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Why Nigerian women can’t engage in politics

By Levi Obijiofor
06 May 2010   |   10:00 pm
I HAVE often wondered why few Nigerian women have demonstrated keen interest in political leadership. Why, for example, is the Nigerian political and public space dominated by men? It is a troubling question but it is not one that lends itself to easy answers. On the surface, we celebrate the entrenchment of democracy and official…
I HAVE often wondered why few Nigerian women have demonstrated keen interest in political leadership. Why, for example, is the Nigerian political and public space dominated by men? It is a troubling question but it is not one that lends itself to easy answers. On the surface, we celebrate the entrenchment of democracy and official recognition of civic and human rights in our society. But can these democratic achievements provide the potent energy or serve as platforms through which Nigerian women could regain consciousness from their political snooze?
Some people would argue that, regardless of gender, nobody has been excluded from participating in the political arena. Others would contend that Nigeria’s political space is large enough to accommodate everybody. Like a marketplace of ideas, everyone is free to trade their ware in the public domain. These arguments can be rebutted on various grounds. As Fred Siebert argued in his analysis of the libertarian theory of the press, it is not enough to tell people that they are free to achieve their objectives in life. If the opportunities don’t exist or if the opportunities are weighted heavily against them, they will never accomplish their dream goals.

Those who advocate the view that the Nigerian political landscape offers equal opportunities to everyone seem to place the problem specifically at the doorstep of women. It is essentially women’s problem, the argument goes. So, women must solve their problem. Women must stop complaining about their marginalisation in politics. Women must stop yelling at everyone indiscriminately. Lines of reasoning such as these represent an oversimplification of a complex problem.

What if the political space exists but there remain serious underlying factors that impede the active participation of Nigerian women in politics? Can anyone justifiably claim that our brand of democracy has enhanced the opportunities available to women to engage in politics? Let’s be clear about this: Flaws in our democratic system, in conjunction with many socio-cultural and economic variables, have narrowed further the existing alleyway through which many Nigerian women could be sensitised to participate in politics.

At the heart of the debate over the apathetic involvement of Nigerian women in politics is not freedom of expression but equal opportunities. Can anyone argue convincingly that our social, political, economic, educational, and cultural environments have offered women a level playing field in order for them to participate in politics?

There are fundamental problems that hinder Nigerian women from active participation in politics. One of them is lack of a strong financial base. Many women cannot boast the kind of financial resources that seem to propel former military dictators to return to political office. Other problems include crippling family obligations, cultural expectations that subjugate women in society, religious injunctions that stipulate what women can or cannot do, educational limitations such as high levels of illiteracy among girls in certain parts of the country, lack of early exposure to politics, as well as other environmental factors. I will dwell on these issues shortly but, first, I must offer some preliminary clarifications.

A few women have made significant contributions to political life in Nigeria. This point must be recognised. However, a few does not constitute a majority. There is a glass ceiling that prevents Nigerian women from engaging in party politics at state or national level. Consider this. Each time some women try to participate in party politics, they are shot down by men even before they have finalised their campaign slogans. In many instances, women in party politics were insulted with loud expletives such as “Sit down, you are a bloody woman!” or, more painfully, “Woman, go back to the kitchen!” The latter abuse reduces a woman’s educational attainment and upbringing to the domestic tasks she performs at home. Expressions such as these are not only offensive but they also underline our society’s poor appreciation of the useful contributions of women.

While a few women have served and are still serving as legislators at state and federal levels, or as federal ministers, presidential advisers and special assistants, none has so far emerged — through fair or rigged elections — as president of the Federal Republic. To win an election, a woman must engage in party politics. However, when women show no interest in politics, they leave the leadership door perpetually open to men. In the states, the situation is less sanguine.

Is there something in the genes of Nigerian women which adversely preclude them from aspiring to the highest office in Nigeria? Or, could it be that Nigerian voters have no faith in the ability of Nigerian women to produce a president? The failure of Nigerian women to express interest in the highest political office in the country says a lot of things about Nigerian women and men, as well as the degree of our political maturity. The problem tells us that we live in an intolerant, heavily gendered society in which many people believe that men were pre-ordained by heavenly forces to rule over women.

Our cultural conventions and religious beliefs have contributed immensely to the suppression of women. In various parts of Nigeria and in many African countries, bewildering cultural practices and religious rules have conspired to characterise women as secondary citizens, as child rearers, and as primary carers. Many of us still believe that a woman’s place is in the home. Women must be seen but they must not talk because their perspectives are irrelevant. With this kind of judgment, is it any wonder that the voices of Nigerian women have effectively been silenced?

This is a good time for a radical shift in our mindset. Since independence, Nigeria has been governed by a combination of military dictators and bumbling politicians – all of them men. Historically, men have been the chief drivers of Nigeria’s under-development. This shows that men do not necessarily make better political leaders than women. Perhaps it is time we tried something different. In other cultures, evidence exists to demonstrate that women can make a difference when men fail to lead their countries in the right direction.

In Liberia, after many years of brutal civil war in which no fewer than four factions were involved, civil society groups decided it was time they retrieved their country’s future from clueless warlords. General elections were conducted in 2005 and, behold, a woman — Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – emerged as president. Five years after that ground-breaking event, Liberia stands gracefully as the first African country to elect a woman as president. Against the prevailing myth that African women lack leadership qualities, President Johnson-Sirleaf has proved everyone wrong. She has held Liberia together. Liberia has not imploded as many people feared since President Johnson-Sirleaf began her tenure on January 16, 2006.

Apart from the Liberian example, there are several countries in which women once held or are still holding top leadership positions. These include Britain (Margaret Thatcher), India (Indira Gandhi), Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Israel (Golda Meir), Sri Lanka (Sirimavo Bandaranaike), Germany (Angela Merkel), Norway (Gro Harlem Brundtland), Ireland (Mary MacAleese), Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina Wajed), the Philippines (Gloria Arroyo) and Argentina (Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner). These are by no means all the female leaders the world has produced. More than anything else, these examples show that the rest of the world has since recognised the leadership qualities of women.

Even as we mourn Nigerian women’s lack of interest in politics, even as we celebrate the growing number of female political leaders across the world, we must also acknowledge a few cases where Nigerian women were entrusted with leadership responsibilities and they blew the chance. Remember Patricia Olubunmi Etteh, the disgraced former Speaker of the House of Representatives who was compelled by public pressure to quit her exalted position in November 2007 after holding the nation hostage for three months during which she demonstrated her incompetence as the House Speaker.

Just in case everyone has forgotten, Etteh was the Speaker who sullied her image and the position of trust which she occupied when members of a House committee set up by her peers found evidence that she channelled huge amounts of tax payers’ money into the renovation of her official residence and that of her deputy, including the dodgy manner in which the renovation contracts were awarded. However, for every Patricia Etteh, there are a million male politicians who have failed us.

As general elections approach next year, all eyes will be on Nigerian women to see whether they could make a difference, whether they have emerged from their political slumber to match the achievements of their counterparts in other parts of the world. In 2011, Nigerian women must be serious about their intentions. They must be prepared to engage men in gruelling political contests if the prevailing environment allows them to do so.