Women Shatter the Political Glass Ceiling in Africa's Most Populous Nation

Women Shatter the Political Glass Ceiling in Africa's Most Populous Nation

Why you should care

Nigeria’s female political candidates are contesting next year’s presidential elections like never before. 

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Eunice Atuejide’s face dripped hot sweat as she gesticulated toward a group of other female politicians gathered before her. They stood still, their face muscles taut with determination, as they chanted in unison: “No women, no nation!” It was a call to arms for Nigeria’s female politicians gathered at the 2018 General Elections Aspirants Summit (GEAS) in Abuja in August, held to support them in the country’s national polls next year. And it’s a call that’s resonating like never before.

For decades, Nigerian politics has remained a male stronghold, often snuffing out challenges from women even before they can seriously contest for top political posts. But as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy heads toward its 2019 national elections, Nigeria’s women are making an unprecedented push to upturn a political system that has so far denied them.

Atuejide, a lawyer and businesswoman, is one of three female candidates who have won nominations from their parties to contest the February presidential elections. Oby Ezekwesili, a chartered accountant, and Funmilayo Adesanya-Davies, a linguistics professor, are the other two who will join Atuejide in a field with 34 male candidates, including President Muhammadu Buhari. Never before has more than one woman contested in any Nigerian presidential election.

Nigeria’s female politicians are also receiving unprecedented financial support. The Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund (NWTF), founded in 2011 by public and private sector individuals to help female politicians fund campaigns, first received a grant of $15,000 in 2015 from the African Women’s Development Fund, which supports women’s groups. In July 2018, the AWDF increased the support to $138,800. Agencies like U.N. Women, through an advocacy program called Women and Democracy in Nigeria, are backing these efforts.

2018 is different from anything Nigeria has seen before with regards to women fighting for political space.

Veronica Pana Igube, Lagos-based lawyer and data analyst

Other domestic nonprofits are helping female politicians get their message out. The Centre for Democracy and Development runs a weekly radio show called Women Political Platform that focuses on female candidates. And through initiatives like the GEAS, female candidates are banding together to support one another against common challenges.

“We are working together to ensure that more women get through in the coming elections,” says Atuejide. “It doesn’t matter what political platform we are contesting on. We are all going to help each other.”

The road ahead is steep. Only 8 percent of representatives in the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, are women. Deep-seated patriarchy makes everything from campaigning to raising funding harder for women than for men. Nigeria is still a fledgling democracy — it suffered a series of military coups in the 1970s and 1980s — and incumbent officeholders are often hard to dislodge. The only women to contest the presidential elections include Sarah Jibril in 1992 and 2003, and Remi Sonaiya in 2015. Sonaiya didn’t make it through the primaries this time.

For sure, female politicians face tougher odds than their male counterparts in democracies around the world. The U.S. has yet to elect a woman president. In many European democracies, it has taken proportional representation, party-driven candidate selection and public election financing to give women a more level playing field. But the patriarchy that female candidates in Nigeria and its neighboring nations are up against extends well beyond the world of politics. Only Liberia in West Africa has had a woman as a full-fledged president: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from 2006 to 2018.

Ibrahim Muhammad Harram, a lecturer with Federal Polytechnic Damaturu in Yobe, in northeast Nigeria, says that while women have a special place in Islam, they aren’t suited for politics. Women “cannot withstand pressure” and can’t “handle leadership positions,” he claims, before suggesting that they’re best for bringing up children, “cooking and taking care of the home.” His views sound regressive, but they’re shared by many across Nigeria.

The country’s female politicians are also facing pushback from within Nigeria’s legislature. A Gender and Equal Opportunities (GEO) Bill that guarantees freedom for women from violence, equal opportunities in the workplace and remuneration and promotes girls’ access to education has languished in Parliament for eight years now. Two female senators, Stella Oduah and Abiodun Olujimi, are pressuring the legislature to take it up again — for the third time. The last time Parliament took up the bill, Sani Yerima, a male senator from Zamfara state in northwest Nigeria, led the successful campaign to strike it down. The country’s two biggest political parties, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party, have yet to nominate a woman for the presidential elections.

Men feel threatened by the prospect of women securing more opportunities than them through potential laws like the seemingly innocuous GEO Bill, suggests Veronica Pana Igube, a lawyer and data analyst based in Lagos.

But the rise of female candidates, and their increasingly uncompromising push for greater political space shows that change is afoot. “I see that in the future, Nigeria would be having more young and powerful women coming out to contest — 2018 is different from anything Nigeria has seen before with regards to women fighting for political space,” says Igube.

Indeed, male senators who back the GEO Bill say the draft legislation today enjoys the support of the vast majority in Parliament. Senator Gbolahan Dada from Ogun in southwest Nigeria puts the figure at around 90 percent in favor of the bill, saying, “We need more of the women to come out and take over the mantle of leadership.” Mohammed Ettu, a Lagos-based male politician, says women are “qualified to do a better job, unlike the average Nigerian men who would want to demonstrate the masculinity in them.”

These winds of change are reaching even Buhari’s own home. Female candidates have been pressing on major public figures to lend their support for women in politics — and they’ve won, among others, the support of Aisha Buhari, the first lady. This surge of women is also part of broader shifts sweeping Nigerian politics.

After more than a year of active campaigning on the streets and in the chambers of legislators under the Not Too Young to Run campaign, Nigeria’s youth earlier this year pressured Parliament into amending the country’s election law. Candidates can run for the presidency at the age of 35 now, as opposed to 40 before, and for the lower house of Parliament at the age of 25 instead of 30.

Without the amendment, Atuejide, who was 39 at the time she had to file her nomination earlier this year, would have had to wait another four years to contest. But she isn’t settling for just the right to run. “I am contesting to introduce policies that would benefit Nigeria as an entity,” she says. Atuejide, and the rest of Nigeria’s female politicians are eyeing the next glass ceiling.

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