Nigerian Women, Politics and Nation Building, By Olusegun Obasanjo
Women as majority must be reckoned with and be participants at the commanding heights of policy-making and decisions and execution of these in the overriding interest of the general good of our people. The journey starts by you commencing your mobilisation; let our children, women, girls and youth get their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), because with 2019 election, women must have a place of honour.
This gathering couldn’t have come at a better time than now when everyone is looking forward to the politics of 2019. Of course, I know traditionally in Africa, and specifically in Nigeria, women have always been very prosperous, powerful and successful. What I find perplexing is the seeming inertia and inability of our women to transfer these successes to the realm of politics.
I should think something is wrong somewhere when the majority allows themselves to be consigned to the ghetto of the power equation. Women should know that they suffer double jeopardy when the wicked or the clueless rule. Women and their children are usually direct and indirect victims of misgovernance and poor leadership, hence should not wait until they are crushed by policies of state made by men who have no regards for their involvement in policy-making and execution.
I find it intriguing in politics when men are on the dining table eating, and women who prepare the sumptuous dishes allow the left-overs to be thrust to them when they were the ones who suffered in the kitchen and laid the table for the men. Our women should know that the decision on whether there will be meat or not is seldom, if ever taken in the kitchen. They are taken in either the living room or the bedroom where they equally have power as men, if not more than men. Why would they prevaricate and allow the men to take such decisions alone?
This is why I say that I hold the women themselves substantially responsible for what I call self-exclusion in the governance structures and processes. Our women should draw the line to understand that there are times when silence is golden, others when it is just plain yellow.
Our women should take a quick look at history and understand how they have marginalised themselves. Efunsetan Aniwura was Iyalode of Ibadan in the 1860s. She was the first woman to set up a flourishing agrarian company that employed no fewer than 2000 men and women. Worried by the spread of war and combat, she introduced infantry military training into the midst of her workers. Before her, Queen Amina was the first woman to become the Sarauniya (queen) in a male-dominated society. She expanded the territory of the Hausa people of North Africa to its largest borders in history. These were not sophisticated women with strings of degrees and industry experiences as you, modern day women, savvy in information technology and strategic networking of all kinds. What went wrong? How can you yield the political space to be seized by some individuals who could easily have been pocketed by the special ways you have been divinely wired?
That is why I insist that 2019 provides a litmus test for Nigerian women in politics and governance generally. As the storms are gathering and the agitations to put an end to the reign of power addicts become palpable and the shrilling voices of hitherto reclusive persons become restless and pro-active, insisting that the structure of Nigeria must be determined on a different basis of legitimacy, there seems to be a deafening silence in the camp of our women.
Is it that they are expecting that men in their kindness will do all these struggles alone, win or capture power and toss it at them? Do you think that our political space is different from the boardrooms and business empires where you have been playing? My lived experience and the world as I know it is powered by shrewd, hard-headed, calculating individuals and the cornucopia of their mercy is decidedly thin. It is unlike God’s rain that falls on the wicked and the kind-hearted alike. No, our women must stand up to be counted.
…women represent a tool for positive change, depending on how they are treated and the levels of opportunities given to them to actualise their potentials. Women themselves must be ready to roll their sleeves to mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the next phase of the liberation struggles, which is to mount the saddle of political leadership in order for Nigeria to achieve its welfare and human development goals.
I consider it a sheer tokenism, if not arrant insult that our resourceful, intelligent and morally upright women will be sidelined into the ghettos of power to function perfunctorily by such unelevating nomenclatures such as women leaders or heads of the Ministries of Women Affairs? If the Ministries of Women Affairs were created to highlight the need to give special attention to women in government programmes, maybe they can be renamed as the Ministries of Family Affairs, if public morality, ethical orientation or restoration of family ethos will also inform such social welfare considerations. No longer should our women allow themselves to be consigned only to the ‘other room’ and the kitchen.
In our globalised world, I wonder if we have had about 70 world women leaders since 1940, when Khertek Anchimaa-Toka emerged president in Little Khural? Check out if the ascendancies of Indira Gandhi, Angela Merkel, Margret Thatcher, Theresa May and here in Africa, Joyce Banda of Malawi and Ellen Johonson-Sirleaf of Liberia, were consequences of their pretty faces. The same goes for those who have emerged in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Power is not bestowed on people simply because they are nice or they are women. All these women I have mentioned actually made and still make men shrink, kowtow and tremble by their sheer grits, guts, guile, wits, character and competence.
I did a bit when I was president. But there can be no end to doing good. I am saddened that the quality, with the quantity, has been sinking, rather than improving. Our dream for a Nigerian woman president and governor has not materialised; it’s a pipedream, partly because our women are complicit with some godfathers. Since the beginning of the present democratic dispensation, five rounds of gubernatorial elections in thirty-six States, making 180 elections, have taken place, and nowhere has a woman been allowed to win.
Despite the vigorous campaigns, the number of women in the National Assembly has been shrinking: only seven women are presently in the Senate of 109 members and there are only 15 women of the 360 House of Representative members! Is that the 30 percent Affirmative Action Nigeria acceded to in Beijing in 1995?
I am even saying fair is fair. If we have a 50:50 ratio in terms of population, why should the number be less in governance? Since Independence over 57 years ago, no woman has occupied the highest office in the land or ascended to the second highest office in the land. Likewise, no woman has occupied the seat of Senate president and no woman has been elected governor of a State. Only once did a woman lead the lower chamber of the National Assembly and conservative forces pushed her out in less than four months. When by default, or is it fortuitous circumstance, a woman, Virginia Etiaba, was catapulted to the governorship seat of Anambra State, she did not last longer than four months – June to October, 2007. But I have worked with several women of virtue. Nigerians and I can vouch that they lightened the space of governance; many can vouch for their integrity and innate potentials as conscientious administrators and public servants.
