“How can a woman be our president? What happened to all the men in Nigeria?”

Usman Bala Abubakar, civil servant, December 2018

“We cannot have a situation where women will continue to remain as mere spectators in the business of politics.”

Professor Oluremi Sonaiya, female presidential aspirant 20151Sonaiya contested her party’s presidential primary in September 2018 and lost to a man, Mr. Sina Fagbenro-Byron, https://punchng.com/breaking-inec-releases-final-list-of-candidates-for-2019-general-elections/

Mixed reactions trailed Oby Ezekwesili’s October 2018 declaration to run for president in Nigeria’s 2019 elections. Dissenters included many men and some women subscribers to the misogynistic ideology expressed in the above quote. Yet others, including me, welcomed the news—a sign of warming attitudes toward the idea of a female president that was not possible when Sarah Jubril contested her party’s presidential primaries in 2011. Ezekwesili was one of six (now four) viable women presidential candidates—an unprecedented phenomenon.

Ezekwesili is known for her unyielding criticism of successive governments, most notably for their handling of the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok as leader of Bring Back Our Girls. Her international profile and formidable reputation made her stand out among the other women candidates and informed the widespread belief that if any woman could become president, surely it would be her, which is why her withdrawal in January 2019 was so momentous. From a gender perspective, it narrows women’s chances and is a lost opportunity to re-test Nigeria’s pulse on a female president.

Women hold only 6.7 percent of elective and appointive political offices in Nigeria.2This number comprises 5.6 percent in the house of representatives and 6.5 percent in the Senate. None of Nigeria’s 36 states has ever had a female governor. As diverse women politicians told me, the same challenges have confronted women politically for decades: gender discrimination, inadequate finances in the face of highly monetized politics, sexual harassment, cultural and marital restrictions, religious prescriptions, and violent political contexts, among others. In the lead-up to the country’s 2019 elections, I draw on existing knowledge and my own ongoing research to reflect on why this situation has not changed substantially after decades of concerted national and global interventions to increase women’s political participation.


Political empowerment interventions tend to offer universalized solutions that emphasize better access to resources and capacity building. However, Nigerian women are anything but homogenous, and their access to political power is mediated by region, religion, culture, class, age, education, and social networks, among other factors. Indeed, among the obstacles to greater women’s participation remain the gulfs among women caused by such differences.3Focus group discussion with women politicians, Maiduguri, October 2019; Discussions in a validation workshop on the mapping and comparative analysis of women’s political participation by Partners West Africa Nigeria and the National Endowment for Democracy, Abuja, September 5, 2018. There is a need for data that disaggregates the disparate needs and experiences of women in politics to facilitate better-tailored interventions.

The Need for Alternative Perspectives: Descriptive vs. Substantive Participation

Too many analyses of women in Nigerian politics still focus on numbers over substance. Questions need to be asked about the nature of women’s political power and the terms of their participation. Both measures are critical to obtaining a holistic view of women’s political activity.

A Shared Responsibility

Political empowerment efforts appear to follow a fundamental assumption that the more women hold political power, the more they will empower and facilitate access for other women. Yet women in power are not necessarily gender-conscious or feminist; hence, their increased political presence does not automatically translate to better access for women.4Gretchen Bauer and Manon Tremblay, Women in Executive Power: A Global Overview (London, UK: Routledge, 2011). The onus of deepening women’s political engagement in Nigeria does not rest solely on women activists and politicians.

Gender Inequality

Gender inequality manifests in Nigeria’s politicosphere as a deeply held belief by many, including some women, that men are superior to women and leadership is a man’s business. This is why many women were treated unfairly in the 2018 party primaries. Empowerment cannot happen without recognizing that repressive cultural values underlie nearly all the factors that orchestrate and sustain women’s political marginalization in Nigeria today.

References   [ + ]