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Since the 1990s, Africa has helped lead the way for women in government. Women occupy more than 30 percent of legislative seats in 14 of the continent’s countries. But in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, women hold less than 7 percent of political offices.
That hasn’t stopped Zainab Umar, age 26, who is running for state assembly in elections this Saturday. If anything, it drives her. She has more male competitors named Abdullahi than female competitors, period.
On Feb. 16, when Nigerians go to the polls, few of the candidates will be women. And, like Ms. Umar, the challenges they find along the campaign trail illustrate broader struggles of breaking into politics in Africa’s largest democracy. From strict party hierarchies to two-party dominance to vote-buying and sky-high candidate-registration fees, it’s a system that’s especially daunting for outsiders – all the more so when they’re subject to sexist taunts.
But Umar does have one advantage. As she treks across her district, she’s free to enter women-only spaces, like family compounds. “She’s the first candidate to come inside and talk to us,” says Fatima Umar, who says she believes she is about 70 years old.
As she made her way along a lumpy dirt road clutching a stack of her own campaign flyers, Zainab Umar considered the odds against her.
In the entire 40-year history of the local House of Assembly here, in the most populous state in Nigeria’s north, a woman has never been elected as a member. In her own crowded race, there are more men named Abdullahi than there are women. Of the 32 candidates, just two are female.
And in many races here, Ms. Umar suspected, the campaigns hardly counted, anyway. In the days before elections, for as long as she could remember, candidates for the two major parties rode into her neighborhood in their clean, expensive cars doling out little bags of salt, thick wedges of soap, and crisp 1000 naira bills ($3).
But as she made her way into a mud-brick compound on the fringes of the city last Friday, she shoved the thought out of her head, plastered a smile on her face, and prepared to explain, for the hundredth time that day, who she was and why she was there.
“To make a difference for people, you first have to get a seat at the table,” says Umar, tucking a stray wisp of hair into her pink and blue head wrap. “And getting elected is how you get a seat at that table.”
In Nigeria, which is barreling toward a Feb. 16 general election and March 2 local elections, women hold only a tiny sliver – less than 7 percent – of political offices. That places it in the bottom 5 percent of countries globally.
And the figure seems to be holding, stubbornly. On a continent with some of the world’s most gender-balanced parliaments and in a country with a powerful class of female entrepreneurs, artists, and journalists, fewer than 10 percent of the leading two parties’ candidates for the national legislature in this election cycle are women. Neither one is fielding a woman for president or vice president.
It’s a statistic that underscores the daunting odds of breaking into politics in Africa’s largest democracy – not just for women but for anyone not drawn from the country’s small and protective political elite.
“In the major parties, it’s not about democracy. It’s about who you know and how much money you have,” says Eunice Atuejide, a lawyer and one of 73 candidates in this year’s presidential race. Like all five of the women in that race, Ms. Ateujide is running under the banner of the small, largely unknown National Interest Party, which she co-founded in 2017. It’s part of an alphabet soup of several dozen tiny parties trying to wrest power from the country’s two political titans, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and its main challenger and former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Bucking the trend
But in Nigeria’s first-past-the-post system, these scrappy challengers don’t stand much of a chance in most races. Clawing one’s way up the APC and PDP hierarchies, meanwhile, can be tedious and expensive, and it doesn’t often reward outsiders. Between 1999 and 2015, for instance, 46 percent of all women elected to the Nigerian senate were the wife or daughter of a prominent male politician, according to a tally by Ayisha Osori, a longtime gender-equality activist and the author of “Love Does Not Win Elections,” a memoir of her unsuccessful 2014 primary campaign for the National Assembly.
Just submitting one’s name for a primary in one of the major parties, meanwhile, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, even with the heavy discounts given to female candidates.
That means that the major parties are still largely “old boys clubs,” says Oby Ezekwesili, a former government minister and prominent civil society activist who recently dropped out of the presidential race. “We either need to institute gender quotas, or we’ll be left to depend on the occasional fortune of a [female] leader who can break through.”
So far, though, Nigeria has resisted the wave of quotas that has swept much of the continent since the 1990s. In 14 African countries, women now occupy more than 30 percent of the seats in legislatures, a crucial threshold for collective decisionmaking. A bill that would have instituted such a quota in Nigeria has ping-ponged through branches of the legislature for nearly a decade without being signed into law.
