Is Africa ready for a female President?
Malawi's fearless human rights activist Dr Vera Chirwa thinks time has come to break the African male domination on the issue of the State Presidency by vying for the top job in his tiny southern Africa nation of 11 million people, where Presidential and Parliamentary elections are slated for May 18 this year.
But why has Vera decided to gun for the State Presidency? "Men have been dominating Malawi politics for too long. Maybe that's why they are blundering. But I think that if a woman can come up, she would improve a lot of things," she said.
She says if women dominate politics wars will be reduced on thecontinent because "women will always think of soldiers as their children and will be reluctant to send them in harms way".
Vera, who will turn 72 later this year, has over the years dismissed calls to stand for public office, said she has finally decided to stand as an independent candidate for the presidency.
But will Vera go into the Guiness Books as the first woman president in Africa?
Political analysts and gender activists have mixed reactions to this question.
Some gender activists say with women constituting 52 percent of the Malawi population, if all the female electorate can vote for her, she could win. However political scientists say Malawi just like many other African nations is not ready for a female president.
University of Malawi political scientist Blessings Chinsinga says Vera has no chance of winning the forthcoming Presidential elections because she has not established herself in politics. He says that the mistake that Vera has made is to announce that she would stand as an independent candidate who is not sponsored by any political party.
"If she decides to contest as an independent she can not win because she has no political base. For one to win they must have a political base, which is built using party machinery," says Chinsinga.
The political scientist adds: "It could have been better if she had risen through party hierachy. By
doing so she could have been known to the general populace," he said.
Chinsinga said although 52 percent of the 11 million population comprises women, it is wrong to think that all women would vote for their fellow woman.
"It is not a simple case of a woman voting for another woman, but they have to vote basing on her caliber and what she is capable of delivering. Everyone is looking for someone who can make a difference," he said.
He pointed out that women also have a problem of pulling each other down instead of helping each other up.
But Catherine Munthali, a gender activist who heads Society for the Advancement of Women thinks otherwise. She says all Southern African nations signed SADC (Southern Africa Development Committee) Protocol on Women empowerment and its high time the protocol is
"This is an opportunity for Malawi to show that what it signed for is being implemented. When talking about women in decision making positions it does not necessarily mean making them members of parliament but also the Presidency," says Munthali.
She said the success of Vera mainly depends on the support which fellow women would offer her. "Women in other countries have become presidents because they were supported by fellow women. If she is going to contest as an independent, we will depend on
women to support her.
Who is Dr Vera Chirwa and what makes her tick?
She currently heads the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights (Malawi CARER), a human rights non profit organisation. She is also president for Women's Voice, a non governmental organisation that fights for rights of women.
Her husband, Orton Chirwa, was the founding president of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). When Malawi became independent from British colonialists in 1964, Orton became justice minister. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda took over the MCP Presidency from Orton Chirwa.
Within a short time, Orton fell out with Dr Banda and the Chirwas fled into exile in several
countries including Zambia, Great Britain and the United States of America.
Vera, her husband Orton and last born son Fumbani were lured back to Malawi, arrested and abducted in neighbouring Zambia after being suspected to stirring up political descent.
The Chirwas were publicly tried for treason by the then notorious traditional court in the Banda regime and sentenced to hang but Banda commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Banda pardoned Vera shortly after her husband died during their 12th year in prison.
Immediately after here release from prison, Chirwa dedicated her life to human rights activism. When she was recently appointed Human Rights Commissioner for the African Union, Vera reaffirmed her determination to improving prisons' conditions on the continent.
While Vera is eyeing the Malawi Presidency, the question boggling in the minds of Malawians is: Who is their next President after the incumbent Dr Bakili Muluzi retires in May this year after serving two five-year terms?
Political pundits says that Malawi's Presidential Elections will be a three-horse race amongst the
ruling UDF candidate Dr Bingu Wa Mutharika, the opposition MCP president John Tembo and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leader Brown Mpinganjira as hot contenders for position of State President.
According to Rafiq Hajaat of Institute of Policy and Interaction, "Dr Mutharika would easily swing into power because of the divisions and squabbles dogging the opposition. Furthemore the incumbent leader, Muluzi, is campaigning for him using state resources such as national radio and television stations, while the opposition has no access to these facilities.
Another hot contender is Mpinganjira of National Democratic Alliance. He was one of the most powerful ministers in Muluzi administration. He was sacked from the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in 2001 after openly and strongly oppossing Muluzi's third term bid.
Mpinganjira formed his own party - the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Malawians like Mpinganjira because of the role he played in ousting Dr Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s and of late because of his fiery campaign against Muluzi unconstitutional third term bid.
"Lack of financial resources and the failure of his party to establish itself in all parts of the country
is one of his setbacks," says Hajaat.
Tembo, the other contender, worked with Malawi's first president Kamuzu Banda for 31 years during one party dictatorship.
According to Dr Nandini Patel, a University of Malawi political scientist, Tembo's association with Dr Banda's dictatorship regime is his main setback. "A victory for Tembo in the Presidential elections would probably be a major setback for the democratic consolidation process because of his history as the driving force and right handman of Banda's dictatorship," says Dr Patel. "additionally Tembo is not seen as an advocate of the principles of democracy." She adds.
Considering how Malawi politics and voting pattern is strongly influenced by regionalism, tribalism, illiteracy, religious and historical ideologies, politicians from briefcase parties such as
Aleke Banda of the elite People's Progressive Movement, Gwanda Chakuamba of the newly formed Republican Party, and the only female Presidential Candidate Vera Chirwa, should count themselves out as victors in the Presidential elections.