Nigeria Elections Reflect Slow Progress for Women
FRIDAY FILE: The low numbers of women elected into public office in Nigeria’s recent elections reflect the slow pace of change and even regression in the country’s legislative, political and social systems. AWID interviewed two Nigerian women’s rights commentators about women’s participation and performance in the 2011 elections.
By Kathambi Kinoti
Nigeria is the largest economy in West Africa and the third largest in Africa, and with a population of over 150 million, it is the most populous country on the continent. From April 9-26, 2011, Nigeria held parliamentary, presidential and governorship elections. Unfortunately the Independent National Election Commission, the body that oversees the country’s public office elections, did not issue any data about the number of women registered to vote. However, Toyin Ajao, a feminist blogger and Peace and Security Fellow of King’s College, London estimates that half or slightly over half of the 73.5 million registered voters were women.
During the last parliamentary term, only 7.3% of the representatives in Nigeria’s upper and lower houses were women. In this year’s election, 200 out of 2400 (8.33%) candidates for the House of Representatives and 80 out of 720 (11.11%) candidates for the Senate were women. Abiola Akiyode of the Lagos-based Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC) says that overall, 909 out of 10037 (9.06%) candidates for all elective positions were women. These positions include the Presidency, governorships and parliamentary seats. There has been an overall regression in women’s representation in political decision-making positions. Seven out of 109 (6.42%) senators elected in 2011 are women compared to 9 (10%) in 2007, while only 12 out of 360 (3.33%) members of the House of Representatives are women, down from 26 in 2007. Out of Nigeria’s 36 states only one – Lagos State- voted in a woman deputy governor, and no woman was elected governor.
In the run-up to the elections, women’s rights organizations made it a priority to advocate for the election and appointment of women to parliament. “Many of these organizations carried out intensive sensitization on gender equality and the need to vote for women,” says Ajao. She worked with Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), which launched a free2run campaign to promote women’s political leadership, and the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre, which encourages women to use technology to build networks and promote women’s leadership. WARDC has worked since the previous elections in 2007 building the capacity of parliamentarians to engender policy frameworks and support better performance of women parliamentarians. It also carries out advocacy work to encourage more women to contest in elections.
There are many barriers to women’s political participation in Nigeria. According to Ajao, religious misconceptions and rigid mindsets about women’s roles, their lack of resources to run campaigns, and political violence work against women’s full participation in electoral processes. The government’s failure to domesticate and implement international conventions that promote women’s equal participation in policy and governance processes is another barrier.
Nigeria has ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (popularly known as the Maputo Protocol), and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In doing so it has committed itself to among other things, promoting affirmative action and taking other measures to ensure that women participate equally in electoral processes. There is a National Gender Policy that commits to ensuring affirmative action for women, however, women’s representation remains below the 35% target. Akiyode says that the manifestos and constitutions of political parties in Nigeria rarely mention affirmative action for women, and when they do, their commitments are lower than the benchmarks set by regional and international conventions.
“The Government is not doing enough to realize affirmative action,” says Ajao. Only one woman, Sarah Jubril, declared her candidacy for President, but she failed to get her party’s nomination. Ajao sees this as an indication that not enough is being done to promote women’s equal participation and adds that many women who vied for elective positions were dogged by unfounded political scandals. The efforts of Ebiti Ndok, a woman who registered a political party and ran for presidency, were cut short when she was arrested for issuing dud cheques, an allegation that in Ajao’s opinion is difficult to believe.
She says that many women are side-lined by their parties or ‘traded’ in favour of men candidates. “The political terrain with its violence and ‘godfatherism’ is not favourable to women,” says Ajao. Sceptical that this situation is going to change any time soon, she adds that she hopes to see an increase in appointive posts for women.
Generally the voting public do not have the opportunity to get to know about women candidates who contest for public office. “The Nigerian electorate is now beginning to vote for credible leaders and not those who are likely to engage in corruption and embezzle public funds when they get to power,” says Ajao, but she adds that “The public only gets to know about candidates that have enough money for their campaigns to reach a wider audience.” Many women do not have the money for these kinds of campaigns and according to Ajao, women who have fathers or husbands who were political leaders in the past tend to get more media coverage and are thus advantaged over other women. Even prominent women candidates are not well received by the public. “If Professor Dora Akunyili (the Minister of Information and Communications), who is well respected for her devotion and work, did not get her senatorial seat,” says Ajao, “It shows we still need to do much more work!”
While women are largely invisible as political candidates, according to Ajao they are often active in campaigns for men, organizing events, cooking and mobilizing. She says that women need to be sensitized to back women candidates more.
The free2run website was started because of the lack of adequate coverage and representation of women and women’s issues in the media. Both Ajao and Akiyode agree that the fact that most media houses in Nigeria are privately owned works against women, because candidates who are wealthy get more coverage. Stories about women tend to be sensationalized and a double standard is applied.
Despite the increased use of social media in the elections, television and radio remain the most widespread medium in this vast, populous country. Most women candidates find it prohibitive to mount television and radio campaigns.
Women’s rights issues not high on the agenda
Women’s rights issues hardly featured on the campaign platforms of most women candidates. One exception however, was Yemisi Ransome-Kuti whom Ajao interviewed in the run-up to the elections. According to Ajao, Ransome-Kuti has been an ardent and long-time champion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and has implemented many women’s rights programmes. But despite this strong track record, she did not retain her seat. “She lost her post to the wife of the ex- governor of Lagos State, Ms. Remi Tinubu and I have not heard her talk about her plans for the promotion of women’s rights,” says Ajao. She stresses the need for women’s rights organizations to work with women political leaders and encourage them to promote women’s rights. She adds that they tend to shy away from the issues, and sometimes even work to the detriment of women’s rights. For example, in 2008 it was a woman member of lower assembly that introduced the infamous “Indecent Dressing” Bill to restrict the kind of clothing that could be worn in public. The Bill, if passed, would have violated human and women’s rights.
Although most women candidates did not make any election promises concerning women’s rights, some political parties addressed the issue of representation of women. In some states, Akiyode’s organization, WARDC, got some parties to sign a pact committing them to increase appointive positions. The incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – which went on to win the elections- promised to honour the 35% quota, while the Action Congress of Nigeria committed to make increments.
Despite making some inroads, women’s organizations and movements continue to face great challenges in holding the government and political parties accountable. The government has done little to fulfil national, regional and international commitments to increase women’s political participation both as voters and decision-makers. The volatile political situation and deeply held prejudices against women’s leadership continue to work against them. Akiyode says that Nigeria should learn from the experiences of Rwanda and Uganda, two other African countries that have successfully increased women’s representation through either adopting a proportional representation electoral system, which is more conducive to increasing women’s representation in political decision-making, and/ or reserving seats for women in the legislature. She stresses that there is need for comprehensive constitutional reform, because women’s political exclusion does not occur in isolation; it is connected to other forms of legal and social exclusion.
There are several lessons to be learned from the 2011 elections. Both Ajao and Akiyode emphasize that women candidates, and women’s organizations and movements need to begin working now to ensure better performances in future elections. Women candidates need to declare their intentions to stand early and begin to fundraise well in advance of the elections. Women’s rights organizations need to sustain their advocacy work in post-election years.
Ajao sees the recent elections as a mirror that allows for a critical assessment of the reasons why there are so few women in power and provides an opportunity to address the situation.
 Interview with AWID, April 2011.
 Interview with AWID, April 2011.
 Political patronage by powerful men.