Ghanaian Francesca Oteng took the headlines in Africa when she won the Parliamentary seat in the Kwabre East Constituency in the Ashanti Region of Ghana at 22 in 2016.
Ms Oteng-Mensah, then a second-year law student at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), polled 321 votes to beat the then incumbent MP for the constituency, Kofi Frempong, who polled 187 votes.
IFN TV sat down with her in her office at the Parliament House in Accra to tell us why she went into politics, her success and challenges as an African woman.
IFN TV: So tell me, why politics?
FRANCESCA OTENG: I must say this is a very broad question, why did I go into politics?
I believe politics is an opportunity where you can help a lot of people because you get a lot of opportunities from NGOs, from Government Institutions, from International organizations and the rest, so I believe politics gives me the platform to help more people and as a person, I have always had the interest to help a lot of people, probably from my family background or for the fact that I am into a lot of philanthropic works. So this is a great opportunity and secondly I have the passion for it. Since childhood I have always wanted to be a politician and I believe I am living my dream.
IFN TV: How did you come about this decision that it was politics you wanted to get into, especially as a woman in an African country?
FRANCESCA OTENG: I must say it wasn’t easy and it is still not easy. Looking at the fact that I am a woman and of a young age, which of course is also an issue. Not only of the fact that I have issues of the fact that I am a woman, you also have issues of the fact that I am a youth. The perception out there is that being a youth, you can’t reason or take good decisions; and the other perception is being a woman, you are not really having that capacity to take up such leadership role.
So it wasn’t easy, to be honest with you but I think what helped me was the fact that I have always been determined to achieve my dream, because I have always had the passion to do politics. I had a very supportive family who were ready and willing to support me in anything I found myself in. So I say that is one thing that kept me going. If not that the political life or the political job, let me put it that way, is not an easy task for women especially in Africa, you need a lot of things. You need resources and I mean, how many women have the resources, enough resources to go into politics? You need to let people have trust in you, that you can handle their issues or that you are ready and willing to lobby for projects to their constituencies or their communities. So it’s not easy coming out; but so far it has been good.
IFN TV: What has been the most challenging moment for you so far?
FRANCESCA OTENG:I think each day is challenging. Each day there are new stuffs coming your way which are very very challenging and so most of it or one thing I think is a challenge for almost every female politician is the fact that you have limited resources if you don’t have people to support you, it’s not easy trying to make something out of this profession, it’s not easy at all and the fact that people always have their doubts that once you are a woman, probably, you went to sleep with someone to get to where you are and all those things, so I think basically those are the challenging times. And the fact that because you are young or you are a youth, some people think what you are saying doesn’t make sense but after they listen to you for a while, and they start to realize that, yes, this person is trying to talk some sense. I think basically, it’s always difficult getting people’s attention especially when you are putting across an idea, something that is quite different from the usual things that people do. It takes time before people get to understand you.
IFN TV: What would be your assessment of the Nana Akufo Addo administration?
FRANCESCA OTENG: I think you know the answer already, I think you do know the answer, Green (Laughs). Once I’m in the majority, you know definitely, I will go for my party, but I wouldn’t want to be very political. I think so far, NPP government is doing so so well; to be honest with you, looking at the policies that the government has been able to put in place in the last ten months or nine months, let me put it that way. I think the government is doing so well, just to mention a few: the free SHS initiative. Where the government is saying, once you complete your basic education, you are going for second cycle institution; you should go for it for free. I think it is a very laudable policy because the government wants to promote education to increase the literacy level, so I believe we as Ghanaians need to support the government.
Not only that, look at, just recently, The Nursing Training Allowances. Nursing Students are paying huge sums of money. I mean sometimes, because I am an MP, I get to see a lot of the school bills because most people bring their school bills to you to help them in paying their fees and some are paying three thousand and over, but here is the government who is ready to support these students and the government has been able to install the Nursing Training Allowance which a huge sum of four hundred , I think four hundred and fifty Ghana Cedis is paid to each student and trust me, that is a very very huge money.
