Some 600 African women gathered under a white tent in Tangier, Morocco, earlier this month. They traveled from all over the continent to celebrate the 100th Annual International Women's Day, but also to talk about governance and government.
The meeting was the first forum of locally elected African women organized by the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, it took place as the winds of change were sweeping North Africa. Both Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had been toppled, and unrest raged in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia — and host nation Morocco.
Monia Ammar Feki, a Tunisian magistrate, served several years under Ben Ali. Now a judge in charge of human rights in the Justice and Human Rights ministry of her country, Feki explained to an attentive audience why Ben Ali's Jan. 14 departure was seen as a liberation. "Huge progress was made in terms of women's and detainees' rights or education, but this positive dynamic was stopped because there was no real democracy," she said. "There were a lot of problems concerning freedom of expression, opinion and party membership. There was no right to have a different stance from that of the government."
How was she able to work under the 23-year regime? "When people asked me, I would answer that it was difficult, that it was a daily battle! I have been pushed aside several times because I was speaking against human rights violations."
Opinions about Muammar Qaddafi varied considerably. The African Union has refused to support the no-fly zone imposed by the U.N. Security Council. Woraye Sarr, mayor of Medina Gounas, a suburb of Dakar, said she did not know "what lies behind the [present] situation in Libya."
The member of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's party in attendance declared, "Qaddafi does not deserve what is happening to him because he has set Libya upright." She said Qaddafi had done a lot for his people: "Before him, there was no electricity, no work … Now, even the Libyans who cannot find work get a monthly aid, thanks to oil resources.
Sy Kadiatou Sow, the director of a community development project in Bamako, Mali, disagreed. She said that she thought Qaddafi should leave. "Even if he stays, he reached the point of no return, and history showed that the harsher the repression, the harder people think they have nothing left to lose. This is what happened in Mali during the 1991 revolution that forced Moussa Traoré out of power."
But Sow, a former minister of foreign affairs, conceded that her president, Amadou Toumani Touré, is in a difficult situation. To turn against Qaddafi, he would have to publicly condemn the man who partly financed new government buildings in Mali — named for the Libyan leader. "Mali is not the only country to keep quiet, and we know why … But if they cannot condemn his attitude, at least they should reason with Qaddafi and save people's lives," she said. "Libyans are dying, along with Malian migrants mistaken for mercenaries."
Najoua, 19, a smiling tourism student, was more talkative but sounded as if she were reciting something she had memorized. "Our king is not a dictator, so the same revolution cannot happen. Every Moroccan loves our king, and we do not want to reduce his powers. We want to keep the monarchy. We do not want to be like Spain or Great Britain. We do not want the prime minister to hold every power because he will not be able to do more than the king already does."
The truth is that not everyone is happy with Morocco's royalty. Thousands of Moroccans have taken to the streets, asking for political, civil and judiciary reforms and the end of the "absolute power" held by Mohammed VI. The king announced a series of constitutional changes on March 9, with proposed new laws to be voted on in a national referendum.
Josephine Fizumugha Abeki, mayor of Patani, in southern Nigeria, was hopeful that the "Arab spring" would reach sub-Saharan Africa. "When the majority says, 'We don't want you!' you cannot impose yourself on them because you will not have peace. You will not enjoy your stay, you will not enjoy your money and you will not enjoy your life!"
Sy Kadiatou Sow was even more optimistic: "Some [black African] leaders already consider that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt could happen to them if they go beyond their legal terms," she said. Obviously, the "Arab spring" seems contagious.
Habibou Bangré is a freelance journalist living in France.