It isn’t that Nigeria is necessarily a more sexist place than countries with quotas, says Amanda Edgell, a political science PhD candidate at the University of Florida who has written about gender quotas and foreign aid in African politics. But many countries in the region have used gender quotas, at least in part, to signal to their donors that they are modern and progressive. And Nigeria, with its status as an oil producer and key partner in the regional war on terror, has long been more immune to those kinds of pressures, she notes.
Meanwhile, with few discernible differences in platform between the two major parties, individual personalities dominate many races here. And clout is often based on social status, says Ndi Kato, a member of the presidential campaign council for the PDP and a one-time aspirant for a PDP nomination for a state assembly seat in Kaduna. “As a young woman, both your gender and your age are working against you in those situations,” she says.
But that hasn’t stopped women like Umar, who at 26 is part of a generation of Nigerian women who have grown up in the shadow of the country’s 1999 transition to democracy. Now young adults, many are tired of waiting for the system to catch up with the size of their political aspirations.
Umar was born and raised here in Kano, an ancient walled city in the country’s Muslim north, where men have long dominated public life.
But that is not to say she didn’t know strong women. Far from it, she says. It was just that they were rarely allowed to be strong in the conventional ways that men were.
Instead, theirs was a quiet defiance, like her single mother’s brusque, no-nonsense plan for her children’s future. She hadn’t been able to finish school, she said, but they would. She sold rice and oil at the market, she said, but they would have degrees, even the girls.
Especially the girls.
As Umar marched through her teenage years, she watched her friends peel off one by one to get married, at 12 and 13 and 16. By the time she graduated, just 20 of her 67 classmates were women.
But she carried on. During university, as she studied chemistry, she also threw herself headlong into student politics. By her second year, she was student body vice president. By the time she graduated, she was readying herself to run to be a city councilor. (In the end, she failed to secure the APC nomination for the seat.)
That was when the comments began.
She’s a whore.
She’s not a good Muslim.
What kind of family lets their daughter run around like this?
It was a nastiness familiar to almost any woman who has run for office in Nigeria.
“Politics here is dirty,” says Ateujide. “A lot of women, no matter how qualified they are, don’t want to subject themselves to that level of violence and insults.”
And for many with aspirations to change the world, the payoff of politics is unclear, says Ms. Osori.
“Politics in Nigeria isn’t, in general, a place for service; it’s a place for looting,” she says. “So while I support women’s right to be involved in the system, I don’t know that it’s the way we will change our society as long as politics itself is largely about individual wealth and power.”
‘It’s the time for a woman’
But Umar can’t imagine another way she could affect so many people’s lives. So for the past two months she has spent most days trudging door to door across Kumbotso, a sprawling district of Kano, trying to convince people to listen to her pitch: that she’ll clean up open sewers clotted with garbage and buy chairs for local primary schools.
She does have one distinctive advantage. While her male adversaries can meet potential voters only in public places – under the shade of the local baobab tree, for instance, or gathered on a street corner chewing and spitting hunks of sugar cane – Umar freely enters the women-only space of family compounds. There, she tut-tuts at babies and helps women pound yams as she explains how to press your thumbprint into the ballot just so to prevent a smudge.
“She’s the first candidate to come inside and talk to us,” says Fatima Umar, who says she believes she is about 70 years old. “When I was young there was not even a single school here. But now you see women educated like men. I’m happy this has happened.”
It’s not a universal sentiment, of course. “I wouldn’t vote for a woman, never,” says Ahmed Muhammad, a college student in Umar’s district. “They’re not strong. They’re not as intelligent as men.” Forty-five percent of Nigerians believe that men are “better political leaders than women,” according to a 2017 Afrobarometer opinion survey.
A few blocks away from the street corner where Mr. Muhammad gathered with friends, Umar was busy fielding call after call on her smartphone. The DJ for tomorrow’s campaign event wanted to know what time he should come. The campaign’s social media manager asked if Umar had recorded her daily video for her followers.
Each time her smartphone lit up with another call, it blasted the song she had commissioned for her campaign.
Make way, make way, a voice crooned in Hausa, the local language.
It’s the time for a woman.
Muhammad Reza Suleiman contributed reporting to this story.