For so long African women were relegated to the background of things. They were traditionally mandated to just run the household, bear and rear the children.

They had no role to play in leadership and often were unable to take decisions pertaining to their lives. Those of them who were lucky enough to go to school at best became teachers or nurses but all that is changing now as there are lots of African women holding top positions in their countries as well as internationally.


Let’s take a look at the top ten African women who have helped to change the narrative and have given a voice to the millions of African women who hitherto were neither seen nor heard along the corridors of power.

Sahle-Work Zewde

Sahle-Work Zewde

Sahle-Work Zwede is currently the most powerful woman in Africa and the 97th most powerful woman in the world according to Forbes magazine. She was appointed as the President of Ethiopia on Thursday, 25th October 2018.

She is a career diplomat and is the first female leader of the East African country. She is 68 years old and is expected to be in office for 2 six-year terms. She is the 23rd woman to be either acting, appointed, or elected President in Africa since 1975.

Before she was appointed President, she was a top official with the United Nations (UN) and was also the special representative of the United Nations secretary general to the African Union (AU). She previously headed the UN’s office in Nairobi as undersecretary general.

Isabel dos Santos

Isabel dos Santos

Isabel dos Santos was born on the 20th of April 1973. She is a Russian-Angolan businesswoman and is Africa’s richest woman. She is the first child of the former Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country from the year 1979 to 2017.


In the year 2013, she became the first African billionaire woman with her net worth out at over $2 million according to research by Forbes. In November of 2015, the BBC named her as one of the 100 most influential women in the world.

She has held management positions in a number of companies listed on European stock exchanges over the last 20 years and she is famous for her business acumen.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the immediate past President of Liberia. She is the first elected female Head of state in Africa and served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018.

Ellen Sirleaf was born on the 29th of October 1938 in Monrovia to a Gola father and a Kru-German mother. She was educated at the College of West Africa before she moved to the United States, where she studied at Madison Business College and then at Harvard University. She later returned to Liberia and served as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974 after which she went to work for the World Bank in the Caribbean and Latin America.

She was again appointed deputy minister of Finance before she was promoted to the post of Minister of Finance and served from 1979 to 1980. After the government she served in was toppled in a coup, she fled to the US where she worked for Citibank and then the Equator Bank before she returned to Liberia to contest a senatorial seat for Montserrado county in the disputed elections of 1985.

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She won the 2005 presidential election and took the oath of office on the 16th of January 2006. She was then re-elected in the year 2011 for a second term in office.

In the month of June 2016, she was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, the first woman to hold the post. In 2011, she was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The award was given to the three women in recognition of their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.

Sirleaf was also conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on the 12th of September 2013. In the year 2016, Sirleaf was listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is a South African politician and United Nations official. She currently serves as the Executive Director of UN Women with the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. She was born on the 3rd of November 1955.

Dr. Phumzile is a one time Deputy President of South Africa and was in office from 2005 to 2008 under President Thabo Mbeki. She is the first woman to hold the position and was at that point the highest ranking woman in the history of South Africa.

Before she became Vice-President of South Africa, she was Minister of Minerals and Energy from 1999 to 2005 and was also Deputy Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry from 1996 to 1999.

She was also a Member of Parliament from the year 1994 to 1996 as part of South Africa’s first democratic government. So you have a feel of how strong her portfolio is and why she is on this list. But she was not always a politician. In fact, she started out as a teacher and gained international experience as a coordinator at the World YWCA in Geneva, where she was able to establish a global programme for young women.

She is the founder of the Umlambo Foundation, a foundation that supports leadership and education. To shed some light on her educational background, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in social science and education from the National University of Lesotho in 1980 and then proceeded to obtain her master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Cape Town in the year 2003. She earned her doctorate degree from the University of Warwick in the year 2013.

Fatou Bom Bensouda

Fatou is a Gambian lawyer and international criminal law prosecutor. She is currently the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, a position she has held since June 2012.

Prior to that, she had served as Deputy Prosecutor in charge of the Prosecutions Division of the ICC since 2004. Before she moved over to the ICC, Ms. Bensouda worked as Legal Adviser and Trial Attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) located in Arusha, Tanzania, where she rose to the position of Senior Legal Advisor and Head of The Legal Advisory Unit.

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She was the General Manager of a leading commercial bank in The Gambia before she joined ICTR. Between the year 1987 and 2000, Ms. Bensouda successively held the following positions: Senior State Counsel, Principal State Counsel, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Solicitor General and Legal Secretary of the Republic, and also Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the government of Tanzania.

