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‘Nigerian women still at bottom of our democracy since independence’


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Nigeria turns 59 today, and former Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to African Union (AU) and Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), and former House of Representatives’ member for Calabar Odukpani Federal Constituency, lawyer, gender activist and social analyst, Nkoyo Toyo, spoke to ANIETE AKPAN on the journey so far and the role of women in Nigeria’s democracy. Excerpts:

Nigeria clocks 59 years today. How will you assess the journey so far?
It has been a far cry from smooth progression in nation building from independence in 1960, to a turbulent season of political adventures across different parts of the country by the founding fathers of the nation. This was soon to degenerate into a civil war that resulted in an approximated three million deaths and wounds yet to be forgotten by sections of the country. But probably the most unfortunate outcome of the war was that it planted seeds of national distrust which have defined our national experience going forward. The military, using many forms of centralist governance, managed to force unity on the country and this was disrupted by their many coups and interventions through the years of intermittent civil and military rule.


Thankfully the last year of the civil rule has not been without the influences of the military on the national direction of the country with (Olusegun) Obasanjo, a former military leader being the president, and 20 years later, we still have a former military leader as president. It has been a very mixed experience and sometimes difficult to judge in terms of nation-building, development and advancements in comparison to other countries of the world. Undoubtedly, Nigeria has grown to be the most populated country in Africa and today, with one of the largest populations of extremely poor, youth and persons affected and impacted upon by internal conflicts. Notwithstanding, many more are educated today and the country has grown in many other respects. One of its greatest assets is the size of educated Nigerians at home and abroad. 

In 20 years of democracy, how has the country fared? Has democracy worked? If not why, and what is the way forward? 
This year represents 20 years since Nigeria returned to democratic governance. Although given our history this is a remarkable achievement, the influences of past military leaders remain strong, particularly in the choice of who rules the country. All four presidents have been products of the behind-the-scenes work of the ex-military leaders. Consequently, democracy is still evolving and many hope that by the next election, many of those influences will wane. Furthermore, in reality, democracy is as good as the state of the economy. A bad economy puts additional pressure on the system and denies leaders the benefit of what they could do to advance the wellbeing of citizens. In the earlier years since 1999, Nigeria’s economy grew six-fold and this remarkable growth continued until about 2015-2016, giving birth to a lot of interest and confidence in our economy and the institutions underpinning it. It must be said that some of the quick gains of the democratic government were the need to invest in institutions as the bedrock for building effective governments.

Consequently, we saw a lot of that happen. ICPC, EFCC, INEC, Due Process, National Assembly etc. The flipside was that notwithstanding all of these, the country was still highly dependent on oil which accounted for over 80 per cent of its income. Although it became the biggest economy in Africa, it lacked the internal diversification to sustain growth in the face of the global recession. Thus democracy is good and progressive as long as the economy is viable, but weaknesses such as the huge unemployment levels resulted in a large section of the population questioning the dividends of democracy. How can democracy explain about 43 per cent unemployed or under-employed and or the over 87 million in extreme poverty? This remains a big challenge for its viability. This number is from a mere population of 200 million when India has a population of over 1.3 billion and not so many extremely poor people.


Nowhere is this question more defining than the failure of democracy to address the endemic levels of corruption. In 2018, Nigeria was ranked 144 out of 180 on the Transparency International Perception Index. When the current government was voted in 2015, it made corruption a major campaign issue, but the perception is that it has bent back over to accommodate corruption as a means of winning election and prosecution of the corrupt is selective and based on political consideration. 

One of the weakest points of the last 20 years is the over-indulgence of a few such as the allowances to members of the National Assembly and the embedded nature of corruption in the public service. This is probably why the security challenge that started in the North East of Nigeria in 2009 has persisted and grown these past 10 years and has become a national malaise. These various manifestations of violence and terror on citizens have resulted in countless deaths and destruction of properties. The resultant displacement and emergencies have put further pressure on the resources for the development of infrastructure and opportunities. 

More recently, with the happenings in the judiciary, the incarceration of some civil society activists and the clampdown on some media houses, the feeling and perception is that the democratic space has changed significantly and, if anything, it is shrinking back towards the leadership of a few using a set of divide and rule tactics. The health of a democracy is looking more and more like in the days when the military was in government. Elections have been rated poorly by both local and international observers.

Overall, the progress is mixed and the fear of regression is very real and worrying, particularly as the voices that fought the military for the widening of democratic space are on the retreat. 

