Politics: Will Nigerian women ever get it right?

…Parties’ primaries make it impossible for women - Ezekwesili *‘…Zoning never in our favour’ *Active participation key, says Odumakin-Okei


Ezekwesili

Nigerian women have done well in many spheres of life, from the traditional/pre-colonial society to the present day; however, it’s a different kettle of fish when it comes to politics. CHIZOBA OGBECHE examines how Nigeria women have fared in politics, especially as it concerns the recently concluded general elections and asks, will Nigerian women ever get it right?

Over time, many Nigerian women have proved themselves, even excelling above their male counterparts, in fields hitherto considered to be exclusively men’s.

In terms of leadership, Nigeria also boasts of great women like the legendary Queen Amina of Zaria; Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti; Nana Asma’u; Margaret Ekpo; Gambo Sawaba, and Grace Alele-Williams, among others. However, the present day struggle of the Nigerian woman to be politically relevant has been largely unsuccessful going by the number of women who make it to leadership positions, both elected and appointed, especially after the return of democratic rule in 1999.

What is more disheartening is the fact that women make up 49.4 per cent of the country’s population according to figures provided by the National Population Commission (NPC) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Political analysts, the academia and civil society organisations have traced the political misfortunes of Nigerian women to a number of issues including traditional/cultural, social, religious, and financial constraints as well as the absence of internal democracy among political parties.

Representation

Though Nigeria’s National Gender Policy highlights women’s right to equality in economic, social and political life, with provisions to increase women in elected and appointed positions to 35 per cent, the provision of the policy is being implemented in breach.

A recent fact sheet released by the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) indicated that 62 women have been recorded as elected, a meagre 4.17 per cent of elected officials, representing a decline from the 2015-2019, where women formed 5.65 per cent of elected officials.

Data from the centre, prior to this year’s polls, showed that women have not reached 10 per cent representation since the inception of democratic rule.

This is as Nigeria is reputed to have one of the lowest female representations in parliaments across Africa, and globally, ranking 181 out of 193 countries, according to the International Parliamentary Union (IPU).

With 5.5 per cent women representation in the House of Representatives and 5.8 per cent in the Senate, the odds were certainly against the 232 women who contested against 1, 668 men for the 109 senatorial seats in the recently concluded general elections.

Similarly, 560 women competed against 4,139 men for the 360 seats in the House of Representatives while five female candidates ran against 73 male presidential candidates.

Pre-election groundwork

Given the experiences of the past, concerted efforts were made by various women groups to shore up the number of women elected in the 2019 general elections with the assistance of CSOs and development partners, but the narrative only changed for the worse.

UN Women and partners, ahead of the elections, had trained women candidates, documented political violence and advocated measures to boost women’s low representation in parliament.

The capacity-building training offered by UN Women was aimed at boosting women’s leadership and political participation in Nigeria.

The UN body has been training and mentoring female candidates and working with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure more gender-responsive electoral administration systems, encouraging political parties to adopt women-friendly internal governance policies, supporting local partners on legislative advocacy and election monitoring, as well as data-gathering and knowledge-sharing.

For the UN Women Representative in Nigeria, Comfort Lamptey, “For UN Women, women’s political empowerment programme is an essential part of our efforts to support the Government of Nigeria to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 on gender equality. It is also an important avenue for strengthening the voice and contribution of women in decision-making.”

In her remarks, the Head of the Gender Division for INEC, Blessing Obidiegwu, said, “There have been so many protocols, conventions, amendments of the Nigerian Constitution which support providing a quota system, but in reality, women are excluded in politics.

“Such problems as patriarchy, violence in elections and their economic situation serve as barriers to women’s participation.”

Similarly, the Women Situation Room Nigeria, set up by a coalition of women’s organisations working to expand women’s participation in politics year-round, has been monitoring the situation ahead of the upcoming elections (in February) through a toll-free hotline and coordinators spread across Nigeria’s 36 states.

Speaking on preparations for the polls, the national coordinator of Nigeria’s Women Situation Room and country director for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Joy Ada Onyesoh, said: “We have a whole lot of women across Nigeria that can do so much better than what we are offered now. The issue is that we are not given the opportunity… (Men) feel women are meant to be seen and not heard.”

Tracing the problem

Sharing experiences on their quests for political offices, some candidates in the 2019 elections have come up with some of the problems militating against women’s political empowerment.