Just to mention the two, let me go by the other things that the government is also doing, looking at the Port. I’m part of the Trade and Industry Committee so we’ve met. Our major concern was how to facilitate trade and make sure Ghana becomes a Trade Hub. And looking at the fact that the Port has been made, the new policy of Paperless Port, is a very laudable idea. A lot of business men are commending the government on this because you can bring in goods and your goods will be stranded at the Port, probably because you need customs officers to come and inspect your goods and they come individually. But with this Paperless Port, the government has made sure that if you bring goods, and it has to be inspected by let’s say Food and Drugs Board, Ghana Standard Authority and all other agencies, they are all to go together and inspect so if at the end of the day, all your goods and all your documents go through, you are likely to get all your goods settled in the next, I mean three hours or a day, and I think it is a laudable project that I think we should commend the government on. Just I can go on and on and mention, I mean the economy has been made stable. I mean, I can go on and on. I think so far the government has done so well. We’ve had two leaders after the former President, Kufour and we can all attest to the things they did in those eight years and comparing that to nine months, I think the government has done well, we need to applaud the government.
IFN TV: Do you see a woman becoming the president of Ghana anytime soon, say for example you, looking at what you’ve achieved so far with your age?
FRANCESCA OTENG: Well it will not be easy. I think I will take this opportunity and commend former First Lady Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings, which I think you can see her picture there, I took an award and she is the one who presented the award. She is one of my mentors, a very great woman. It’s not easy like I said, in Africa, as a woman taking up leadership roles. It’s likely that we can have a woman president in Ghana if Liberia has been able to do it, why can’t we also do it in Ghana? So it is not going to be easy, to be honest with you, it’s not going to be easy. I’m hoping that very soon, we get one of our beautiful ladies in parliament and beautiful political women to take up this idea. Looking at me, twenty four and the constitution allows you to contest for presidency at the age of forty; I think I still have a lot of years so…
IFN TV: But you have to start from somewhere, isn’t it?
FRANCESCA OTENG: Well I agree with you, it’s a process, you start it, you have it at the back of your mind. I’m nurturing myself for this kind of position and I think I’m still looking around to see how best, I mean, you need to weigh your chances and all those things. But definitely, what I want is, I want to make a contribution to the development of the country so, if at a point in time, Ghanaians or people think I should go higher, I’m sure they will start making that cry.
IFN TV: Is there any particular formula a woman has to adopt to get into politics? And which particular advice would you give to young women who want to get into politics across the continent?
FRANCESCA OTENG: I think first of all, there is no formula in being a politician to be honest. I think the biggest challenge I had was from my own party. So that should tell you, I mean it’s not easy, and even your family, your friends and even your school and all those, so you should have a tough skin, to be ready and willing to accommodate all these. You should always move further no matter what. Never let these things disappoint you, the fact that you want to come out of your shell and someone tells you ‘oh this person did it, that person didn’t do well’. I mean, you should get this before you can do that, usually, look at the fact that I want to be there, your focus should be there, don’t look at any other thing that will distract you.
The only thing, the only advice I will give to my young ladies or my young women who will also be going into politics is that they should have a tough skin and they should be ready to take in anything. I always say that if you are a politician, then you are more or less like a refuse dump, anybody at all can just come and dump their refuse just as when you go to a refuse site where, I mean once its waste, I’m coming to dump it there. And that is politics for you; people can say all kind of things about you on radio, write articles about you in the news paper. I mean, they have no reason for doing that, they just tarnish your image just like that, so you should have a tough skin and you should be ready to overcome any of these challenges.
IFN TV: Have you at anytime been accused of someday, say a kind of fabricated scandal that you felt really hurt and regretted your decision to join politics as a woman?
FRANCESCA OTENG: Scandals will hurt you definitely, they are all hurting, I mean they are very hurting, because as a woman, there are some issues that once someone hits you with it, no matter who you are, you get affected. Most of the things that come out, they are the things that they want to hit you with it, tarnish your image. This is an image you have used so many years or you have made so much effort to build, if something is to pierce into, ok, look at the skin, if someone just takes a small needle to pierce your hand, the pain that you receive when they pierce in your image is the same thing.
IFN TV: How do you deal with advances from the opposite sex, especially as a public official, young and beautiful as the same time?
FRANCESCA OTENG: We meet that, I think I meet that a lot but I just see that to be occupational hazard so I don’t really pay so much attention to it. You will meet that, people trying to take advantage of you, they always think you are in for those things but I just see that to be occupational hazard, I don’t really pay so much attention. If you look at that, trust me, you won’t go far.
IFN TV: Thanks so much for speaking to us, Hon. Francesca.
FRANCESCA OTENG: Thank you Green