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Nigerian elections: Africa’s giant is leaving half its population behind

by Shola Lawal February 20, 2023

This article was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on February 20, 2023. Subscribe here.

When Amina Oyagbola, a former executive in corporate Nigeria, thinks about the number of women in elected positions in her country, she says the word that comes to mind is “shameful.”

Only 21 of Nigeria’s 469 parliamentarians are women, a mere five percent. That’s why her group, Women in Successful Careers or WISCAR, has pivoted to raise funds for female candidates in February 25 general elections. The group was founded mainly to spotlight leading African women, and this is one of the most crucial votes in Nigeria’s democratic history. 

The country, where I’m from, is  battling mounting economic insecurity. People are frustrated — the tension here is so palpable you could cut through it with a knife. It seems to me that  these hardships are propelling many who would usually not vote to go out and cast their ballots, hoping for a new start.

One of the things the country needs to change most urgently is its dismal numbers on female representation in politics, Oyagbola tells me. 

Nigeria has one of the most male-dominated legislatures in the world, ranking 182 out of 186 countries in terms of gender parity in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Meanwhile, Rwanda, much smaller and with fewer resources than Nigeria, tops the global list with almost 50 percent of its lawmakers being female. South Africa, a major regional player like Nigeria, has the 11th most equal legislature.

The imbalanced legislature is hardly representative of a country where women make up nearly half of the 200 million population, and from where world leaders like Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the head of the World Trade Organization, and Amina J Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General, have emerged.

The stark inequalities have serious implications. The country’s abortion laws are among the most restrictive globally, as I have reported. And until January 2023, policewomen were banned from getting pregnant outside of marriage, while even today spousal rape is not recognized as a crime under Nigerian law.

Hawwah Gambo, one of the few female candidates in these elections, tells me a patriarchal culture that conditions women to believe they don’t need to aspire for leadership roles, and pits women against each other, is the main culprit.

Gambo is from northern Nigeria, where women have historically been even more disadvantaged. People have said to her face that supporting her would be “a wasted investment,” but she says it hurts the most when it comes from women.

Funding is another big obstacle. Elections here are combative and money is a tool to buy influence and get people’s votes. But women control very little capital in Nigeria, Oyagbola reminds me, and those who have it are often scared to venture into politics. She says the laws must urgently enforce female participation. But that may not happen for a while yet. Nigeria’s male-dominant parliament struck down a bill last March that sought to mandate a compulsory 35 percent female quota in parliament, and another 35 percent quota for female candidates nominated by political parties. Despite fiery protests by women who camped at Parliament and promises of a review, nothing has changed.

Things look bleaker now. Fewer women are running for positions this time than in the last general elections in 2019.

“Women need to seize power,” Oyagbola says when I ask what needs to be done to change. Without a law to see more women pass through the political pipeline, Oyagbola and her foundation, WISCAR, are focusing on mobilizing funds.

Her organization’s pivot to political fundraising is new, uncomfortable territory, Oyagbola tells me, instigated by Chimamanda Adichie, acclaimed Nigerian writer and feminist who WISCAR spotlighted last December. Oyagbola, a corporate executive not fond of politics, says she first tried to evade that conversation. But Adichie pressed and pushed, asking Oyagbola privately: “Can we do something?”

By January, WISCAR and Adichie had raised millions of naira and passed it on to the likes of Gambo.

Those donations have helped immensely, Gambo tells me, although she adds that her campaign team is “still scraping by.”

WISCAR is not alone: ElectHerNG, wants to help female candidates monitor the elections and guard against rigging. WARDC and the 100 Women Lobbying Group are pushing for more inclusion too.

Some female candidates believe that many Nigerians, unimpressed with the male-led political establishment, will seek to change the status quo going forward.

“Everywhere I go people tell me: the men have failed us, we want to try a woman,” Gambo tells me.

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