Nigeria: Women Stand Up to Be Counted

Lagos — As Nigeria tries again to begin its staggered general elections on Apr. 9, spare a thought for the women who will be putting themselves forward as candidates in an overwhelmingly male field.

"Men say they have what it takes and that women are weaker vessels who have no powers," Adebimpe Akinsola, who is seeking election to the Lagos State House of Assembly told IPS. "They have always intimidated women. But now we want to tell them that where there is no woman, nothing can be done successfully."

Akinsola says that most male politicians influence voters with money. She said that during her campaign, she too has been asked for money by voters. "But I tell them that if you take money, you are selling your vote and your conscience to people who you cannot hold accountable if they do not perform."

Her promise to the electorate is to bring government closer to the people if she wins a seat in the state assembly. Akinsola says women have shied away from politics because of the belief that a woman in politics is not responsible and cannot take care of her home. But she feels that through advocacy and enlightenment more women and men of integrity are now going into politics in Nigeria.

"We need such people to be able to deliver the dividend of democracy better to the people instead of leaving politics in the hands of charlatans and thugs."

There are 88 women standing for seats in Nigeria's Senate and 218 vying for a place in the House of Representatives. Five women will be on the ballot for governor in various states on Apr. 26 and many male gubernatorial aspirants have women as running mates.

Four hundred and ninety-five women will be hoping to be voted into the 36 State Houses of Assembly.

The statistics show declining success for women since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999. Just 631 women surmounted the challenge of party primaries to contest the roughly 1,900 positions in the 1999 elections. One hundred eighty-one actually made it into office.

In the 2007 elections, 660 women made it through party primaries, but only 93 gained office nation-wide.

Following the 2007 elections, Patricia Olubunmi Etteh was named as Speaker of the House, the highest political post achieved by a woman in Nigeria.

Supporting women candidates

Chibogu Obinwa of the NGO Baobab for Women Human Rights, based in Lagos, said, "We have come a long way and women activists have over the years advocated for increase in the number of women in positions of decision-making, whether elected or appointed. We believe that men and women should be given equal opportunities and also equal access to those opportunities."

But, referring to commitments coming from the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, Obinwa says the overall representation of women in politics remains dismal. "We have not even reached near the 35 percent affirmative action of the Beijing action which Nigeria endorsed."

Nigerian women who run for office face numerous obstacles, ranging from a lack of funds to run an effective campaign, discrimination within the party, low levels of education and a slew of cultural and religious barriers.

"The society is patriarchal and believes in subordination of women in all aspects of life including the political scene," says Obinwa. "Some of the reasons could also be in the way we interpret religion and culture. Women are seen as second class citizens, all culminating in the way women were represented in politics over the years."

Although Nigeria's 1999 constitution protects women's rights, women often find that in practice this guarantee is secondary to prevailing traditional and religious laws. Women who seek public office also encounter discrimination and resistance within political parties.

Abimbola Adeyeye, another female candidate, who has been active in politics since 1993, said women have always done much of the groundwork for male politicians and voted for them but too often they are then ignored as potential leaders.

Adeyeye, who left the Action Congress of Nigeria party which controls Lagos State to join the Labour party, told IPS that she made the switch because her candidacy for the Lagos State House of Assembly was rejected in favour of a man during the 2007 primaries.

She feels that advocacy by women's rights groups has led to the turnout of more women in this year's election.

"I am encouraging women to come out and join politics. We need to prove ourselves that we can do it. I am well-known in my community because I take part in all programmes including the monthly environment sanitation exercise and my people love me for that," Adeyeye said.

"We at the grassroots know the problem of our people and it is we the mothers that are affected more by non-performing politicians."

Obinwa agrees that advocacy can help more women to succeed in politics: "Activists are now on ground creating awareness and advocating for change and we hope it will get better and better."

As part of efforts to educate women aspirants in Lagos, Baobab for Women Human Rights recently organised a forum with some female candidates - the turnout was low, unfortunately, with candidates busy campaigning.

According to the Obinwa, the women who did attend confirmed that many of those who are truly committed to changing their communities were marginalised from the early stages of the electoral process.

Like Obinwa, Adeyeye believes things will get better for women.

"I have the belief that more women will be elected to the various positions during this election, and want to appeal to women to go out en masse and vote for women candidates so we can deliver the dividend of democracy to the grassroots," Adeyeye said.

The new elections timetable will see voting for the National Assembly on Apr. 2, with presidential elections following a week later. The staggered elections will conclude with voting for state governors and legislators on Apr. 26.

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