Nigeria 2023: Dismal turnout of women candidates discredits decades-old national gender policy

By Olayide Oluwafunmilayo Soaga

Posted on Friday, 24 February 2023 13:48
Women sit on the steps outside a bank in Lagos on February 22, 2023. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS / AFP)

When Khadijah Okunnu Lamidi last year declared her intention to run in the 2023 Nigerian presidential election, many Nigerians threw jabs at her. 

“Nigeria no be kitchen o”, one Twitter user wrote.

“The sad truth is that a woman can’t handle Nigeria but I respect her for her bold move,” said another.

Such comments revealed the widespread prejudice about women being unfit for certain roles.

Despite the trolls on social media, the Social Democratic Party candidate forged on.

“People hide behind their phone screens to say all sorts of things but I was inspired by the public and the young people,” she said. “This kept me going.”

Nigeria, she added, must get the entrenched idea that leadership should be male “out of our mindset.”

Even as other contestants from her party dropped out of the race, Okunnu-Lamidi maintained her stance until only she and Adewole Adebayo were left.

When the party held its presidential primary election, Okunnu-Lamidi received 83 votes – the highest ever for a woman. Yet she still lost badly to Adeboye, who received 1,526 votes.


In all, women account for just 1,524 – less than a tenth – of the 15,336 candidates contesting this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections at the federal and state levels.

That’s a worse showing than in 2019 when 2,970 women ran for office. Only 62 of them won their seats.

The gender imbalance is present throughout Nigeria, a country of 213 million where women remain grossly under-represented in virtually every sector after two decades of broken promises.

In 2006, the Olusegun Obasanjo administration launched the national gender policy to promote equal opportunity in politics, business and other areas. Despite the lofty rhetoric, women remain widely marginalised.

Today the largest democracy in Africa has fewer than 5% of women in its bicameral legislature. Of the 469 members of the National Assembly, a mere 26 are women, making Nigeria one of the countries with the lowest rate of female representation in politics.

This under-representation raises deep concerns about the quality of democratic governance and political legitimacy, says Irene Pogosson, a senior lecturer of political science at the University of Ibadan, the oldest in Nigeria.

“Many factors contribute to the further decline in the number of women contesting elective offices in this year’s elections,” Pogosson says.

Patriarchal structures embedded in Nigeria’s political framework portray women as subordinate to men, she says. Meanwhile, the Nigerian political system puts numerous obstacles in their way, including culture and religion as well as political factors such as the nature and character of political systems, electoral rules, the high cost of politics, and exorbitant election campaign costs.

Last year, for example, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) sold its presidential nomination forms for N100m ($217,000), way out of reach for most potential women candidates.

“I believe there is no lack of supply of female aspirants or the required qualifications for women as a group to run for political office,” Pogosson says. “The issue is the lack of demand for female aspirants and the preference of political elites for male over female candidates. The dynamics of supply and demand in the political market are warped in crucial ways.”

Policy failure

The national gender policy has faced multiple hurdles since its inception. Although the policy demands that women should have equal rights and opportunities, Nigeria remains far behind other countries on the continent.

Countries such as Rwanda, South Africa, and Namibia have used quota systems to reach levels of female representation in parliament of 61.3%, 46.3% and 44.2%, respectively, Pogosson points out.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, several socio-economic, cultural and geographical causes conspire to undermine the national gender policy.

According to Pogosson, the refusal of lawmakers and relevant authorities to adhere to the tenets of the policy play a decisive role in its failure. When a series of amendments to the constitution regarding gender equality – including increasing the quota for women in executive and legislative positions – were proposed in March 2022, the male-dominated legislature rejected them.

Nigerian women responded with a series of protests.

“The success of the national gender policy rests on the extent to which operators of the policy follow due process and use gender mainstreaming as a tool for institutionalising change in gender power role relations,” Pogosson says.

Challenging the status quo

From Nigeria’s inception, women have played significant roles in the country’s governance even when they are not directly involved in politics.

One such woman was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of the late world-renowned musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Funmilayo in her time led a movement dedicated to defending the political, economic and social rights of women in pre-independence Nigeria.

The colonial-era Igbo activist Nwanyeruwa also fought against societal constructs that kept women down. She led a revolt against British colonialists that led to the Aba Women’s protests in 1929. At the time, the British imposed taxes on the women of Aba, many of whom were poor and relied on their husbands and petty trading as a source of income.

In more recent times, women were again at the forefront of events that shaped Nigeria’s history and governance during the 2020 EndSARS protests. These called for the disbandment of the Nigerian Police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad and an end to police brutality and extrajudicial killings of Nigerian youth.

Many women, including Aisha Yesufu, Rinu Oduala and DJ Switch were at the forefront of these protests. Ever since the Lekki Massacre of 20 October 2022 brought the protest to a halt, these women and many others have been constantly persecuted by the Nigerian government. DJ Switch for instance had to flee Nigeria after receiving death threats.

Oduala tells The Africa Report that the political system does not create safe spaces for women.

“We are still trying to fight for our lives and fight for survival. How then do you get the adequate time to say you want to run for elections when the government is actively after your life?” she says.

Frustrated female candidates

There are other forms of fighting for women’s rights, she says.

“There are also people whose role is to hold government accountable,” she says. “I think many of us who participated in the protest have done more than enough work in that regard.”

Violence against female leaders remains a major concern.

In November 2022, Labour Party leader Victoria Chimtex was assassinated by gunmen in her home in Kaduna. Female politicians have also complained about political parties hosting meetings far into the night when they have a duty as wives and mothers to cater for their families.

Despite the low turnout of frustrated female candidates this year, some women remain determined to fight.

Rukayat Motunrayo Shittu, the youngest person contesting in this year’s elections, is one of them. Since she declared her ambition, the 26-year-old has been told that she is too young and that women are not emotionally balanced enough for politics.

“I cannot be loved by everybody,” she says.

“When people tell me I am too young, I always cite examples of those who fought for Nigerian independence and then I ask them the same question: ‘Am I still too young?’ ”

What Nigeria needs to do differently

According to Pogosson, Nigeria can reach Rwanda’s levels of female representation in politics if the country creates a conducive environment that allows for equal participation across the government.

“It is instructive to note that in Rwanda, legal and favourable policy environment contributed to the attainment of gender equality and empowerment of women across different sectors,” she says. “Specifically, the constitution of the Republic of Rwanda of 2003 revised in 2015 enshrines the principles of gender equality and women’s rights and provides for the minimum 30% quota for women in all decision-making organs.”

She adds that for women to remain relevant in political parties, there is a need to promote and advocate for greater representation at the party level, as well as the continued support of women through actively identifying, training and developing their capacity to lead and to run for office effectively.

“Also, affirmative action like quotas to enable women to contest must be engendered,” she adds.

According to Pogosson, although quotas play a huge role in improving the rate of women’s representation in politics, they alone are not enough. Clearly drafted rules with adequate enforcement mechanisms, she insists, are equally important.

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