In heated Nigeria elections, more women elbow up to political table

Ogar Monday
Martha Agba, former aspirant for the Bekwarra, Obudu, Obanaliku Federal House of Representatives seat in Nigeria, speaks with constituents on April 24, 2022, in Obanliku, Nigeria.
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Martha Agba spent months canvassing in her bid to become the first woman representing her constituency in the Nigerian House of Representatives, under the All Progressives Congress (APC) banner. 

But at the party primaries, a man shouted at her.

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Women have long been excluded from political power in Africa’s most populous country. Pushing back against an aging political elite who have held the reins of power for decades, the upcoming generation is slowly changing that.

“Go and marry and take care of your husband’s house!” Onlookers laughed in response.

Ms. Agba, who didn’t get the party nomination for Cross River state, says such instances are par for the course in a country where women rarely get a seat at the political table. Only seven of Nigeria’s 109 senators are women, and 11 of the 360 members of the House of Representatives are women. 

But ahead of elections in February 2023, incremental but significant change is happening. 

Ms. Agba was one of around 700 women who hoped to get on an APC ticket, more than double the number in the previous election. 

Some are succeeding. In March, Emana Duke Ambrose-Amawhe shrugged off violent intimidation to clinch the deputy governor candidate nomination in her state.

Both the ruling APC and the opposition People’s Democratic Party say they are addressing the problem, including through scrapping the usual tens-of-thousands-of-dollars nomination fee for female candidates.

“This system that holds women back cannot stand forever,” Ms. Agba says.

On the morning of Nigeria’s legislative primaries, Martha Agba woke up feeling confident. She hoped to become the first woman representing her constituency in the House of Representatives, and had spent months canvassing everyone from grassroots women’s associations to local chiefs. Now, it was up to her party, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), to trust she would be the best candidate in elections early next year. 

She knew it would be a tough race, but she hoped it would be a fair one. 

A few minutes into the rowdy event, as she was making small talk with other delegates, a man gestured at her and started shouting.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Women have long been excluded from political power in Africa’s most populous country. Pushing back against an aging political elite who have held the reins of power for decades, the upcoming generation is slowly changing that.

“Go and marry and take care of your husband’s house!” she recalls him yelling, while onlookers laughed in response.

Ms. Agba, who is in her late 20s, tried to brush off the comment.

“That wasn’t the first time I have been told to go and marry and leave politics for men,” she says.

Ms. Agba did not get the party nomination to represent Cross River, a former oil-producing state of 3.7 million residents where political power brings enormous clout. 

But beyond a personal defeat, her loss is part of a trend that has beset Nigerian politics for decades: Women rarely get a seat at the political table. 

As Nigerians head to the polls to choose their president, governors, and legislators in February 2023, the situation appears bleaker than ever. With the exception of the polls in 1999, which marked Nigeria’s transition from military rule to democracy, this year is the first time there will be no women on the presidential ballot.

At the state and local levels, where bitter, winner-take-all contests are considered a barometer of the country’s democracy, the odds are only slightly better. This year, fewer than 10% of nominees from the two main political parties are women.

Despite this, the number of women running for office is growing – Ms. Agba was one of around 700 women who hoped to get on an APC ticket, which party officials say is more than double the number in the previous run. 

By and large, a handful of wealthy men, plucked from a small ruling elite, have dominated the field for decades. But as a new generation comes up, women are pushing to overturn the long-entrenched barriers that have held back anyone who isn’t male, wealthy, or plugged into the political elite.

More women in the room

It wasn’t always this way. 

In the 1960s, women played prominent roles in the political arena of the newly independent Nigeria – most famously, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of legendary Afrobeats musician and anti-government activist Fela Kuti; and Margaret Ekpo, a trailblazing grassroots women’s activist, were among several high-profile women who wielded huge influence in public life.

Nigeria today still boasts an impressive class of female entrepreneurs and artists, yet female political representation languishes at the bottom of global indexes. Only seven of the 109 senators are women, and only 11 of the 360 members of the House of Representatives are women. A bill that sought to reserve a certain number of political positions for women failed to pass a first reading in March this year. 

