Women’s participation in Nigeria’s politics is moving backward: A call for action

Image by Giovana Fleck.

Despite Nigeria's position as Africa's most populated country, with over 200 million people, and a female population of 49.46 percent according to the World Bank, women's representation in politics remains alarmingly low.

While women have equal rights to vote and contest elections as men do, these rights have not translated into enough representation for women in politics in Nigeria. According to the 2022 Gender Equality and Governance Index report, Nigerian women occupy only 8 of 109 seats in the lower house of parliament and 21 of 360 seats in the upper house. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reported that approximately 44 million women, or 48 percent of registered voters, participated in the 2023 elections. Nevertheless, the outcomes and unfortunate incidents that unfolded during the 2023 general elections underscore the challenges and obstacles faced by women voters, aspirants, and candidates.

Male bias in parliament

The Nigerian parliament's bias against gender equality and affirmative action frustrates progress. Its predominantly male parliament has consistently opposed legislation that seeks to grant women equal rights, voting against various bills aimed at implementing affirmative action for women. Here is a tweet by the Nigerian parliament retracting its decision on some gender equality bills:

In response to these decisions, women across the country took to the streets to protest and urged the National Assembly to reconsider these bills. 

Frequent attacks on women

The prevalence of intimidation, harassment, cyberbullying and physical attacks on female politicians, as well as voters is a key obstacle to advancing women’s political participation. Hajia Gambo Sawaba, the most jailed woman politician in Nigeria’s history, was publicly flogged, had her hair shaved off with a broken bottle and was imprisoned 16 times.

During the 2023 presidential and National Assembly elections in Nigeria, several women — both voters and political leaders — became targets of violence. For instance, Hon. Na’anyil Magdalene Dakogol, an aspirant for the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the Qua'an Pan South State constituency of Plateau, was kidnapped on the day her party conducted the primaries election. In another incident, a woman was assaulted by political thugs wielding bottles while waiting in line to cast her vote at a polling unit in the Surulere area of Lagos State. In another incident, a woman had to flee her home because of attacks on her village. The traumatic experiences of these women and others have led to a loss of interest in voting and political engagement.

Cultural and societal beliefs

Sheba Kura, the former women’s political leader of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC)  in Kaduna State, northern Nigeria, told Global Voices via a phone interview that marital obligations often restrict women’s active participation in politics as many political meetings are held late at night hours, among other challenges:

I probably wouldn’t be a politician if I was married. Sometimes, political meetings are scheduled for 11:00 p.m. or 12:00 a.m. For married women, some of their husbands won’t allow that. Also, when it’s time for campaigns, they will use women to campaign for them but after they win, they will dump women. When you go to polling units, a lot of voters are women but when it comes to working with women or giving women appointments after elections, they don’t want to work with us.

While speaking about the barriers faced by female politicians in a Twitter space entitled “Female Political Candidates With SPPG” on August 13, 2022, Khadijah Abdullahi-Iya, a governorship candidate for the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Niger state said:

One of my sisters-in-law told me that the (opposing) APC gubernatorial candidate is like my husband’s family. They are related. You cannot be part of that family and want to run against him.

High cost of campaigning

The high cost of campaigning is also a significant barrier to women's participation in politics in Nigeria. The 2022 Gender Equality and Governance Index report shows that running a political campaign has become prohibitively expensive, creating a significant disadvantage for women. Economic disparities often prevent women from accessing the same financial support systems available to men. Despite the expectation that a recent amendment to the Nigerian Electoral Act would curb campaign spending, it instead resulted in escalated campaign costs. Consequently, this increase has further limited the already small group of women who can afford to run for office and has contributed to the homogenization of the political landscape.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report also highlights the escalating financial challenges faced by women, with campaign costs reaching unprecedented levels in recent years. This financial barrier perpetuates gender inequalities, restricting women's representation in politics and undermining their ability to actively participate in decision-making processes.

While speaking about the barriers faced by women politicians in a Twitter space entitled “Female Political Candidates With SPPG” on August 13, 2022, Ier Jonathan-Ichaver, an African Democratic Congress (ADC) candidate for House of Representatives for the Kwande-Ushongo constituency noted:

Of course the other big challenge for many people is funding. So when we were even talking to people, we see for example the prices of tickets when you want to run for a particular position. We saw for example one of the parties it was 100 million for presidency and so on and so forth.

Benefits of women in politics

The benefits of women's representation in Nigerian politics are evident, according to the 2022 Gender Equality and Governance Index report. The report shows that countries with higher levels of female representation, such as France, Sweden, South Africa, and Rwanda, tend to exhibit family-friendly and diverse policy-making. Women promote fairness, transparency, and impartiality while prioritizing improved service delivery. They often propose structural reforms that address inequities, provide social safety nets, and contribute to greater social and economic sustainability. Additionally, the report revealed that studies indicate a positive correlation between higher levels of gender equality, women's political participation, and better overall governance, with significantly lower levels of corruption. In comparison, Nigeria ranks low in female representation in parliament and struggles with corruption. However, by embracing more inclusive representation, Nigeria has the potential to address these challenges and foster a more inclusive and empowered society. Women's representation in politics holds the promise of promoting inclusive policies, diverse perspectives, and gender equality while inspiring future generations of women leaders.

Addressing the barriers impeding Nigerian women's political participation is crucial for achieving true gender equality and inclusive governance. The resistance from a male-dominated parliament, frequent attacks on women, cultural and societal beliefs, and the high cost of campaigns collectively hinder the progress of women in Nigerian politics. Reforms are needed to promote gender equality legislation, protect women from violence, challenge traditional norms, and provide financial support for aspiring female politicians. By creating an enabling environment that values and supports the active participation of women in politics, Nigeria can harness the full potential of its diverse population and ensure a more equitable and representative democracy.

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