Are quotas for women in politics a good idea?

Are quotas for women in politics a good idea?
Women in politics, Stears

The Anambra North Senatorial election is one of the few Senate elections in 2023 where there is a female incumbent—Stella Oduah of the PDP. It is also one of the few where there are more female (5) than male candidates (4) on the ballot. APGA has Ebele Obiano, the wife of Willie Obiano, the immediate past governor of Anambra as their candidate. The APC have Ifeyinwa Anazonwu, while the ADC and NRM have female candidates as well. Each state has three senators, while the Federal Capital Territory has one.


Key takeaways

  1. Low representation of women in Nigerian politics is a long running trend that is set to continue in 2023

  2. A combination of social, economic and political factors have prevented Nigerian women from increasing representation

  3. Many countries in Africa and worldwide have adopted quotas to mainstream female political participation, with significant success.


Anambra is also something of a trailblazer at state assembly level. Of the eight times a woman has been elected speaker of a state house of assembly since 1999, three of those occasions have happened in Anambra.



No country for women (in politics)

The example above is not the case across the country. Throughout the 4th Republic, female political participation has been low and this trend is set to continue in 2023 with women making up less than 10% of candidates overall. 

With women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as DG of the World Trade Organisation and Amina Mohammed as Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, you might expect this to translate to the local politics of the apparent Giant of Africa. However, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which is the global organization of national parliaments, ranks Nigeria 183rd out of 187 countries in female representation in houses of parliament as at November 2022.

In fact, four of the world’s top 20 countries in terms of women’s share of single or lower house of parliament, are in Sub-Saharan Africa: Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, and Senegal.

This article will do three things: first, we will look at the obstacles to female political participation. Next, we will look at how some countries with high female participation have gotten there. Lastly, we will examine the current proposals to address this issue in Nigeria.

Before we get to that though, we need to ask…


Why do we need more women in elective positions?

Nigeria’s federal character principle states that “The composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to  reflect the federal character  of Nigeria”. Nigeria is a diverse place with many ethnic groups and languages, as well as a nearly equal number of Christians and Muslims. 

This argument underpins the zoning and rotation of appointed and elective offices, to the extent that one of the most regular incidents in Nigerian politics is one group or the other complaining about marginalisation. Indeed, the issue of federal character is the main driver of discontent both in the APC and PDP as elections approach. This can be extended quite logically to the fact that Nigeria has more than just ethnic or religious diversity. Since they comprise half of the population, women are a critical and indispensable part of Nigeria’s federal character. As such, their position in politics should reflect that. This  argument is an easy one to make in a country where ‘turn-by-turn’ is a central tenet on which its society is organised.

It is also unlikely that law making institutions at federal and state level will prioritise issues that affect women, when those institutions themselves are full of men. A recent example is when proposed constitutional amendments on gender failed to pass both federal houses in March this year. You could argue that with more representation from women, those amendments are more likely to scale through. 

Now that we’ve established that we do need more women in Nigerian politics, what are the obstacles preventing more women from pursuing a political career?

Barriers to female participation in politics

The other room

In many parts of the country, women are pigeonholed into their traditional roles of home-making and child-rearing, irrespective of any other ambitions they may have. Being relegated in this way means that women will not be given the same kind of opportunities as men in terms of education or other types of exposure, even though they may desire such opportunities. Other scenarios have women acting as breadwinners in addition to traditional home duties. All these leave precious little time for any other activities, especially seeking political office. 


Money, money, money 

The cost of participating in Nigerian politics is prohibitive, even for those who have a decent level of resources to call on. The cost of forms for a governorship campaign, for example, is ₦50 million in the APC and ₦21 million in the PDP. While parties have reduced or waived the cost of these forms for women and youth to participate, the means of winning support among delegates in order to secure the nomination is driven by money. It was not always the person with the most money who won the nomination, but the eventual flagbearer had to part with a lot of it. This state of affairs affects women disproportionately. Studies show that Nigerian women are more likely to earn less than men even when they have similar qualifications and are employed in the same roles. This financial implication limits the number of women who can contest for elective positions. 


