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‘Stateless in Nigeria’: A woman’s dilemma

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From the beginning of time, women have played varying roles, albeit behind the scenes in most instances, in shaping matters of foreign relations. Maids, domestic workers, female diplomats, women married to diplomats, mistresses and even the women who worked on plantations have played a vital role in shaping international relations. For Instance, female secretaries played a vital role in events such as the Iran-Contra affair, which exposed the covert American intervention in Nicaragua in the 1985–1987 and the covert Israel-Palestine negotiations in Oslo.

Unfortunately, women as actors engaging in international politics have either been under-reported or downplayed. We need only to look to the glamorization of Carmen Miranda to bolster Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts for friendly relations between the US and Latin America. Her image was used to foster an intimate relationship between American housewives and a multinational banana plantation company thereby influencing their purchases.

It comes as no surprise that women have historically been underrepresented in the field of foreign policy and international relations for various reasons such as; sexism, gender blindness and the general idea that women are the weaker sex and not ‘fit for roles in security, crisis and international relations’.

The general assumption that international relations barely affect women, as such they should not be involved in the process or implementation of policies is being challenged in these modern times. Canada, for example, has launched a feminist international assistance policy to contribute to global efforts to eradicate poverty by addressing inequality. Specifically, the policy acknowledges the need to make sure that women and girls are empowered to reach their full potential. The policy defines an approach based on human rights, one that takes into account all forms of discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, place of birth, colour, religion, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ability or migrant or refugee status.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe, women leaders have taken charge and excelled in areas that their male counterparts have not.

Countries led by women have been able to fight the pandemic more effectively and from Iceland to Taiwan and from Germany to New Zealand, we have seen alternative ways of governance and the wielding of power that has proved essential in flattening the curve and containing the disease. Academic studies have shown that women tend to lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose (rather than through carrots and sticks), than men. These women spent time appealing to their citizens to take collective responsibility in tackling the virus and adhering to lockdown measures.

These countries have created an enabling environment for women to thrive in positions of authority by creating policies on not just competence but also on gender equality and leadership.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about Nigeria. In 2016, 93 names were sent to the Nigerian Senate by President Buhari for confirmation as ambassadors of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Of those 93 names, 17 were women (18 per cent). On May 12, 2020, President Buhari announced the nomination of 42 career ambassadors and three weeks later 41 non-career ambassadors were also nominated. The President also appointed one person as a career ambassador-designate. In total, 84 names were sent to the Nigerian Senate for confirmation. Of the 84 names, 10 are women (12 per cent), and of these 10, 4 received challenges to their nomination.

Shortly after the announcement on ambassadorial nominations, a local youth group opposed the nomination of the female candidate, Mrs Nimi Akinkugbe, from Ondo State on the grounds that she is not originally from, (not born) Ondo State. The group, as represented by Emmanuel Ademariol, has remarked that her application must not hold as “Ondo had prominent sons and daughters that could take up the appointment”. He also remarked that, “The person that was nominated is not from Ondo State. We are doing more research to know those behind the recommendation of that appointment and we will send a letter to the Presidency and the governor.”

Nimi Akinkugbe was born in Rivers State and is the daughter of Feniobu Iruloye Ajumogobia, former Chief Of Mission to UNESCO, who unfortunately died in a plane crash in 1996. She married her husband, Yinka Akinkugbe, who is from Ondo State.

In May 2020, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Federal Character Commission Act 2010. Prior to this amendment, and according to the culture of many tribes in Nigeria, Married women were seen as indigenes of their husband’s state. The amendment of the act goes thus:

“A married woman shall have the option to lay claim to her State or Local Government of origin for the purpose of implementation of the Federal Character formulae at the National level or State as the case may be.”

