By Dr. Ejiro J. Otive-Igbuzor
It has been one whole century since the 1922 Clifford Constitution introduced the electoral principle into Nigeria. Four elective seats were introduced by the constitution: three seats in Lagos and one in Calabar. But this epoch laid the foundation for women’s marginalisation in Nigerian politics as the franchise was restricted to men aged 21 or above with financial and other qualifications. The upshot of this was that women were rendered politically invisible: they could neither vote nor be voted for. Suffrage for women in the south was granted in the 1950s but it was not granted to northern women until the 1970s.
Nigeria has not departed much from that initial condition. Female political representation remains meager. The 2022 Global Gender Gap report places Nigeria among countries with the highest political empowerment gaps (about 96%). The existence of a National Gender Policy that provided for 35% affirmative action for women for a decade and a half (2006-2021) and long years of sensitisation, advocacy and activism have failed to level the playing field and narrow the gender gap. The new gender policy increases the affirmative action for women to 50%. It is likely to be observed in the breach like its predecessor. There are indications that the political representation of women may even dip further from the outcome of the 2023 general election.
Many countries across the world are using bold and innovative means to reduce the political under-representation of women. The latest trailblazers are Benin Republic and Sierra Leone, two smaller countries in our subregion. It is time to break the vicious cycle of women’s exclusion and marginalisation in Nigerian politics, which mirrors the marginalisation of women in other spheres of life. A new approach and radical corrective actions are needed because the historical and subsisting under-representation of women negates the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms and undermines Nigeria’s development.
Abysmally Low Representation of Women in Nigeria
Women’s representation in both elective and appointive posts has been historically low. The marginal increase recorded in the number of women in the national and state parliaments between the 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections witnessed a steady reversal/decline in the 2011, 2015 and 2019 elections. At the national parliament, women currently occupy seven out of 109 seats at the Senate and 13 out 360 seats at the House of Representatives. Also, out of the 36 states, there are 15 with no female members in their Houses of Assembly; nine states have only one female member each; the rest have two to four members with Cross River State having the highest number of females at five. As of November 2022, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) ranking of female representation in countries placed Nigeria at 183rd out of 187 countries assessed. Similarly, a ranking by Invictus Africa on percentage of female parliamentarians placed Nigeria last among 54 African countries. With female candidates for the 2023 elections accounting for just 10% of candidates, women’s representation is projected to remain low.
There is evidence that women’s low representation does not indicate a lack of qualification. The country has some of the most intelligent women on the planet. Many of these women currently occupy important positions and are making a difference in their fields, globally and locally. Among others, some of these distinguished women include the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Hajia Amina Mohammed, the Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and the newly appointed Board Chair of Women Political Leaders (WPL), Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili.
Women’s under-representation in politics is linked to multiple discriminatory factors fuelled by the prevalence of patriarchal beliefs and culture, political violence, political corruption, gendered clientelism, and ‘money politics’. Besides the huge sums required to fund the nomination process (some parties do provide waivers for women), the sheer amount of money required for the electioneering campaign and deployment of officers on election days is prohibitive for many women. Weak implementation of gender equality policies and laws is another factor. Women and men do not have a level playing-field in the political sphere, including in the knowledge and gimmicks of politics (women are the relatively new entrants to politics and have yet to break into the male collusive networks that serve as king makers).
Women’s Political Inclusion: A Fundamental Human Right and Good Economics
Political inclusion is a fundamental human right. The World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in 1995 declared that every individual with rights and responsibilities has an active role in development. Also, the 1999 Federal Constitution of Nigeria incorporates the federal character principle in Section 14 of the 1999 Constitution to reflect the nation’s geopolitical diversities in appointments and other instances. Scholars have argued that by the same token that zoning and rotation of appointed and elective offices among geopolitical diversities are justified by the federal character principle, Nigeria’s ‘gender character’ cannot be ignored. Women account for over 49% of the population. Also, there is evidence that women fought, alongside men, to enthrone democracy in Nigeria. They therefore deserve a place at the decision-making table.
Gender equality and women’s political inclusion is also good economics. A recent World Bank report estimates that, globally, countries are losing $160 trillion in human capital wealth due to differences in lifetime earnings between men and women (the gender pay gap). There is consensus that sustainable development is interlocked with gender equality. In addition to being a critical lever for the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), gender equality is a development goal in itself. SDG 5 seeks to ensure that nations end all forms of discrimination, achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Target 5.5 seeks to ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. Indicators that measure progress towards this result include:
- Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and local governments.
- Proportion of women in managerial positions.
