This year, Nigeria will celebrate 20 years of return to democracy. This is a landmark achievement for any African democracy, but when the 9th assembly is inaugurated on June 12th—Nigeria’s newly established Democracy Day—there will be fewer women who will sit in the green and red chambers to make critical decisions about inclusion, budgeting for gender issues and participation. The exclusion of women has long been a crux of the Nigerian electoral process. These days it’s getting harder to tell if anything is actually changing. At the recently concluded general elections, only sixty-two of 2970 women who ran for various offices will be sworn into office to legislate for the nationwide population of 190 million people. This number represents only 3.8% of all the positions in the country, from the office of the President to the Vice, the Members of the National Assembly and the Members of various State Houses of Assembly, 6.5% less than the country had in 2015.
Younger women under-4o were even more marginalised by the last election. Despite the clamour for younger candidates and fresher political voices at the last election, there are only nine women of the 260 total number of elected candidates under-40, and only two of them are thirty-five years or younger.
Last week, YIAGA AFRICA, a youth non-profit focused on upholding human rights and democracy, brought together a cohort of 20 young female candidates who lost the 2019 elections for a reflection meeting on the challenges they faced and the way forward. The sit-down held at the Center for Legislative Engagement (CLE), where these courageous women, some of whom were understandably still shaken about their loses, discussed their experience during the general elections. The discourse turned out to become a safe space for the women to give context for their candidacy, and share their post-election feelings.
“There are about 10 states in Nigeria with no single female legislator, so how do you plan to legislate for women in the state,” Chioma Agwuegbo, founder of TechHer and Strategy Team Member of the Not Too Young To Run Movement, stated. “In Ondo state, there is only one female legislator amongst 26 in the state that will be sworn into office, which means her voice will most likely be drowned out.” Alongside Agwuegbo, other leaders of the Not Too Young To Run Movement: Yetunde Bakare, Maryam Laushi, Bella Anne Ndubuisi and Cynthia Mbamalu, the Programs Manager of YIAGA AFRICA, presided over town hall meeting. The speakers took great effort to ensure the women spoke very frankly about the experiences from their different constituencies, states, polling units and parties, beyond the observer reports and statements by political analysts.
According to YIAGA AFRICA’s Programs Manager who is also a passionate advocate of women participation in politics, the whole concept of democracy is incomplete if there is no representation of the different segments or sectors of the society. And that includes ensuring that each time we talk of gender in politics, we are not looking at it as a male dominated affair but a space, represented by both men and women, which is a true reflection of the society. Thus you cannot talk about nation building itself without talking about the women who make up part of the population. Statistics show women make up about 49% of Nigeria’s population thus there is need to sit back and reflect on how we experienced the elections.
Once a person has been marginalized and discredited, silence becomes a likely option. We witnessed this at the beginning of the gathering with statements like, “the question is what our protection is after we tell our story, what our protection after now is?” The women only began to open up after being assured that if they desire, their experiences will be off the record, and even if it is told, no names will be mentioned and their faces will be blurred.
Hearing women declare words and phrases like “Tough, fraudulent, horrible, no respect for gender, an election replica, not credible, quite an experience, vote buying: highest bidder wins, money laundering, and, a market place, to describe their experience during the 2019 elections is really unfortunate. If over time, women have been viewed to better handle the marketplace, then they too can handle the marketplace of Nigeria’s politics. Nigeria has failed to learn from other countries on the African continent. Rwanda just recently beat its record of 64% to 68% of women in politics because they saw the great change it made for their country. In Namibia, the classification of women in parliament is 48%. In South Africa, it is 42.4%; Senegal, 41.8%; and Ethiopia, 30.3%. In Nigeria, the number of women in parliament will drop from the 6.5% that it has been in the 8th Assembly, to 3.8% in the 9th Assembly, commencing in June.
The participation of women is beyond a basic political issue; it is also the subject of community agreement. A series of recurrent issues were highlighted by most of the women. For example, on election day, some young candidates experienced betrayal from party agent who switched allegiances after they were bought over. In another constituency in the North Central, a female candidate’s campaign manager tried to use sex as a prerequisite to obtaining the money that had been specifically donated to fund her campaign. “He knew that the election had given me exposure, and he wanted to ruin my chances. The money he collected for me, [donated for my campaign] he has it in his pocket,” she stated. Another female candidate in the South West was sexually harassed by a state governor who condescendingly flattered her by telling her how lucky she is and promised to give her “the whole society” if she accepts to be one of his mistresses.
One could sense the trauma still lingering from their experiences as the women’s voices caught in their throats, revealing emotions through shouts and cries. Some female candidates, however, ran their campaigns prepared for the worst; they offered solutions. “Have one or two men that will go with you for party meetings,” a candidate stated. This is an experience that their young male counterparts may not necessarily encounter, and it is absurd that this is even a solution, but maybe it is a starting point to protect our women. “I am from a conservative society. So I built a community of men around myself.
It is true that the subjugation of women in Nigerian politics by old political warhorses and suffragists is commonplace in our communities. But what is common is not normal; it is high-priority that we aggressively refuse to see it as normal. Maryam Laushi, Not Too Young To Run strategy team member and also a passionate women advocate shared the hard truth when she said that women are not valued, and until the majority of people in the society accept it, then we can begin to solve it. In other words, we cannot continue to live in an era of complaints but rather, it is time to take action that would yield tangible results. Asides Civil Society Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations, very few stakeholders in the world of politics have shown active concern about the intellectual or emotional well-being of these female candidates who aspired to run for the elections.
The complex array of women are stepping out to be known as the winning women—not victims but victors. They have drawn an action plan ahead of 2023, and they demand our attention and support. Out of their rather painful experience, they still bring bright light and coloured dreams, recognizing that: though the marginalization of women in the socio-political landscape of Nigeria is no new phenomenon, it is also entirely preventable.
Fisayo Okare is media and communications personnel with YIAGA AFRICA