By Zainab Sanni
When Oluremi Comfort Sonaiya, a Professor of French Language decided to contest in the 2015 presidential election, she had no inkling of the role her gender would play in shaping the direction of her campaign. Preoccupied with concerns about the urgent need for a breath of fresh air in Nigeria politics, Sonaiya would soon realise that her participation transcended mere interest of a citizen with a sense of civic duties to a woman lighting the torch for other women who desire to run for political office.
The participation of Women in Nigeria’s political space has been subject to pushes and pulls from artificial limiting factors bordering heavily on cultural expectations deemed befitting of women.
The World Economic Forum 2017 Global Gender Gap report ranked Nigeria 122nd out of 144 countries listed. At this time, Nigeria still hasn’t passed the 2011 Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill and the 35 percent affirmative action recommended by the 2006 Gender Policy Review remains farfetched with only 3% of women in the legislative assemblies.
Ayisha Osori, the author of “Love Does Not Win Elections”, is quoted to have said “There are some states in Nigeria like Jigawa, Kebbi and Sokoto that, since 1999, haven’t elected a woman for any position. Federal, state, local — no woman has been elected. Only five female ministers and deputy governors in the country. We have no female governor, female president or [vice president]”.
During the 8th assembly, there were only 7 women in the Nigerian senate and 22 in the House of Representatives but the numbers were even more discouraging as 2019 elections ended and the 9th assembly was formed with the Senate maintaining 7 women and only 11 in the House of Representatives
Hon. Muhammed Kazaure Kudaji, a member of the Nigerian House of Representative had in 2018 publicly said women should be denied political opportunities and left domesticated.
Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly, he had rated women as outstanding, further saying that they had top multi-tasking and management skills. He even admitted that 70 per cent of the votes that brought him into power came from women but his excuse for not wanting them in politics was that they would become too powerful.
X-raying The Experiences Of Women Who Ran.
Intimidation and violence are regular features of the Nigerian political space but for women there is the added disadvantage of gender.
Bolanle Sarumi Aliyu who contested the Oyo State gubernatorial seat as a candidate of the National Interest Party, affirmed this while sharing her experience. She admittted that even her husband had been initially reluctant to support her. She noted that besides having to deal with the challenges of campaign funding and corrupt officials, being a woman was also an issue. The energetic politician who eventually lost had to at some point had to switch parties after spending half a million on nomination form. She identified fear, finance and party structures as the challenges that hinder women from running for Public Office.
Aisha Oshori , former CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, who in 2014 contested the primaries for a seat in the National Assembly on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party but lost once noted during a TV interview that culture puts women at a disadvantage to contest for political office.
‘’In our culture, men don’t think creating a home and building a home is their responsibility. That is where sisters and mothers come in; many times you hear that women are struggling with politics because of the demands on time. You deal with guilt because you want to make sure your children are secure and that is why for me we need a support system for female politicians. If you are married with children, your sisters, mother and friends are your best bets. They are the ones who support you. ‘’
‘’If politics is to serve and work for Nigeria, you would not care whether women are there or not. It is because in Nigeria, government office is to steal and that is why there is thing of ‘Does she have a man or not’. This is because of the patriarchal belief that men look after women so there is the belief that a woman coming in has to look after herself but it could be that a woman wants to serve. ‘’ she said.
For Natasha Akpoti who contested in the 2019 gubernatorial elections, Kogi State, her experience was laced with harassment on all fronts including threat to life. At some point, Akpoti was publicly beaten up by thugs, alleged to have been hired by the then incumbent governor, Yahaya Bello.
Are Our Women Lawmakers Doing Enough?
In a chat with AN24.net, Remi Sonaiya said there is a need for more capable and competent women in the legislative chambers. ‘’I hope that Nigeria will realise we need women in politics and everything will be done to ensure that women participate actively in politics. Things are bound to change for the better when more qualified and capable women are in politics.’’ She said
‘’We have not really begun to see capable, well tested women in the senate. I know for instance that when Esu Nkoyo Toyo was in the house, we saw her everywhere. She was vocal and engaging on issues. We need more women like that, not women who got there because of connection.’’
Emphasisng the need for competence over god-fatherism for women seeking political office, Sonaiya said ‘’I am hoping we get to a point and very quickly too where merit and competence will be the bases for anybody attaining a position in public sphere which would mean a positive and dramatic turnaround for Nigeria. People with contacts and connections should not be the ones leading us. ‘’
Nkechi Ilochi-Omekedo, Action Aid Nigeria (AAN) Women’s Rights Programme Manager slightly disagrees. ‘’The women in legislature are very few; they are insignificant to make any changes when it comes to the issues of women. I cannot blame the women because they have done what they can given the circumstances they find themselves. Let us not forget that making laws is about numbers and when it comes to the Nigerian legislature, the men will always outvote the women. Men usually see these issues as things that challenge the status-quo of a man because they do not understand them so they won’t support,” she said while speaking to AN24.net
AAN, has as a major thrust of its work, the mandate to advance women’s right and for them, having policies like 35 percent affirmative action would go a long way ‘’the policy is very clear but we lack the political will to implement. Of course, if these policies are laws, it would have helped. We are in a patriarchal society where issues relating to women’s right seldom make the front pages of newspapers or even taken serious in policies and implementation.’’
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
AAN calls for dedicated financing and admits that civil societies (CSOs) can go a step further to collate efforts for better results.
‘’Gender equality in politics is possible because over the years, we have done a lot of work. There have been significant improvements in the number of women coming out to vie for political office irrespective of unfavorable results. This tells us that it is possible. If we stop emphasizing money politics, a phenomenon that is common all over the world, we will see more women come out then there should be dedicated financing for women’s participation in politics. ‘’ said
Commenting on the need for more women in politics, Sonaiya said.
‘’Actually, I was comfortable being the woman during the 2015 presidential race. I would have loved to see more women. Take academics for instance, when I joined, it used to be mostly a male dominated environment but now, thankfully we have more women in the university as professor, lecturer and so on. I am hopeful that will happen soon to politics so that we will stop talking about ‘being the only woman in a male dominated space’ with politics and things like that.’’
She seconds the call for legislating women friend policies. ‘’I am pro-legislation. I believe that a number of positions should be reserved for women. There is affirmative action but it is not backed up by law. A lot of countries have done this. This would greatly improve the chances of competent women getting in politics.’’ added Sonaiya.
AAN further tasks CSOs with supporting more women in politics while criticizing the role unpaid care work plays in preventing women from running for public office. ‘’Again, CSOs can begin to work on creating strategies that would help women build grassroots popularity. We also need to collate our efforts together rather than working from different angles. CSOs need to come together to support more women in politics rather than what we see currently.
‘‘AAN in 2012 did action research on unpaid care work and that research clearly showed that women spend a lot of their time on unpaid care work. We tried to set up a strategy that we call recognition and redistribution of women’s unpaid care work. If a woman is saddled with providing services for the house and care for the family, she wouldn’t even have time to work not to talk of participating in politics. ‘’
‘’Of course, unpaid care work is a burden and also affects women, not just in politics but other areas of life. We have seen instances where unpaid care work affects even young girls going to school where they can’t go to school on a particular day because of house chores. ‘’
‘’Nigeria needs to begin to plan as a country for women and girls so that they can enjoy the rights that men also enjoy. It is not impossible, we have the resources and just need the political will.’’