Fifty-seven long years after Nigeria attained political independence, no woman has occupied the highest office in the land. Likewise, no woman has occupied the seat of the Senate president, and no woman has been elected as governor of a state.
Once, a woman, Patricia Etteh, was elected as speaker of the House of Representatives, but her tenure ended abruptly following allegations of corruption. She lasted only four months in office, from June to October 2007.
And once, a woman, Virginia Etiaba, served as governor of Anambra State for a few months, but it was only by default. That, in summary, is the story of the Nigerian woman in the country’s political arena.
But the importance of women in the scheme of things, governance inclusive, can never be overemphasised, as witnessed in the many roles they take on at the immediate and extended family levels.
“Worldwide, women carry out twice as much unpaid domestic and care work – including raising children, caring for sick or elderly family members, and managing the household – as men do. This (gender chore gap) limits women’s choices, as it impedes their ability to obtain formal education, secure good jobs, and achieve equal pay,” writes Bharati Sadasivam, UNDP’s regional gender adviser for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in an article on World Economic Forum (WEF) website.
“Indeed, though women around the world actually work more than men in total (including both paid and unpaid work), they earn one quarter less, on average, hold only one quarter of executive positions in the private sector, and occupy less than one quarter of all seats in national parliaments,” she writes.
Down memory lane
Prior to independence, and even before the advent of colonial rule, Nigeria had an admirable array of women who had done great and inspiring deeds and even conquered territories. A glaring example was Queen Amina of Zazzau in today’s northern Nigeria. Known also as Amina Sarauniya Zazzau, she rose to rule Zazzau (present-day Zaria) following the death of her brother. According to reports, she had matured into a fierce warrior and had earned the respect of the Zazzau military.
There was Margaret Ekpo, a women’s rights activist and social mobiliser who was a pioneering female politician in the country’s First Republic and a leading member of a class of traditional Nigerian women activists, many of whom rallied women beyond notions of ethnic solidarity.
Another great female figure was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. A teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat, her political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria. The first woman to drive a car in the country, she was also regarded as ‘The mother of Africa’.
Mrs Ransome-Kuti was a powerful force advocating for the Nigerian woman’s right to vote. She was also described as the ‘Lioness of Lisabi’ for her leadership of Egba women on a campaign against arbitrary taxation, a struggle which led to the abdication of Oba Ademola.
What Funmilayo fought for in Egbaland was not so different from the famous Aba women’s demonstration led by women in the Calabar and Owerri provinces in today’s South-eastern Nigeria in November and December of 1929. Thousands of women organised a massive revolt against the policies imposed by British colonial administrators in the region, touching off the most serious challenge to British rule in the history of the colony. It took months for the colonial government to suppress the “women’s war”, but it had become a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest. It also prompted colonial authorities to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women and to curb the power of the warrant chiefs.
Women in Nigerian politics
Nigerian women have been poorly represented in the country’s politics over the years, although there seems to have been a slight improvement since the country’s return to civil rule in 1999. Of course, the military era was virtually an all-men affair, except for the role the rebranded Office of the First Lady came to play in those years of military dominance of Nigerian politics.
Since 1999, women have played more active role in politics, especially in appointive positions, and they have all proved their mettle. Names that readily come to mind include Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who served as finance minister under both the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency and the Goodluck Jonathan presidency. Under the Obasanjo presidency, Okonjo-Iweala was at the forefront of the negotiations that lead to debt relief granted to Nigeria by the Paris Club.
Others are Oby Ezekwesili, who served first as minister of solid minerals and later as minister of education under Obasanjo; Esther Nenadi Usman, who also served as finance minister under Obasanjo; Kema Chikwe, a topnotch member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who served as aviation minister; Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, who headed the Nigerian Stock Exchange; Omobola Johnson, who served as minister of communication technology in the Jonathan presidency; Josephine Anenih, who served as minister of women affairs; Aisha Jummai Al-Hassan, the current minister of women affairs; Florence Ita Giwa, a former senator who served as President Obasanjo’s special adviser on National Assembly matters, and numerous others.
