Political Superwomen (Part 1)

Aug 31, 2015|Ebehi Iyoha

This article is Part I of a series. Read Part II here

President Buhari’s decision to delay ministerial appointments until September has, quite understandably, generated a lot of speculation. Many questions abound. Will the former military head-of-state stuff his cabinet with retired generals? Will he opt for the company of men his own age or give the government a youthful facelift? Are southerners going to be selected in substantial numbers or will this administration be dominated by the north? At this point, it wouldn't hurt to throw another concern into the mix – how prominently will women feature in government over the next four years?

Losing Out in the Legislature

Anyone hoping for women to be victorious in the last general election will have been sorely disappointed. The only woman to run for president, Oluremi Sonaiya got the third lowest votes of the 14 candidates. Meanwhile, hopes for the first elected female governor were ultimately dashed when Aisha Al-Hassan lost by a close margin to her male opponent in Taraba State, and of the 87 women who stood as governorship candidates or running mates in the 29 states where elections were held, only four emerged as deputy-governors.  

Female candidates fared just as badly in the National Assembly elections. Women of the eighth National Assembly comprise only 8 out of 109 senators and 16 of 360 representatives. Even more worrying is that these figures represent a steady decline in female representation in the national legislative body, from about 9% in 2007, barely 7% in 2011, and now down to a dismal 5.11%.

Part of the problem is that there are not a lot of women running for office. Of the 747 candidates who contested for senatorial seats, less than one-fifth of them were women, and while 267 women ran for seats in the House of Representatives, they were too few compared to the 1507 men who were also in the running. 

A bigger concern is that female candidates are less likely to win than male ones. When we compare the success rate (the ratio of winners to the total number of candidates) for both men and women in the 2015 elections, the difference is stark. In the gubernatorial elections, male politicians had a success rate of 18.4% while for women it was 4.6%. Likewise, in the National Assembly elections, 20.9% of male candidates were successful compared to 6.2% of the female contenders. In both cases, a man was over three times more likely to win than a woman.

An Executive Remedy  

For gender equality advocates, it appears the only way to compensate for the lack of female electoral success will be through the executive route – if women can't get elected, they can at least be appointed. Ebonyi state governor Dave Umahi seems to have the same idea. He announced that he would appoint women as vice-chairmen of local government area caretaker committees and ensure 50% of the coordinators for the LGA-development centres would also be female. What remains unclear is whether these roles will give any of these women real power.

On the whole, female political appointees in Africa are slotted into less influential posts that afford them limited opportunities to make significant policy contributions and often become dead ends for their political careers. One clear example is the appointment of late Dora Akunyili as Minister of Information, a position that did little to leverage her experience and accomplishments as the Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). When she resigned in the 2010 to pursue a potentially impactful career in the Senate, she lost the elections to a male opponent, Chris Ngige.  

Interestingly, former president Dr Goodluck Jonathan disrupted this trend when he selected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Diezani Alison-Madueke to head two of the most influential ministries, Finance and Petroleum Resources. Additional high-profile female appointees include eleven other ministers, five Special Advisers, and the first female Chief Justice of the Federation. Unless the Buhari administration can match, if not improve on this, it could be that Nigerian female politicians have run out of good luck.

Raising the Bar

The push for the appointment of more women is a matter of both equity and efficiency. It could potentially raise the quality of governance in Buhari's administration as on average, female appointees tend to be better qualified than their male counterparts. This has less to do with any intrinsic difference between the genders and more to do with how appointments are made. Men are sometimes given appointments out of political expediency, to bridge alliances between important political players, but women rarely have enough clout in their parties to have such leverage. Therefore, while a man may be given a position regardless of his professional qualifications, a woman often has to prove that she is well qualified before she can be chosen. 

One way to test this theory is by tracking the career paths of female appointees after leaving office. For instance, after her tenure as Director of the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission, Arunma Oteh was appointed Vice-President and Treasurer of the World Bank. This is similar to the way Oby Ezekwesili’s tenure as Vice-President of World Bank’s Africa Division began after she led the Ministry of Solid Minerals and the Ministry of Education during the Obasanjo administration. Perhaps these women benefitted from the higher profiles afforded them by their government positions, but they could not have been picked for their new positions if they had not been qualified at all. 

President Buhari will not have a hard time finding highly qualified female candidates. Because historically there have been such few slots in government for women, the competition between female professionals seeking political appointments has increased. This has created a substantial pool of women with experience from careers in international organisations, the private sector and non- governmental organisations. Therefore the Buhari administration can achieve two ends with female appointments. One would be to increase Nigeria’s representation on international bodies by using political appointments as a launching pad for highly professional women to gain more visibility. The second would be to raise the overall quality of governance by drawing from a growing pool of female technocrats. This could perhaps stimulate competition among male candidates to match the resumés of their female counterparts.

Beyond the Cabinet

Whether or not President Buhari does make a significant number of female appointments during his tenure, there are several other areas that the current administration could target to boost female representation in government. Appointments will only go so far and the low rates of female electoral success in the country must be addressed. 

Campaign financing, for instance, presents a catch-22 for women running for office. Financial backing is crucial to electoral success, but at the same time donors are unwilling to fund female candidates’ campaigns because they believe the women are unlikely to win. A temporary quota system could disrupt this trend. If some seats in state and national assemblies and on local government councils are reserved for women, this greatly increases the probability of a female candidate winning a seat and makes her more attractive to financial backers. 

Another angle to consider would be to limit intra-party discrimination against women by enforcing political parties’ compliance with INEC’s gender policy. This is important because political parties cannot be relied upon to pursue gender equality without some external intervention. In fact, a plausible explanation for women's poor performance in the most recent elections is that in the recent power tussle between PDP and APC, issues of gender balance fell to the bottom of both parties’ priority lists. Perhaps, if Buhari confirms Amina Zakari as the INEC chairman, she may work towards this end. But that all depends on whether she wins the battle for a seat at what appears to be the big-boy table of Nigerian politics.

This article is Part I of a series. Read Part II here


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