It started very late, around 8 p.m. in the night. It was an indirect primary election. Only 110 delegates were to vote. The returning officer signed on a paper and gave each to cast their votes into a transparent bucket that served as the ballot box.
Abiodun Essiet, a nurse, gender activist and community development worker, contested in the primary, which was of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to nominate its councillorship candidate for Orozo Ward of Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) for the 2019 general elections.
Mrs Essiet had hopes of becoming the first woman elected councillor in the ward. But she did not make it out of the primary.
"After the voting was done, it was counted in front of everyone and the votes were 122. This depicts rigging because the number of votes was more than the number of delegates - 110.
"Instead of declaring the election null and void, it was declared inconclusive by the returning officer so as to give the electoral committee some power to decide on the election.
"The election guideline of our party stated that when votes counted are more than the numbers of delegates, such an election should be declared null and void and another election should be conducted. But the electoral committee supervising my council election decided not to do a rerun but used their veto power to elect a candidate for my ward... "
Mrs Essiet is one among many female politicians who participated in the primaries conducted by the 91 registered political parties for the 2019 general elections who have expressed worry over the process.
Though most of the women shared unrelated experiences, they, however, agreed that women were not given an even playing field, especially by the major parties which eventually led to the low number of women who emerged as party candidates.
This they said is a huge blow on the advocacy for more women in politics and has further dashed hopes for the 35 per cent affirmative action plan for women in political positions across the country at next year's polls.
"The decision of the electoral committee was influenced by money, godfatherism, gender, ethnicity and religion. I wrote a petition against the conduct of the election to the electoral committee and I am still waiting for a feedback", a frustrated Mrs Essiet explained.
"The party leaders were concerned about winning the general elections and wanted to anoint candidate that suite their own criteria rather than the candidate that would deliver the dividend of democracy to the community."
The Primaries - How women fared
All the parties participating in the elections have concluded their primaries. The aftermath of the process is, however, fraught with controversies which are yet to be quelled especially in the major parties, the ruling APC and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
According to the timetable issued by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the 2019 general elections, submission of candidates by political parties closed on December 3 for president and National Assembly elections, and December 17 for state elections.
The unofficial list collected by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) shows that five of the 91 registered political parties returned women as presidential candidates. Many parties are not fielding presidential candidates but are adopting candidates of mostly the major parties, making the race most likely another two-horse race between the APC and PDP.
In fact, many believe women in the presidential race are just there to "test the ground" and not actually to contest for the position.
In the unofficial list containing about 50 names, only nine women are running for Senate under the major parties (APC - four; PDP - five). Also the two major parties, APC and PDP, have no female governorship candidate. While three women are gunning for governorship seats under minor parties, other women candidates are either running for the House of Representatives or state House of Assembly.
Austin Aigbe, Senior programme officer of the CDD, a group championing the cause of inclusion of more women in politics, described the statistics as far below expectation and a shortfall from what obtained in previous years.
"Even though there was a record-breaking number of female aspirants ahead of the 2019 elections, the majority of them were sidelined during the primaries. I will argue that the electoral corruption against female candidates in the just concluded party primary, especially in the major parties, was monumental!
"I would not be surprised if there is a fall in the number of female members of the National Assembly after the 2019 general elections with the current number being 29 (seven in the Senate and 22 in the House of Representatives)."
Ebere Ifendu, President Women in Politics Forum (WIPF), also decried the low number of female candidates.
Stressing the need for political parties to embrace internal democracy so as to dismantle barriers affecting female candidates, she said the primaries did not favour women. But she said something could still be done within the window of substitution of candidates (for the state elections) to address the trend.
Ebere Ifendu, President Women in Politics Forum (WIPF)
"When we look back at the last primaries, we will discover that the number of women candidates at the National Assembly is small, even though we have 91 political parties", she explained.
Primaries: No Even Playing Field?
In majority of the primaries, there was no even playing field as many women and young people were either intimidated or threatened to step down or were simply screened out and replaced with their male competitors, Obiageli Ezekwesili, the presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), said in a recent interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
The former minister of education and solid minerals described the primaries as, "replete with undemocratic and opaque party practices, an absence of internal party democracy, the role of godfathers, money-in-politics, delegate system, electoral violence with threats and harassment of women and other harmful cultural practices."
She said, "Our dominant political parties of the (APC/PDP) elites have entrenched a primaries system that inherently makes the emergence of women and young candidates near impossible. Most party officials are men who have still not understood the importance of inclusion in the political process. With the men dominating the leadership of political parties, even when strong female candidates contest, they can be screened out to make way for the favoured male competitors. There were many such cases reported in the traditional and social media."
Though some female candidates that emerged from minor parties said the process was fair, others, however, accused the major parties of "sidelining" many candidates who ran under their platforms.
Christina Eligwe-Ude, a former consultant at the United Nations who had contested the APC primaries for the Orlu, Orsu and Oru East Federal Constituency in Imo State, was one of such "sidelined" candidates.
"As we approached the day of the APC primaries, all aspirants were summoned to come to the Government House for a 'mock primaries'. I went for the mock primaries and was told by the governor (Rochas Okorocha) not to bother buying form, that they were considering giving me an appointment," Mrs Eligwe-Ude, a development expert, narrated to this newspaper.
"In addition, he said I scored 87 per cent and another guy from Orlu, who's running for the same position scored 90 per cent. I stood there in awe, wondering how the governor came up with that percentage. I kept wondering why the governor chose to pick certain people to go and buy forms and told some to step down. That act was undemocratic and did not sit well with me. Right there in that hall, I decided that no man would determine my fate."
Mrs Eligwe-Ude left the APC for the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
"The SDP primaries were timely and transparent. There were only two aspirants for the seat. I got 65 votes while he got two votes. I was declared the winner and then I became a flag bearer of the SDP."
Adaora Onyechere, a former television broadcaster who emerged as flag bearer for Action Alliance, (AA), in the Imo State House of Assembly race, said her party primaries were tough as she contested against four men. "I, however, emerged based on the fair and transparent process of my party. But the primaries, in general, do not give hope to any inclusion for the women, as the process was highly botched and there were a lot of discrepancies.
"Many women even after buying forms of intent and intense lobbying were either excluded or threatened physically to drop their ambition. It is this worrying trend that has continued to widen the gap for women in politics, elections and policy-making."
Mercy Ayodele, a governorship candidate in the September 22 Osun governorship poll, had quite a different experience. She ran under the Restoration Party of Nigeria (RPN).
"My personal experience was fair because another male aspirant actually stepped down for me," she said.
Mrs Ayodele, however, described as "skewed" the current party structure the country is operating. "We need more women in strategic positions in the parties," she said.
35 per cent Affirmation Action Plan, a mirage?
In the 19 years of Nigeria's recent democracy, no woman has emerged president, vice president or even an elected governor.
In elective positions in Nigeria since 1999, a Fact Sheet by the CDD shows that women have not reached 10 per cent representation. Out of the 109 Senate seats, women occupied three in 1999, four in 2003, nine in 2007, and seven in 2011 and 2015.
Hope rose when the 35 per cent Affirmation Action bill was introduced. The bill seeks to zone and provide 35 per cent seats in government for women at the federal level and 20 per cent at the state level. This followed a struggle by many women organisations in Nigeria.
The 8th National Assembly, in July 2017, however, voted against the bill.
National Assembly Complex
The proposal failed at the upper legislative chamber as it garnered only the votes of 49 senators, instead of the 73 required to ensure the success of the bill.
Although the bill was passed at the House of Representatives with 248 votes, the fact that both chambers did not approve it means it failed to scale through.
This action did not go down well with a lot of women rights groups, associations, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), female senators and most Nigerian women who aspire to serve the nation.
Reacting to the situation then, the FIDA Nigeria described the failure of the bill as disappointing for the success of Nigeria's democracy. In a statement by its country Vice President, Inima Aguma, the group called on civil society organisations across the country and stakeholders to speak against the development.
Since then, campaigns have been geared towards the inclusion of more women in the 2019 elections. But the outcome of the primaries, many say, is a setback for that dream, making it seem a "mirage".
The Way Forward
The way forward, according to Mrs Ezekwesili, a former Vice-President of the World Bank, is for political parties to introduce a quota system for female candidates.
"Quotas can be powerful tools to quickly use in bridging the gulf as it stands today. There are deep worries among women that in 2019 we may even fall short of the current miserable seven per cent representation of women in the legislature.
"To address this, the parties may decide to set quotas that prescribe a certain higher percentage of women participation in vying for elective offices.
"However, there are limitations that may undermine quotas and the most important one is the variable quality of female contestants. Women would need to be more deliberate in pushing for their representation. There is an existing National Gender Policy which commits 35 per cent representation of women. Women need to make this a provision of law and constitution.
"However, women must be deliberate also in ensuring a high quality of candidates. Female candidates must satisfy the criteria of character, competence and capacity."
The National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Kola Ologbondiyan, did not respond or return calls, but that of the APC, Lanre Issa-Onilu, spoke on the issue.
Mr Issa-Onilu said the APC was already making deliberate steps to make sure women are well represented.
"We just constituted a National Peace and Reconciliation Committee and when you check the list you will see how many women were put into it. APC recognises the role of women in the polity and in everything we do, we not only provide them level playing field, we actually go a step further in making things much easier so they can have adequate representation."
Mr Aigbe of the CDD expressed hope.
"I think for the first time in Nigeria's political history, we have a huge number of females showing interest in political positions across the board. For instance, in the 2015 election, there was only one female presidential candidate, Prof Sonaiya of KOWA Party, this is unlike Dr Sarah Jibrin who couldn't secure her party's ticket in 2011. But now, there are five female presidential candidates, this is a great step.
"This, however, is not exactly the case in parties, classified as major!"
Concerned that the odds will still be stacked against women in the 2019 general elections, the CDD partnered PREMIUM TIMES to bring to fore the prospects, challenges and breakthroughs of female aspirants before and after next year's polls.
In the second phase of the partnership, female candidates will be profiled. In addition, a short video will be produced in the process so to engage citizens on social media.
This project is powered by Centre for Development and Democracy (CDD) with support from Ford Foundation. The initiative is aimed at enhancing issue-based campaigns ahead of the 2019 general elections.