Gap in mentoring

The national president, Coalition of Young Female Candidates (CYFC), Dr Amaka Doris Opara, who ran for FCT Senate seat on the platform of the African Action Congress (AAC), said there were irregularities in the conduct of the elections, adding that there was the need to bridge the gap in mentoring and the low degree of candour towards investing in women by other influential women, just like the men do.

She also identified vote-buying, violence; victimisation; intimidation; threat, and harassment of female politicians as some of the major issues women candidates faced during the elections.

“Vote-buying was the order of the day. It is not good for our democracy; also most women were not ready to vote fellow women. However, I think I lost the election majorly because I am not an indigene; if I was an indigene I would have defeated Phillip Aduda, no matter the money he has because people are tired of him.

“I discovered there is no health care facility in Kwali and this senator is going for the third time. FCT women were tired of him and wanted a change because there was no other alternative; so they promised to support me if I contested and they did vote for me, but some didn’t because I am not indigene,” she said.

The national president, who decried the fact that Nigeria was part of countries with the least number of women parliamentarians in Africa, urged women to “rise up and fight for adequate inclusion of women in governance.”

According to her, “Aba women did it in 1929 and we can do same in preparations for 2023. I believe we are getting there and with adequate awareness and advocacy citizens will understand that it is better to vote in who will serve than for an indigene.”

Level-playing ground

In the view of the CYFC public relations officer and broadcaster, Ms Adaora Onyechere, who also ran for the Okigwe Constituency of the Imo state House of Assembly, “There should be a level-playing ground where wards and administrations in the state should include candidates to become policy drivers. Female candidates should become authorities to decide what happens in their constituencies and in their states.”

In the same vein, a former Minister of Education and frontline female presidential candidate, Dr Oby Ezekwesili, said in an interview with newsmen that women and young people were either intimidated or threatened to step down or were simply screened out and replaced with their male competitors.

According to her, dominant political parties of the (APC/PDP) elite “have entrenched a primaries system that inherently makes the emergence of women and young candidates near impossible.”

Internal democracy

Narrating her own experience, Ijeoma Nwafor, a medical doctor who joined politics to ‘bring the desired changes’ to her Mbaitoli -Ikeduru Federal Constituency, but failed a record third time as she was unable to get nomination from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), insisted that the party has not been fair to its female members.

She said: “I ran for federal house three times on the platform of the PDP, but my party has not been able to let me have what I have worked for. I never asked to be given a ticket; all I ever asked for is fairness because we are not there yet.

“So, I don’t think the struggle is about equality. Women are a minority group and all we ask for is fairness. Every politics is local. In Imo PDP 2019 primaries, there were two line-ups and regardless of the support one had, party machinery was manipulated and mobilised to favour one line-up against the other.

“I happened to be part of the line-up that wasn’t pre-approved by the party machinery to get the party ticket in 2019. Specifics and details are not necessary. However, I am grateful my line-up actually had women they were projecting. The other line-up didn’t project one woman.

“Resultant effect is that PDP Imo state had no female flag-bearer. Not one! All 41 seats were males and even the deputy governor position was male.”

Spokesperson of the PDP, Kola Ologbondiyan, however, disagreed with the above assertion stating: “I think when you look at the format of the elections; generally, you will see it’s not the type women can really do well. It’s because of that format that women performed poorly.

“The aggression, large scale rigging, abuse of processes, vote buying, violence and other vices. For the PDP, we always make conscious effort to give fair chance to women. Our party has the highest number of women elected in this year’s election.

“We key into the affirmative plan that 35 per cent of our women must be elected. We give free forms to women to encourage more participation,” the PDP official said.

Free forms as Greek gifts

The president, Women in Politics Forum (WIPF), Barrister Ebere Ifendu, while countering PDP’s spokesman that forms were made available to women free-of-charge, said: “The free forms they give to women are like Greek gifts because after that, the zoning will never favour women. PDP will always come with what they call zoning and consensus candidate in which women are never part of the discussion.

“So, what’s the point of giving me a free form and I will not still get through the primaries because of other intrigues? We are tired of their Greek gifts; if they want to support women they should give a certain percentage of seats to women.

“They only have a woman leader in their leadership position who is appointed by them. They will use their own criteria to choose, so the person will be forever indebted to them.”

Low morale

Sharing her experience, Tari Oba Oliver, who ran for Ibeju-Leki Constituency 1 of the Lagos state House of Assembly, said the election was the worst women ever experienced in the country.

