If you’ve always lived in America, the UK or Canada, you’ll be forgiven for thinking there’s never been a black female president. But if you look at the world as a whole, there certainly has been.
Here are some black female presidents that have worked their way up to a position of real power. I hope you find them as inspirational as I do.
1. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia – January 2006 to January 2018
Clinching Liberia’s presidential seat after a cutthroat election, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had a landslide win to become the nation’s 24th president after being sworn in on 16th January 2006.
After completing her studies at Madison Business College and Harvard University in the US, Ellen returned to Liberia, her home country, to serve as Deputy Minister of Finance under the leadership of former president William Tolbert. She performed the role diligently for three years and then joined the World Bank, stationed in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In 1979, Ellen was again appointed Minister of Finance in Liberia, a role she maintained for a year before returning to the banking industry, working in the US’s Equator and Citibank financial institutions.
In 1985, Ellen ran for Montserrado County’s Senatorial position. She failed to clinch the seat after the election results were disputed. Then, in 1997, Ellen ran for Liberia’s presidential seat and finished second in the race after losing to Charles Taylor.
In 2005, Ellen ran yet again and won to become Liberia’s first female president. She was re-elected in 2011 and steered her country towards lasting peace in a country that saw great loss amidst devastating civil wars.
2. President Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania – April 2021 to Present
After President’s John Maghufuli’s passing, his deputy, Samia Suluhu, stepped up as the official President of Tanzania.
Born on 27th January 1960, Suluhu made her grand entrance into politics in 2000 when she won the special seat post in Zanzibar House of Representatives. In 2010, Suluhu ran for the Makunduchi constituency parliamentary seat and won by a resounding 80% of the total votes cast.
She inched up the political ladder after she was appointed Minister of State for Union Affairs by President Jakaya Kikwete. Fast forward to 2014, and again, Suluhu was elected Vice Chairperson of Tanzania’s Constituent Assembly, a position that granted her the honor of helping draft the nation’s new constitution.
She continues to form alliances and hold close relations with other African presidents aiming to steer her country to greater economic growth.
3. President Sahle Work Zewde, Ethiopia -2018 to Present
Born on 21st February 1950, President Sahle Work Zewde is Ethiopia’s fifth president and the nation’s first female President. Sahle was elected President in October 2018 after garnering plenty of political experience as a seasoned diplomat. Sahle has been appointed Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Djibouti, France, and Senegal.
President Sahle attended the University of Montpellier in France, studying Natural Science. She has a rich background working for the UN in different roles, including Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding in the Central African Republic. She also was appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Director-General of the United Nations Office position in Nairobi, Kenya.
Other government roles Sahle occupied before becoming President included Director-General for African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia and the African Union’s United Nations representative.
Sahle continues to work closely with the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, on issues like intercommunal violence affecting the country and agricultural sector reforms.
4. Joyce Hilda Banda, Malawi – April 2012 to May 2014
After the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Vice-President Joyce Hilda Banda was sworn in as the acting President of Malawi as per the constitution. She became Africa’s second female President and Malawi’s fourth president. Hilda maintained the role for two years before being ousted by the former late President’s brother, Peter Mutharika.
Her reign may have been short, but her mark remains unforgettable. She faced plenty of ridicule and sharp antagonism from other politicians, particularly men, claiming the country wasn’t ready for a female president. She took the blows in stride, pioneered the fight for women’s rights, and made significant changes to steer the country toward an independent economy.
Before she became Malawi’s President, Hilda served in various high-ranking positions, including:
- Minister of Gender, Child Welfare, and Community services – 2004 to 2006
- Foreign Affairs Minister – 2006 to 2009
- Vice-President of Malawi – 2009 to 2012
After her retirement, she continues to champion the fight for women’s rights and women’s empowerment, serving in various capacities, including:
- Executive Advisory Committee member, United Nations Development Fund for Women
- Founder and CEO of the Joyce Banda Foundation
- Founding Member of the African Federation of Women Entrepreneurs
- Participates in the Council for the Economic Empowerment of Women in Africa
In addition, Hilda also influences various works to protect the children and women in Malawi, efforts which continue earning her respect and accolades from Africa and across the globe.