Because clinching a party nomination itself depends on winning favor with those in the top echelons, explains Ms. Agba, “getting more women in that space will mean more women being in the room when that decision is being made.” But the view from the top is often dispiriting – Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, early in his tenure drew criticism for saying that his wife belonged “in the kitchen, the living room, and the other rooms of my house.”

Gender disparity is prevalent in Africa’s most populous nation: Only 53% of girls complete secondary school education, compared with two-thirds of boys. And gender violence is shockingly high – meaning while violence and intimidation are a constant in Nigeria’s political scene, targeted attacks on women create an additional barrier to entry, campaigners say.

In March, Emana Duke Ambrose-Amawhe was campaigning for a House of Representatives nomination for the People’s Democratic Party, Nigeria’s other main political party. 

Wearing a black face cap with ‘EMANA’ emblazoned on the front, she was addressing a large crowd when she heard a ruckus nearby. Suddenly, men armed with bottles and machetes swarmed across the field toward her, causing the crowd to flee.

“I have never seen something like that,” she says. “They were only there to create fear, rob me, and cripple my campaign.” 

After she refused to bow out of the race, some members held a protest outside the party headquarters in which they chanted, “Emana, go back to the kitchen.” 

Ms. Ambrose-Amawhe’s persistence paid off: She was eventually chosen as the deputy governor candidate in her state.

Ogar Monday
Emana Duke Ambrose-Amawhe, an aspirant formerly for the Akpabuyo, Bakassi, Calabar South Federal House of Representatives seat and then to be a Cross River state deputy governorship candidate, meets with members of the People’s Democratic Party in Bakassi, Cross River state, Nigeria, March 24, 2022.

Breaking down barriers

The mistreatment of Nigerian women in politics is rooted in a culture that promotes marriage as the ultimate goal for women, says Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, executive director of Spaces for Change, a female empowerment nonprofit. 

“The Nigerian woman is [considered] with no roots and is only meant to be where a man wants her to be, which in most cases is nowhere,” she says. “Women are [expected] not to do serious things like politics – [they] should be seen and not heard.”

And even after marriage, the problem persists.

“If the woman is married and wants to contest in her husband’s place [of origin], she is reminded that she is not one of them and that she should go back to her father,” Ms. Ibezim-Ohaeri says, referring to a common view that women belong to their husbands. “And when she goes back to her father, she is reminded that she has married off and is no longer part of them.”

Ironically, springboarding off established men is one of the few ways women can access politics. From the start of the country’s democracy until  2015, some 46% of all women elected to the Nigerian Senate were the wife or daughter of a prominent male politician, noted Ayisha Osori in a 2019 interview with the Monitor. Ms. Osori is a longtime gender-equality activist who made an unsuccessful 2014 primary bid for the National Assembly.

Dr. Betta Edu, the national women leader of the ruling APC, says the party has taken concrete steps to address the problem. Applying as a nominee was free for women this year, rather than the usual tens of thousands of dollars, she says.

“Before now, we had women say, ‘We cannot afford the form, we are vulnerable, we are unable,’ but now [they] have been given the platform,” she says.

The People’s Democratic Party, the main opposition party, also scrapped the nomination fees. In doing so, the party “created the enabling environment for women to participate in politics,” says Stella Atoe, a professor of African history and gender studies and the party’s national women leader. 

More than 250 women – out of a total of 1,487 positions – had indicated interest to run for offices under the People’s Democratic Party, Ms. Atoe adds.

But most candidates say that free nomination forms are a token gesture that doesn’t address deep-rooted issues.

“The process after [applying] is still expensive,” Ms. Agba points out. “The free nomination forms will become an advantage only in a society that sees women as equal. When we deal with that, maybe the free forms will make sense.” 

Still, despite the odds stacked against her, she says she and her peers have no intention of backing down from future races. 

“There is an army of informed women coming into politics, and they are ready to break down whatever barrier will try to hold them down,” Ms. Agba says. “This system that holds women back cannot stand forever.” 

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