Affirmative action: Huddles before the new Reps’ Bill

On the floor of Nigeria’s House of Representatives last week, a Bill seeking creation of special and exclusive seats for women in the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly scaled the second reading. JOSHUA EGBODO explores the historical huddles that earlier blocked such moves, and the likely challenges the current effort may contend with 

Failure of past efforts

The popularity gained over the years by the affirmative action proposition, engendered a bill seeking higher inclusion of women in political offices. Though very controversial, the bill gained the best of attention in the 6th House of Representatives. As that failed, so also subsequent attempts never saw the light.

Wikipedia defined affirmative action as “a set of policies and practices within a government or organisation seeking to increase the representation of particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which they are underrepresented such as and …”.

Major obstacles

With a great focus at the moment on more women in politics,  one of the arguments usually put forward by opponents of the proposal had been the constitutional provision that no citizen of Nigeria shall be discriminated against on the basis of gender, ethnicity, disability or such others. In their defence, they said creating a caveat of such nature would be in breach of the constitution, which has already given women equal opportunities to seek any political office in the country.
Another challenge to such moves had remained the phobia of giving women ‘too much power’, especially as perceived by of the northern extraction. Many in such category do not see the need to give women such exposure, so they always oppose any move to create such special option.
So recommendations or suggested way out has always ended the caveat that political parties should rather be lobbied to create special opportunities for their womenfolk. In response, some have offered free, or hugely discounted tickets to women seeking political offices even when their male counterparts cough out huge sums to obtain same, yet, no appreciable impacts have been produced. 

The new move 

Read for the first time on Thursday April 22, 2021, the bill which scaled a second reading huddle last Wednesday is titled; A Bill for an Act to alter the Constitution of the , 1999 to create additional special seats for women in the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly”. It was subsequently referred to the House’s special Ad hoc committee for the review of the Constititution, led by Deputy Speaker Idris Wase.

Specifically, the bill proposed alterations to sections 48, 49, 71, 77, 91 and 117 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), that for an additional senator for each state and the FCT, 2 additional members of the House of Representatives from each state and the FCT, as well as one additional member from each of the three senatorial districts of a state as members of the state Houses of Assembly, and all to be women.

The new alteration bill to that effect, will, If eventually enacted into law, increase membership of the House of Representatives by 74, bringing the total to 434 as against the current 360. Also, the Senate membership will increase by 37 members from its existing 109, leaving its new total at 146. It recommended a first lifespan of 16 years (four general elections period) before its possible review.

What’s different now

Deputy Majority Whip of the House, Nkiruka Onyejeocha who led 85 other members in sponsoring the bill, confirmed that Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and some other principal officers of the House have endorsed the bill, and were part of its sponsors, noting that it was intended. She noted that a lot of consultations have made, taking into consideration, the factors that made earlier moves to fail.

She said before, earlier attempts were shut down, but that “this time, majority of the male members are in support of this bill. We have over 70 male colleagues from the north who are support of the bill, so form the parliament, we have accepted to make this bill work, Nigerians should support us.

According to her, women representation means adding more values to what will benefit that majority of Nigerians, adding that more women in political offices will lead to lesser corruption in the society. “This is to remedy the low representation of women in legislative houses by providing for the creation of additional separate seats to be contested and filled by only women…as a temporary measure to promote women’s representation”, she said during a briefing on the bill.

Justifying the new move

The lawmaker lamented that women had only 4.4% percent representation in the current (9th National Assembly), stressing that Nigeria has been identified as the worst performer in women representation in parliaments, in the West African region, and one of the lowest in the whole of Africa, saying the bill as proposed is the only way to make the agitation over the years work.

“This is evidenced in the most recent Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) ranking of women in parliaments where Nigeria ranks 179 out of 187 countries worldwide. Eritrea is the only African country ranked lower than Nigeria and this is because there have not been national elections since its independence in 1993.

“The situation is worse at the States Houses of Assembly level, where a good number of our states do not have a single woman in their State Assembly. In some of these states, men chair the Women Affairs Committee because there is no woman available to take the role”, she noted.

She stated further that “Currently more than 130 Countries have adopted some type of special measure (or quota system) to address women’s under-representation. Over 75 percent of these cases were introduced in the last 20 years – particularly since 2000. Strikingly, the majority of nations that have adopted special measures/quota systems are low or middle-income countries – many of them in Africa. 

“A very good example is South Africa, where the introduction of quotas in the 1994 election by the African National Congress (ANC) party resulted in 27% of women in their very first democratic election. Currently South Africa has 46.5% of women in their lower chamber and is one of the top ten Countries for women in parliament. Rwanda is the world leader in women’s political participation with 49% of women in their lower chamber. This flowed from deliberate constitutional efforts taken to include women in government to foster re-building of the country post-genocide in 2003”.

The lawmaker also argued that even conservative countries were beginning to realise the usefulness of political inclusion of women, citing Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, the State of Palestine and Tunisia, as places where women have successfully lobbied for the introduction of various measures, such as electoral quotas, to increase and strengthen women’s political representation. 

Crossing the rubicon 

Lofty and so much of positive efforts put in this time, as outlined by its sponsors, would the bill sail through without being returned afresh in another assembly of the house? This has remained one big unanswered questions for the coming days.

One of fears is that may tear it to shreds during the public hearing, as pundits cited the sustained campaign for drastic cut in the cost of , with even calls for a unicameral legislature at the national level, a position the proposal is in sharp contrast with. The other is getting two-third majority of the states to support its passage, so to such analysts, there is yet a lot more orientation needed on part of of its promoters.

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