Not long ago, Prof Ali A Mazrui delivered one of his key trademark and seminal public lectures titled, Are African politics ethnic-prone, and can African constitutions be ethnic-proof? A question from the audience diverted the distinguished professor’s intellectual ammunition, hitherto firmly aimed at Africa’s allegedly imperfect institutions and constitutions, to an unlikely target: Mazrui’s own hosts, the United States of America.
The question was simple but thought-provoking: Why has the USA, the world’s stellar upholder of human rights, women suffrage, and a supposed paragon of good governance, failed to produce a woman president after 250 years of independence? Why, to restate the question, has the dreaded ‘global cop’ failed to arrest his own apparent sexism?
The professor’s reaction was his signature cogitation delivered aloud in a low drawl and English ‘better than the Queen’s own’. He wilily refrained from directly faulting the glaring inconsistencies of the American historical experience, where brutal slavery existed seamlessly for hundreds of years alongside their founders’ creed which stated that ‘all men are created equal’; where paternalistic and annoying reprimands to other countries to practice gender equality have not been matched by the example of Americans themselves electing a female president. Prof Mazrui, however, expressed hope that a future American woman president is a very viable eventuality.
If having female leaders is progressive, Africa, where the Central African Republic, South Africa, Ethiopia, Burundi, Mauritius, Liberia, Gabon, and Malawi have had either acting or substantive presidents is light years ahead of Uncle Sam. The closest America came to this ‘ideal’ was in 1920 when Edith Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, effectively ran the Oval Office for a year and a half while her husband battled a serious stroke.
Years later, Hillary Clinton waged a good fight in 2016, trouncing Trump by three million popular votes but losing out in the Electoral College and the presidency. Farida Jalalzai has rightly argued that Clinton was a victim of entrenched sexist stereotypes, writing that “women continue to encounter more negative perceptions from the public, political elites and the mass media regarding their leadership capabilities and competence, compared to their male counterparts.
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Stereotypically masculine traits, such as strength of leadership and quick decision-making, are often prized over stereotypically feminine traits like deliberation and compromise.”
Meanwhile, Kenya remains patriarchal and as some have claimed, increasingly dynastic. For 50 years, successive Kenyan presidents and prime ministers have been male and scions from the ‘royal’ Kenyatta, Moi, Odinga or Kibaki pools.
On the other hand, Charity Ngilu’s ambitious presidential run in 1997 ended with her finishing a dismal fifth, despite positive reviews from the international media, notably The Economist of January 1998 which called her ‘one of the more popular’ of the candidates. Her consolation prize was a pioneering gubernatorial post under the new Kenyan devolved system.
This elective post has since apparently become the glass ceiling beyond which Kenyan women must not aspire. To paraphrase US Senator Elizabeth Warren who alongside a record six women contesting for the Democratic Party nomination withdrew early from the 2020 contest, if young Kenyan women are looking for a role model from State House, they may have to wait indefinitely.
Writing now in mid-October 2020, we have a compensating advantage of having perfect visibility so far as history is concerned. We have a rare chance to be observers only weeks before the American presidential elections and to test Mazrui’s prophetic prescriptions concerning the trends of America’s current politics in real-time, and through the lenses of the deeply interested world media.
This year, it is guaranteed a woman will not be elected president of the US. The contestants are Joe Biden and Donald Trump, one an amiable former vice president, and the other a haughty career TV reality star. They are both white, male septuagenarians whose shelf-life, regardless of who wins in November, is short.
Trump’s infamously abrasive and narcissistic antics, and his evangelistic unbelief and disdain for science have played part in causing hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths in the US. This eventuality has probably left many voters craving for a Trump’s antithesis.
In our effort to ‘divine’ the future of the White House, we posit a number of factors which might mitigate for a gender revolution in the most powerful political office in the world. The first is the combination of historical guilt for male domination in the Oval Office and the desire to right the sentimental wrong. As one source aptly captures the situation, “the influential standing of the US on the world stage magnifies the absence of an American woman president”.
Second, the ballot box is likely to reflect a reflexive recoiling from the unstable Trump brand which is perceived by many Americans as a threat to their longstanding national values, and a major catalyst for America’s diminishing stature in the world. Trump’s raw and antisocial personality – which his own estranged niece Dr Mary Trump labeled ‘sociopathic’ in her recent book Too much and never enough - has been a great turn-off for many voters to the left.
Their backlash may overreach to include a gender swap and a reinstatement of youthful leadership reminiscent of the early Obama days.
In the light of the recent racial tensions in the United States where systemic discrimination of minorities was laid bare, a person of colour may partly be propelled into the White house by sympathy votes.
Enter Kamara Harris. The Democratic party’s California Senator and Biden’s running mate has weathered sophomoric and misogynistic insults by Trump to become an entrenched partner in Biden’s apparently unassailable polling lead, and to have a real possibility of falling heir to the presidential mantle from him in 2024, if their ‘dynamic duo’ wins this November. She is the embodiment of Trump’s antithesis.
All factors considered, our prediction, not a prophecy, is that a female member of a minority group, perhaps a person of colour, will take the reins of power in the USA in November, 2024.
Mr Chacha and Mr Wahome are dons at Laikipia university