March 1, 2022 was a sad day for Nigerian women. Despite extensive lobbying, consultations, negotiations, and advocacy, the 9th National Assembly (NASS) joined previous ones to legitimise the discrimination of women in Nigeria. It is particularly worrisome that this happened on the first day of International Women’s Month, and on the Zero Discrimination Day when the world commemorated the right of everyone to live a full, productive, and dignified life that is free from discrimination. Paradoxically, this year’s Zero Discrimination Day was themed “Remove laws that harm, create laws that empower,” highlighting the moral and legal obligation of states to expunge discriminatory laws and enact laws that protect people from discrimination considering that laws determine the different treatments of different people.
The ongoing review of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution (as amended) has reached the stage whereby, following the transmission of the harmonised proposed Constitutional Amendment bills by the Joint Constitution Review Committee to both chambers, two-thirds of the members of each of the Senate and House of Representatives (HoR) is required for each amendment bill to pass. This was the event that took place on March 1, as the upper and lower chambers simultaneously voted on these amendment bills. It is noteworthy that both chambers are required to vote the same way on a bill for it to scale through the next stage of the constitutional amendment process, such that if a bill fails in one chamber but passes in another, the bill still fails.
Of the 68 bills proposed for constitutional amendment, five were directly related to gender equality:
1. Citizenship: The bill seeks to amend Section 26 of the Constitution to provide for citizenship by registration to foreign spouses of Nigerian women, as is currently guaranteed for men in Section 26(2)(a). As it stands, a Nigerian woman cannot confer her citizenship to her foreign husband, as her male counterpart. With voting recorded as: Senate – Yes: 83, No: 2; and HoR – Yes: 135, No: 143, the bill failed to pass.
2. Indigeneship: The bill is to alter Sections 31 and 318(1) (the Interpretation Section) of the Constitution to allow a woman to become an indigene of her husband’s state after at least five years of marriage. Women continue to grapple with the effects of what is considered statelessness when, for instance, their public office appointments and promotions hang on the state they can lay claim to. Although voting was recorded as: Senate – Yes: 90, No: 5; and HoR: Yes: 193, No: 98, the bill failed to pass for not meeting the required two-thirds majority vote.
3. Affirmative Action: The bill seeks to amend Section 223 of the Constitution to ensure women occupy at least 35% in political party administration and appointive positions across federal and state levels. In Namibia, for instance, the ruling party, SWAPO, guarantees 50% of parliamentary seats for women, thus ensuring a gender-balanced parliament. And, with their “Zebra System” gender parity is also ensured in ministerial positions such that if a Minister is a man, the Deputy must be a woman and vice versa. For Nigeria, despite women constituting about 50% of the population, there is still a struggle for 35% affirmative action as the bill failed to pass with voting recorded as: Senate – Yes: 34, No: 53, Abstain: 3; and HoR – Yes: 195, No: 107.
4. Ministerial or Commissioner Nomination: The bill seeks to adjust the timeframe for submission of the names of ministerial or commissioner nominees, wherein it is proposed that Sections 147 and 192 of the Constitution be amended to ensure women constitute at least 35% of the nominees. Despite reducing the percentage to 10% and 20% at the Senate and HoR, respectively, the Senate voted Yes: 44, No: 43, and Abstain: 1; while the voice vote at the HoR was recorded in the affirmative. The bill failed for not meeting the required two-thirds majority vote.
5. Reserved Seats: The bill is to amend, mainly, Sections 48, 49, and 91 to create a total of 111 additional seats for women at the National Assembly, that is 37 at the Senate and 74 at the HoR; as well as 108 seats for women at the State Houses of Assembly. The bill failed to pass with voting recorded as: Senate – Yes: 30, No: 58; and HoR – Yes: 81, No: 208. The rationale for this bill is to increase the number of women in the NASS without threatening the existing structure. Currently, at the Senate, women constitute only 7.3% (8 of 109); of the 360-member HoR, only 3.6% (13) are women; and across the 36 state assemblies totaling 990 members, only 45 (4.5%) are women. Staggeringly, 15 of the 36 state assemblies have no female representation. It is no wonder the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) currently ranks Nigeria 183 (and Rwanda 1st) out of 192 countries in women’s representation in national parliaments. Should the Reserved Seat Bill have scaled through, women would occupy at least 25.3% of the Senate, 17% of the HoR, and 11% of state assemblies, all of which still falls short of the global standard of 35%.