The circumstances and their achievements are there for you all to see. Other leading lights must inspire and lead the recruitment of more women into the governance process. I have come to the conclusion that in politics, women are more reliable than men. When a woman says she’s with you, you can really say that she is with you. But if a man tells you he is with you and you catch him in another meeting, he will tell you it is politics. It should not be so. When a politician’s words cannot be believed, then politics is being turned into another thing. A politician must be a man or woman of honour who stands for and believes in morality.
The progress and development of any nation, I must say, is equal to the quality of women in that society. This is because they are mothers, sisters, lovers, builders and pro-creators by divine design. Thus, women represent a tool for positive change, depending on how they are treated and the levels of opportunities given to them to actualise their potentials. Women themselves must be ready to roll their sleeves to mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the next phase of the liberation struggles, which is to mount the saddle of political leadership in order for Nigeria to achieve its welfare and human development goals.
Although women’s roles are differentiated for a different reason and the way the Almighty wired them but notwithstanding this divine architecture, the Scriptures established their equality with men. So, it’s balderdash to anchor the derogation, limitation and stigmatisation of women on the Quran or Bible.
To answer how we came to the present pass, some have pretentiously blamed this on culture and tradition. I wonder where some of them derive this cynically deleterious tool of marginalisation from. Definitely not from our two dominant religions. Although women’s roles are differentiated for a different reason and the way the Almighty wired them but notwithstanding this divine architecture, the Scriptures established their equality with men. So, it’s balderdash to anchor the derogation, limitation and stigmatisation of women on the Quran or Bible.
The Quran, for instance, in Chapter 16:97, says, “Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while s/he is a believer – We will surely cause him/her to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do…” While Quran 4:124 confirms that, “And whoever does [of] [the] righteous deeds from (the) male or female, and he/she (is) a believer, then those will enter Paradise and not will they be wronged (even as much as) the speck on a date-seed.” These reveal clear-cut evidence that woman is completely on the same pedestal with man in the sight of God, in terms of her rights and responsibilities. Perhaps among the most elucidating verses about the equality of man and woman in the glorious Quran is Chapter 30:21, which says, “And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect”. From yourself, not above yourself, nor below yourself.
I am more at home with the Holy Bible, which asserts this equality right from the very first Chapter, Genesis. In the Bible, we are taught that women, like men, bear the stamp of God’s own image (Genesis 1:27; 5:1-2) – as such men and women were created equal. Women play prominent roles in many key Biblical narratives. Wives are seen as venerated partners and cherished companions of their husbands, not as slaves or pieces of household furniture (Genesis 2:20-24; Proverbs 19:14; Ecclesiastics 9:9). At Sinai, God commanded children to honour both father and mother (Exodus 20:12). The Bible teaches women are not only equals with men (Galatians 3:28) but are also set apart for special honour (1 Peter 3:7). Husbands are commanded to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loves the church—even, if necessary, at the cost of their own lives (Ephesians 5:25-310. The Bible acknowledges and celebrates the priceless value of a virtuous woman (Proverbs 12:4; 31:10; 1 Corinthians 11:7).
Far from denigrating women, these Scriptures from the two religions and from most of our African cultures derive legitimacy to promote feminine freedom, dignity, and honour. Indeed, from our culture, the portrait of a truly beautiful woman as an Omoluwabi is reinforced. A beautiful woman is not about external adornment, “arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel”; real beauty is manifest instead in “the hidden person of the heart … the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God”. That is the main criterion for how we chose life partners. As in religions, so they are in culture. And as mentioned earlier, the reality is that, historically, in most African societies, women had political power, status and stature.
If these were so, where and how did gender inequality, a situation where women and men are not equal, creep into our consciousness? Where did the monster – dichotomous and hierarchical, portending unequal treatment or perception of individuals, wholly or partly due to their gender – come about, even as our religions and cultures respect differences in gender roles? Human beings are the same and only different for the purpose of the sustainability of humanity on earth by child birth. I came back last night from Rwanda where 64 percent of the members of parliament are women – the highest proportion in the world. The flow from that is that late last year, the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Survey ranked Rwanda first in Africa and fourth in the world when it comes to the fair treatment of women. In 2017, according to the United Nations, gender inequality cost Africa $95 billion a year. Surely, we can neither permit nor encourage this human waste.
My dear sisters, you have knowledge by going to schools and in your daily businesses and networking, you should understand how to interpret the knowledge and facts but the ultimate is for you to apply the facts, knowledge and network. That is what I call wisdom. Be wise. Those men are yours by birth or by association. Negotiate and seize the hour before they turn the table against you in 2019. This is my take: we should all rise from this meeting today and say to ourselves enough is enough. Women as majority must be reckoned with and be participants at the commanding heights of policy-making and decisions and execution of these in the overriding interest of the general good of our people. The journey starts by you commencing your mobilisation; let our children, women, girls and youth get their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), because with 2019 election, women must have a place of honour. In the Coalition for Nigeria Movement, which I have advocated and is growing rapidly and whatever political association will emanate from it, youth, under 40 years, will have 30 percent and women will have 30 percent in composition of any of its organs. That composition must be transformed into political power at the executive and legislative levels.
Olusegun Obasanjo (GCFR) is a former president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
This excerpted from the text of the keynote address given at the WIMBIZ 14th Annual Lecture Series, held at Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos on March 22, 2018.