Although most African countries joined the UN in the 1960s soon after they attained independence, with a few joining earlier than that or later, it wasn’t until 2006 that the first African female Head of State, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, addressed the UN General Assembly.
Currently, the 54 African member states of the UN make up to 28% of its overall membership. Before 2006, only male heads of State and governments had addressed the General Assembly.
Other African female heads of State that followed were Joyce Hilda Banda of Malawi in 2012, Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic in 2014, and most recently, Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia in 2019.
Below are the profiles of these inspiring women and snapshots of their stirring speeches from various UN General Assembly sessions:
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia)
Known as the “Iron Lady,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as President of Liberia from 2006 – 2018. Before assuming the presidency and claiming the title of the African continent’s first female Head of State, Ms. Sirleaf served as a finance minister during Samuel K. Doe’s rule. During this time, she was sentenced to jail for 10 years due to her vocal criticism of his regime.
She avoided execution and escaped to the US and Kenya, furthering her career as an economist, after which she ran for her second presidential bid, having lost her first bid to Charles Taylor, who was later sent into exile. She made history as the African continent’s first democratically elected female president.
Ms. Sirleaf inherited an economy that was devastated by the after-effects of civil war. Unemployment rates were high and the country faced a serious debt crisis. However, her request for debt relief helped to expunge Liberia’s debt in just five years. Foreign investments and international support increased during her term, and she was a championing voice for anti-corruption, creating Liberia’s Anti-Corruption Commission.
In 2007, Ms. Sirleaf was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. This was followed by her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, awarded jointly with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work", said the citation.
The Liberian economy flourished under Ms. Sirleaf, until 2014 when the Ebola epidemic ravaged Liberia and its neighboring countries.
In 2018, Ms. Sirleaf when her term came to an end, she was able to transfer power peacefully to her George Weah – this had not happened between political opponents in the country since 1944.
In her final speech during the 2013 UN General Assembly, Ms. Sirleaf stated that 11 years prior, she was asked to speak as the first woman to be democratically elected as Head of State in Africa and requested for this trend to continue, stating, “the next generation must belong to women.”
She noted that a peaceful transfer of power was anticipated in Liberia’s then-upcoming presidential elections and explained that democracy was the way forward in Liberia, as well as the entire African continent.
She elaborated upon the immense progress made after the devasting civil war, citing that Liberia had remained peaceful and stable, and talked about progress made in rehabilitating the country’s infrastructure and provision of electricity, water and technology.
She said Liberia’s transformation had empowered citizens, especially women in, “giving women, including market and rural women, a voice and the right to be heard.” In addition, international trade, as well as improving the health care system and encouraging youth entrepreneurship were all prioritized.
“We could not have accomplished all of that without the UN — its political leadership, the generosity of its economic development support, humanitarian contributions and, most important, the stabilization and security provided to our country through the United Nations Mission in Liberia,” she concluded.
“I applaud you, Mr. President (of the UN General Assembly), and your predecessors, the Member States and UN civil servants around the world who have sacrificed in order for us to see the very first generation of school-age children growing up in an environment of peace, free of the violence of civil conflict.”
Joyce Banda (Malawi)
Joyce Hilda Banda served as President of Malawi during 2012 – 2014, after serving as Vice President to President Bingu wa Mutharika from 2009 – 2012. She was the first female Head of State in southern Africa.
Ms. Banda is known for her commitment to women’s rights, including maternal health and reproductive rights. She also focused on weeding out corruption, as well as fighting for rights for all.
When she took office, she sought to restore diplomatic relations and revive the economy.
In 2011, Ms. Banda was named as the third most powerful woman in Africa by US publication, Forbes magazine, and ranked among BBC’s 100 Women series.
In her final address to the UN General Assembly, Ms. Banda spoke of the reforms she instituted in her country and how these contributed to increased economic stability; reporting a growth of 1.8% for the 2013 year.
In addition, she talked about the progress being made on the then Millennium Development Goals, especially those focusing on reducing child mortality, reducing cases of HIV/ AIDS and malaria, and reaching environmental sustainability, as well as developing global partnerships. To achieve these goals, she sought out to identify and remove bottlenecks – in this case – gender inequality and lack of women’s empowerment initiatives. She championed girls’ education, poverty eradication, maternal health and nutrition.
