Opinion

Breaking chains of bias against women in Nigeria

By Cynthia Mbamalu

The past week has been a battle and a period of protests for Nigerian women who watched with dismay as the National Assembly failed to pass the five gender bills for constitution amendment. March 1, 2022, will be remembered for a long time as the day the 9th National Assembly voted against freedom, equality and rights which are intrinsic features of democracy.

For Nigerian women who watched the voting on the constitutional bills, the screams of ‘NO’ and laughter by the lawmakers over basic rights Bills was a psychological abuse to break the resilient spirit of Nigerian women.  It was a clear disregard of the hard work of Nigerian women who fought side-by-side with Nigerian men for our independence, democracy and freedom. 

The struggles of women like Chief Margaret Ekpo, Chief. Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti, Wuraole Esan, Hajia Gambo Sawaba, Chief Elizabeth Adekogbe, Tanomowo Ogunlesi, Chief Kudirat Abiola and the host of other great women cannot be forgotten and must not be in vain. They fought hard for freedom! The likes of Hajia Gambo faced many tortures just for the right of women to vote in the North, Fumilayo Ransom Kuti faced violence that led to her death and Kudirat Abiola died in the fight for our democracy. These women and many more paid the price. Nigeria they fought for is still failing them and failing the generation of women and girls who fought and still fight for the rights of women. Today we have a system of government dominated by men, a projection of Nigeria as a country of only men. A falsehood that the patriarchal culture of the ‘power-bearers’ in Nigeria has maintained through the almost 23 years of democracy. 

Nigeria deserves to be a nation of truth. These truths remain that; Nigeria’s democracy will remain stagnant without women. Nigeria cannot achieve meaningful growth and sustainable development if women are excluded from government and if gender inequality persists. Hence the importance of these gender Bills. On a positive note, the House of Representatives on March 8, 2022, reversed its decision on three of the five Bills to vote again after the protests by Nigerian women. Each bill requires two-thirds majority votes in both the Senate (at least 73 senators) and House of Representatives (240 of members) to pass at the national level and two-thirds of the State Assemblies (at least 24 of the 36 state Assemblies) to pass them before Presidential assent. It is important to note that there are five gender bills and each of the five is as important as the other.

The Bill on citizenship seeks to confer citizenship by registration for foreign spouses of Nigerian women to correct the injustice in Section 26(2a) recognizing only Nigerian men. An injustice carried on from both the 1963 and 1979 constitutions and was retained under the 1999 constitution. The concept of citizenship presupposes a sense of belonging within a political entity, a legal bond with the state, with corresponding rights. A vast number of countries in Africa had discriminated against women by limiting the rights of women to transfer citizenship. However, signs of progress have been made with more countries adopting gender-neutral laws to ensure equality of all citizens. Countries like Senegal, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia Botswana, Mauritius, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and others reformed their laws to ensure equality with respect to citizenship rights. The year 2022 was supposed to be the year for Nigeria to correct this injustice to Nigerian women. This bill affirms the principle of Equality in the Constitution. 

The Indigeneship Billseeks to expand indigeneship to; Nigerians resident in other states and; to women who marry from states other than their state of origin. The bill defines an indigene as a Nigerian born in a state or has lived in a state for a continuous period of 10 years, has evidence of tax payment in the state, or a woman married to an indigene of a state for at least 5 years. The idea is to ensure that women who marry into other states benefit from employment, appointment and election into a political/public office. Denying Nigerian women indigeneity through marriage is leaving many women “stateless” in a country where they are full citizens. This Bill promotes national integration and unity.

On Special Seats for Women Bill;lateSenator Wuraole Esan, the first woman in the Nigerian Senate in 1960 must be staring down at Nigeria wondering how 62 years later there are only 8 women Senators out of 109. A difference of 6 from 1960. Only 13 of the 360 members of the House of Representatives and 44 of the 991 state legislators are women. 15 of the 36 State Assemblies have no woman. This calls for a national emergency on women’s political inclusion. The Bill seeks to create 74 seats in the House of Representatives, 37 in the Senate and 3 in each State Assembly that only women can contest for. It is a positive measure to address historic discrimination/exclusion that impedes women’s emergence in political office. The reserved seats will be operational for 4 electoral cycles and do not preclude women from contesting for the other seats. The idea is to ensure that every state has a woman in the National Assembly and that every State Assembly has at least 3 women. 

The Bills on Affirmative Action proposes affirmative action for women in the appointment of Ministers and Commissioners at the federal and state levels respectively and in Party administration. Failure to pass the 35% affirmative action bills denies women the opportunity of having at least 35% representation in public leadership and in party leadership. Currently, there are only 7 female ministers of the 43 ministers in Nigeria, some states have only male Commissioners. While in party leadership except for the office of the national woman leader, there is almost no other position occupied by women.  

Nigeria is a rich, diverse nation that has the potential to wield the power to control the waves of democratic expansion and development in Africa. Sadly, Nigeria has remained the most-timid in taking bold steps to guarantee the freedom and equality of all people in its democracy.

We should not forget that our 62 years of independence and 23 years of democracy is a product of the collective efforts of men and women. When the legislators, played in the gallery of ego than reason and danced around the issues of freedom and equality they set Nigeria on a backward trend. However, there is still an opportunity to redeem our democracy.

The House of Representatives will be voting again on three of the Gender Bills; Citizenship, Indigeneship and 35% Affirmative Action in party administration. Nigeria needs both the Senate and the House of Representatives to vote and pass all 5 Gender Bills. We need the National Assembly to pass the gender bills for generations of women and girls in Nigeria today and in the future. 

Cynthia Mbamalu is the Director of Programs in Yiaga Africa with 15 years of experience, working to support sustainable democracies, promote political inclusion, electoral integrity and human rights. She has an LLM in Comparative Constitutional Law from the Central European University (CEU). She tweets @DCynthiaM, please send your feedback to [email protected]

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