Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society
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Subjects of Interest
- Sustainable Development
Annoying contradiction 14 Apr 2022
This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) was quite eventful. March, the month of the annual celebration, was full of disconcerting events in Nigeria. But most obnoxious, on March 1, members of the House of Representatives elected to advance the interest of the citizens – half of which are women – showed lack of interest in doing so. They rejected all of Nigerian women’s movements’ amendment proposals to the 1999 constitution. The Senate kept only two and revised a third. This was in spite of the fact that those proposals were carefully negotiated and agreed with the ad-hoc legislative committees for the review of the Constitution, following weeks of education and advocacy. In response, on IWD on March 8, women laid siege on the NASS complex in Abuja to signal a new era of resistance.
Nigeria is full of contradictions. The best known one is the presence of oil wealth side by side endemic poverty. The actions of the legislators put a less articulate one on a show of shame. Members of an institution for protecting the vulnerable, chose to put themselves above those who put them in the positions of trust and responsibility. Instead of being the representatives of the people, they showed themselves to be oppressors who want to continue the reign of oppression.
Women make up 49.7% of Nigeria’s population, contributing unpaid labour in trillions of naira every year. The population of women in the current National Assembly is 5.4%, which is one of the lowest in Africa. Nigerian women subsidise the State but are not considered capable of leading the country. This political and economic inequity being perpetrated against women is, in actual fact, fatal. Although the country accounts for 2.6% of the world’s population, it contributes 20% of global maternal mortality.
It is irrational that a country that aspires to be among the great countries of the world would be holding down half of its population this viciously. But the world has moved past our maladaptive daydreaming, in which we are unable to focus on even basic objectives and achieve common goals. The outrage from the legislative votes has been powerful, and indicates either a lack of perception of what is happening in some critical quarters, or unwillingness to stand up for what is right.
There is a growing gulf in Nigeria between what women want and what we have; and what we asked for and what we got.
The women’s movements asked for five changes to the 1999 Constitution at first, namely: i) Right to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse; ii) Right to claim a spouse’s state of origin after five years of marriage and residency; iii) 35% of leadership in the political parties; iv) 35% of appointive positions; and v) 111 special seats across the legislature. When the die was cast, we added the matter of the right of Nigerians in the diaspora to vote, an important advocacy of itself, but one that is also relevant for widening solidarity with women.
We were told that our advocacies should have started ‘early’. This is a lame excuse. Constitutional review has been the refrain of the women’s movement to every National Assembly since 1999. We had asked nicely for this for years. As our plea was effectively ignored, we started to organise bigger and better. We started to mend fences, working across women groups, and reaching out to men, media agencies, youth organisers, social media influencers, bureaucrats, political parties, and, of course, the elected representatives.
We held public enlightenment campaigns to explain the cost of corruption – in a male-dominated government – to women, families, and the society, pointing out that it is the reason the country has continued to stagnate. The cost of corruption outweighs any cost there might be to having more women in government. The women’s caucuses in the National Assembly worked closely with civil society and development partners. They engaged the joint NASS committee on the review of the Constitution to negotiate and make a case for the proposal on how to enhance the personhood of Nigerian women. We have had to explain what is obvious: women are qualified to lead, being no less human. All of these were overlooked.
The truth is that systemic discrimination against women in Nigeria is undisguised. It is obvious in various provisions of the Constitution, criminal and penal code, the Police Act, and the Marriage Act. Instead of protecting and advancing the interests of all citizens, including women, they exclude and diminish the human dignity of women.
The antics of the men-dominated National Assembly egregiously represent the prejudice against women in the society. If foreign spouses of Nigerian men can become citizens of the country on the basis of marriage, why can’t it be vice versa, too? What is good for the goose, it is said, is good for the gander.
But, the indications are that women are not having these contradictions. We are saying “enough is enough!” We see the social movements elsewhere denouncing male chauvinism. Women don’t have to remain quiescent, allowing the oppressive system to continue unchallenged. We have to let the dinosaurs who, when they are not exploiting us they are appropriating our resources, know that this time is different.
We have now crossed the Rubicon in the advocacy for women’s political status and citizenship rights. There is no going back. The time of kowtowing is gone, and the time of reckoning is here. The NASS would have to rescind its vexatious decisions. It would not be doing women a favour by doing so; rather, it would be saving its skin and face. Members of the hallowed Chambers may contrive an explanation on the loss of a quorum, but outside no one will buy the outcomes of the votes that make Nigeria a laughing stock among progressive nations.
We will demand personal accountability, in the hope that it will lead to the transformation of the National Assembly. We will start to keep the record of how our legislators vote. We will start to show where they stand on issues, and whether they are compassionate in character or like humiliating women. The impertinence of receiving somewhat bloc votes from women during elections only to turn around against our interests while in office will no longer be on. Abstention from voting for our interests will also not do. Where every legislator stands on important matters like these will be tracked.
The women’s movements are already living a vital lesson. We now understand – more than before – that when women come together, despite our differences, we will win. Therefore, women are standing together now, regardless of whether we are market women, civil society leaders, corporate players, politicians, or academics, against disrespect and tyranny.
We have the number to fight the systemic injustices against us. Over 70% of voters are women, yet the political parties would not accept women as leaders or candidates and even upturn favourable results for women in fair contests against men. This will not be allowed to continue.
We will overcome the present predicament by strengthening our partnerships. In this regard, we distinguish the honourable male legislators who supported the women’s bills. They gave their word and kept it while others ate theirs. We will also continue to court the support of the media and appreciate their efforts to create public awareness on women’s rights.
I stand in solidarity with, and salute, other women leaders pushing from within the legislature, civil society and communities. We must remain committed to overcoming Nigeria’s egregious paradoxes, including non-representing representatives in the National Assembly.
Amina Salihu is a development sector specialist.