Ten years since I published an article titled “Why Nigerian women can’t engage in politics”. the issues highlighted in that article have echoed in a report released nearly two weeks ago by the chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu. The report showed the low representation of women in the 2019 general elections. For example, of all the candidates who contested in those elections, only 13 per cent were women. This meant that 87 per cent were strikingly men. The figures showed that, of a total of 24,353 candidates who vied for different positions, 21,190 were men and 3,163 were women.
The report also reflected low participation of women in the governorship election. Only 7.5 per cent of the 1,066 candidates were women. According to INEC, the Presidential election was distinctly the one in which women were the least represented. In that election, women comprised just six of 73 candidates. However, there was a slight improvement in the participation of women in elections into state houses of assembly. Of a total of 14,580 candidates who contested elections into various state parliaments, 1,872 candidates were women. Nevertheless, in percentage terms, the figure was quite low, at 12.8 per cent.
These figures were revealed in a report titled: Review of the 2019 General Election: Report of the Commission’s Retreats and Stakeholder Engagements.
What the figures suggest is that we are either a male-dominated society in which men contest most political offices, hold key positions, and make most of the decisions that affect our society, or that women are increasing unenthusiastic about participating in national politics. This latter view holds that we are a country in which women are seen to be subordinate to men. For example, men dominate the Presidency, the National Assembly, State houses of assembly, local government councils, and also serve as political party leaders.
These skewed roles do not end in the political arena. They are also evident in various religions where women are encouraged to be subservient to men or to play second fiddle to men.
The overarching question is: Why do many Nigerian women show little or no interest in political positions? Why are our political, economic, technological, legal, and public spaces dominated by men? When we celebrate the idea that Nigeria is a democracy, we pretend that everything is going on well. But that is not the case. There are so many internal contradictions that expose the dark underbelly of our society. If, in the 21st century, women still lack effective energy to participate in the political process, it raises serious questions about gender equality as an enduring trait of our democracy.
Advocates of the status quo often argue somewhat blindly that no one has been prevented from participating in elections in Nigeria on the basis of their gender. Similarly, others contend that Nigeria’s political space is large enough to hold everyone, men and women, the young and the old, northerners and southerners, and so on. All these arguments fall flat when scrutinised carefully and logically.
Fred Siebert, co-author of the seminal work, Four Theories of the Press, argued in his analysis of the libertarian theory of the press, that it is not enough to tell someone that they are free to achieve their objectives in life. If the opportunities don’t exist or if the opportunities are weighted heavily against them, they will never accomplish their dream goals. This is the key benchmark on which we should analyse the lack of visibility of Nigerian women in the political domain.
I recognise that this is a sensitive topic. Bu this has not prevented some men from offering weird interpretations of why the practice has persisted. For example, some people point to some religious texts and injunctions to defend the existing situation. You will hear outrageous claims that men are “superior” because they are heads of families or households. Based on this unsound argument, they conclude that women are ordained to play a secondary role in human societies.
There are other views that suggest we should not read too much into INEC’s figures because no one can force anyone, including women, to participate actively in politics. This view is palpably weak. It shows how insensitive, how thoughtless, how uncaring, and how bizarre those who advocate the view have become.
What this argument fails to acknowledge is the unfair nature of the Nigerian political environment. That environment privileges male politicians. It does not offer women a fair ground for competing with men. Quite simply, women who aim to contest elections in Nigeria start from a position of disadvantage.
Flaws in our democratic system, in concert with many socio-cultural, religious, and economic practices and obligations have narrowed the existing pathway through which Nigerian women could participate in politics. At the centre of the conversation is not just freedom of expression but lack of equal opportunities.
I would argue that our social, political, economic, educational, and cultural settings have not given women the inspiration to participate in politics. Other factors that hinder women from dynamic interest in politics include crushing family obligations, cultural expectations about the role of women in their communities and families, religious practices that specify what women can or cannot do, educational limitations such as high levels of illiteracy among girls in certain parts of the country, lack of early exposure to politics, as well as other situational factors.
Gender equality is not a rhyme meant for recitation by kindergarten kids only. It is an objective that should be attained nationally. Gender inequality is a problem that society must confront. Some countries that recognised the injustice in gender-based discrimination introduced affirmative action to address the issue. Affirmative action is meant, in part, to eradicate gender discrimination against women and other minorities in regard to jobs, educational opportunities, and other areas from which they have been traditionally overlooked.
To deal with discrimination against women in politics, we need to examine the processes of selecting candidates within political parties. It is at the ward or constituency level that women aspiring for political positions are silenced, shunted out, and threatened. Many women feel they are not constructed to withstand all the challenges and overwhelming complexities of our political environment. They are not even allowed to raise their heads before they are shouted down and abused with obscenities.
Seeking a political office in Nigeria is an expensive venture, just as it is in other cultures. How many women can afford to raise the kind of money required to mount a strong election campaign or traverse the entire country during campaigning? Just take a look at the leaderboard of wealthy people in Nigeria. It is stacked with affluent men.
It is true that a female political aspirant does not have to be rich before she can contest an election. Of course, she could be sponsored by a wealthy godfather. Unfortunately, that kind of sponsorship is ringed with dangers, such as having the moral ability and strength to resist or repel sexual harassment by the godfather, as well as the courage to ward off other unreasonable requests. So, while male politicians can afford to accept sponsorship by affluent men, it is not that easy for female aspirants.