Nigerian women are breaking down barriers, elbow up to the political table

For months Martha Agba canvassed her bid to be the first woman to represent her constituency in the Nigerian House of Representatives, under the banner of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

But at party primaries, a man shouted at him.

Why We Wrote It

Women have long been excluded from political power in Africa’s most populous country. Pushed back against an aging political elite that has held the reins of power for decades, the coming generation is slowly changing that.

“Go and get married and take care of your wife’s house!” The audience laughed in response.

Si Ms. Agba, who did not get a party nomination for Cross River state, said such opportunities were par for the course in a country where women rarely get a seat at the political table. Only seven of Nigeria’s 109 senators are women, and 11 of the 360 ​​members of the House of Representatives are women.

But before the election in February 2023, increasing but significant changes are happening.

Si Ms. Agba is one of about 700 women hoping to get a ticket to the APC, more than double the number in the previous election.

Some succeed. In March, Emana Duke Ambrose-Amawhe shrugged off violent threats to get the nomination of the deputy governor candidate in her state.

Both the ruling APC and the opposition People’s Democratic Party say they are addressing the problem, including scrapping the standard tens-of-thousands-dollar nomination fee for female candidates.

“This system that restricts women cannot last forever,” Ms. Agba.

CALABAR, NIGERIA

On the morning of Nigeria’s legislative primary, Martha Agba woke up with confidence. She hopes to be the first woman to represent her constituency in the House of Representatives, and has spent several months canvassing everything from women’s organizations to local leaders. Now, it is up to his party, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), to be confident that he will be the best candidate in the election early next year.

He knew it would be a difficult career, but he hoped it would be fair.

A few minutes after the chaotic event, while he was talking to the other delegates, a man beckoned to him and started shouting.

Why We Wrote It

Women have long been excluded from political power in Africa’s most populous country. Pushed back against an aging political elite that has held the reins of power for decades, the coming generation is slowly changing that.

“Go and get married and take care of your wife’s house!” he remembers him shouting, while the spectators laughed in response.

Si Ms. Agba, who is in his late 20s, tried to delete the comment.

“It wasn’t the first time I was told to get married and leave politics for men,” he said.

Ms. did not get. Agba is the party’s nomination to represent Cross River, a former oil -producing state with 3.7 million residents where political power wields enormous power.

But beyond a personal defeat, her defeat was part of a trend that has plagued Nigerian politics for decades: Women rarely get a seat at the political table.

As Nigerians go to the polls to elect their president, governor, and legislator in February 2023, the situation turns out to be darker than ever. With the exception of the 1999 polls, which marked Nigeria’s transition from military rule to democracy, this year was the first time there were no women on the presidential ballot.

At the state and local levels, where bitter, winner-take-all contests are considered a barometer of the country’s democracy, the odds are slightly better. This year, less than 10% of the nominees from the two major political parties are women.

Despite this, the number of women running for office is increasing – Ms. Agba is one of about 700 women hoping to get a ticket to the APC, which party officials say more than double the number in the previous run.

In general, a handful of wealthy people, taken from a small ruling elite, have dominated the field for decades. But with the advent of the new generation, women are pushing to reverse long -entrenched barriers that prevent anyone who is not male, wealthy, or stabbed in the political elite.

There are more women in the room

Not always like this.

In the 1960s, women played prominent roles in the political arena of newly independent Nigeria-most famously, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of legendary Afrobeats musician and anti-government activist Fela Kuti; and Margaret Ekpo, a trailblazing grassroots women’s activist, are among the few high-profile women with significant influence in public life.

Nigeria today still boasts an impressive class of women entrepreneurs and actresses, but the political representation of women is declining under global indices. Only seven of the 109 senators are women, and only 11 of the 360 ​​members of the House of Representatives are women. A bill seeking to reserve a certain number of political positions for women failed on first reading in March this year.

Because getting the nomination of the party itself depends on winning the favor of those in the top echelon, Ms. explained. Agba, “getting more women in that area means more women are in the room when the decision is made.” But the view from above is often discouraging – Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, early in his tenure, was criticized for saying his wife was in the kitchen, living room, and other rooms. of my house. ”

Gender inequality is widespread in Africa’s most populous country: only 53% of women have completed secondary school education, compared with two-thirds of men. And gender violence is surprisingly high-meaning that while violence and intimidation are consistent on the Nigerian political scene, targeted attacks on women have created additional barriers to entry, say campaigner.

In March, Emana Duke Ambrose-Amawhe campaigned for the nomination of the House of Representatives for the People’s Democratic Party, another major political party of Nigeria.

Wearing a black face mask with ‘EMANA’ written on the front, he was talking to a crowd when he heard a commotion nearby. Suddenly men armed with bottles and machetes rushed into the field towards him, causing the people to flee.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “They were just there to create fear, rob me, and cripple my campaign.”

After he refused to bow to the race, some members staged a protest outside the party headquarters where they shouted, “Emana, go back to the kitchen.”

Ms.’s perseverance paid off. Ambrose-Amawhe: He was later elected as the candidate for deputy governor in his state.

Emana Duke Ambrose-Amawhe, an aspirant formerly for the Akpabuyo seat, Bakassi, Calabar South Federal House of Representatives and then a candidate for governor of Cross River state, is meeting with members of the People’s Democratic Party in Bakassi, Cross River state, Nigeria, March 24, 2022.

Breaking barriers

The mistreatment of Nigerian women in politics is rooted in a culture that promotes marriage as the ultimate goal for women, said Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, executive director of Spaces for Change, a female empowerment nonprofit.

“The Nigerian woman is [considered] that has no roots and is only assigned to where a man wants him to be, which in most cases is nowhere to be found, ”he said.“ Women are [expected] don’t do serious things like politics – [they] must be seen and not heard. “

And even after marriage, the problem persists.

“If the woman is married and wants to fight in her husband’s place [of origin], reminded him that he was not one of them and he should return to his father, ”said Ms. Ibezim-Ohaeri, referring to a common view that women belong to their husbands. “And when he goes back to his father, he remembers that he got married and is no longer part of it.”

Ironically, avoiding stable men is one of the few ways for women to access politics. From the beginning of the country’s democracy until 2015, approximately 46% of all women elected to the Nigerian Senate were the wife or child of a prominent male politician, Ayisha Osori said in a 2019 interview with the Monitor. Si Ms. Osori is a longtime gender equality activist who was unsuccessful in the 2014 main bid for the National Assembly.

Dr. Betta Edu, the national women’s leader of the ruling APC, said the party had taken concrete steps to address the problem. Applying as a nominee is free for women this year, rather than the usual tens of thousands of dollars, she says.

“In the past, we had women who said, ‘We can’t afford the form, we are vulnerable, we are unable,’ but now [they] given the platform, ”he said.

The People’s Democratic Party, the main opposition party, also scrapped nomination fees. In doing so, the party has “created an enabling environment for women to participate in politics,” said Stella Atoe, a professor of African history and gender studies and the party’s national women’s leader.

More than 250 women – out of a total of 1,487 positions – have indicated interest in running for office under the People’s Democratic Party, Ms. Atoe.

But most candidates say the free nomination forms are a token gesture that does not address deep issues.

“The process after [applying] still expensive, ”Ms. Agba points out. “Free nomination forms will only be an advantage in a society that sees women as equal. When we deal with that, free forms might make sense.”

However, despite the possibilities piled against him, he said he and his peers have no intention of withdrawing from future races.

“There is an army of knowledgeable women entering politics, and they are ready to destroy any barrier that tries to stop them,” Ms. Agba. “This system that restricts women cannot last forever.”