I recently attended a conference on ‘the Political Economy of Gender and Women’s Empowerment in Africa,’ organized by the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. Gretchen Bauer, a Professor of Political Science and International Relations from the University of Delaware, held a presentation on the global ranking of women’s representation in national parliaments. As Bauer passed through the slides of her presentation, I didn’t bother to look for Nigeria since I already knew where we stood on the list globally: 181 out of 191—the lowest in Africa. Nevertheless, I kept hoping the rest of the audience would not notice it because it is shameful. Unfortunately, the speaker scrolled down to Nigeria and blurted the words, “I am really surprised at Nigeria; surely you can’t tell me Nigeria is short of capable women to occupy elected leadership positions?” She just shook her head and moved on to the next slide.
With only 5.5 percent of women represented in Nigeria’s National Parliament (decreasing with each electoral cycle since 2007) and five women ministers out of a total of 36 in the country’s cabinet, Professor Bauer’s question is indeed a valid and pertinent one.
Nigeria is blessed with a wealth of courageous women who cannot be ignored in the economic, political and social growth of the country. Women have steered the course of history in a usually male-dominated environment and have made a distinct impact through their selfless work and ambitions.
Take, for example, women like Margaret Ekpo in a hierarchical male-dominated era, who fought for Nigeria’s independence and demanded economic and political equality for women in Nigeria. Likewise, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti left a historical landmark advocating for women's right to vote. Also consider women like Oby Ezekwesili, who served as a minister for six and half years and led a team of professionals, sanitizing public procurement at the Federal level in Nigeria, and led a vibrant reform program that resulted in Nigeria's global recognition as a credible mining investment destination. As Minister of Education, she further introduced reforms to restructure and refocus the ministry’s activities to ensure education for all in line with attaining the second goal of the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs). Nigeria will not forget the late Dora Akunyili, because of the role she played in reducing the country’s incidence of fake drugs by about 90 percent when she served as the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). This reduction enabled other West African countries to lift bans on Nigerian drugs, open the Nigerian market to new drug manufacturers and pave the way for the return of multinational drug companies. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, a former director at the World Bank, who served as Minister of Finance for Nigeria under two presidents, was equally outstanding in her role. She helped grow the country's economy to become the largest in Africa.
The list goes on and on.
The examples above give credence to findings asserting that when women lead, societies thrive and prosper, and everyone benefits.
This is not to say that all women are intrinsically better leaders than men, far from that. The implication here is that women account for half of the human potential in Nigeria, and indeed the world at large. Without their voices, without their skills, without their experiences and perspectives, we do ourselves a great disservice. The argument here is that having more women in elected leadership positions can unlock human potential on a transformational scale.
Before joining NDI, I had always wondered why Nigeria had very few women in elected public leadership positions. I assumed women were just not interested in running. Working with NDI opened my eyes to the enormous challenges faced by women in Nigeria in their efforts to become politically engaged. Anti-female discriminatory cultural norms that perpetuate in a patriarchal society, political structures favoring male dominance, poor education, lack of financial backing as well as gender-based violence, have consistently hindered women’s effective political participation.
Being a recipient of the 2017 Andi Parhamovich Fellowship award is a privilege allowing me to build my skills towards working to address some of these barriers. Now halfway into the program, I have had the opportunity to engage with academic experts and practitioners in this field. This fellowship has further opened my eyes to the fact that the low representation of women in elected political offices is a global problem and not solely a Nigerian one. It seems all odds are against women’s political advancement, which is very discouraging. However, I am inspired by incredible women who have devoted their lives to changing the odds—women like Andi Parhamovich, who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this cause.
If we are to change the narrative and inspire the next generation of young women to be actively involved in political leadership, we must work tirelessly towards achieving equal participation by both women and men in the public decision-making that affects their lives. That is why my winning project for the Andi Parhamovich Fellowship is to support the establishment of a women’s caucus in the Nigerian parliament. This caucus will serve as a platform for women legislators to unite towards a common objective of promoting legislation to increase women’s political representation in Nigeria. Additionally, I intend to use resources made available to me through the fellowship to support political parties in Nigeria and to change party processes that make it difficult for women to run for office.
The question should not be whether or not Nigeria has women capable of holding political leadership—it is clear that there are many more than capable women. The question should rather be: Why is Nigeria neglecting half of its political leadership potential?