SISTERS IN PROGRESS
- of women and politics in Nigeria
- of women and politics in Nigeria
by Celestine Chukwu
It is a hard fact that most Nigerian women of vision balk at the challenge of engaging in politics and vying for elective positions, but would rather devote their considerable energies to business and corporate service. It is also a crying shame, for since pre-colonial times, the input of women was always a vital factor in governing the geopolitical environment now known as Nigeria. A female ruler like Zaria’s Queen Amina is famous in antiquity for military leadership; Ile-Ife’s Moremi and Idia of Benin were noted for displaying uncommon statecraft and political guile.
The colonial experience was a retrogressive phase for women in politics and governance in Nigeria, as women played a much less prominent role in Britain than in Nigeria at the time. Traditional Nigeria society had developed a public role for women that was far in advance of their British counterparts. Through instituting male–only native authorities and customary laws (formulated by male colonial officials in concert with indigenous male allies) that placed women at a disadvantage in terms of inheritance, marriage and social rights, the colonials effectively shut down what was until then a very progressive system of female participation in the governance of traditional Nigerian societies. The natural patriarchal structures of these societies, now strengthened by the ‘female zero-tolerance’ mode of colonial authority, ensured that women thenceforth were perpetually on the backburner. In addition, the shift in emphasis to western education for social mobility meant that girls were further disadvantaged, since families preferred to devote their, often meagre, resources to educating boys, who, unlike the girls, were guaranteed progress within the colonial structure.
The undeniably key role the modern Nigerian woman plays in ensuring the survival of the Nigeria family, especially in the face of tough economic challenges, has made her a particularly resourceful manager and decision-maker. This combined with the innate feminine instinct for nurturing means our women are particularly responsive by default to our needs as a society and polity, and therefore represent a resource, which if deliberately harnessed could vitally boost the country’s political culture.
But the obstacles to women flourishing in politics in a developing country like Nigeria are myriad. Firstly, women are averse to violence. Unfortunately, wanton political violence and thuggery are major features of politics and elections in Nigeria. This alone is enough to make any right-thinking woman stay out of Nigerian politics. She only has to remember the chilling story of Meimuna Joyce Katai, Commissioner for Women Affairs in Nassarawa State, who was murdered in cold blood by political thugs when she attempted to prevent them from seizing ballot boxes at a polling unit during the House of Assembly elections in May 2003. Moreover, to succeed politically, a woman must canvass funds; and there she will face some cultural resistance, as some sections of the society, especially in Sharia-practicing Northern Nigeria, still find the connotations of a married woman asking other men for money unsavoury.
The modern epoch of women in Nigerian politics can be traced to the rise to prominence at the tail end of the colonial era of women like Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Hajia Gambo Sawaba and Margaret Ekpo. They became notable elements in the emergent corps of political elite in early post-colonial Nigeria. The political profile of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, one of the few women to be in the inner caucus of the regional government of Western Nigeria, and mother of Afrobeat originator, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, reached near legendary status as a result of her role during the succession palaver of the Alake of Egbaland in Southwest Nigeria during the 1960s.
The involvement of women in the politics of Nigeria since independence in 1960 has of course been hampered by twenty-nine years of military rule (or misrule - whichever way you may want to look at it!). The unstable polity of intervening years of quasi-democracy did not help in encouraging politically-minded women. With the restoration of democratic governance in 1999, the irrepressible Nigerian woman has again bopped up like a jack-in-a-box. A few of them now relieve the scene at the gentlemen clubs of federal and state legislatures and executives, but mere tokenism is still the status quo. Florence Ita-Giwa and Daisy Danjuma were the female stars of the senate chamber in the early years of return to democratic rule, where they were outnumbered 25 to 1 by men, and in the Federal House of Representatives, former TV journalist, Abike Dabiri held it down for the women. Significantly though, they, together with the sprinkling of other female federal and state legislators (and appointees in the executive who are women), bear an extra burden, for due to the exigencies of the feminine agenda in the suffocating environment from which they emanate, they must not only represent their constituencies but also every woman everywhere in Nigeria.
Ever since India’s Indira Gandhi became the world’s first elected female ruler in 1966, there has been a slew of female presidents and prime ministers on every continent except (until 2005) Africa; the Philippines has had two female presidents since the 1980’s. With the election in November 2005 of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa finally has her first female leader. Now, Nigeria, already renowned for being always on the African cutting edge, cannot be too far behind, and you just get the feeling that somewhere somehow, in some distinguished or obscure political caucus, like a pearl patiently being crafted by the sea, there’s a Nigerian female president-in-waiting!