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If Nigeria turns a corner, women will be steering

Women are stepping up to raise standards in the public realm.

By Walter Rodgers / June 4, 2009

Abuja, Nigeria

Nigerians have a saying: If you want something said, tell a man. If you want something done, tell a woman.

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Today, they appear to be taking that message to heart, as one of the world's most corrupt countries seems poised to begin reversing its debilitating slide by empowering women to get things done.

They have their work cut out for them. Nigeria, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, faces major systemic problems: overpopulation, ethnic and religious conflict, and a "resource curse" (oil).

In 2003, Nigerians were deemed the happiest people on earth in a global survey. Just a few years later, they ranked nearly last in a different global ranking of national happiness.

Rampant official corruption has taken its toll. The resulting public disenchantment is corrosive, destructive, and potentially destabilizing for the world's eighth-largest exporter of oil.

Yet despite the scorn they heap on their government officials, ordinary Nigerians remain deeply religious, attending churches and mosques in huge numbers.

I got the impression that many pray daily and fervently for a better world. Such private earnestness in the face of such public cynicism could be seen cynically: Perhaps desperate Nigerians cling to the idea that only God can fix their mess. But it can also be seen as resilience: Perhaps corrupt governance hasn't shaken Nigerians' faith in betterment.

The English Restoration poet John Dryden observed that "Mighty things from small beginnings grow." Today, if you poke around in Nigeria, you'll find small beginnings that offer tentative hope. And much of that hope is being generated by women.

On a recent trip to Nigeria's capital, Abuja, some friends and I taught a group of close to 100 university graduates. For the sake of convenience, we divided them into eight small groups. The quiet shocker was that although the men heavily outnumbered women in each group, half the groups elected women as their class leaders.

Such strong trust in women's leadership abilities may already be at play inside Nigeria's political arena. A woman now heads Nigeria's stock exchange. Another is minister of information and communications. Others hold prominent positions in the health and economic sectors.

Political observers point out that most men running for state governor now seek to have a woman on the ticket with them. It is a similar story in neighboring Ghana. And in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma has appointed 14 women as ministers, bringing the gender balance of his cabinet to nearly 50-50.