It is unsurprising that in Nigeria, until the year 2020, women were forcefully displaced from their birth states by both culture and law. Culturally, a married woman fully adopts the identity of her husband. She takes his name, adopts his traditions and way of life and is seen as an extension of all that he is — including his state of origin. However, even culture is trumped by political maneuvering. On 3rd March 2020, the Cross Rivers State House of Assembly refused to honor the National Judicial Council’s nomination of Justice Akon Ikpeme as the state’s Chief Judge. The lawmakers stated that, despite her marriage to an indigene of the state, she was actually from the neighbouring state of Akwa Ibom and thus she constituted a security risk to the state. Ironically, Mrs Ikpeme was born in Calabar, Cross River, when Akwa Ibom was a part of Cross River. Akwa Ibom was created out of Cross River on September 23, 1987, by the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. It is also important to point out that Mrs Ikpeme’s mother is also from Cross Rivers State. The NJC renominated Mrs Ikpeme, emphasising her status as the most senior judge in the state and the rightful next Chief Judge. Despite this, The House rejected the nomination stating it would not reverse itself.

In a country where tribal bigotry trumps both tradition and rule of law, women are left to the whims and caprices of the men in power. The nominations of 4 out of the 10 women nominated for an ambassadorial position are being challenged on discriminatory grounds unlike men who cannot be challenged on the grounds of state of origin by marriage. On the 12th of May 2020, Adam Umar Bako kicked against the appointment of Mrs Regina Ocheni as the Ambassadorial nominee for Kogi state. In a letter addressed to the Senate President, Mr Bako questions Regina’s appointment on the basis that she is from Cross Rivers and is only married to an indigene of Kogi, Dr Stephen Ocheni, former Minister of State for Labour and Employment.

It is unfortunate that these situations still arise, gender discrimination as perpetuated by the machinery of state of origin. Traditionally, a majority of Nigerian ambassadors have been men with women being underrepresented in foreign affairs and international relations.

Discrimination based on gender is a human rights violation. Any grounds for disqualification must focus on experience and character,or the lack thereof, and not state of origin or who she is married to. Despite being under represented, Nigerian women on the foreign stage are well known defenders of the Nigerian interest.

Both at home and abroad, Nigerian women are known to be forceful defenders of the interests of Nigerians. Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was Nigeria’s first female finance minister and also the first female foreign affairs minister. In 2004 she won the Time magazine’s European Hero of the Year Award, for her work on economic reform in Nigeria as finance Minister. In 2005, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala graced the international stage to negotiate a debt deal for Nigeria. At the time Nigeria’s average debt service due to the Paris club annually was $2.4billion. Obasanjo’s administration had prioritised its spendings on vital services and could only pay $1.2 billion on average. Arrears kept rising and Nigeria incurred penalties as it was falling behind on its debt payment.

Led and developed by Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, who at the time was Nigeria’s minister of finance, the ‘inside track’ strategy, placed world leaders on the path of substantial debt cancellation. Through a sustained campaign Mrs Okonjo-Iweala persuaded Nigeria’s creditors to write off Nigeria’s debt in full. She led the team that negotiated the cancellation of 60% ($18 billion) of Nigeria’s external debt with the Paris Club. The debt deal also included an innovative buy-back mechanism that wiped out Nigeria’s remaining Paris Club debt and reduced the country’s external indebtedness from $35 billion to $5 billion.

The outcomes were: modification of Nigeria’s reputation in the international space, clearance of Nigeria’s debt owed to foreign creditors which saved Nigeria over $18 billion.

Another key figure for Nigeria on the foreign scene is Mrs Oby Ezekwesili. As the Minister of Solid Minerals under Obasanjo’s government, she led an energetic reform program that led to global recognition of Nigeria as a credible mining investment destination. In 1993, Mrs Ezekwesili co-founded Transparency international, a German non-governmental organization based in Berlin. The organisation’s mandate is to stop corruption and promote transparency, accountability and integrity at all levels and across all sectors of society. Since inception the organisation has expanded to 112 chapters in over 100 countries.

In dealing with issues of representation, the structures that prevent women from taking the path to becoming career ambassadors have to be dismantled, just as new legislation signals a shift to non-discrimination for non-career female ambassadors. From issues of sexual harassment in the work place to the co-opting of their work by male colleagues and general forms of gender based discrimination, there are a myriad of institutional and cultural reasons which prevent Nigerian women from adequate representation in foreign policy there is hard evidence that Nigerian women specifically are beneficial to the image and soft power of the nation. With the emergence of legislation from the House of Representatives, which gives married women the choice to determine their indigenisation, we expect to see more women challenge decisions that discriminate against them based on marital status.


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