Several empirical studies consistently link women’s political representation to better human development indices. In plain words, countries with more women in parliament have recorded reduced infant mortality, better education scores and higher standards of living. A study by Hornset & de Soysa (2022) titled ‘Does Empowering Women in Politics Boost Human Development? An Empirical Analysis, 1960–2018’ states that ‘results show robustly and consistently that women’s political empowerment is associated with equality of access to health and education, which broadens the accumulation of human capital’.
There is empirical evidence that women’s representation in politics improves the quality of and governments’ allocation to public services that benefit families. For example, research on panchayats (local councils) in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62% higher than in those with men-led councils. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found.
Fast-tracking Women’s Representation through Quotas
With regards to women’s political representation, global and regional trends demonstrate that gender quotas serve as effective vehicles to compensate for long years of women’s marginalisation (a reparation of sorts) and fast track their access to elective and appointive posts. Most countries across the world and in Africa with substantial numbers of women in parliaments have utilized one form of quota or another.
Three types of gender quotas are commonly used. These are reserved seats, legal candidate quotas (constitutional and/or legislative), and political party quotas (voluntary).
Reserved Seats – Incorporated in the Constitution and/or electoral laws, reserved seats serve to regulate the share by sex (or other parameter) of persons elected and guarantees a basic minimum for women, men, ethnic minorities, youth, persons with disabilities and other marginalised groups. Examples of countries that have adopted this method include Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, among others.
Legal Candidate Quotas– This requires that political parties nominate a certain minimum of women or a minimum / maximum for both sexes. Defaulting parties are sanctioned or their lists rejected.
Voluntary Political Party Quotas – These quotas are self-imposed and temporary measures adopted by political parties to redress years of marginalisation and may be abandoned once a level-playing field is achieved. Danish left-wing parties, for example, cancelled the quota system in the mid-1990s. Over 30 countries across the world currently use voluntary quotas to address gender inequality in representation. These countries include Norway, Sweden, Germany, ANC in South Africa etc.
Gender Quotas Move the Needle: Evidence from Other Climes
Parliamentary quotas have become popular as vehicles to fast-track women’s representation and has been recorded in 137 countries globally. According to IDEA, countries that utilise quotas have an average female representation of 27.6% and those that do not have far less representation.
The case for gender quotas is underscored by the dramatic increase in women’s representation recorded by countries that have taken the bold step to utilise one form or another.
Thirty Percent Affirmative Action Guarantee for Women in Rwanda
In 2003, a constitutional amendment in Rwandaincorporated a reserved quota of at least 30% of positions in decision-making organs. ‘The constitutional principle of equal participation in political life is also reflected in various laws. The Law on Political Organisations requires all political organisations to constantly reflect gender equality and complementarity, whether in the recruitment of members, leadership, and operations and activities.’ The dramatic leap in the percentage of women’s representation from 26 in 2002 to 49 in 2003is attributed to the incorporation of reserved seats in the Constitution. Today, Rwanda has the highest percentage of women’s parliamentary representation in the world (61.25% in its Lower House).
24 Reserved Parliamentary Seats for Women in Republic of Benin
Benin had a history of women’s under-representation, despite the existence legal and policy frameworks that provided for gender equality. As of April 2019, women accounted for only 6% of parliamentarians. A 2019 Constitutional revision increased the number of seats from 83-109 with twenty-four (24) seats reserved exclusively for women (Art. 144, Loi N. 2019-43 du 15 Novembre 2019).
Article 145 of the Code requires political parties to present their lists of candidates in all electoral constituencies. Each list must include the same number of candidates as there are seats to be filled, including one woman and her substitute, specially presented under the reserved seats section. With the use of reserved seats, voluntary party quotas and legislated quotas for the single/lower house, 28 of 109 (26%) seats in the Assemblee nationale / National Assembly are held by women.
Through Legislated Quotas, Senegal Leads the Way in West Africa
Senegal has successfully deployed legislated quotas to significantly increase women’s representation in its parliament. The Law on Parity, adopted in 2010,provides for a 50/50 gender quota in all elective positions in all levels of government. Senegal currently leads the way in West Africa. Its unicameral parliament has achieved 43% (71 out of 165 seats in the Assemblée nationale) female inclusion, up from 22.7% representation before the law was passed.
With a 2023 Law, Sierra Leone Guarantees 30% Affirmative Action for Women
Sierra Leone, a post war country, recorded its highest level of women’s representation in 2002 at 15% (from 9% in 1999), then a decline to 13% in 2007 and 2008 where it has stagnated since. The country adopted a proportional representation system and conducted its first election in 2002, post war. This led to an increase in the number of females elected as parliamentarians. The proportional representation system was, however, abandoned in 2007. This may be one reason, among others, for the decrease in the number of women elected since the 2007 elections.