5. Agnes Monique Ohsan Bellepeau, Mauritius – March to July 2012 and May to June 2015
Born in 1942, Agnes Monique Ohsan Bellepeau is a lady fortunate enough to have twice become the President of Mauritius.
Monique served as Mauritius’ acting president for three months between March 31st and 21st July 2012, after President Anerood Jugnauth resigned. She held the fort to make space for a smooth transition before the inauguration of incoming President Kailash Purryag.
Yet again, after the resignation of President Kailash, Monique served as acting President from 29th May to 5th June 2015 before the inauguration of President Ameenah Gurib.
Monique is Bartholomée Ohsan’s daughter, a man who founded the Mauritian Labour Party from which most of the country’s leaders were allied.
Before joining politics, Monique was a renowned journalist and news anchor on the national Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation. She took a back seat from politics and now serves as the Managing director of her center, CIDP Research & Innovation. This is in line with her educational background in politics and science.
Despite playing the role of caretaker for the President’s position during transition periods in Mauritius, Monique remains an admired figure to aspiring Black women leaders in her country and across Africa and the world.
6. Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, President of South Africa – 2005
Ivy Florence Matsepe Casaburri was Africa’s and South Africa’s first Black woman president. In 2005, Matsepe governed the country in an acting capacity while President Thabo Mbeki and his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, were away from their country. Her short reign marked a huge milestone in Africa’s women leadership in politics.
Again, in 2008, Matsepe was asked by South Africa’s cabinet and the president to act as the interim president prior to President Mbeki’s planned resignation. Matsepe held the president’s post for 24 hours until the inauguration of Kgalema Motlanthe as president.
Matsepe was the first woman to have been a head of state of South Africa since Queen Elizabeth II’s reign over the country ended in 1961.
Born in September 1937, Matsepe pursued a career in teaching/lecturing in South Africa and across African countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia. Of her many educational accolades, Matsepe had a PhD in Sociology from Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
Notable positions in Matsepe’s political and non-political career included:
- Minister of Communications in the South African Government
- Member of parliament in the National Assembly
- Premier of the Free State 1996 to 1999
- Senior lecturer and registrar at the United Nations Institute for Namibia
- Director for Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
- Lecturer and Associate Professor at Rutgers University
- Chairperson of the South African Broadcasting Corporation-SABC
- ● First Black chairperson of Sentech
Matsepe passed away on 6th April 2009 while still in office serving as Minister of Communications.
7. Catherine Samba, President of Central African Republic-January 2014 to March 2016
Catherine Samba Panza became the Acting President of the Central African Republic following the resignation of President Michael Djotodia. She was President for about three years.
Catherine was born in June 1954 and served as the Mayor of Bangui, CAR’s capital, prior to becoming President. She is the wife of Cyriaque Samba Panza, a renowned official who was a seasoned diplomat and Government Minister. Catherine is a lawyer with extensive experience in the Insurance sector, where she worked before becoming Mayor.
Catherine took over the country when the war-torn country grappled with coups and political wars. Catherine was considered a viable candidate because she had no political experience and affiliations with the clashing regimes.
During her tenure, she worked to try and bring the warring factions together to end the clashes, which were fueled by differences deeply rooted in religious differences.
During her presidency, Catherine aimed to reclaim peace and stability in the Central African Republic to boost the economy and restore normalcy. As she neared the end of her term, Catherine was happy to note the nation’s commendable progress toward national reconciliation and social cohesion.
Catherine was honest about there being plenty of work yet to be done to demobilize, reintegrate and disarm warring groups. She hoped the newly elected leaders would continue with the trajectory she’d already initiated.
Post-politics, Catherine is heavily involved in civil society efforts and is an avid pioneer in the fight against female genital mutilation.
Top Black Female Presidents, Final Thoughts
Black women heads of state today have the women on this list to thank for their bold moves and unwavering efforts toward the betterment of their individual countries.
The names of the seven Black female presidents featured here will be etched in history as the women who dared to break the norm and lead in positions where men were the typical options. Effortlessly, they reclaimed sanity in countries that otherwise struggled with issues like abuse of power, civil wars, mismanagement of funds, lack of food, gender imbalance, etc.
The contribution these women have made in their countries and worldwide is unquestionable. This is a glimpse of hope that a world with women leaders ruling most countries and organizations globally is, indeed, possible.