Women and Representative Government

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Government should work towards achieving gender parity in democratic governance, writes Ify Ayomo

The 2019 election has come and almost gone as the battles have shifted to the legal front. But a look at the race has shown that women are significantly few in the number of candidates and winners in the election. Except for a few of them that were elected into legislative houses, there were little gains for the women folks in the Nigerian political system.

Truth be told, the two major political parties in the country – All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – claim to love the womenfolk dearly. They wax lyrical tunes and political messages to show their interest in advancing the political interest of women in the country, but unfortunately, this is where it ends.

In the last general election, no woman was nominated governorship candidate of both parties and none was elected. Instead, the best they did was to nominate a few of them as deputy governorship candidates – and like deputy governors all over the country, they do not have any political influence, and their relevance is negligible.
According to statistics, women and youth make up almost 80% of eligible voters in the country; yet, they have been ignored politically, except during elections when their votes count.

There is precious similarity between the APC and the PDP. That in fact is the reason for the seeming confusion over choice among electing Nigerians, especially women who voted overwhelmingly for the parties.

During the 2015 election circle, due to pressure put up by women’s right organizations which used Dame Patience Jonathan as their anchor person, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, realizing it needed the women’s votes, proposed to reserve 35% of all appointive positions for women and youth. This has somewhat become the official policy of the two parties.
Early last year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law, the Not- too –Young- to- Rule policy which significantly reduced the age that people need to attain before vying for some positions, and also giving greater opportunities and inclusion for women and youth. This was done to curry the votes of the women and youth.
But has this come to any advantage? The outcome of the 2019 general election has proved the contrary.

One of the most perplexing questions in the Nigerian polity has to do with the role of women and youth in the political system. Until recently, it has been widely assumed that politics in Nigeria can be controlled, but the new reality from the last election suggests otherwise.
No doubt, politically, the Nigerian woman has made political progress. From the days of the Aba women riot to Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti to Mrs. Margaret Ekpo to Hajia Sambo Sawaba, there has been gradual inclusion of women in the political system. But unlike the youth who seized the prevailing political situation in the country, such as the plotting of coup by young soldiers, women have not had the opportunity to be at executive positions in the country.

Not surprisingly also, along with their children they make up the bulk of victims of political violence in the country. Despite these, they are hardly compensated with positions in government commensurate with their qualification apart from being given such politically irrelevant posts. But in the last few years, some of them have however taken on such sensitive positions like the ministry of finance and education where they have performed creditably well. However, this is significantly low.

In numbers, in the current political system, women’s representation in the House of Representatives is 5.5%; in the Senate: 5.8%. Only five out of 73 candidates that ran for president in 2019 are women. Some 1668 men and 232 women vied for 109 senatorial seats while 4,139 men and 560 women competed for 360 seats in the House of Representatives.
According to Mrs. Pauline Tallen, a former minister and the first woman to be nominated a deputy governor in the fourth republic, at a capacity building workshop for budding women politicians, “I advise [young] women to believe in themselves. Be prepared because it’s not easy.”

Not easy indeed. Three decades have passed since Tallen joined politics, but the state of women’s political participation in Nigeria remains abysmally low, with less than six per cent women in the parliament. Today, Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of female representation in parliament across Africa, and globally, ranks 181st out of 193 countries, according to the International Parliamentary Union. “We have a whole lot of women across Nigeria who can do so much better than what we are offered now,” explains Joy Ada Onyesoh, National Coordinator of Nigeria’s Women Situation Room and Country Director for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). “The issue is that we are not given the opportunity… [Men] are still operating a culture of women are meant to be seen and not heard.”
Since 2006, Nigeria’s National Gender Policy highlights women’s right to equality in economic, social and political life, with provisions to increase women in elected and appointed positions to 35 per cent—but that hasn’t happened.

“There have been so many protocols, conventions, amendments of the Nigerian Constitution, which support providing a quota system, but in reality, women are excluded in politics,” says Blessing Obidiegwu, head of the Gender Division for the Independent National Electoral Commission. “Such problems as patriarchy, violence in elections and their economic situation serve as barriers to women’s participation.”
In 2016, a Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill was tabled, calling for the adoption of temporary special measures to eliminate discrimination in political and public life. UN Women supported the bill’s passage in five states (Anambra, Ekiti, Imo, Kogi and Plateau) and is currently advocating, alongside partners, for its adoption at the National Assembly.

Although Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili was just one of the six females among the 73 presidential candidates, before she withdrew her candidacy, her role was significant insofar as she was a direct repudiation of the gendered narratives that portray women candidates as incompetent and unable to compete in the world of politics.
While women make up 47 per cent of registered voters for the 2019 elections, only eight per cent were cleared to vie for electoral positions in the presidential elections. Furthermore, all six women presidential candidates withdrew their candidacy even though their names remained on the ballot box.

In today’s federal elections– Presidency, Senate and House of Representatives– women’s candidature is unimpressive. For the presidential elections, men swamped women by a 12:1 ratio. Women’s presidential candidature stands at eight per cent.
At the National Assembly, women’s candidature is only 12 per cent of the total seats available as a total of 763 women vied for the Senate and House of Representatives out of 6,563 places available. Simply put, at eight and 12 per cent candidature for the Presidential and National Assembly elections, respectively, the prospects for gender parity in Nigeria remain a distant dream.

Women’s minimal participation in Nigeria has multi-dimensional implications for the democratic project in Nigeria and for the continuing quest for gender equality in Africa’s biggest economy. The 2019 election is the sixth consecutive general elections since the beginning of the fourth republic in 1999. This marks what is undoubtedly a measure of democratic progress – if only for conducting periodic elections since the return to civil rule.
What remains deeply in doubt, however, is how inclusive this progress has been and, in particular, to what extent women have benefited from the democratic dividend of equality and fairness.

Today, many countries of the world are making efforts to bridge the gap between men and women in politics. But in Nigeria, the representation of women in government even though has improved is still very low compared to what obtains in other nations of the world, particularly in the developed nations.
There is no doubt that women have some potential and rights to contribute meaningfully to the development of their country. Therefore, the Nigerian government should work towards achieving gender equality in democratic governance.
––Ayomo is an Abuja-based Human Rights Advocate