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“The vote was of me, by me and for me…That vote has been pricking the conscience of women, Nigerians, PDP Board of Trustees, and the political class…I sympathise with the ignorance of the women because that vote is affecting their conscience. Why are the womenfolk trying to use the media to sarcastically call me a serial contestant? I have forgiven them. The political class should stop hijacking the conscience of Nigerian women who constitute the engine of the nation…” ---Sarah Jibril, PDP Presidential aspirant, February 3, 2011.

More serious attention needs to be paid to the continuing protest by Mrs. Sarah Jibril, the female PDP Presidential aspirant who won only one vote during the PDP Presidential primary. Her two opponents: President Goodluck Jonathan and former Vice President Abubakar Atiku won 2,736 and 805 votes respectively. Jibril’s courage and heroism have been justly praised, she has doggedly put herself up for Presidential nomination since 1992; her appearance in 2011 was the fifth time she would be asking party delegates to consider her as a candidate for the Presidency. Several commentators have remarked that her failure is partly due to her lack of visibility and organisational structure (she was the least visible of the then three PDP Presidential aspirants) but whatever may have been the limitations of her campaign strategy, Jibril’s aspiration and her politics clearly raise fresh concerns about the status of women in Nigerian politics.

Before the party primaries on January 13 Sarah Jibril had gone to court to ask that the PDP and its National Chairman should be restrained from presenting Abubakar Atiku as the Presidential candidate of the PDP in the event of his so emerging after the primaries, and that INEC must not recognize him. Jibril’s prayer was based on the allegation that the Northern Political Leaders Forum which chose Atiku as the consensus Presidential candidate of the North, did not even consider her at all. She is equally a Northerner, a PDP Presidential aspirant and she had declared her interest long before the NPLF consensus meeting. She considers herself a victim of male chauvinism and gender discrimination.

A few days ago, Jibril made the same claims at the premises of the Federal High Court in Abuja. From being a 2011 Presidential aspirant, Mrs. Jibril is now carrying the flag of a gender rights activist. Atiku is not her only target, she has also accused the Nigerian womenfolk, the Ministry of Women Affairs, women leaders in the PDP and the National Council of Women’s Societies (NCWS) of betraying her. Newspapers had reported previously that the single vote that Mrs. Jibril got in Abuja was from a Kwara state female delegate; now Mrs. Jibril has disclosed that she was the Kwara delegate who voted for herself: “The vote was of me, by me and for me…” She has every reason to be aggrieved.

To be rejected by the male folk and to be so contemptuously treated by PDP women must be really painful for her. When she filed her suit against Atiku, the sharp response from the Atiku camp was as follows: “What is her business in this, except that she is a busy body? Let her find something to do with her time.” A busy body is someone who meddles in other people’s affairs, an interferer, an intruder who is up to nothing but mischief. Nigerian women constitute more than 50% of the Nigerian population. How then can a bona fide citizen, a woman, who is qualified under the law to express her due rights, be considered a busy body? Nowhere is it stated in the Nigerian Constitution that a woman cannot aspire to the highest office in the land, or that it is right to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of gender or circumstances of birth. The response by the Atiku camp defines the mindset that has triggered years of women activism in Nigerian politics; that a woman seeking interest in the highest political office in the land in 2011 is considered a busy body is a major setback for women’s political activity in Nigeria.