What has been the position or role of women in 20 years of democracy?
Striving for women’s political representation and voice in Nigeria can be traced from the times of colonial rule to the many acts of resistance that resulted in the country’s independence in 1960. One of the greatest oppositions by women came when they stood up against the colonial administration on issues of tax. Known as the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 (or the women who went to war), it was a rebellion and uprising against the British imperial rule by women.  Hundreds of British colonial courts were burnt down and destroyed; hundreds of warrant chiefs were ostracized and banished. In the aftermath of the revolt, the British were forced to abandon the proposed plans to impose a tax on the market women.
The powers of the warrant chiefs were considerably curbed, and the more robust room was created for women’s inclusion in the grand scheme of things. In those pre-independence times, other events and responses to the subjugation of women did happen and accounts of how women stepped up in their hundreds to campaign for independence exist along with spaces where women’s voices became important and recognized.


Sadly, with the birthing of independence in 1960, the subsequent government that was formed did not provide commensurate representation for women within political and decision-making structures. It took later developments under the military, through their wives, for women to occupy high-profile visibility in decision-making. Although mostly led by the wives of the military president, women became engaged at multiple levels starting about the time of the World Conferences on Women which was declared by the United Nations (UN) and the subsequent Decade for Women 1975-1985. One defining ingredient of that decade was how it galvanized women’s involvement from all walks of life and provided some hope that the age of women had come. It was also the time that women’s development in Nigeria began to be widely associated with the term ‘empowerment’. 

The beginnings of a national consciousness towards organizing collectively can be illustrated in the workings of many women’s organizations that have been engaged in issues of health, educations, poverty, economic empowerment, microcredit, political participation, etc. Their works over the years have demonstrated how active women have become and the ways in which they have activated the women’s movement in Nigeria.

Again, sadly with democracy, this progress has not resulted operationally in better acceptance of women as partners in development. Women are still at the bottom of most indicators of progress and the impact or situation is different on a region by region basis. It is obvious that women’s position is affected by the failure to address the issue of gender equality. Gender equality is crucial for the actualization of the human rights of women and men. Gender equality enables people to enjoy the same opportunities, rights, and obligations in all spheres of life. Equality between men and women exists when both sexes are able to share equally in the distribution of power and influence; have equal opportunities for financial independence through work or through setting up businesses; enjoy equal access to education and the opportunity to develop personal ambitions, interests and talents; share responsibility for the home and children and are completely free from coercion, intimidation and gender-based violence, both at work and at home.

The absence of equality between the sexes (not sameness between the sexes, but rather not having to face discrimination on grounds of sex) has affected not only progress for women and girls but has thwarted national development on many fronts. 
So how have women coped in the light of these?

In order to understand how women have fared in national leadership and politics, some statistics will help as well as a comparison with other countries and parts of the world. It must be said that there are other areas that women have done better, but since this is linked directly to democratic choices that are made and the quality of our democracy and elections, I have chosen it as a way of explaining the reality of the Nigerian woman. Women’s representation in Nigeria is sad, to put it mildly, and in some parts of the country, a disaster waiting for urgent intervention. Let me first share some global and regional trends to show how behind Nigeria is in terms of female representation.

Only 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of February 2019, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995. As of June 2019, 11 women are serving as Heads of State and 12 are serving as Heads of Government. Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide, where women have won 61.3 per cent of seats in the lower house. Globally, there are 27 states in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses as of February 2019, including three chambers with no women at all. Wide variations remain in the average percentages of women parliamentarians in each region. As of February 2019, these were (single, lower and upper houses combined): Nordic countries, 42.5 per cent, Americas, 30.6 per cent; Europe including Nordic countries, 28.6 per cent; Europe excluding Nordic countries, 27.2 per cent, sub-Saharan Africa, 23.9 per cent; Asia, 19.8 per cent; Arab States, 19 per cent, and the Pacific, 16.3 per cent.

While the sub-Saharan African situation looks promising, the same cannot be said of Nigeria after the 2019 elections. For women’s representation, there is a total throwback and regression from the 1999 situation which has made the call for immediate action ahead of 2023 urgent and imperative.  


How did women fare in the 2019 elections?  
Nigeria’s population is estimated to be 200,923,640. Women form 49.4 per cent of this figure, with a total of 99,180,412. However, female political representation in the 2019 elections was negligible relative to the population they constitute. CDD reports that 2,970 women were on the electoral ballot, representing only 11.36 per cent of nominated candidates. So far, 62 women have been recorded as elected, a meagre 4.17 per cent of elected officials. Should this figure hold (given that there are contested cases), it would represent a decline from the 2015-19 period, where women formed 5.65 per cent of elected officials. This is a drop from the 8th Senate, where women accounted for 6.42 per cent of the total number of elected senators. The two dominant political parties fielded 17 (seven APC and 10 PDP) female senatorial candidates. Many of these women lost at the general elections, including the only female senator in northern Nigeria. Figures from the House of Representatives elections show a steep decline from the 8th House. 533 women contested, with the major parties fielding a total of 31 (15 APC and 16 PDP) candidates, representing 11.39 per cent of nominees. However, only 11 (3.05 per cent) have been elected. The figures from the 8th House have thus been halved, as it had 22 female lawmakers representing 6.11 per cent of candidates.

