If Nigeria turns a corner, women will be steering

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

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

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.

Sephiney Smart Atuonah, a Nigerian TV personality, told me: "We are like leaven working our way through the system, and it's been rising in my generation for 30 years."

The inspiration for Africa's emerging generation of women manifests itself on many levels. Globalization and TV have brought strong female figures such as Oprah, Hillary Clinton, Madonna, and Beyoncé into their lives. African women now tell themselves, "We can do that, too."

At a recent Pentecostal service that Ms. Atuonah attended, the female pastor preached this message to her female congregants: "You can be what God meant you to be." Young Nigerian women evidently believe her; they're inspired. Church attendance in Nigeria averages two women for every man, which may support the widespread assumption here that women are less corrupt.

There is also a surging sense among every African woman with whom I spoke that they are ready to lead by example. "We can do a much better job than men," Atuonah exclaimed.

The readiness for a gender revolution in West Africa percolates just below the surface. "Women tend to be more honest than the men in power," mid-wife nurse Sosanya Solafunmi said. These young women tend to be more charitable to their male peers, and the younger generation of African men says they are willing to recognize women as equals.

Some parents in sub-Saharan Africa are abandoning the traditional idea that girls don't need to go to school. They are discovering that when educated daughters get into the job market, they are far more likely to take care of parents than sons do.

But Nigeria is juggling a time bomb. Demo­graphers predict its population will rise from today's 149 million to 200 million in the next 15 years. With little potable drinking water and the nation barely able to feed itself now, there is a crying need for family planning in both the Muslim north and the Christian south.

Nigeria has yet to fully comprehend that educating its women could defuse the impending crises. "It is not possible to redeem sub-Saharan Africa without family planning," Atuonah observed. Sosanya Solafunmi was more defiant on the issue, "Nobody is going to make me have six babies.... I can take care of myself."

Since achieving independence, sub-Saharan Africa has tried everything from male dictatorships to corrupt cartels. It is not too late to begin to listen to Africa's women and capitalize on their integrity, strength, and vision.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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