There is an interesting case of a persistent Nigerian woman, who is plausibly the first female presidential candidate both at the primaries and main elections, having contested to be President on four different occasions. In her most recent attempt, and perhaps the very last, at the PDP presidential primary election held in January 2011, out of a total number of 3,542 valid votes, she polled only one vote. The astounding singular vote happened to be hers. This means that no other delegate from anywhere in the country, not even one from her home constituency, thought her worthy to be the PDP flagbearer. In her comment on the result of the election, Sarah Jubril, the repeatedly rejected presidential aspirant and a champion of the women folk, said her “one vote” would continue to haunt Nigerian women.
The place of women in Nigerian politics has so far been a disadvantaged one, one that almost borders on subservience. It is as though the leadership position has been reserved for men by some extraterrestrial force, while women are to make do with supportive roles at best. This can be traced to the precolonial era and before, when traditional rulers wielded more power and chieftaincy titles were like golden geese. The “Iyalode” and Queen Mother, among all other chieftaincies, were the only two that ascribed some power to the women folk. Thus, it is little wonder that even in these enlightened times, only few women who are quite exceptional, no doubt, have been able to seize the reins of power and establish themselves as formidable forces to be reckoned with as far as Nigerian politics is concerned.
One might not like the ideology of Machiavellianism, but one must admit that Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance diplomat and philosopher of the early 16th century, who is reckoned as the founder of Modern Political Science, was right when he said: ‘Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past, for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.’ The history of the deprived position of women in politics is deeply rooted in the patriarchal customs and traditions of most ethnic groups in Nigeria. Male children are generally elevated right from birth and fortified with the requisite resources for leadership positions. This male children grow to become independent men and leaders, on whom their female counterparts largely depend.
As a result of these patriarchal customs and traditions, many warped perceptions and disillusioned concepts about gender roles have sprung up. Most women who ought to be in politics now were born in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. During this period, girl child education was mostly seen as a futile task. I remember an initialism of sorts that was common when I was much younger, which alluded to the supposed fruitlessness of girl child education, called WEEK. WEEK stands for “Women’s Education Ends in Kitchen”. The origin of the WEEK initialism may be difficult to ascertain, but its timing must have been before CEDAW. It would be recalled that Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was not adopted as an international treaty by the United Nations General Assembly until 1979.
In comparison to men, a larger proportion of adult female population in Nigeria is illiterate. They work as market women, artisans, petty traders and farmers. As reported by M. Lal Goel after a research, persons with higher education are more likely to be males, to have higher income, to live in better localities, to occupy higher status positions, etc. The more educated persons possess greater information about government and politics; they are also likely to possess a higher incidence of feelings of political efficacy. All these characteristics have a significant positive relationship with political participation. This partly explains why many women sit back at home on election days or are indifferent about political offices.
On January 24, 2017, Women’s March, a demonstration that might very well be the largest in America’s history, was held to protest gender discrimination and marginalisation of women, among other things. This goes to show how clamour for women’s rights is fast taking a central stage around the globe. In Nigeria, we are still far from meeting the Affirmative Action that stipulates 35% participation for women in politics. Patricia Etteh, former Speaker of House of Representatives, was the closest a Nigerian woman ever got as far as elections are concerned, and she didn’t even last 5 months before she was impeached. Most of the public offices our women hold are by appointment, as can be seen in the cases of Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Dora Akunyili, Oby Ezekwesili, and many others. Yet these women have distinguished themselves and proven that intellectual ability is not a function of physical strength or whatever is in-between one’s legs.
In order to have more women partaking actively in Nigerian politics, there is a need for an overhaul in our orientation. A female child is no less a child. Educating a girl child is as important as educating a boy child. Women must begin to see themselves as equal stakeholders with the men as far as national affairs are concerned. For, at the end of the day, in the words of Bob Marley, “none but ourselves can free our minds.” Womenfolk must learn to form stronger coalitions to assert and defend their rights. They must be willing to vote and be voted for. We have more women making waves now than there were ten or twenty years ago. It must only get better.
Omoya Yinka Simult writes from University of Ibadan.
Published April 2017 on YNaija