Many women have also been elected into the Senate, House of Representatives, state Houses of Assembly, as local government chairmen and ward councillors. Women have been deputy governors, held key offices in the National and State Assemblies and have been appointed as state commissioners and heads of agencies and prastatals of government. But as yet, no woman has been elected as state governor or president.
The closest any woman has come to the seat of a state governor was in 2006. Peter Obi, then governor of Anambra State, had just been impeached by the state legislature for alleged gross misconduct, and his deputy, Virginia Etiaba, was sworn in to replace him, making her the first and only female governor in Nigeria’s history. Her stint in that position lasted only three months as she transferred powers back to Obi when an appeal court nullified the impeachment.
During the 2015 elections, Taraba State was on the verge of making history as many thought Aisha Al-Hassan (Mama Taraba), who was in the race for the state’s governorship seat, would emerge as the country’s first elected female governor. However, that was not to be as she lost to her main challenger, Darius Ishaku of the PDP.
The era of powerful first ladies
Maryam Babangida, wife of self-styled military President Ibrahim Babangida, is known to have revolutionised and injected life into the Office of the First Lady, which served as a platform for more women inclusion in Nigerian politics. Mrs Babangida personalised the office and through it launched many programmes to improve the life of women nationwide.
Maryam Babangida transformed the ceremonial post of First Lady into a champion for development of rural women. She founded the Better Life Programme for Rural Women in 1987, which launched many cooperatives, cottage industries, farms and gardens, shops and markets, women’s centres and social welfare programmes. She also initiated the establishment of National Commission for Women. Thus began the era of first ladies’ pet projects as wives of military administrators across the states toed the same line.
Mrs Babangida championed women issues vigorously and reached out to first ladies of other African countries to emphasise the effective role they can play in improving the lives of their people. She was also active in her role as president of the Nigerian Army Officers’ Wives Association (NAOWA), as she launched schools, child-day care centres, clinics and women’s training centres. The Maryam Babangida National Centre for Women’s Development was established in 1993 for research, training and to mobilise women towards self-emancipation.
Maryam Abacha, who succeeded Mrs Babangida, launched the Family Support Programme (FSP), which also had impact nationwide. And Fati Abubakar, whose tenure as first lady lasted a little less than a year, set up Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), a charitable organisation for advocacy and mobilisation for the promotion, protection and realisation of women’s human rights, the elimination of all forms of repugnant practices, as well as violence against women and the enhancement of their living standards.
With Nigeria’s return to civil rule in 1999, the first-ladyship was carried over and Stella Obasanjo, wife of Olusegun Obasanjo, established Child Care Trust for the care of underprivileged and/or disabled children. As First Lady, she joined the campaign against female genital mutilation and in 2003 declared February 6 as International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation.
Unfortunately, she died before the end of her husband’s second term in office.
While Mrs Obasanjo championed her own project, Amina Titi Atiku-Abubakar, wife of then Vice President Atiku Abubakar, in 1999 founded the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), which has since then remained at the forefront of the fight against trafficking in persons in Nigeria and inspiring change in other African countries. The organisation is known to have single-handedly led the campaign that brought about the signing of a Private Bill into Law that created the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) and also mobilised organisations nationwide to establish Network of Civil Society Organisations Against Child Trafficking, Abuse and Labour (NACTAL).
Turai Yar’Adua, wife of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, started a pet project, Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation, which went ahead to build the International Cancer Centre Abuja (ICCA).
Then came Patience Jonathan, wife of President Jonathan. Though Nigeria’s National Gender Policy issued in 2006 targets affirmative action of 35 percent of elected and appointive positions for women, it was Mrs Jonathan who gave bite to the demand for 35 percent affirmative action for Nigerian women through her Women for Change Initiative, which later became Women for Change and Development Initiative.