The attempt to marginalise, de-centre, exclude, and dis-empower the Nigerian woman had been met with stiff resistance by Nigerian womenfolk during the colonial and post-colonial eras; the gains of which can be measured in terms of the historicisation of women’s political struggle and the existence of icons and activities related to the rebellion of Nigerian women. Some of the signposts in this respect would include, the influence of the erelu, the iyaloja, and the iyalode in Yoruba traditional administration, the role of women in certain traditional cults and societies, Madam Tinubu and the influence of market women in public administration, the emergence of Madam Okwei as a member of the Onitsha native court in 1912, the role of women in the protest against colonial domination, the Aba Women’s riots of 1929, the self-assertion of Egba women during the centenary celebrations of Abeokuta in 1930, the Egba women’s rebellion against traditional autocracy led by Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Others in this tradition include Madam Pelewura, Mrs. Charlottee Olajumoke Obasa, Madam Ekpo Young, Mrs. Alice Okon, Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, Mrs. Janet Mokelu, Mrs. Esther Soyannwo, Hajia Sawaba Sambo (of the Northern Elements Progressive Union), Hajia Mairo Yarkankarda (of Northern People’s Congress), Miss Adunni Oluwole (founder of the Nigerian Commoners Party); Mrs. Elizabeth Adeyemi Adekogbe of the Ibadan Women’s Movement, Mary Ededem, Bernice Kerry, Margaret Ikokwu, the Nigerian Women’s Union, the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies, the National Council of Women, National Council of Women’s Societies. Lady Kofoworola Ademola, Wuraola Esan, Mrs A. Ogunsheye, Lady Oyinkan Abayomi, Hannah Otudor etc. These examples, outlined not necessarily in the order of historical weight, all highlight attempts by Nigerian women for more than a century to gain a voice not as busy bodies but as legitimate stakeholders in Nigerian politics, and in many ways, their efforts have resulted in increased representation in public life and some degree of achievement in allied complexes such as the education of the girl-child, female genital mutilation, widowhood rites, the inheritance rights of women and all such cultural and social practices which reinforce the inferiorisation of women.

In 1982, a left-leaning women’s rights group was established by a group of academics and activists known as Women in Nigeria (WIN) drawing its membership from both male and female ranks. WIN was motivated by a development agenda targeted at the dislodgment of discriminatory patriarchy, the promotion of democracy and human rights and the mobilisation of Nigerian women for empowerment in the public space as well as increased role in the economic and political emancipation of Nigeria. By 1997 however, WIN had become a victim of the same conditions which made it possible for Sarah Jibril to receive only one vote out of 3, 548: gender conflict, male chauvinism, and to borrow from Mrs. Jibril, “the ignorance of women.” The failure of WIN, the gerontocratic spasms of the National Council of Women’s Societies (NCWS), the NGO-nisation and nepotisation of the women’s struggle in Nigerian politics have combined to effectuate the Sarah Jibril experience. But the sad outcomes arrived in small doses over time.

Just as 1999 marked a turning point in Nigerian politics, it also did for the women’s movement. Before the 1999 elections, women political groups led by the likes of Professor Jadesola Akande, Keziah Awosika, Nkoyo Toyo, Eka Williams, Glory Kilanko and others had tried to draw up a women’s political agenda and set up a political party for women. A woman’s political party did not get registered, but between 1999 and 2007, there was increased representation of women in politics/public life due to organised pressures. This contemporary group of women political activists drew much strength from the 1995 UN Beijing Declaration on Women, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which had changed the texture of the politics of women empowerment worldwide. In 1953, Mrs Remi Aiyedun became the first woman member of a legislature in West Africa, in 1955, Mrs. Oyinkan Abayomi was appointed to the Western House of Assembly, Mrs. Margaret Ekpo became a member of the Eastern House of Assembly in 1953/54, Mrs. Mokelu and Mrs. Ekpo became members of the Eastern Region House of Chiefs in 1955, Mrs. Young joined the Eastern House of Assembly in 1961, Between 1960 and 1964, Mrs. Wuraola Esan, (AG, Ibadan) was a member of the Federal Senate; in 1964, Mrs. Bernice Kerry representing the Mid-West, also joined the Senate.

