Opinion: Paradox of getting more women into electoral office By – MINABERE IBELEMA
The other day, I was delighted to watch a public relations video released by Nigeria’s Air Peace. It was a video of a history-making flight: an all-female, indigenous crew. The captain, first officer, technicians, and cabin staff were all young Nigerian women.
It was a little over 13-minutes long, and ordinarily I would stop midway when watching PR videos of that length. In this case, I didn’t. It wasn’t that an all-female crew of a passenger jet is such an extra-ordinary thing. After all, the history of women in aviation goes way back. It was in 1937 that the American aviator Amelia Earhart undertook an around-the-world solo flight. Sure, her plane mysteriously disappeared, but in those days, such things were commonplace even for ships.
What makes the Peace Airways flight significant is the symbolism. To begin with, the feat of flying is not just an engineering marvel, it is symbolic of mankind’s triumph over the challenges of nature. We don’t have wings to fly, so we build machines that fly us to distances that even the birds cannot go.
It is in this sense that the symbolism of the Air Peace flight is especially important to Nigeria. If the young Nigerian women can fly a jet, for goodness sake they deserve their place in all other fields of endeavour. In this election year, that applies especially to political leadership. Yet, that is an area where female representation is so lacking. And that is a symptom of a deeper dysfunction. I will return to this.
First the dismal figures. As of now, about 5.6 per cent of the National Assembly are female. That is one of the lowest in Africa and the world. The figure for the incoming NASS is not readily available. But there is reason to believe that it will be lower.
For one thing, the “revolution” of 2015 brought with it an overall decrease in the number of female elected officials. Before then, there was an uptick. Given that the electoral results so far this year generally reflects the pattern of 2015, one may predict that female representation would go further down.
Here’s another pointer. Just eight per cent of the 1,900 senatorial candidates this year are female and just 12 per cent of the 4,699 candidates for the House of Representatives. If the females had equal chance, then the new NASS will have a much greater female representation than ever before. But what are the odds? Very little. Even if the best-case scenario happens, it still will not be enough to move Nigeria out of the cellar. In any case, the final figures will soon tell.
No woman, no NASS
Various reasons have been given for the paucity of women in electoral offices in Nigeria. The most obvious, of course, is that we remain largely a chauvinistic culture. But that’s not even half the story. Women hold various leadership positions in business and government appointive offices, and we “madam” them all day long. It is in political leaders that there seem to be an aversion.
Actually, the obstacles to women’s electoral success are largely the same that frustrate many capable and principled men. Putting it simply, the system is inherently rigged. Too many of those who steer the electoral system are parochial and unprincipled. That was the frustration of the late Alex Ekwueme, as it is of today’s aspiring female candidates.
Sure, there are obstacles that are unique to females, notably religious-based chauvinism. Aminat Aji, an aide to the late Kudirat Abiola, recalled being thwarted by such while running to become a PDP senatorial candidate from Kano in 2003.
“They said a Muslim woman has no business in politics,” she told the press. “I tried to correct the misunderstanding. I explained that I only desired to represent them. But they removed my campaign posters. I lost the election.”
Women have also complained about the financial obstacles, cronyism, violence and insecurity. Well these realities also confront or dissuade many male potentials.
Reuben Abati, who is no stranger to Nigerian public life, took his lumps this year as a PDP deputy governorship candidate in Ogun State. The experience was so unsettling that he wrote in his reflections that the number one consideration for running for office in Nigeria is how to get through it alive.
Another public figure of note, Professor Pat Utomi, tried contesting for nomination as the APC governorship candidate in Delta State. The scheming was so blatant that he wasn’t even informed of the date and place of the primaries. And that was the APC, the party with the broom to sweep Nigerian politics clean.
Indeed, Rotimi Amaechi, the APC chieftain and Minister of Transportation may well be the embodiment of what is wrong with Nigerian politics. When he defected to the APC before the 2015 elections, he was intensely harassed and threatened with assassination. And he cried out for his life. Several of us wrote in his defence, regardless of what we thought of his politics.
Now that he is in power, one would think he would seek to right the wrongs. Quite the contrary, he now champions nefarious politics. That he chants and dances to war songs at campaign rallies provides a window into what he schemes behind the scene?
In any case, the point again is that women’s presence in Nigerian political leadership has been stunted because the politics is not wholesome. So, a litmus test of the health of Nigerian democracy may well be a surge in the representation of women in leadership.
And therein lies a paradox. Nigerian politics may become more wholesome when more women join the leadership cadre. But women may never reach that critical mass until Nigerian politics gets much more wholesome. Joy Ada Onyesoh, the National Coordinator of Nigeria’s Women Situation Room and the Country Director for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, is one of the foremost advocates for women in politics.“A bird never flies on one wing,” Onyesoh has been quoted as saying. “For us to have sustainable peace and development in Nigeria, we need to have men and women seated at the decision-making table.”
And getting more women onto that table requires taking a broad swap at what ails Nigerian politics.Punch