Launched in Abuja in Abuja in 2010 and, subsequently, in all the state capitals, W4CI was created essentially to enable Nigerian women have a formidable force in the political, economic and social spheres of life.
Through the project, Mrs Jonathan continuously pushed for the total restoration of the dignity of womanhood in the country, apart from careful support of women in leadership positions. She never relented in pushing for the attainment of greater and effective women participation in politics in line with the Beijing Conference declaration which advocates 35 percent affirmative action for women. The affirmative action seeks at least 35 percent representation of women in appointments to political and public offices. While urging more Nigerian women to vie for elective positions, she constantly charged other women to support and encourage those who would take up the challenge, even as she asked governors’ wives to advise their husbands positively, especially in the appointment of women into elective positions.
Today, the Jonathan administration is on record to hold the flag in terms of number of women appointed to key positions in government. At a point in his presidency, there were about 13 women in the Federal Executive Council. It was under his presidency that Aloma Mariam Mukhtar became the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria (July 2012 to November 2014).
Aisha Buhari, wife of incumbent President Buhari, is also pursuing a pet project, Future Assured, even though rather silently.
Not yet uhuru
In December 2014, the 100 Women Group, a club of some of Nigeria’s foremost female activists, issued a statement on women political participation. The group considered the experiences of women who sought elective positions at the primaries of all the political parties ahead of the 2015 general elections and drew some conclusions.
Decrying the rate at which women were being excluded from political participation, the group observed that most of the women were cajoled out of their aspirations, alleging that this amounted to emotional violence against women during the party primaries. The instruments deployed to achieve this emotional violence, they said, included high financial intimidation with money being spent to influence the various delegates.
“The women in Nigeria have the right to vote and be voted for; it is also the responsibility of the government of Nigeria to ensure that these rights are not eroded even in a competitive arena,” the group insisted.
The lobby group proceeded to articulate the demands of Nigerian women. First, they asked that all the political parties make open positions of deputy governorship candidates to women where men are governorship candidates, and vice versa. Secondly, they appealed to the Nigerian electorate to support the Nigerian women in the 2015 general elections, irrespective of the party. Thirdly, the group reminded all political parties of the promises made during the lobby visits to them, including the visits to Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC), to support women’s political participation in governance. Lastly, the 100 Women Group asked for the reduction of gender-based violence in elections.
Despite the eloquence of the 100 Women Lobby Group, it was evident several weeks before the National Assembly elections held on March 28, 2015, that the number of women who would be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives was likely to fall relative to the situation in the 7th National Assembly. Indeed, this newspaper reported that the 8th National Assembly would showcase rising male dominance.
A statement by the Nigerian Women Trust Fund later confirmed that only 5.11 percent of federal legislators in the 8th National Assembly would be females, down from 9 percent in 2007 and 7 percent in 2011 – well below both global and regional averages which stood at 22.1 percent and 22.4 percent, respectively, at the time.
Today, 57 years after independence, there is no doubt that some progress has been made. The era when women were seen as only good as dancers/entertainers, welfare officers or women group coordinators during political rallies in Nigeria may well be over, but the destination is still afar off.
Across the world, nations are increasingly coming to terms with the need to encourage nearly half of humanity represented by the womenfolk to participate actively in governance. In Rwanda, for instance, women are said to be visible by their presence in the state sphere, civil society sphere and the private sector at various layers of society from the national to the community/village levels. Indeed, the minimum quota for women representation in decision-making in Rwanda is put at 30 percent. Women in Rwanda constitute 64 percent of the legislature, 40 percent of the executive, 50 percent of the judiciary, 50 percent of provincial governors, and 44 percent of the district councillors, according to 2016 figures. Nigeria needs to include more women in its decision-making process.
As Khabele Matlosa, director, political affairs of the African Union Commission (AUC), has said, “Without meaningful participation of women and their effective representation in all spheres of life, Africa’s governance will forever remain deficient.” This is so for Nigeria.