Five Africans are among the world’s 100 Global Thinkers of 2012, according to the December issue of Foreign Policy (FP). The list, compiled annually by the magazine, includes activists, intellectuals and visionary leaders from across the globe.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki ranks second on the list of Global Thinkers “for keeping the ideas of the Arab Spring alive.” President Marzouki, according to FP, presides over the Arab Spring’s “most promising success story.” A former professor of public health and long-time human rights advocate, Marzouki was imprisoned several times and ultimately forced into exile by the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Returning to Tunisia after Ben Ali’s fall from power in 2011, he was elected president by the country’s Constituent Assembly. Since assuming office in December 2011, President Marzouki has looked to consolidate Tunisia’s fledgling democracy at home while calling on the United Nations to launch a campaign to rid the world of the “disease” of dictatorship.
FP praises President Marzouki for his ability to strike a political balance with the country’s Islamist parties. He has worked to ensure they are included in the political process but has not hesitated to push back when they overreach. “If anyone can guide Tunisia through its transition to democracy,” according to the magazine, “it’s Marzouki.”
The Arab Spring may have ushered in hopes for enhanced freedoms in the Middle East, but many remain concerned that the wave of Islamists that came to power as a result of the vacuum left by the region’s ousted strongmen will result in greater oppression and exclusion of women. “The battle to expand women’s rights is being fought not only in Tunisia but across the Arab world,” notes FP. “[T]here is not a single country where women’s political voice is equal to that of men.”
While Marzouki received praise for tactfully handling the government’s delicate relationship with the country’s Islamists, another Tunisian activist, Ms. Ahlem Belhadj, earned a spot on FP’s list for confronting these forces head-on.
FP lists Ms. Belhadj, President of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, as the No. 18 Global Thinker “for demanding that women have a say in the new Arab world.” When Islamists introduced a clause into the country’s draft constitution that would officially designate women as “complimentary to men,” Ms. Belhadj helped to organize and mobilize thousands of demonstrators to protest the proposed language, ultimately resulting in its rewording. She helped provide legal representation for a women accused of “indecency” after being raped by two police officers.
Ms. Belhadj believes that efforts to combat the exploitation of women can be a catalyst for overall social change. “It is by making the link between the different levels of control — the fight against inequalities between the sexes, economic and social inequalities, regional inequalities, and so on — that things will have any chance of success in Tunisia,” Ms. Belhadj told journalists in January 2012. “And we remain optimistic on all these challenges because the mobilization is there, and people are very attentive to what is currently done.”
Elsewhere in Africa, two Global Thinkers are showing that women are a political force to be reckoned with. FP lists President Joyce Banda of Malawi as the No. 22 Global Thinker “For stepping in — and up — to fix a broken country.” When President Banda was promoted from Vice President upon the sudden death of the country’s late President Bingu wa Mutharika, she inherited a government that had been becoming “increasingly autocratic” and a country where the vast majority of the population lives in abject poverty.
“But in just seven months Banda has largely thrown out her predecessor’s playbook, showing the world how to take charge and work to turn around a troubled country,” according to FP. President Banda dismissed senior officials accused of rights violations, vowed to repeal oppressive laws, and took concrete steps toward rebuilding the country’s shattered economy. She also took steps to bolster the legitimacy of her office, cutting her own salary by nearly one-third and selling off a private jet and dozens of luxury cars belonging to late President Mutharika.
In early 2012, Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who ranks 51st on FP’s list of Global Thinkers, was considered among the top three candidates to take over as president of the World Bank, receiving strong endorsements from the African Union, the Financial Times, and the Economist. Supporters lauded her extensive experience in the world of policymaking and a record of driving reform in Nigeria that gave her credibility with the international community—not to mention her charismatic personality.
But even after she was not selected, Ms. Okonjo Iweala continues to dedicate herself to reforming Nigeria’s institutions and developing its economy. She advocates ridding Nigeria of a controversial fuel subsidy — one that FP calls “popular but economically disastrous” — and has taken steps to cut excessive government spending in Nigeria and reducing the countries debt. Her reform efforts often face staunch opposition from Nigerian elites who benefit from the status quo.
“If she can succeed in helping one of Africa’s most pivotal countries overcome the infamous oil curse, it might have a much more lasting impact than anything she could have accomplished back in Washington,” FP says in its profile of Ms. Okonjo-Iweala. Accordingly, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala makes the 2012 list of Global Thinkers not for her candidacy for World Bank president but “for showing Africa how to break the resource curse.”
Professor Chinua Achebe, the literary titan and revered Nigerian intellectual who ranks No. 68 on the list of Global Thinkers, reveals that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has her work cut out for her. Professor Achebe, who earned a spot on FP’s list “for forcing Africa to confront its demons,” released a memoir this year that provides a vivid account of life in Nigeria during the 1967-1970 Biafran War as well as the conflict’s long-lasting impact on the country. “Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal,” Professor Achebe wrote in the memoir, entitled There Was a Country. “But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria.”
However, for Professor Achebe, the war’s impact was not confined to Nigeria; it was also “a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.” The Biafran War, according to Professor Achebe, was a harbinger of subsequent African conflict, revealing the instability that would result from Africa’s arbitrarily drawn borders, the corrosive impact of natural resource wealth, and the inability of the international community to decisively respond to African conflicts.
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