Harnessing the power of women’s political leadership will be critical for the incoming government, faced with the opportunity to set the country on a new path.
It is time to reclaim Nigeria’s legacy of women’s involvement in political leadership, to ensure that the nation’s governance reflects, recognises, and serves the full scope of its citizenry (regardless of gender). It is time to be bold and ambitious in raising aspirations beyond the limited horizon of a 35% representation, to rectify the gross imbalance and tap into the abundance of leadership skills and potential in Africa’s most populous nation.
Nigeria’s gubernatorial elections on 18th March were the closest that the country has come to electing its first female governor. Some observers were so eager ab outthe prospect of finally achieving this milestone that they prematurely declared Aisha Dahiru Binani the new governor of Adamawa State. Conversely, last month’s presidential election offered little hope of delivering any victories for women in leadership. Conspicuously missing from the list of front runners was a female candidate or running mate. Indeed, Chichi Ojei was the only woman among the 18 presidential candidates.
This lack of female representation pervades Nigeria’s political landscape. On a global scale, Nigeria ranks 141 out of 146 for Political Empowerment in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Gender Gap Index (the lowest-ranked African country). Contrary to what this current situation would suggest, the premise of women’s engagement in political leadership in Nigeria is not foreign but is instead firmly rooted in the historical traditions of societies throughout the nation. How did Nigeria get to this present state and what does it imply for the future?
All of Nigeria’s 15 presidents, prime ministers, and military rulers over the past six decades since independence have been men. The only two serving female governors across the 36 states have emerged incidentally – Virginia Etiaba for a few months in Anambra, following incumbent Governor Peter Obi’s temporary impeachment in November 2006; and Hadiza Sabuwa Balarabe as acting governor of Kaduna, while incumbent Governor Nasir El-Rufai took a brief leave from office after testing positive for COVID-19 in March 2020.
Less than 5% of the incoming National Assembly (NASS) members elected so far this year have been women, marking a decline to 17 from 21, out of 469 members in the preceding Ninth Assembly. The trend towards greater gender imbalance shows no signs of shifting. This time last year, the NASS rejected a set of five gender equality bills, which would have transformed women’s legal rights in multiple ways, including ensuring at least 35% representation at the state and federal levels, in line with the 2006 National Gender Policy, which stipulates at least 35% representation in all governance processes, but has never been implemented.
Women’s representation in political appointments is equally as dismal as their presence in elected positions. Only seven women were appointed to President Buhari’s second cabinet of 43 ministers in 2019, a decline from the 15 women in his first cabinet. Although there has been a precedent of women in high-profile ministerial positions, these appointments have been fleeting and idiosyncratic, with no consistent commitment to enshrining gender diversity in ministerial leadership.
Given the current situation and Nigeria’s recent political history, it is easy to presume that this extent of male dominance in political leadership has always been the case. However, the prevalence of women’s leadership in the pre-colonial era has been well-established by scholars including Nwando Achebe and Oyeronke Oyewumi — from female Obas, Oonis, and Alaafins in Yorubaland like Orompoto of Oyo, to Queen Bakwa Turunku, founder of Zaria city and her daughter, Queen Amina, who succeeded her in expanding the Zazzau empire. With women’s political leadership came increased gender inclusion in the economy and society, more broadly. Women’s rise to positions of political leadership was enabled by an acknowledgement of their entitlement to power in economic, social, cultural, and religious spheres.
The British colonial administration systematically excluded women from the civil service and political hierarchies. Nonetheless, Ahebi Ugbabe emerged as a female king and warrant chief of Enugu-Ezike in that period. Her palace provided refuge for women escaping abusive spouses. Beyond Ahebi Ugbabe’s reign, women’s activism during colonisation was a catalyst for change (most famously demonstrated by the Aba Women’s War of 1929, which led to the inclusion of women in native courts and expanded women’s opportunities in society). Female-led advocacy continues to drive socio-political and economic progress. For example, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to liberate girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants was co-founded by former Minister of Education, Obiageli Ezekwesili and activist, Aisha Yesufu. Women leaders similarly played a key role in the #EndSARS movement to decry human rights abuses by the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad and to call for improved governance and public accountability.
As Africa’s largest economy and democracy, what happens in Nigeria has substantial regional and global implications. Harnessing the power of women’s political leadership will be critical for the incoming government, faced with the opportunity to set the country on a new path in addressing pressing issues such as poverty reduction, economic growth, climate change, conflict, natural resources management, pandemic preparedness, and youth disillusionment.
These issues have emerged in the context of gender inequities that constrain the country’s future. UNESCO estimates that 42% of girls at the upper secondary level are out of school, compared to 37% of boys. Nigeria’s 2018 Demographic and Health Survey indicates that 16% of women aged 20-24 years were married before age 15, and 43% were married by age 18 (compared to 0 and 3% of men respectively). Additionally, 19% of female 15-19-year-olds had begun child