“The just-concluded election is the worst in the history of Nigeria and even more terrible for women. Various civil societies and gender advocacy groups were advocating increase in women’s representation; instead, there was a decline to any progress made since the inception of the Fourth Republic.

“This is demoralising and not encouraging, seeing the efforts women put in during the pre-election and election period,” she lamented.

Ezekwesili sets clock back

In the run-up to the elections, the withdrawal of former Minister of Education and presidential candidate Oby Ezekwesili under controversial circumstances further set the clock back for Nigerian women in politics.

Not only did Ezekwesili, who ran on the platform of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), withdraw less than one month to the elections, she immediately backed the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, and was enmeshed in a war of words with her party over campaign funds.

This is so more as she was seen as having the requisite credentials, above the other six female presidential candidates, to contest against the male candidates including the incumbent President Buhari.

According to her, the transactional mindset within the ranks of the party which betrayed her personal values triggered her withdrawal from the presidential race as well as her exit from the ACPN.

She had said: “This decision followed extensive consultations with leaders from various walks of life across the country over the past few days. I deem it necessary for me to focus on helping to build a veritable coalition to ensure a viable alternative to the #APCPDP in the forthcoming elections.

“It is my ardent belief that this broad coalition for a viable alternative has now become more than ever before, an urgent mission for and on behalf of Nigerian citizens. I have, therefore, chosen to lead the way in demonstrating the much- needed patriotic sacrifice for our national revival and redirection.

“I wish to state that over the past three months, I have been in private, but extended talks with other candidates to birth a coalition that would allow Nigerians to exercise their choice without feeling helplessly encumbered by the evil twins of #APCPDP.”

Going forward

Legislation to the rescue?

According to WIPF, sound legislation remains the best way forward. “We need to make the 35 per cent affirmative action a law. In Senegal, women first got 30 per cent through legislation before they moved for parity (50:50) which has now made the difference in that country.

“Without legislation, it will be difficult to achieve anything that is why we need to hold parties to account. They are the only platform that can make it happen for now. Currently, we are championing a course for most of these mushroom parties to be deregistered. If we have only six parties, it will go a long way.”

She also said, “Since the election is over, the next step is to pressurise the president to give women more appointments.

“The president in setting up his next cabinet should compensate women by giving them nothing less than 35 per cent positions. During campaigns, he went around talking about affirmative right action. He made open declaration supporting affirmative and we need to hold him to account.”

Mobilisation

On her part, the representative of UN Women said going forward, the mission would continue to support women’s political mobilisation at local and community levels and continues to build their capacities to rise through the rungs of political parties.

“UN Women will also continue to support advocacy efforts for the adoption of a Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill that can bring in affirmative action measures for women in politics,” she said.

Staying the course

As far as human rights activist Dr Joe Odumakin-Okei is concerned, women should ensure active participation in politics in order to contribute their quota to nation building.

Odumakin-Okei, who made call recently during the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) 4th Triennial National Women Delegates Conference, in Jos, noted that women participation and representation over time, especially in the recently concluded general elections, were poor; a situation that should be taken seriously.

“Women should brace up and participate actively in politics; they should also make sure that they participate actively in various associations/unions to prepare them fully for active politics.

“Women constitute over half of the nation’s population, imagine if we participate in active politics; it will go a long way in building our nation.

“But unfortunately some of the barriers are created by men, fixing meetings at night and not always creating a level playing ground; we want men to carry the women along to have a good and healthy nation,” she said.

Taking opportunities

Also, speaking at the NUEE conference, the national secretary of the union, Joe Ajaero, urged women to avail themselves the opportunity to participate actively in politics even at the union level.

Ajaero said power is not given but taken, as no one would beg women to run for leadership positions even at union levels, because of the competitive nature of politics and people’s quest to occupy positions.

He, however, urged women to be determined and to use their numerical strength to assert credible women in key political offices for the development of the nation.

Prospects

The prospects for gender parity in Nigeria remains more of an illusion though many countries across the world, including Africa, are making conscious efforts to bridge the gap between the men and the women in the political space.

“Reports have shown that countries that go far have a sizeable number of women in their parliament. Rwanda has the fastest growing economy because their women are involved, there are certain sociological ideas women bring to the table that men don’t have.

“I have 12 years experience in politics, I am a grassroots politician, and would encourage women to get ready for battle. I don’t want us to go into the field as the fragile ones because we must get our voices to be heard,” Ijeoma said.



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