The sudden withdrawal of female presidential front-runner, Oby Ezekwesili, from the 2019 elections barely one month to the polls threw into disarray rising gender equality discourse, particularly the hope that this election would place women squarely on the map of internal party negotiation and political power contestation, which her candidacy had inspired.
Although just one of the six females among the 73 presidential candidates, her candidature was significant insofar as she was a direct repudiation of the gendered narratives that portray women candidates as incompetent and unable to compete in the world of politics. Her withdrawal, therefore, highlights women’s continued marginalisation in electoral processes in Nigeria, both in terms of participation in electoral offices and as beneficiaries of the dividends of democracy. While women make up 47 per cent of registered voters for the 2019 elections, only eight per cent were cleared to vie for electoral positions in today’s presidential elections. Further more, all six women presidential candidates have withdrawn their candidacy and will not be standing for elections with their male counterparts even though their names remain on the ballot box. By all indications, women can expect to remain a significant minority in elected offices in this election cycle.
In today’s federal elections– Presidency, Senate and House of Representatives– women’s candidature is unimpressive. For the presidential elections, men swamp women by a 12:1 ratio. Women’s presidential candidature stands at eight per cent. At the National Assembly, women’s candidature is only 12 per cent of the total seats available, given that a total of 763 women are vying for seats for the Senate and House of Representatives out of 6,563 places available. Simply put, at eight and 12 per cent candidature for the presidential and National Assembly elections, respectively, the prospects for gender parity in Nigeria remains a distant dream.
Women’s minimal participation in Nigeria has multi-dimensional implications for the democratic project in Nigeria and for the continuing quest for gender equality in Africa’s biggest economy. The 2019 elections will be the sixth consecutive general elections since the beginning of the fourth republic in 1999. This marks what is undoubtedly a measure of democratic progress, if only for conducting periodic elections since the return to civil rule. What remains deeply in doubt, however, is how inclusive this progress has been and, in particular, to what extent women have benefited from the democratic dividend of equality and fairness.
As gender issues and women’s political and economic empowerment take centre stage on the global arena, Nigeria appears intent on maintaining its position at the bottom of the ladder of women’s political empowerment. 2018 data show that women’s rates of participation in formal decision making remain one of the lowest on the continent and across the world with women occupying an abysmal 5.6 per cent (86 out of 1534) of all elective positions at both the national and subnational levels.
Mrs Ezekwesili was considered in domestic and international circles to be one of the most qualified of the crowded field of 73 presidential aspirants and certainly the most qualified and viable of the women presidential candidates. Although she ran on the platform of one of the much smaller political parties, her extensive popularity could well have placed her to take the lead above newer contestants, placing her third place in a political space dominated by Nigeria’s two main political parties, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Her dramatic withdrawal, therefore, dealt a blow not only to her fans but also to advocates of gender equality and women’s political participation. Her engagement in and of itself signalled that women are taking politics seriously and should, therefore, be taken seriously as well. But in the days since her withdrawal, the snickering dismissiveness this has attracted and her unsuccessful attempt at re-framing the narrative put out by her party officials has put a damper on the soaring hope that her candidacy inspired. Although one cannot prove the counterfactual, the idea that this state of events might further exacerbate the gender gap in voter turnout as her female fans sit out the election is not far-fetched.
Trends in women’s marginalisation also show a disturbing reversion in some of the gains women have made in recent electoral cycles. This reduction is typified by the reduction in 2015 of the number of women in elective and appointive positions in 2011. This negative trend is set to replicate itself in 2019 going by the intentional or unintentional exclusion of women’s participation and voice in high stakes discussion of politics in Nigeria. Once again, gender and women’s issues fail to move the needle of the national discourse, with themes of insecurity, the economy, and corruption dominating the debates. Perhaps, the sidelining of women is now worsened by Mrs Ezekwesili’s withdrawal from the presidential contest.
The preceding bleak picture of the reality of women’s political participation notwithstanding, one might have one or two reasons to remain optimistic that women’s dogged determination and refusal to quit may sometime in the not too distant future force a change in the political environment and dislodge the intractable male domination of politics and power in Nigeria. Perhaps, we are witnessing its beginning in this election. This election cycle saw a record number of women aspirants and women candidates emerge. Of course, women’s rate of successful political contest is a different issue altogether. The laundry list of factors that shape women’s continued marginalisation from formal political power has not diminished but continues to grow. One of the culprits – identity politics – has in recent times assumed monstrous proportions as its divisiveness has deepened and widened in ways that have institutionalised its specific exclusion of women.
All too often, women get blamed for their exclusion. They are usually either not working hard enough, not strong enough, political sell-outs for either personal benefits or being manipulated by men, not smart or savvy enough or not invested enough. Sadly, these narratives are all correct – to certain extents. Women are social actors, fully aware and engaged in the social, economic and political processes that shape the state and the enterprise of living within it. They are full and equal citizens with men, ascribing to full agency and rejecting narratives of victimhood. Women are actors just like men. Blaming women for their marginalisation is disingenuous and unhelpful. They do not need to change, the system itself needs a shake-up. The political paradigm in Nigeria needs to shift towards a recognition of the role of gender in determining the outcomes of power distribution and as such, the fact that women’s marginalization is neither warranted nor unfixable.
Dr Chiedo Nwankwor teaches African Politics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C. Her research interests focus on Gender Studies and Identity Politics in Africa.
Ms Elor Nkereuwem, a pioneer standards editor at Premium Times, is a doctorate candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C.