deliver votes. In making cabinet appointments, leaders engage in a form of ethnic arithmetic, appointing patrons from a cross-section of ethnic groups in order to ensure widespread support. Indeed, African leaders have historically been most likely to achieve stable rule when using patronage to integrate politicians from different ethnic groups into their coalitions.

The ethnic nature of coalition bargaining in most African countries poses a problem for women’s empowerment because women are poorly positioned to serve as ethnic patrons. The construction of the modern African state that began under colonialism effectively prevented women from accessing the resources needed to build patron-client networks. While colonial authorities granted men access to land, markets, and the civil service, women often lost the property and political rights they enjoyed in pre-colonial societies. This systematic exclusion of women from patronage-generating opportunities continued well after independence. Sidelined into supporting political roles in ruling parties and state bureaucracies, women have had few opportunities to participate in the allocation of resources and claim political credit for doing so. As a result, women generally lack the clientelistic followings needed to successfully negotiate themselves into cabinet positions as ethnic patrons.

Some women have managed to overcome the limitations associated with patronage-based mechanisms by working through activist movements and professional organizations. In this respect, the African experience mirrors a global pattern in which women with policy or professional expertise are more likely to be appointed to cabinet positions. Autonomous women’s associations, in particular, have helped to increase the supply of potential cabinet appointees in African countries by enabling women activists to develop national reputations for promoting transparency in government institutions and equity in access to public services. Women with reputations as reform advocates or policy experts have become valuable cabinet appointees for incumbents intent on signaling their commitment to reform in African countries where policy performance increasingly matters in electoral competition. For example, in Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who developed a reputation for technocratic competence as vice-president of the World Bank, was twice appointed finance minister to clean up the country’s public accounts.

Despite the opportunities democratization has created for women to enter government as policy experts, our analysis shows that women’s share of cabinet positions remains lower, on average, in African countries with a larger number of politicized ethnic groups. Using various measures of ethnic political mobilization, we find that women are systematically appointed to a smaller share of cabinet positions in countries where incumbents must accommodate a larger number of ethnic groups in government. Even in countries that have made democratic gains over the last two decades, leaders face competing distributive demands from multiple ethnic groups that must be satisfied through ethnically targeted cabinet appointments. We find that authoritarian governments in countries with relatively fewer politicized ethnic groups tend to have, on average, a higher share of women cabinet ministers than do more democratic governments with a larger number of such groups.

Our study suggests that understanding women’s political empowerment requires careful attention to informal barriers. Women in democratizing countries like those found in Africa face informal barriers to participation and representation that are rarely taken into account when governments discuss reforming the political system. To move this research agenda forward, we are now collecting data on the careers of individual women ministers to better understand their initial entry into politics as well as their trajectories as politicians. Our goal is to understand the extent to which political liberalization has created new opportunities as well as new challenges for African women interested in becoming policymakers.

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