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In less than a year from now, Nigeria will hold its presidential elections. As numerous candidates announce their presidential and non-presidential candidacy bids on social media, more light must be drawn to the role women have played in shaping Nigeria’s political landscape.
Nigerian women from the Western and Southern regions first earned the right to vote in 1954, after Elizabeth Adekogbe of the Women’s Movement of Nigeria led women to agitate for suffrage. Still, voting was allocated only to tax-paying women in the Lyttleton government before independence. This meant that women lost the ability to vote in the absence of paid taxes thereby weakening the female electoral base.
Northern Nigerian women didn’t have the right to vote until 1979 after Northern female politicians like Hajiya Gambo Sawaba fought for full voting rights for women. Ms Sawaba has often been called “the most jailed Nigerian female politician” by political researchers due to how attacked she was over her desire to see full suffrage for Northern women.
Since then, Nigerian women have been integral to electoral proceedings. This is despite how women-centred policies such as the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill still get sidelined by the country’s largely male senate. The GEO bill was proposed by Senator Biodun Olujimi and Document Women wrote earlier on her work.
In a public opinion poll carried out by NOI Polls in 2018, it was discovered that despite the low rate of Primary Voter Card collection, of those who newly registered, women accounted for a larger proportion of 7.3 million while men accounted for 6.2 million.
In Nigeria, women from various professions continue to play important roles in defining Nigeria’s political future. This includes women who engage in often unpaid and looked down upon professions.
In the 2019 elections, housewives ranked third on the list of registered voters placing after farmers and making up 14 per cent of all registered voters.
Market women and traders also play a role in Nigeria’s politics, evident in the independence movement and protest against colonial rule. The Aba Women’s Revolt of 1929 against sexist colonial taxation was mobilised primarily from unions made of market women. The same also occurred with the Egba 10000 women’s march against colonial taxation, led by Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti; it was successful due to collaboration amongst market women and women who had received Western education.
In Nigeria’s political climate, it has often been touted by “folk wisdom” that mobilising the heads of market women’s unions would increase the success of a candidate. Whoever is endorsed by them often ends up being supported by the women in that area.
Part of the reason market women possess this influence, is due to the purchasing power of Nigerian women. It is not news that due to their socially conditioned role as nurturers, women tend to buy more from open air markets in order to take care of their families.
This works in the favour of the market women heads and market women in general as they are able to reach a lot more women from different classes to inform of their preferred choice when they come to buy food materials.
To better understand the political power market heads or the Iya Olojas bring to elections and women in general, Document Women spoke with a few Nigerian women asking them what they felt women had done in elections or could do more of.
Iretomiwa Ekisola, a women’s rights blogger, said she had witnessed market women shape the opinions of political candidates in states like Lagos and Ogun State.
She however drew light on how women’s issues could be sidelined even after they showed support to the male leaders saying that elected leaders who go into office are not “punished politically for letting women down”.
For Brenda Okonofua, a pastry chef and caterer, the work women do during elections in Nigeria is multiple. She mentions that during registrations, it is mostly female NYSC corpers who are used. She also further stated that ad-hoc observers are mostly women and even the sharing of gifts by politicians is often done by women. Ms Okonofua herself has played a role as an observer. She said too that she noticed that at the collation centres she had been in, women were the ones spearheading the counting.
To her, all of the above happened because “they believed women are truthful and trustworthy”.
A few other women, when asked, pointed to women in their families and their histories in elections as evidence that women tend to bring better perspectives to electoral processes. Aisha Kabiru Mohammed, a writer for Document Women, revealed that her mother had worked as an election officer when she was four years old. She says that her mum was very conscientious and “cut a lot of bullshit in the polling unit”.
Idayat Jinadu, from Ekiti, notes that some wards in the local government are headed by women and each election she observes that whoever is endorsed by the female ward leaders gets elected.
For Funsho, she summarised the situation by saying that “people underrate the power women have when it comes to holding positions in [Nigeria]”.
Document Women spoke to Nimah Arigbabu, a lawyer with interests in foreign policy, who explained that, “Women tend to do better in leadership because they possess high emotional intelligence, critical thinking and tact to be exemplary leaders”.
“In order for Nigeria to be successful and prosperous, we need to start creating [and] implementing policies and laws aimed at increasing women’s participation in governance,” Ms Arigbabu said.
Bringing evidence from her work in international law, she cited some data sources saying: “Data such as the UCL’s research on the impact of women leadership during the pandemic shows that countries with women at the helm of affairs do better than male dominated countries. It also showed how countries with gender inequality tend to be less prosperous economically”.
As evidently seen from all of the above examples, Nigerian women both in and out of political office remain a crucial factor in deciding a candidate’s fate during electoral processes. It therefore remains important to continue to encourage women to exercise their hard won political rights.
However, the political landscape of Nigeria should influence women’s support. Seeing as sexist policies continue to deter women from running for leadership positions, Nigerian women should exercise their electoral rights by choosing candidates whose visions align with women’s rights.