Lack of internal democracy 

Even at the best of times, violence and the lack of internal democracy in political parties also scuppers the ambition of female candidates. Party officials can simply select and present a candidate in the name of ‘consensus’  without conducting a primary, leaving others who have put in time and effort to court delegates high and dry. In other cases, the venues for primaries and delegate lists are changed at the last minute to exclude certain candidates from the contest. There is also the resort to tactics like threats and even physical violence. One of the most disturbing recent instances of political violence against women happened in November 2019 when Salome Abuh was burnt to death in her home in Kogi State. This occurred just after the governorship elections in the state. These issues were eloquently addressed in interviews like this one.


Use of quotas across the African continent

To surmount the issues highlighted in the previous section and fast track the entrance of women into politics, many countries around the world have parliamentary quotas for women in one form or another, including many countries in Africa.  

In 2003, Rwanda amended its constitution to provide for the reservation of a quota of 30% of all decision making positions of the State, for women’s representation. Other laws like the Organic Law governing political parties and politicians were amended in July 2013 to eliminate any form of discrimination in political parties. In 2000, women only accounted for 21% in the chamber of deputies. Today, Rwanda leads the world in women representation with 61.4% of its legislators made up of women. 

In Senegal, the Law on Parity was adopted in 2010, which provides for a 50/50 gender quota in all elective positions in all levels of government. Prior to the law’s adoption, Senegal had only 22.7% representation of women in the parliament. They now have 44.2%.

According to data collected by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 137 countries and territories have parliamentary quotas for women. The average level of female representation among these countries is 27.6%. Countries like Nigeria without these quotas are in the minority. 



A Nigerian solution

In March this year, gender equality advocates put forward a Special Seats bill for consideration by legislators, as one of 68 proposed constitutional amendments. The bill aims to create reserved seats for women in the federal legislature. 

The Special Seats Bill seeks to create an extra seat per constituency in the Senate, two extra seats per constituency in the House of Representatives, and three extra seats per state in the State Houses of Assembly. In total, that will mean 37 extra seats in the Senate, 74 extra seats in the House and 108 extra seats in total for the 36 State Houses of Assembly. The proposed measure means the additional seats will be contested by only women who successfully emerge as candidates from their party primaries and does not prevent other female candidates from contesting for other legislative seats. Finally, the additional seats will operate for only four electoral cycles, at the end of which period the promoters think that the remaining barriers to women would have been dismantled.

This idea is not new. A similar proposal was put forward by the Uwais Report of 2008. The report proposed a combination of first-past-the-post and modified proportional representation for legislative elections at all levels. This included the creation of 108 additional seats in the House of Representatives to be filled by proportional representation, as well as 30% women representation in party lists for those new seats.

The current proposal has upsides. First, it is additive rather than subtractive. This means that the men currently occupying legislative positions will not have to give up those positions just to include women. Secondly, it has a sunset clause of four electoral cycles (16 years), after which the law will terminate unless legislative action is taken to extend it. On the other hand, these reserved seats in some cases could be hoovered up by female politicians bankrolled by governors or otherwise well resourced people.

As it happened, the male-dominated federal legislature rejected all five amendments which bordered on gender equality. The House of Reps opted to reconsider three of the five bills, but the Special Seat bill was not one of them.


Progress comes from systemic change and not individual work 

At its heart, the contest around quotas for women is about two types of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. On the face of it, there are no formal barriers to women either voting or being voted for. Nigeria is signatory to a number of international agreements ending discrimination against women and pledging gender equality. Some political parties even waive or reduce the cost of nomination forms for women. In addition, there are non-profits who train and mentor women to succeed in politics. However, none of these facts have significantly altered the reality that Nigeria’s women are under-represented in our elective positions, and the situation is getting worse, not better. 

It means the conversation has to shift from individuals to institutions, and from equality of opportunity to equality of outcomes, to see real change in this area and reap the benefits therein. 137 countries around the world already realise this and have taken steps to address it. 

Nigeria should as well.

Joachim MacEbong

Joachim MacEbong

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