On 19 January, 2023, the president of Sierra Leone signed into law the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Act. The act provides for at least 30% of affirmative action for women in parliamentary elections. It also demands that similar quotas be applied in other institutions, including local councils, the diplomatic corps and the civil service. The law is radical; it stipulates that at least 30% of jobs in the private sector be held by women (for companies with 25 or more employees) and extends maternity leave from 12 to 14 weeks. According to the law, employers who default risk fines ($2,580) plus jail terms of up to three years. It is envisaged that the upcoming presidential, parliamentary, mayoral and local council elections, scheduled for July 2023 will result in higher representation of women.
Uganda Boosts Women’s Representation with Constitutional Quotas
Article 78 of the Ugandan Constitution on Composition of Parliament expressly states that: Parliament shall consist of (a) members directly elected to represent constituencies; (b) one woman representative for every district (c) such numbers of representatives of the army, youth, workers, persons with disabilities and other groups as Parliament may determine. In addition, Section 180 (b) ensures that one third of the members of each local government council are women. Women’s inclusion has increased to 32.8% in parliament, 30% in local government councils and 20% to 30% in cabinet, as well as judicial and constitutional bodies. The composition of district councils according to the Local Government Act, 1997, includes women councilors directly forming one third of the council.
Towards Reversing Women’s Under-Representation in Nigeria
Lessons from other climes, including Africa, south of the Sahara clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of quotas in fast-tracking women’s political representation. Nigeria needs to take a cue. The struggle for better representation of women in leadership and governance continues to meet with stiff resistance. Weak implementation of gender equality policies combined with patriarchal and cultural biases against women continue to deny the entire populace the development benefits interlocked with women’s participation in governance.
In Nigeria, several proposals have been made. The Uwais Report of 2008 on electoral reforms proposed a combination of first-past-the-post and modified proportional representation for legislative elections at all levels. This included the creation of 108 additional seats in the House of Representatives to be filled by proportional representation, as well as 30% women representation in party lists for those new seats.
During the last constitutional review exercise in Nigeria (March2022), five gender equality bills were submitted by gender equality advocates. All five bills were rejected. The rejected bills are:
- The Affirmative Action Bill is to specifically amend Section 223 of the 1999 Constitution to ensure women occupy at least 35% in political party administration and appointive positions;
- The Bill on Ministerial or Commissioner Nomination is to among others, amend Sections 147 and 192 of the 1999 Constitution so that at least 35% of the nominees are women;
- The Reserved Seats Bill is to among others, amend sections 48, 49 and 91 of the 1999 Constitution to create additional 37, 74, and 108 seats for women at the Senate, House of Representatives, and the State Assemblies respectively.
- The Bill on citizenship which seeks to amend Section 26 to grant citizenship to foreign husbands of Nigerian women as is currently guaranteed in Section 26(2)(a) of the 1999 Constitution for foreign wives of Nigerian men;
- The Indigeneity Bill is to among other issues, address sections 31 and 318(1) of the 1999 Constitution to allow women to claim their husbands’ state of origin after at least five years of marriage.
It is obvious that 2023 may not be the magic year for groundbreaking changes to women’s representation in Nigeria: women make up only 10% of candidates for elections taking place in the next few weeks. But we see hope if:
- The incoming government commits to reflecting Nigeria’s ‘gender character’ in appointments whilst implementing the federal character principle enshrined in the Section 14 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
Implements the 50% affirmative action clause in all appointments as directed by the new National Gender Policy (2021-2026).
- The incoming 10th Assembly, as a matter of urgency, re-visits and passes the five gender equality bills listed above.
As Oliver Jean Patrick Nduhungirehe, puts it, promoting gender equality ‘is not just a box-ticking exercise, it is a key to unlock the full potential of any society, organisation, or indeed country. It must, therefore, be an absolute priority, and should be hard-wired in all government policies.’
Ultimately, Nigerians need to recognise that gender equality and women’s political inclusion are not a favour done to women, neither is it exclusively a ‘women’s issue’. It is an issue that augurs well for economic growth and human capacity development. A convergence of efforts and inclusion of all pressure groups in and outside of Nigeria is therefore needed to push for the passage of these bills and the implementation of existing policies so that the ‘giant of Africa’ is not left behind.
— Dr. E. Otive-Igbuzor, a gender/social inclusion expert and M&E specialist, is the lead author of Agora Policy’s report on ‘How to Deepen Gender, Social and Political Inclusion in Nigeria.’)
— Faith Adeniyi, a programme officer at Agora Policy, contributed to this paper.
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 Ambassador of Rwanda to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, non-resident Ambassador to the Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania