“Girls are pearls, ladies are rubies, mothers are moulders, and women are wonderful”, says Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha of the female gender. Angela Dorothea Merkel (Nee Kasner) is all these and more. The most powerful woman in Europe who takes a glorious bow out of office soon has taught the world that you don’t have to be moustachioed or flaunt six pack muscles to take your place among the world’s strongest. Without doubt, her life and politics have taught us many lessons. The fact that she is leaving Germany, the European Union and the entire world better than she met it when she assumed duty as Chancellor in 2005, attests to her qualification for the pantheon of great leaders.
She was to Germany what Julius Nyerere was to Tanzania — a leader without guile, without the greed that infests many men and women of power, without infatuation for mundane whitewash covering putrid tombs, without the Janus-faced double dealing for which many European nations have become famous. In an era when some other otherwise great countries were struggling with idiotic leadership, Merkel stood out as a shining star of what true leadership should be, and gave hope to the world that Europe could be relied upon in the global quest for peace and development.
Merkel was not the first woman to rule over a powerful country, but she came from among the people without the advantage of a privileged background. Whereas Indira Gandhi was the only child of the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Merkel was the daughter of Horst Kasner, a Lutheran pastor and a native of Berlin, and his wife Herlind, a teacher of English and Latin.
Six years ago, YouGov, a global public opinion and data company, asked 1111 Germans to name who they considered the best German Chancellor ever. Helmut Schmidt came first with 24% while Angela Merkel is tied with Konrad Adenauer at 18%. I bet that if another poll is conducted today, Merkel will come out tops.
Today’s teenagers in Germany have known only one leader, Merkel, who has been in power for 15 years. Under her leadership, Germany rebounded from a global economic crisis to become Europe’s economic powerhouse. Unemployment rate was halved and revenue from tax increased. Today, Germany’s budget has gone from deficit to surplus.
Although she doesn’t tag herself with the label of feminism, her advocacy for the rights of women makes her one of the most powerful feminist voices. She has changed the traditional expectations of females in the German society, pointing out that only 30.9% of politicians in the current Bundestag were female, down from 36.5% in the previous one. “That’s the proportion of women that Sudan has in its parliament,” she said.
She advanced this theme further at the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in November 2018.
While acknowledging that quite a bit of progress had been made over the years, she declared: “The fact that I exist should not be an excuse.” On her hope for the future, the chancellor said: “I hope it will become a matter of course for men and women to share work, child-raising and housework equally and no one will be forced into a role or a specific task because of his or her gender. And I hope we won’t have to wait 100 years to achieve that.”
And to acknowledge how much progress has been made, she noted, “Nobody laughs anymore if a girl says she wants to become a chancellor.”
One of Merkel’s strengths was her ‘rootsy’ demeanour. Her high educational attainment (she obtained a PhD in quantum chemistry in 1986 and worked as a research scientist until 1989), has not made her lose the common touch. Also, being chancellor did not seem to have changed many things in her life. She was as ‘ordinary’ as the woman next door, seeing herself essentially as a government worker like everybody else in public service.
She cooks and does the dishes like any other wife and mother. She explains that, “When I’m stirring a saucepan, I don’t say to myself, ‘Now the chancellor is stirring a saucepan…!’”
She has no time for designer clothes, preferring the same ‘old school’ attire that had become her trademark. A female journalist once asked her at a press briefing why she often repeated the same suits.
“Don’t you have another?”, asked the journalist.
Merkel replied: “I am a government employee and not a model.”
In 1977, Merkel, then Angela Kasner, married Ulrich Merkel a physics student and took his surname. The couple were divorced in 1982. Her second and current husband is quantum chemist professor Joachim Sauer, a media-shy academic with whom she had been friends for 17 years.
At home, she practices what she preaches by sharing chores with her husband. Take the issue of doing the laundry: “I arrange the clothes, and my husband is the one who operates the washing machine, and it is usually at night… and the most important thing is to take into account the neighbours from the inconvenience…”
The apartment she lives in is the same one she had before being elected Chancellor of the strongest country in Europe.
Although highly respectful of fellow heads of state, Merkel could activate the caustic tongue when necessary. For example, her fear of dogs is well known, having been attacked by one in 1995. So, when Vladimir Putin brought in his Labrador Retriever during a press conference in 2007, Merkel observed icily, “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man… He’s afraid of his own weakness.”
At great political cost at home, Merkel partnered with African countries to tackle the migrant crisis at source. For example, in 2016, she visited Mali and Niger to discuss how the two countries could improve conditions which caused people to flee abroad and how illegal migration could be reduced. Politically, she paid dearly for refusing to take a hard stance. There was an upsurge in right-wing populism in the country with the fear that the horde of refugees constituted an ethnic and cultural threat to Germany. In the 2017 German federal election, the opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained 12% of the vote.
Following allegations that American intelligence agencies had been monitoring Merkel’s mobile phone (which was considered scandalous as Germany was a strong ally of the US), the German chancellor chastised the American government through President Obama: “Spying on friends is unacceptable”. Her position enjoyed enthusiastic support from other EU countries.
Merkel is going to be remembered as an Iron Chancellor in her own right. But she’s not another Margaret Thatcher. She is Dr. Angela Merkel! Part of the mystique was her waiting game to achieve some kind of consensus before taking a stand on sensitive issues. Thatcher was a divisive politician whereas Merkel is a consensus builder. Her strength of character and tenacity enabled her to keep the Russian leader in check through constant dialogue. On the home front, Merkel’s government introduced a minimum wage to alleviate social injustice; “Elterngeld” or parent benefit was introduced to lessen the financial burden on families and boosting Germany’s very low birthrate.
After more than 50 years, the Bundeswehr (armed forces) abolished compulsory conscription in July 2011. Merkel backed Jean-Claude Juncker for European commission leader. She announced that she would shut eight of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors and that the others would be phased out by 2022 as part of a long-term transition to alternative energy sources — the so-called “Energiewende” She adroitly fended off a long-term recession in Germany at the time the global economic crisis hit by introducing economic stimulus packages and shortening working hours. She was a steady hand in times of crisis.
Her live-and-let-live philosophy and deep Christian commitment shows through in her reaction to criticisms over allowing Muslim immigrants into Germany. “I am a member of the evangelical church”, she said; “I believe in God and religion is also my constant companion, and has been for the whole of my life. We as Christians should not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs.”
To the consternation of right wing hawks, Merkel declared that Germany suffers not from “too much Islam” but “too little Christianity”!
The Iron woman of Berlin who was elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, 2013 and 2018 exits the chancellorship to global ovation having taught the world the true meaning of Nelson Mandela’s famous words: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Wither comes another Angela?
- Wole Olaoye is a public relations practitioner and a public affairs commentator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org