As a Temporary Special Measure (TSM), reserved seat is a gender quota approach currently being implemented by more than 33 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Burundi reserves 30%, Djibouti 25%, Eswatini (former Swaziland) 30%, Guinea 30%, Niger 25%, Somalia 30%, South Sudan 25%, and Tanzania 30%. Kenya and Zimbabwe reserve 47 of 350 (13.4%), and 60 of 270 (22.2%) parliamentary seats for women, respectively. Of Uganda’s 556 parliamentary seats, 117 are reserved for women (21%), that is: 112 for district women representatives and the remaining five through other special groups. South Africa adopts an electoral or political party quota system whereby 50% of elective offices are for women; while Niger’s quota system guarantees women 25% elective and 30% appointive positions, resulting in the country’s current 26% women representation in its parliament. Rwanda’s 2003 Constitution guarantees at least 30% seats for women in all sectors and decision-making organs, including the District Councils, political parties, government bodies, and its bi-cameral parliament where 24 out of 80 (30%) of members of the Chamber of Deputies are reserved for women.
The rejection of these five ‘gender bills’ rolls back the gains of many years of advocacy for gender equality in Nigeria. That women have to always ‘fight’ and negotiate for the protection of rights that should be a given in a democracy and in this 21st century, and men have to always vote and decide on whether they accept it or not, is a shameful pattern that must worry all of us. One thing is sure, there is no reasonable or cogent reason for this outright and brazen constitutional deprivation of the rights of Nigerian women, save for the patriarchal and misogynistic belief that women remain subjugated and relegated to the abyss of menial occupations.
The overall implication of rejecting these gender equality-related constitutional amendments is simply the instrumentalization of the apex law – based on the abuse of positions, powers, and privileges – to legitimise gender inequality. Each member of the NASS who rejected the gender bills must look himself in the mirror and critique the real reason for being threatened by gender equality. Borrowing from the words of Hansatu Adegbite, Executive Director of WimBiz, these not-so-honourable members must recognize that women are not trying to ‘take over’ but to ‘make over’ Nigeria by equally contributing to her growth and development.
Under the umbrella of #NigerianWomenOccupyNASS led by the Womanifesto group, women have occupied the National Assembly since March 1, as well as engage lawmakers, to protest the rejection of these gender bills and demand a recommittal. Although the HoR, on March 8, rescinded its decision on three of these five gender bills, it is hoped that when it is reconsidered, voting will be favourable; and that the Conference Committee will, thereafter, ensure the harmonisation process results in the protection of the right of women to political inclusion.
The constitution of any nation is a crucial legal instrument for not only laying out the ideals that guide members of the society, but in reflecting its priorities and direction. The instrumentality of law is, therefore, critical for demonstrating a country’s commitment to addressing the cultural, social, religious, political, and institutional barriers to equal access to opportunities and social goods, including women’s representation in political leadership. Hence, while root causes of gender inequality continue to be addressed through non-legislative means, a simultaneous review of Nigeria’s supreme law will help in modelling a desired egalitarian society.
The task of challenging such laws that impede women’s rights, both at national and sub-national levels, is a collective responsibility. We must be deliberate, collaborative, and dogged in demanding for a Nigeria that is legally conducive for our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and nieces by challenging limiting laws and holding our lawmakers accountable for making sure that every discriminatory legal provision is removed at all levels. Our female children must never have to wonder why they cannot equally access social, economic, and political goods, opportunities, and resources as their male counterparts. This is the least we owe the generations we are birthing and the ones yet unborn.
EiE Postscript: On Tuesday, March 22nd, after the women who had been occupying one of the NASS gates gained access to the NASS premises, they were met by the leadership of the House of Representatives who requested 7 legislative days to review all the bills and vote again. We hope their Senate counterparts will do likewise. We will continue to lobby to add diaspora voting to the bills being reconsidered. Please lend your voice by signing our petition: www.change.org/RecognizeDiasporansandWomen
Bukky Shonibare is the Executive Director of Invictus Africa. She holds a Master of Laws (LLM) in International Law and Development from the University of Nottingham; and is currently studying for a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. Bukky is a 2021 Ford Global Fellow.