AU big meet opened with talk of female empowerment; we toast the fearless women who once ruled Africa

From Angola to Ethiopia, Africa's female leaders and warriors left their mark on history.

THE 24th African Union summit opened Friday. This year, the theme of the summit is: “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union, underlined the importance of the theme, stating  that “we must also do more this year to increase the representation of women in government, in the judiciary and other public and private institutions and their participation at the tables in peace negotiations.”

The continent has already taken many decisions towards achieving gender parity, the AU for example has adopted gender programmes to support women’s empowerment such as the AU Protocol on Women’s Rights, the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, the Africa Women’s Decade, and the Fund for African Women. 

Despited that, today women in Africa still do not have equal access to opportunities and services. 

It wasn’t always this way. Women have traditionally played critical roles in African society, holding very great responsibilities in our ancient civilisations. Here we remember the great and powerful women of ancient Africa:

Yaa Asantewa of the Ashanti Empire, Ghana (1840 - 1921)

Yaa Asantewa was the sister of the ruler of the Ejisu traditional area (part of modern Ghana), Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase. She was appointed queen mother by her brother who died in 1888 after the Asante civil war. 

Being very influential, she nominated her grandson as ruler of Ejisu but when the Asante began rebelling against the British in 1896, they exiled him as well as the King of the Ashante (Prempeh I) to the Seychelles. The British governor, Lord Hodgson, also demanded that the Asante hand over their Golden Stool, a highly treasured spiritual symbol of the Ashanti. 

There was a disagreement among the Ashanti leaders on how to deal with this but Yaa Asantewaa was determined that they fight. She took on leadership of the Asante Uprising of 1900 and for three months laid siege to the British mission at the fort of Kumasi. The British had to bring in several thousand troops and artillery to break this siege. Her fight against the colonialists is a story woven throughout the history of Ghana, demonstrating incredible bravery and leadership. She was eventually captured and exiled to the Seychelles. Some historians argue that Yaa Asantewaa’s war was the last major war in Africa that was led by a woman.

Makeda the Queen of Sheba, Ethiopia 

One thousand years before Christ, Ethiopia was ruled by a line of virgin queens. The most famous of these queens is Makeda, her legend of Sheba can be found in the Christian Holy Bible, the Muslim Qur’an and the Ethiopian holy book - Kebra Nagast. According to Kebra Nagast, the capital of Makeda’s kingdom was Axum and it is believed that she reigned over parts of Southern Arabia in Sabaea (Sheba), earning her the title of Queen of Axum and Sheba. During her reign, Ethiopia was famous for her widespread international trade, chief exports being gold and silver. 

It was also during her reign that the Solomonic Dynasty in Ethiopia was established. Legend has it that the Queen left her home to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem to satisfy her curiosity on his beliefs. It’s believed that she gained a deep appreciation of the God that King Solomon worshipped as the King did of the Queen. According to the Kebra Nagast, the King wooed the Queen and she became pregnant. Their son was named Ebna Hakim, or Menelik I, and he went on to become the first King of the Solomonic dynasty which, lasting until the emperor Haile-Selassie I who was deposed in 1974, was one of the longest and oldest monarchies anywhere in the world.

Queen Ranavalona, Madagascar (1829 to 1861)

Often referred to as a “mad” or “ruthless” Queen, Ranavalona was the ruler of the Indian Ocean Island of Madagascar for 32 years. She positioned herself as queen following the death of her young husband, Radama I, and pursued a policy of isolationism and self-sufficiency which included the expulsion of Christian missionaries and reducing economic and political ties with European powers. It was her drastic and often violent rejection of foreign powers that earned her a fearsome reputation, however, the majority of textbooks documenting her actions were written by French or British authors. What cannot be argued is that the queen was acting in a way that sought to retain her country’s cultural heritage and defended it against more powerful foreign nations who wanted to take advantage of the island’s resources. 

Mbuya Nehanda, Zimbabwe (1840 - 1898)

Mbuya Nehanda was a spiritual leader who was, and continues to be, highly respected by Zimbabweans. The Shona people believed her to have been a spirit, whose medium was a woman called Nyakasikana. Committed to upholding the traditional Shona way of life, she used her position to spearhead the first war of resistance (Chimurenga CheKutanga) against European domination in the region.

She instructed all the regional chiefs to arm and resist foreign intrusion in whatever way they could. She and her ally Kaguvi, another great regional Shona spirit medium, were eventually captured and executed by the British. Nonetheless, Nehanda’s heroism became a significant source of inspiration in the nationalist struggle for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Queen Nzinga Mbande, Angola (1583 - 1663)

Nzinga Mbande was the queen of the Mbundu people in 17th century Angola. Her incredible political and diplomatic acumen combined with brilliant military tactics have made her the stuff of legends. She was a resilient leader who had become queen in 1626, after her brother committed suicide in the face of rising Portuguese demands for slave trade concessions. Recognising that a refusal to trade with the Portuguese would remove a potential ally and the major source of guns for her own state, Nzinga made concessions, converting to Christianity and adopting the name Dona Anna de Souza. 

But she was not about to let them control her nation. In 1627, after forming alliances with the Dutch, she led her army against the Portuguese, initiating a thirty-year war against them. With their help, Nzinga defeated a Portuguese army in 1647 but when the Dutch were defeated the following year they withdrew from Central Africa.

Nzinga continued her struggle against the Portuguese, personally leading troops in battle. She also orchestrated guerilla attacks, a tactic which would continue long after her death and inspire the ultimately successful 20th Century armed resistance against the Portuguese that resulted in independent Angola in 1975. 


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