At the state level, no woman was elected governor. They formed 3.07 per cent of the total contestants. Of the 275 women forming 11.40 per cent of candidates for the deputy governorship, four in Enugu, Kaduna, Ogun, and Rivers have been elected. Thus, the number of female deputy governors has similarly declined from six in the 2015-19 regime to four.
Down from 55 female state lawmakers in the current regime, 40 women have been elected into the state assembly pending polling in some states. Tables and figure below capture some of these details. From the 62 women in elected positions, PDP has the highest number with 32 (51.61%), then APC with 23 (37.10%) and APGA with two (3.23%). ADP, APM, and AA all have one elected member representing 1.61% each. The representation of women at the state legislation dropped from 3.70 per cent to 2.49 per cent.

These figures speak for themselves and tell the story of the current health of our democracy for women. A lot is buried in these statistics from Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

So, what is the way out?
Many people have argued that once there are legal reforms that allow for quotas, we are likely to see significant changes. However, legal and political institutions have been used and abused to perpetuate group divisions and this is very common in politics. Already, we are aware that social norms in many communities reduce the choices and opportunities for women and girls, as they are held back by basic things like domestic work (which is unpaid for), from making the transition. The presence of women as ‘mobilized loyal women’ engaged in politics but in the service of others may serve as a discouragement to many more educated elite women, who do not want to identify with something that does not give them direct access into competitive politics.  So, for the ordinary women that form the vast population of voters, they need more than legal structures to key into actions that overturn political, cultural and social restrictions and present women as viable political alternatives. Coincidentally, this is probably what explains the multiple themes analyzed in the Report of the National Conference on Women’s Political Participation, particularly that relating to overcoming violence against women in elections. Violence in elections in Nigeria is a well-tested and effective tool for political exclusion, and although it is punishable under the law, little has been done to control its unchecked effect on politics in Nigeria.

So, whether rural or urban women, there are always motivations for women’s exclusion from politics and this includes the modes of consolidating political power, actions political parties must take in order to safeguard the interest of women which is likely to coincide with the interest of elites’ members (godfathers) of the political parties. These elite interests are further exercised through the control, application of discretion in the utilization and distribution of resources within political parties, including even the review of the rules that affect elections and their management. (See the Situation Room Report on the 2019 elections and controversies around the signing of the Electoral Act 2018 as amended) by Mr. President).

In other respects, elite interests (both female and male) are often connived to seize vital electoral materials belonging to political parties and use the same to undermine the elections even when the law has prescribed different standards. Confronting these embedded ideologies, practices or values based on the supremacy of identities or interest in politics requires the buy-in and commitment of elites to change, something we refer to loosely as “political will”. 

Some identifiable factors relating to the practice of politics in Nigeria which have constrained women’s political representation and accounted for the facts and figures we have above are method of candidate nomination, which most times involve an expensive procedure requiring candidates to conduct their own campaigns, excessive use of money in politics to procure support of party leaders and officials, and to encourage voters to support candidates. Since male aspirants are generally more affluent than female aspirants, many women are eliminated because they simply cannot match their male opponents.

Influence of party elders, who sometimes simply select, endorse and present a candidate supposedly to ease tension among contestants, deliberate obstruction, arising from arbitrary behaviour by party officials who may nominate candidates without an election, change the election rules or voting system without proper notice to candidates, change the venues for primary elections, hold unscheduled meetings in unannounced venues, rig elections and cause violence and use ‘zoning’ and other criteria selectively to eliminate unwanted (often female) aspirants.

Violence, including physical violence, pressure, threat, and intimidation. The way out is seeing that these constraints or barriers are removed and the nature of politics transformed to respond by addressing them. 

What is the possibility of a serious woman presidency?
For me answering this question will be better with some quotes. Oby Ezekwesili was one of the best candidates for the presidency in the 2019 elections. I do not think we should be talking about how serious women are for the presidency. The answer is, they are capable, able and willing but above all, equipped to do the job. The challenge is how ready and prepared are they for the obstacles deliberately embedded in our politics to exclude even the best, be they, men or women? In 2014, Obiageli Ezekwesili captured the world’s attention with #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign to rescue 276 schoolgirls who had been kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria, by the militant group, Boko Haram.

In announcing a presidential bid on October 7, 2018, the former World Bank chief then hoped to upend establishment politics in Africa’s most populous country.  She was serious and had this to say, “So, one of the interesting things that are already happening is that women and young people are reaching out in droves to the campaign. I am saying this is our campaign. This is really about citizens who want to disrupt the political order that makes it impossible to show the potential of this country, saying enough is finally enough. So, this campaign is going to be a campaign of the people. They are putting not just their hope behind it but they are putting their resources. People are volunteering time, volunteering money, and saying, ‘we are running,’ not ‘Oby is running’”.

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