Politics is a game of numbers! This is an adage that cannot be more apt for the Nigerian political space which clearly currently under-employs the female gender. From the Federal to State and even Local Government Areas and Councils, women in decision making are in the vast minority and Nigeria is playing against the rest of the world with half of its team borrowing from the words of the US President, Barrack Obama.
Nigeria is a largely patriarchal society. Religion and culture have further entrenched the dominance of the male gender in the family, institutions and society at large. Even though women have played very important roles in the Nigerian political space long before the democratic dispensation, with notable women like Margaret Ekpo, Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti and Gambo Sawaba, to mention a few who blazed the trail in organized activism against political oppression; there is still no significant number in the formal political system of governance. However, since the advent of democracy in 1999 after years of military rule, women have ventured into the political arena against all odds.
What can be responsible for the low representation of women in Parliament? They include but are not limited to: cultural, traditional and religious norms, finance (politics is capital intensive), violence and inhibiting gender roles as well as capacity and internal party democracies.
According to the 2006 national census, women represent 49% of the Nigerian population. Yet, women hold less than 6% of parliamentary seats at national level. The story is no different at the State and local government level. These indices negate international, regional and national benchmarks of at least 30% for Affirmative Action. With only 8 women out of 109 Senators in the Senate and 20 out of 360 in the Federal House of Assembly; women in the 8th Parliament are clearly outnumbered against their male counterparts.
This current situation of women in parliament is precarious in the sense that it will be a herculean task to get their issues on the front burner in the National Assembly when Bills are put to a vote for or against women’s and girl’s issues. Their voices will possibly be drowned by their male counterparts unless strategic lobbying is employed to garner their support. Women in parliament will need to employ ingenious mechanisms to engage with their male counterparts and make them gender champions to support their cause as a short-term measure.
In the long term however, more sustainable solutions will be required to reverse this trend. These solutions will require a conscious effort to interrogate the factors that suppress women’s political participation and successful emergence at the polls. A good place to start is to invoke the principles of Affirmative Action which in itself is just a foot in the door but a move that will ensure that 30-35% of elective and appointive positions are reserved for women through the Electoral Act. Several countries have done this through a twinning or zebra formula that ensures both men and women hold lead and deputy positions accordingly or vice versa. Furthermore, parties can be compelled to reserve a percentage of party nominations for women. Secondly, we need to employ rigorous advocacy and a communication strategy that portrays the leadership qualities of women for ultimately, the electorate will only vote for whom they consider suitable for the position. Thirdly, it is imperative for women to close ranks to support, mentor and reproduce themselves in leadership positions and finally, we need to instututionalise technical and financial resources for women in politics. The Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, is poised and strategically placed as the first of its kind to deliver on this. Women of all walks of life need to heed this call to ensure that we grow this basket of funds for posterity sake.
The 2019 elections will be upon us in a matter of months and years, we cannot afford to watch the indices on women’s representation and inclusion slide down again behind our contemporaries in the region, continent and the world at large.
A conscious effort through political will by government and actions by civil society is urgently needed to address the low representation of women in governance in Nigeria and ultimately change the narrative around women in politics for inequality is further entrenched when half of the population is marginalized.