“We have decided to invest in improving the livelihoods of poor people in rural and urban areas. That transformation initiative is aimed at modernizing our rural communities by bringing a standard package of interventions in health, education, water, sanitation and housing.”
In addition, to reducing poverty in rural areas, Ms. Banda highlighted her government’s Rural Electrification Programme, to “spur industry, trade and agricultural productivity through the provision of electricity” in order to break the cycle of “population, growth, malnutrition, maternal risks.”
Catherine Samba-Panza (Central African Republic)
Catherine Samba-Panza moved quickly from her appointment in 2013 as a nonpartisan mayor of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), to interim President of the country during 2014-2016.
Upon President Michel Djotodia's resignation, Ms. Samba-Panza was vetted and instated as President and immediately began engaging in dialogue with those fighting for power during the ongoing civil war. She said in a World Bank interview, “I have always been a woman of dialogue who has listened to others’ questions.”
Ms. Samba-Panza worked to restore state authority throughout the country and regrow the failing economy. Special attention was given to civilian security as well as disarming and demobilizing armed groups.
During her 2014 address to the UN General Assembly, she elaborated on the steps being taken to de-escalate tensions, as well as commended the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2149, which authorized the deployment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).
Due to the conflict, the economy of CAR had undergone a deep recession, with the growth rate falling to an astounding -36% in 2013. However, emergency budgetary support for the country was provided by World Bank, International Monetary Fund, African Development Bank and European Union, as well as France, which Ms. Samba-Panza lauded.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) had reduced in number by 81 per cent, however, due to the conflict, security concerns still were prevalent. She opposed illicit arms that fuel conflicts on the continent and stated that the issue must be tackled to provide peace and security to all.
“In order to promote political dialogue and national reconciliation and help Central Africans to live better with one another, I have always focused on pacifying hearts and minds so as to achieve genuine national reconciliation,” Ms. Samba-Panza said.
She concluded thus: “I would like to express, above all, my pride at the courage and great resilience of the Central African people and their determination to rise up from the recurrent crises that have inflicted untold suffering on them. Long live the United Nations! Long live international solidarity to ensure that peace and security prevails throughout the world!”
Sahle-Work Zewde (Ethiopia)
A seasoned diplomat, Sahle-Work Zewde first served as Ethiopia’s ambassador to Senegal, and then to Djibouti, France and Tunisia before being appointed as an UNESCO permanent representative to Tunisia and Morocco in 2002-2006.
Before her appointment as President of Ethiopia, she served as Special Representative to the UN Office to the African Union (UNOAU). In 2018, she was elected as the first female president of Ethiopia and currently is the only female Head of State on the continent.
Ms. Zewde is known for her call to improve gender equality as well as the unification of the country. Representing the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the 2019 UN General Debate, Ms. Zewde focused on these topics as well as political, legal and economic reforms put into action by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
“We have enlarged the political space, releasing jailed political prisoners and journalists; inviting exiled political parties to return home and pursue their peaceful struggle; revising electoral, counter-terrorism and civil society laws; and ending the 20-year conflict with Eritrea,” Ms. Zewde said, and stressed that these would be the foundation for a long and flourishing democracy.
She also addressed the topic of job creation for the large population of youth in Ethiopia, as well as closing the gap in gender parity. In this vein, she lauded Ethiopia for being the top contributor to the UN peacekeeping troops, as well as increasing women’s role in peacekeeping.
She elaborated upon how Ethiopia has started to work on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by investing in human resources, expanding manufacturing and infrastructure to attract foreign investment, mobilizing domestic resources and integrating pro-poor policies to enhance quality of life. She stressed the importance of decreasing child labor and child marriage and instead, putting the focus on delivering education to children, even those in rural areas, particularly girls, as well as addressing environmental issues.
Ms. Zewde expounded upon the 2010 Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, stating that the hydroelectric power generated by the dam could allow for 65 million Ethiopians who have no electricity to finally have a power supply. She also stressed collaboration, “As we have always said, combined efforts in the Nile Basin are not an option but a necessity for win-win cooperation and successful mutual interdependence among the Nile Basin countries.”
She closed by addressing of multilateralism, which she believed could propel Ethiopia, as well as other nations forward on the track of progress, saying: “We must work towards a global environment in which all our concerns and interests are taken into account and we can move forward together to achieve our goal of collective security and prosperity.”