Why do autocracies in Africa promote women as leaders? – Fellows’ seminar by Aili Mari Tripp

6 June 2022

“Although historically, democratic countries have had stronger outcomes in advancing gender equality than other regime types, many authoritarian countries in Africa have proven adept at adopting women’s rights provisions, making extensive constitutional and legislative reforms and promoting women as leaders,” said Aili Mari Tripp, Wangari Maathai Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “These outcomes are particularly evident when it comes to women’s political representation, where one finds little difference between authoritarian and democratic regimes in Africa, particularly those that have entrenched ruling parties.”

STIAS Fellow Aili Mari Tripp presented her seminar on 2 June 2022

Tripp’s STIAS project, which will result in a book and several articles, looks at this phenomenon comparing authoritarian regimes like Uganda and Zimbabwe, with semi-authoritarian regimes in Mauritania and Morocco, and democracies like Namibia and Botswana. The research encompasses over 150 in-depth interviews with women’s rights, civil society and human rights’ organisations, members of parliament, women’s parliamentary caucuses, party leaders as well as international bodies including the United Nations and funders; along with process tracing and comparative analysis. The countries span different regional influences, colonial legacies, and cultural and religious differences.

“I’m asking why and under what conditions authoritarian governments promote women as leaders, how democratic and authoritarian governments differ, and what the consequences are for the different regimes,” said Tripp.

In terms of numbers, Rwanda leads the way with 61% of parliamentary seats, 55% of cabinet positions and 40% of local government committee positions held by women. Uganda has a female Vice President, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Speaker, while Tunisia appointed a female Prime Minister last year.

Tripp believes that none of these appointments are accidental, especially in the authoritarian context. She pointed out that it’s more than window dressing with the women involved in important, powerful positions but being part of regimes with declining democratic processes, political rights and civil liberties.

“In many of these countries the political cost of older forms of rule like military juntas are too high,” she said. “And women are part of the strategy to remain in power.”

She explained under what conditions women’s leadership is instrumentalised to legitimate an autocratic regime, and what the consequences are when the inclusion of women is used to enhance the longevity of an autocratic regime.

The aspects she highlighted include the impact of the end of major conflict, changing international gender norms, and the introduction of multi-partyism, which meant that ruling parties in many authoritarian countries had to focus on maintaining vote share. She emphasised that the work shows the importance of paying attention to regional and temporal differences in theorising gender and authoritarianism.

“For most of these countries democracy started in the early 1990s, which led to the expansion of space for civil society,” she explained. “Only a few became full democracies but many adopted the trappings of democracy even if limited and unpredictable in the hybrid regimes.”

“By 2005, however, the tides were turning in the authoritarian countries – civil liberties and political rights were declining with more repression, interference in elections, in freedom of expression, media and social media, and increasing corruption.”

Local and international pressures

Changing international norms regarding gender and female participation were influential especially after the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, heralding an increasing global profile of women’s rights coalitions and a push towards gender and affirmative action. This heralded the introduction of legislative quotas leading to reserved seats for women in parliaments in many of these countries. These patterns were evident in both authoritarian countries and democracies, which do not differ in their levels of female representation in legislatures, local councils and in cabinets.

But why did we see these changes specifically in authoritarian countries?

“The goal of an authoritarian regime is to stay in power at all costs,” explained Tripp. “Women leaders are part of the strategy to maintain vote share and parliamentary seats. Party-based authoritarian regimes are more likely to adopt quotas. The degree of party institutionalisation is important – it’s about seeking stability and legitimacy.”

“A dominant one-party system is usually defined as one party maintaining the majority of parliamentary seats for three elections in a row. Women are a key tool with 31% female representation for countries in Africa with entrenched party rule versus 18% for countries without entrenched parties.”

She pointed to the post-conflict element as also very important: “Countries with the highest increases in female participation were those involved in major political upheaval and conflict resulting in a change in political elites, which necessitated the need to establish legitimacy. It opened up new opportunities for women’s rights activists to influence peace accords, constitution-making processes, and electoral reforms to assert power.”

Different countries, different experiences

She highlighted examples from the countries studied.

She described Mauritania, ‘the land of a million poets’, as ethnically diverse with a history characterised by military and one-party rule punctuated by numerous coups and coup attempts. It is a country in which women’s status is good with more girls in school than boys. “The big change came in 2009 when the Union pour la République party took over and remained in power for three cycles. To maintain vote share they implemented several strategies, but one was the adoption of gender quotas from 2012 leading to an increase in women parliamentarians from 4% in 2005 to 20%, 31.5% women in local government and 31% in cabinet. In 2014 a woman became mayor of the capital city. In interviews, these were described as strong females who operated like men, and didn’t see themselves as tokens.”

“In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986. His party, the National Resistance Movement, became entrenched. Female quotas were introduced as far back as 1989 – and today 47% of local government, 35% of parliamentarians and 43% of cabinet positions are women, as well as five of 11 Supreme Court judges.”

Tactics to achieve this included expanding the number of districts thereby increasing the numbers of women in reserved seats, increasing appointees, as well as picking off high-profile opposition leaders, de-campaigning women in opposition, and outright repression of opposition women.

“Women in the ruling party who fail to get elected in the first round of elections often return as ‘independent’ candidates in the second round,” added Tripp.

She described Morocco as an example of the influence of external factors, particularly trade.

In Morocco, females constitute 24% of parliamentarians, seven out of 24 cabinet ministers, and the three largest cities have female mayors. Morocco’s ties to the European Union are strong with the EU accounting for 64% of exports and 51% of imports. France is the prime trade partner. “Female participation is a big issue for the EU, which has invested heavily in women’s political participation in Morocco through various aid initiatives.”

She also pointed to female participation as part of the King’s strategy for maintaining power. “He has promoted women’s status to drive a wedge between Islamists and secularists. He promotes a moderate vision of Islamic tolerance. For political parties, ever mindful of the king, it is about proactively promoting women’s rights to gain advantage over the opposition and gaining support and legitimacy.”

“The external dimension is important in these countries. It’s about keeping up with neighbouring countries. Donors and trading partners are watching and female participation improves legitimacy, diverts attention from other issues, and improves the image – all of which can lead to increased trade and investment.”

“But it’s gender politics as a double-edged sword – the success is often highly paradoxical. More power to women can influence democratic reform but, at the same time, it risks providing legitimacy and strengthening regimes that violate other human rights.”

Asked about the situation in traditionally matrilineal societies, Tripp pointed out that these societies have decreased in Africa generally with many of the features lost, but it’s still possible to see some influence at local government level where women are active and visible. “But you can’t draw a straight line between social and cultural issues, and politics – there are too many other interests. Culture matters but the weight seems to lie with institutional change.”

She was also asked about the consequences. “It’s a radical change but is not fundamentally changing how society is run in these countries. Women are coming into institutions that are created by men and as newcomers they tend to play by the established rules. There are some improvements in areas of traditional gender gaps – like education and health – but I don’t know how far one can go in claiming causality. Change depends on what you are looking at. In Uganda women’s status has changed, what they imagine has changed, the debates have changed, cultural, education and health issues have changed, but it’s hard to generalise. Repression and brutality have continued and women have been used to cover over that image.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan


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