Kenya’s newly elected President Uhuru Kenyatta on Tuesday named the first four ministers of his Cabinet.
Among them is Ambassador Amina Mohamed as Secretary for Foreign Affairs. The media and blogs immediately noted that she was Kenya’s “first Somali ethnic” woman to be slated for the job. Indeed, if her appointment is approved by Parliament, she will be Kenya’s first ever female Foreign minister.
But you have to look outside Kenya’s borders in other Eastern African countries to understand why Ms Mohamed’s appointment is a truly intriguing story.
If she travels to Mogadishu to discuss matters of Kenya’s forces in south Somalia, she will meet with Fauzia Yusuf Adam. Adam is Somalia’s deputy prime minister, the first woman to hold the position, and Foreign minister – again the first Somali woman to hold that job.
And at a regional ministerial meeting to review security in the Great Lakes region, three of the delegations will be led by women. Beside Kenya and Somalia, the third will be Rwanda. As we all know, Rwanda’s Foreign minister is the feisty Louise Mushikiwabo.
Mushikiwabo has a record of sorts. She has been Foreign minister since 2009, the longest any woman has held the docket in this region.
Rwanda is different from other countries in East Africa in that before Mushikiwabo, its Foreign minister was Rosemary Museminali who had been minister since 2005. Thus for the last eight years, women have locked down Rwanda’s top diplomatic job.
Tanzania too gave us a female Foreign minister between 2006 and 2007 in the person of Asha-Rose Migiro, before she moved to become the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations in New York.
Ms Migiro is back in Dar es Salaam, where she became Secretary-General for Politics and Foreign Affairs of the ruling CCM party. One of her leading supporters whispered in my ears that President Jakaya Kikwete backed her for that job because he is lining her up for the party presidency, and thus Tanzania’s next president.
If that is true, come the 2015 election, she could easily become the region’s first woman president.
And, in keeping with tradition, Burundi too had a female Foreign minister from 2005 to 2009. Antoinette Batumubwira steered Burundi’s foreign relations following the end of the civil war and entrance into the EAC.
But, without doubt, the shortest and most colourful stint anyone in the world was Uganda’s Princess Elizabeth Bagaya. She was dictator Idi Amin’s Foreign minister for just one year in 1974. Cambridge-educated, she was the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English bar.
Portrayed by the Western media as the most beautiful black woman in her heyday, Bagaya never made her name or fortune in law. She became an actress, and was the first black model featured on the cover of the American fashion magazine, Vogue, in 1968.
Her career ended in tears. Amin, typically sacked and humiliated her by alleging she had broken one of the 10 Commandments with a French minister in a Paris airport washroom.
So if, even in misogynistic Somalia, a woman can be appointed Foreign minister, we have to ask what it is about the job.
It is probably the way our governments acknowledge that we live in a globalised world. Politics at home might still be highly patriarchal, but when we go out into the rest of the world, we have at some point to meet it on its terms.
In that big world out there, there are many nations in which the equality of the sexes has advanced considerably. A female Foreign minister is a low-cost way of saying we recognise the limits of our “native” masculine domestic politics, and that talent is gender-neutral.
Few people in our part of the world will have heard of The Communist Party of the Philippines. However, it has a worthy philosophy. It holds that there is really one thing that reveals the nature of a society or an organisation – its attitude towards women.
Uhuru’s Kenya, like Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda, seems to suggest that if you are an East African woman, there is hope for a fair share of public goods. There are parts of Africa where women still can’t even dare dream that one of them will be Foreign minister.