Paving a Path for Nigerian Women

Nigeria's only female senator - one of Africa's few elected woman leaders - seeks economic reform for all citizens and an end to her nation's discrimination against women

WHEN she was on her way to becoming Nigeria's only female senator - and one of Africa's few elected woman leaders - Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele walked down a dirt road with a noisy crowd of supporters. She went past ramshackle wooden shops, past a dozen or so brawny, bare-chested men lifting weights in a sand lot. Trumpeters and drummers in her enthusiastic entourage filled the evening air with their racket.

The candidate, without her usual courtroom white wig, but wearing a full-length white dress, stepped carefully around puddles to greet potential voters standing in the doorways of a low-cost, attractive housing complex.

There was excitement in the air in a city, a nation, a continent, where few women have ever managed to break into the male corridors of power. In Africa, women carry most of the dirty, heavy burden of farming; they haul water and firewood, cook, and often pay their children's school fees.

If an African woman runs for public office, she risks being brusquely reminded, as one unsuccessful female candidate was by her male opponent in Nigeria's latest campaign, that home is the woman's "proper place."

"As an African woman, you're not supposed to be leading - it's a cultural thing," says Evelyn Mungai, a Kenyan businesswoman. Kenyan environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai is being urged by some Kenyan women to run for president in elections to be held by next March.

There are no women heads of state in Africa, and women who seek public office and dare to challenge a cultural barrier find not only many men, but also many women voting against them.

But Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele's party was more popular in Lagos than her opponent's, and she was her party's candidate. So now, as the only female in the 91-member senate, she has a chance to carve out a niche in the male bastion of Nigerian politics. Her record in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country (88 million people), will be widely noted across the continent.

Her credentials are impressive: In London, she earned degrees in law and journalism and spent nine years as a journalist, including a stint with the British Broadcasting Company. She has founded both an advertising firm and a food company, been president of the Federation for Advancement of Nigerian Women, and helped start the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.

Yet she still finds the deck stacked against her - by men. "There is no doubt a male bias against me," she says. The other senators "have a lot of respect for me as a lawyer, and for my intelligence. But they are biased. It's a general bias all over the world. The only way I can deal with it is ... prove I'm as good as they are," she says.

Nigeria's military men are not planning to step down until January, following presidential elections scheduled for Dec. 5. Two parties have been allowed to enter the series of elections from the local to the national level - the Social Democratic Party, to which Senator Bucknor-Akerele belongs, and the National Republican Convention.

THE National Assembly has already begun organizing itself for the first democratic government the country has seen in seven years. At one of the initial organizing meetings of the new Senate, the chairman was busy writing down remarks of the members - until Senator Bucknor-Akerele stood up and began talking.

Noticing that the chairman had laid down his pen, she says she politely reminded him that he had taken note of remarks by the male senators. It took several more firm reminders from her before the chairman picked up his pen, she recounted in a Monitor interview here.

As that scene illustrated, Nigeria's only female senator does not intend to be a wallflower. Nor will she champion only issues for women.

"What I hope to accomplish - what Nigerians hope to accomplish - is a turnaround of the economy," she says.

Annual per-capita incomes have fallen from about $1,000 a decade ago to $300 today, according to economists here: Inflation is running at about 45 percent. Unemployment is wide- spread.

Senator Bucknor-Akerele also hopes to boost Nigerian food production by asking for more government funds to build roads in farming areas and teach farmers better ways of food storage and crop rotation.

For women, she hopes to fight tax laws that discriminate against females and to speak out against traditional laws that bar women from inheriting property.

She also wants to educate women about their legal rights - including the right to oppose forced child marriages. The United Nations Population Fund says 14 percent of Nigerian girls are married by age 12, and 50 percent by age 15.

Senator Bucknor-Akerele says she would like to give some of those young girls a chance to to be called senator one day - or perhaps Madame President.

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