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Nigeria’s Democratic process should recognise value of women’s participation

By Leo Sobechi
03 November 2019   |   3:27 am
The Nigerian Women Trust Fund is an organisation set up in 2011 as a result of a collaboration between government, civil society organisations and other critical stakeholders, purposely to enhance the participation of women in governance and in the electoral process.


Ms Mufuliat Fijabi is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Nigeria Women Trust Fund (NWTF). In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, she stressed the need for the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) to carry Nigerians along through the electoral process, arguing that women constitute a critical mass in the democratic governance.

How far has the Women Trust Fund fare in the mobilisation of women for political participation?
The Nigerian Women Trust Fund is an organisation set up in 2011 as a result of a collaboration between government, civil society organisations and other critical stakeholders, purposely to enhance the participation of women in governance and in the electoral process.  We have just presented the report of the 2019 General Elections, which the Nigerian Women Trust Fund, through the Gender and Election Watch (GEW) room put together specifically from an accountability perspective with Kano and Oyo states under the spotlight. 
The purpose of the report is to give a further spotlight to the issues of corruption and lack of accountability and how it affects women’s full participation in Nigeria’s democratic process.  The report examines the fact that when there is an uneven playing field backed up by issues of corruption and accountability, it affects the performance of women as voters and as candidates in an election.
The report also suggests a number of recommendations for the Nigeria’s electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), specifically on the need to be more proactive on issues of election that affect women. For the government and other critical stakeholders, the report recommends the need to ensure a drastic reduction in how issues of corruption, money politics and lack of accountability affect women. 

The political parties are also not left out; they need to be more responsive to these issues, because high nomination fees for example, issues of vote-buying and selling; all of these affect the participation of women and there is need to spotlight it strongly, otherwise it is going to continue to reduce the effectiveness of Nigeria’s democracy.

Did the report go beyond what and why to talk about how; for instance, outlining the strategies to get more women involved?
If you read the report deeply, it details some of the strategies and issues.   We were talking about recommendations and that is why we did not talk about strategy.  For example, in terms of strategies, we are urging political parties to reduce the cost of nomination forms, so that women too can pay for it themselves and participate actively in the election. 
We also encourage women not to be used as those who sell their votes on Election Day.  For INEC, we are also encouraging them to make sure that they carry Nigerians along throughout the electoral process.  They do a lot of work, but there is need to expand more to ensure that the activeness is not only during the election time, but throughout the electoral cycle.

How do you feel about calls on women to emulate the PWDs (Peoples With Disabilities) to consider sending a bill or advocating for it, do you think this is feasible?
It is true that with the “Not Too Young to Run” there is a law now. With the persons with disability, the national disability bill has now been passed into law.  For women, there are quite a number of challenges that disturb issues affecting them, because they are dealing with multiple barriers different from what we have for the youths and persons with disability. 

For example, we do not have a strong quota law in place to support women, simply because of some provisions of the constitution and also because of religious and cultural barriers.  We have a National Gender policy in place, which has been in place since 2006; it advocates for 35 per cent minimum affirmative action for women, but we have never seen 35 per cent in terms of appointive and elective positions. 

At the National Assembly, we had a gender and equal opportunity bill that did not see the light of the day simply because there were some religious and cultural interpretations to what the bill intended, so, the kind of challenges that the PWDs face and youths is not exactly the same with those of the women.
And in terms of inclusion, there are inclusion issues, but with different context. Yet, the major thing is that for women, there is need to have a deliberate will on the part of the government to really steer the process towards ensuring that in line with some of the international instruments that they have signed unto, that they are able to implement and advocate that more women come into governance and play leadership roles.

In terms of advocacy for adventitious legislations, how can this help, like in Uganda, where the system of twinning is a law?
That is what I was saying earlier; we need quotas that are constitutionally relevant and backed in Nigeria.  At the moment, we do not have it. Even the 35 per cent affirmative action in the national gender policy does not have real constitutional backing. We need that backing as we have in other countries, where they practice twinning and the zebra policy; where they practice the quota in Nigeria and sailing through to achieve that, is what I was discussing as something that is contextualised in a lot of barriers, which the youths did not exactly face or the persons with disability.  The persons with disability are dealing with disability issues; the youths are dealing with age issues, for women, they are dealing with disability, youths are dealing with cultural and religious interpretations. 

No religion will say that its youths should not advance, but there will be some religious interpretations that, we do not want our women to talk, we do not want our women in politics.  You get the diversity of the issues and the barriers? So, until we have the political will to deliberately adopt a constitutionally backed up quota system, it will still be difficult to have a real constitutional law that can guarantee women advancement more strategically. 

Accordingly, with the advocacy for the recognition of the importance of women in the electoral process, we are also advocating for adequate laws that will back women participation, so that in cases where the laws are not obeyed or respected, then there will be a context to take the government to court as we have seen in other countries.  

Honestly, Nigeria is quite behind when it comes to the issue of women’s representation globally, it is becoming embarrassing; in fact, it is a shame.  Sadly, if women are not recognised or advocated for to be in decision-making tables, then we will continue to have challenges. Women do not want to go there because they want to compete with the men. It is not about competition; rather it is about bringing experiences that would make our country better.  At times, you find that when people are discussing education for example, they are discussing tables and chairs, they are discussing number of classrooms; nobody is looking at the aspect of the bathrooms, the extent of water flow in the bathrooms. 

In Nigeria today, some girls do not go to school during their monthly cycle, because there are no good bathrooms. Nobody is talking about that.  So, if you have women at the table when all these processes are going on, they will talk about it.  In some places, there are no streetlights and so when girls walk at night, they are raped or kidnapped. Nobody is talking about that; women die at the hospitals, because of corruption at times.  You find that the medicine that is supposed to be there are not there, who is monitoring, you need the expertise of women to also see this aspect because we constitute a reasonable percentage of the population, we need to be able to make input.  It is not about men and women competing; it is far beyond that.   It is about bringing experiences and expertise to the table to advance our country, Nigeria.

But observers have said that women have not used their number to exert pressure on the political parties, which serve as the basis of participation?
It is not just about number.  Even if we decide to constitute ourselves into one bloc or into one political party and strategise to win election, it is not enough.  The reason why it is not enough is that the Nigerian democratic process needs to understand the value of women participation and that is still missing. If that value is there, then the numbers can work. But it is absent.  They need to understand that women are critical and important and should be able to participate.  If we put our numbers together and the electoral process is violent, will they be able to use the number? Will women come out to vote? Will women want to be candidates? No!  Really, we need to do structural overhaul.

Do you think Nigeria’s political parties have been engaged enough?
The political parties have a critical role to play in this.  They serve as the gatekeepers of whether women emerge as elected representatives or in appointive positions, but they are still averse to women’s participation through the cost of nomination fees, through the denial of tickets.  In the 2019 primaries of political parties, a lot of women were short-changed, some of them even won the primaries, but they were asked to step down. So, the political parties should become more gender-responsive and understand that in pushing forward their manifestos and agenda, women need to be part of the process; they should push forth men and women.  Some of them have manifestos that make provision for women, but they have never implemented it.

What is your message to women aspiring to join public service as those who are facilitating?
Women should be resilient, they should never be tired.  Their experiences are needed to make Nigeria’s democracy effective. They should never be tired. In spite of the barriers, they should be able to move on and take solace in the fact that it is going to be better soon.  For the entire Nigerian democratic process, there is need to understand the fact that until the democratic process is inclusive, our democratic process is not truly democratic.

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