She holds a master’s degree in International Maritime Law and Law of The Sea which makes her the first international maritime law expert of The Gambia.

Prof. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka

Prof. Mrs. Tibaijuka formerly served as under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

She was until her resignation in 2010, the second highest ranking African woman in the UN system after her compatriot, Asha-Rose Migiro. She resigned to seek political office and has been a Member of Parliament representing Muleba South constituency in her home country, Tanzania.

She was an associate professor of Economics at the University of Dar es Salaam between 1993 and 1998. Apart from her UN-HABITAT activities, Prof. Mrs. Tibaijuka is also dedicated to the role and rights of women in development. She is the founding Chairperson of the independent Tanzanian National Women’s Council (BAWATA) and is also the founding Chairperson of the Barbro Johansson Girls Education Trust dedicated to promoting high standards of education for girls in Africa.

She holds a Doctorate degree in Agricultural Economics from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. She is multilingual and is fluent in Haya, Swahili, English, Swedish, and French.

Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro

Dr. Aisha-Rose Migiro is a Tanzanian politician and diplomat who served as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations from 2007 to 2012. She was then appointed as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa on the 13th of July 2012.

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She was Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation from 2006-2007 in her home country Tanzania. She was at that time the very first woman in the United Republic of Tanzania to hold the position since the country gained independence in 1961.

Prior to becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, she was Minister for Community Development, Gender, and Children for a total of five years. Dr. Migiro obtained a Master of Laws from the University of Dar-es-Salaam in the year 1984 and a Doctorate in law from the University of Konstanz in Germany in 1992.

She pursued a career in academia and was a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Dar-es-Salaam before joining government service. She attained the rank of Senior Lecturer while in academia.

She served as Head, Department of Constitutional and Administrative Law from 1992 to 1994, and then headed the Department of Civil and Criminal Law from 1994 to 1997 of the University. Her work is widely published both in local and international journals. She speaks Kiswahili, basic French, German and English.

Amina Mohamed Jibril

Amina Jibril is a Kenyan lawyer, diplomat, and politician. Currently, she is the Cabinet Secretary for Education in Kenya. She previously held posts include chairwoman of the International Organization for Migration, chairwoman of the World Trade Organisation’s General Council, and Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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She is a woman of many firsts. She is the first woman to have held the position of Foreign Minister (Cabinet Secretary) of her country, Kenya, the first woman to have chaired the governing General Council of the World Trade Organization, the Dispute Settlement Body, the International Organization for Migration and also is the first female President of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.

She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from the University of Kiev, Ukraine where she also bagged a Master of Laws (LLM) in International Law. She earned a second degree in Law from Kenya School of Law and also has a Postgraduate Diploma in International Relations from the University of Oxford. In her homeland Kenya, she served as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs of Kenya from the year 2008 to 2011.

While occupying that office, she supervised the redraft of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010. Ms. Mohamed is multilingual and speaks her native Somali as well as English, Russian, Swahili, and French.

Amina J. Mohammed

Amina J. Mohammed is currently serving as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. She is a former Minister of Environment of The Federal Republic of Nigeria and was in office from November 2015 to December 2016.

She is a versatile and proficient mobilizer and project coordinator. Amina Mohammed had previously served as Senior Special Assistant to the Nigerian President on MDGs between 2005 to 2010 and was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development including the Sustainable Development Goals.

Amina Mohammed is an Adjunct Professor in Development Practice at Columbia University, and has also served on numerous international advisory boards and panels, including the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, Girl Effect, 2016 African Union Reform, the Global Development Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the African Women’s Millennium Initiative, and the ActionAid International Right to Education Project.

While serving as Minister of Environment in Nigeria, she was able to steer the country’s efforts on climate action, protecting the natural environment and conserving resources for sustainable development.

Joyce Msuya

Joyce Msuya is currently the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the level of Assistant Secretary-General, a position she was appointed to by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the 21st of May 2018, for a 5-year term.

She is a microbiologist and environmental scientist who hails from Tanzania and has previously served as the World Bank Special Representative and Head of the World Bank Group Office located in the Republic of Korea, as well as Regional Coordinator at the World Bank Institute covering East Asia and Pacific Region, based in China.

She was also the Principal Strategy Officer at the International Finance Corporation’s Manufacturing, Agribusiness and Services Department. She holds a Master of Science in microbiology and immunology from the University of Ottawa, Canada, and a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and immunology from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland.


These are some of the African women who wield power and influence in the various positions they occupy both at home and globally.

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