Military rule interrupted the growth of women’s presence in Nigerian politics, although women participated in all the political transitions organized by the military. During the Second Republic (1979 -1983), Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu became the first woman to serve as National Vice President of the UPN; Mrs. Franca Afegbua became the very first elected Senator; the two others before her (Esan and Kerry), were appointed. In 1990, the NCWS worked hard to mobliise women for Third Republic elections. By 1991, Mrs. Remi Adiukwu put herself up as a Gubernatorial aspirant in Lagos state and came second in the primaries; in 1992, Sarah Jibril showed up for the first time as NRC Presidential aspirant; another woman, Mrs. Durin-Braimah (SDP) also showed interest in the Presidency, but did not contest the primaries whereas Sarah Jibril did. There were 27 women in the House of Assembly out of 1172, 13 women in the House of Representatives out of 593, and one woman out of 93 Senators. Twelve women took part in the gubernatorial primaries. Two deputy Governors emerged (Kano and Cross River state).

Between 1999 and 2007, more women played principal roles in Nigerian public life and politics. In 1999, there was a female deputy Governor in Lagos state (Kofo Bucknor-Akerele), three women in the Senate out of a total of 109; 12 women in the House of Representatives out of 360; 12 women and 978 men in 36 state Houses of Assembly, one female speaker of the House of Assembly in Benue, and 143 women and 8,657 men as councilors. In his first terms, Obasanjo appointed six women ministers and 45 male Ministers. Between 2003 and 2007, more women were appointed into public positions at both federal and state levels. As at 2010, many of the political parties including the ruling People’s Democratic Party had resolved to increase the percentage of women representation even if the women’s lobby for affirmative action and proportional representation did not form part of the 2010/2011 Constitutional amendments.

But why didn’t increased women representation in politics and particularly in the PDP translate into more than one vote for Sarah Jibril? The PDP not only waived registration fees for female candidates within the party, it directed during the Gubernatorial primaries that its three delegates per ward formula must include at least one woman from every ward. For the PDP presidential primaries, the delegates included one delegate per local government and the six councils of the FCT, all PDP members of the National Assembly and the state Assemblies, and all state Executive councils of the party. A rough calculation of this may amount to about a third of the total number of delegates being women and yet Sarah Jibril was the only person that voted for herself! There is in every state branch of the PDP, a women’s wing and a woman’s leader. There is at the Federal level, a woman’s leader of the party and the Minister of Women’s Affairs who is now spearheading a “Nigerian women at 50 “ colloquium (February 8, 2011. The latter is a member of the PDP and erstwhile women’s leader of the party. Yet, all these women did not mobilise support for Sarah Jibril!

Why? Women in politics are not necessarily driven by development agenda but selfish interests. They use the gender envelope to advance personal goals, which may be visibility/relevance or access to donor funding. Two, many of the women in politics are in public positions not because they merit them, but because they have been put there by their husbands, parents, or Godfathers. In that wise, they are agents of male domination, and not flagbearers of women empowerment. Three, women politicians are just as corrupt as male politicians. Sarah Jibril was perhaps not considered viable enough for votes because she did not distribute any largesse, she did not pay anyone’s transport or hotel bills; she was merely appealing to good sense which is in short supply in Nigerian politics.

Four, Nigerian politics is not driven by principles. No woman among the PDP delegates was willing to vote for conscience and principle because that would amount to wasting the vote. Five, it may be that the women were under pressure to vote as directed, again a reflection of the totalitarianism of male-dominated politics. Six, the Nigerian woman in politics today is obsessed with ceremony rather than substance. If women in politics refuse to support their own and build on the kind of successes that have been recorded by women in the professions; indeed if Nigerian women fail to use their votes to make a statement, it would be a long time indeed before a woman can win election as Governor or President in Nigeria. That may be the least cost however to be paid. In 1999, one Mrs. Lami Sadu was divorced for having the effrontery to vote for the All People’s Party against her husband’s wish. She died in a motor accident after a family meeting to resolve the dispute. In Jan. 2011, Hajia Halima Tijjani (ACN, Kaduna Central) was battered and her elbow broken for daring to contest! Seven, and finally, the real problem is with the hypocrisy of the backward male elite in Nigerian politics which considers every woman seeking a role in public life, a “busybody”.

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