It might have come out as a comical request but that, clearly, was not the intention of a group of female parliamentarians who visited President Muhammadu Buhari last Friday with a request that he should consider choosing a female running mate ahead of the 2019 presidential election. Buhari saw the dry humour in that request and told the women in polite language that their request posed a threat to incumbent Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.
That request was odd. The office of the Vice-President is not vacant. How could the female legislators hope to convince a President to replace his deputy when Buhari has relied so much on the intellectual perspicacity of his deputy? For the past three years, Osinbajo has provided the strength of character that enabled Buhari to carry on, even when Buhari has emitted darkness, showed lack of clear direction, demonstrated inconsistencies in policy decisions, and confirmed his inability to grapple with the key economic and security challenges confronting the nation.
The female parliamentarians from all state Houses of Assembly who met Buhari in Abjua obviously wanted to achieve through the back door what they could not accomplish through open, fair, and transparent contest with male politicians. The moment women start asking a President to consider them for a particular political position on the basis of their gender, you know the women are asserting their inferiority in the public sphere. Gender should be an asset and a source of strength, not a liability. The women appeared to be saying that without a presidential candidate picking a woman to serve as a running mate, the chances of a woman ever becoming a Vice-President in Nigeria would remain a mirage. Have female parliamentarians become so restricted and stretched in their thinking, their vision, and their aspirations for high office that they cannot aim to contest elections and emerge triumphant?
By the ill-advised and thoughtless demand they presented to Buhari, the female legislators belittled themselves and their God-given natural leadership skills. They also requested sheepishly a favour they knew Buhari lacked the authority to grant them. They asked Buhari to make it obligatory that one of three senatorial positions in each state of the country should be reserved for women. The women also demanded that three of every nine spots for the House of Representatives in each state should be kept for women.
Elizabeth Ative, leader of the delegation of female legislators, argued: “All over the world, the issue of twinning is being advocated. Currently, many African and European nations are daily finding ways to include more women in governance. Some have elected or appointed women as Heads of State, Prime Ministers, heads of foreign ministries and other key positions of decision-making. It will not be out of place, Your Excellency, for women to be given such opportunities in our dear nation. Even God created them male and female.”
It is true that women are disadvantaged in many ways in our society. And we need inclusive laws to correct the discriminatory practices to which women are subjected. However, Buhari does not have the express power to change the situation as it currently exists. As Buhari told the women, only a dictator would have the power to make laws through arbitrary command or by fiat.
We must acknowledge, however, that a few women have made noteworthy contributions to socio-political life in Nigeria. Of course, a few does not constitute a majority. As in other countries, there is a glass ceiling that prevents Nigerian women from rising to the highest political office. Every time some women try to participate in party politics at a senior level, they are shot down by men consumed by vitriol. The women are insulted with loud expletives such as, “Sit down women, your place is in the kitchen.” There are men who take pride in taunting women publicly and privately.
Beyond these, there are obstacles that women face in our culture. First, traditional practices, conventions, and religious beliefs contribute to hold back women from achieving their dream political office. These conservative and weird cultural practices and religious beliefs influence public perceptions of women as second-class citizens. Many men, including, unfortunately, President Buhari, still believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen or in the “other room,” whatever that expression connotes. There is the perception that women must be seen but they must not be heard because their perspectives are assumed to be inferior to those of men. With this kind of attitude, does anyone still wonder why the voices of Nigerian women have effectively been muffled?
Rather than beg Buhari to reserve specific positions for them, Nigerian female legislators must do something to empower themselves. They must break through that proverbial glass ceiling. There are a number of countries in which women served or are still serving in top leadership positions. They include Britain (Margaret Thatcher), Brazil (Dilma Rousseff), India (Indira Gandhi), Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Israel (Golda Meir), South Korea (Park Geun-hye), Sri Lanka (Sirimavo Bandaranaike), Germany (Angela Merkel), Norway (Gro Harlem Brundtland), Ireland (Mary MacAleese), Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina Wajed), the Philippines (Gloria Arroyo), and Argentina (Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner). These are by no means all the female leaders the world has produced but the examples show that some countries do not carry the kind of prejudices against women that we still hold here.
Take a look at Liberia. In many ways, Liberia is unique. It emerged from years of violent civil war that claimed thousands of lives but the citizens decided, soon after the war, that it was time they retrieved their country’s future from blood-thirsty warlords. General elections were held in Liberia in 2005 and a woman, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was crowned President. Liberia made history as the first African country to elect a woman as President. This occurred against the widespread but fictional idea that African women are not created to lead. Today, that insulting view still persists in Nigeria.
Perhaps 2019 could be a good time for a radical shift in the frame of mind of Nigerian voters. Since Independence, the nation has been governed or ruled by a mix of military dictators and clumsy politicians – all of them men. They have been the chief drivers of the country’s under-development. This implies that men do not necessarily make better political leaders.
As the 2019 general election draws near, all eyes will be on Nigerian women to see whether they would make a difference, whether they have emerged from a long time of political indolence to successfully challenge their male counterparts for top political positions, whether they have overcome structural, cultural, economic, and political barriers to attain their political goals, and indeed whether they can use the 2019 elections to make a definitive statement about their capacity to achieve what women in other parts of the world have attained.