Women Chief Justices in Africa: why are they under threat?

VERY, very few women in Africa hold the position of Chief Justice or deputy Chief Justice. On the last count, just five women hold these posts in the southern and east African countries we most regularly write about.  And yet two of these five women are under threat of prosecution or impeachment, while a third who has been facing an impeachment tribunal emerged unscathed last week. Against this background, the story of the inquiry into the Chief Justice of Seychelles, Mathilda Twomey, makes sober reading for the general public. For her female CJ colleagues, however, the report must be ringing alarm bells.

WOMEN in African’s top judicial positions will have been watching the case of their colleague, the Chief Justice of Seychelles, Mathilda Twomey, with more than keen interest. It is a remarkable fact that, of the southern and east African countries whose decisions we have been writing about recently, women hold top office in just a tiny number of countries. And yet most of these already few women are under scrutiny, facing threat of impeachment or prosecution.

Like the Chief Justice in Seychelles, her counterpart in Lesotho – Judge Nthomeng Majara – is facing an impeachment inquiry, while prosecution charges are being brought against the deputy CJ in Kenya, Philomena Mwilu. The only ones who appear unaffected at this stage are Zimbabwe’s relatively new deputy CJ, Elizabeth Gwaunza and Zambia’s CJ, Irene Mambilima.

What does this extraordinary statistic mean? Some readers claim it shows how difficult it really is for women to be accepted in leadership roles. The treatment of Judge Twomey clearly illustrates that this was so in her case at least: the complaints against her were brought by an older, male, fellow judge who made no secret of the fact that he disapproved of women holding positions of judicial leadership. He was open about his belief that women were, by virtue of their very nature, unsuitable for such roles.

Now the report of the tribunal charged with considering her fitness for office has completely exonerated her, finding there was no basis for the complaints against her made by this fellow judge.

These complaints against her were made by someone with a self-professed prejudice against women. That his baseless allegations could actually have led to an impeachment inquiry speaks loudly about the additional challenges and dangers for women in top judicial leadership positions.

If you haven’t already downloaded the full report of the Seychelles inquiry into the allegations against Judge Twomey, we recommend that you do so. See for yourself the nature of the claims made against her and read the findings of the eminent jurists on the tribunal as to whether a single one of the complaints that led to the inquiry had any basis in truth.