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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > If she votes, she leads: Empowering Nigerian women for inclusive governance

If she votes, she leads: Empowering Nigerian women for inclusive governance

In Nigeria, every election cycle witnesses a decline in the number of women contesting and being represented in government. Faith Chiazor (MAGaD) explores barriers to women's political representation.
Flickr: Africa Renewal 5100301558
Flickr: Africa Renewal 5100301558

Nigeria's National Gender Policy states that women's empowerment and gender equality are at the core of equitable development. However, despite women constituting approximately 50 percent of the voting demographic, women's representation experiences a steady decline every election. Recent reports show that Nigerian women's political participation is below seven percent, far below the 35 percent which Nigeria has committed to.  

This demonstrates that although the policy provides an institutional framework, it exists on paper rather than in practice. This disparity can be attributed to factors including gender discrimination, religious influences that portray men as superior and rightful leaders while stereotyping women as emotive and less fit for leadership. This entrenched gender inequality makes women less likely to secure leadership positions, resulting in male dominated politics in Nigeria. 


Source: Author’s own, based on data from Policy and Legislative Advocacy Center (PLAC) Factsheet-on-Specific-Seats-Bill.pdf ( Women’s political representation at the Nigerian National Assembly declined steadily from 7% in 2011 to 4.2% in 2023. 


Ballots and assaults: When personal becomes political 

Elections in Nigeria are often characterised by intimidation and violence, as evidenced in the EU Observation Mission’s 2023 elections report. Political violence makes female participants fearful over their physical and online safety.  

An example is the case of Funke Akindele during the 2023 Lagos State Governorship elections. Her divorce was maliciously weaponised to tarnish her image with opponents leveraging societal expectations and patriarchal sentiments to undermine her candidacy. This reflects a disturbing trend where women are unfairly targeted, having cudgels such as unrelated personal issues like sexual life and marital status wielded against them rather than focusing on policy discussions.  

The use of catchphrases that normalise violence has further exacerbated this problem. Nigeria has an infamous adage that "politics is a dirty game". Beyond being used as an excuse for electoral malpractices, this adage is also weaponised to judge the morality and values of women who are expected to be ‘gentle’ and ‘motherly.’ This labeling pressurizes women to conform to traditional notions of femininity and rationalises unjust actions against those who defy this ‘norm’. 


Source: Author’s own, based on data from World Economic Forum Special seats bill in Nigeria: Balancing representation through constitutional reforms | International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics ( Nigeria ranks poorly in women’s political representation compared to global, regional, and West Africa average. 


The illusion of inclusion and party realities  

Systemic issues within party structures create further barriers. Despite including gender-friendly provisions in party manifestos, patriarchal sentiments still prevail. ‘Popular’ parties prefer to field male candidates to appeal to a patriarchal audience resistant to female leadership and stand a better chance at winning. Every Nigerian is conversant of the existence of these parties, for example, PDP, APC, which are the major contenders in Nigeria’s elections. This was evident in the 2023 general elections at the federal level, where seven women contested presidential primaries across various parties, yet none secured the ticket to represent their party on the ballot, except Chichi Ojei from an ‘unpopular’ party.  

Traditional media compounds this challenge. Their spotlight disproportionately favours male candidates and does not pay equitable media attention to women in politics. Many Nigerians knew of Chichi only after the result was announced. Chichi received 25,000 out of 24.9 million votes, the highest-performing record in Nigeria's presidential race history, with Sarah Jubril as the lowest for having only one vote in 2011 – a vote she cast for herself.  

The challenge here is that popular parties are less likely to give candidacy to women; unpopular parties may consider women, but their candidacy would be hampered by the poor media visibility and lack of funding that smaller parties face. 

  • Popular parties refer to the parties that have gained popularity over the years because of their big/ widespread structures across the 36 states and capital and have strong presence and membership even in local government areas down to the grassroots. These parties have occupied many offices in government, have ruled for years, have many strong politicians as their members, and are very competitive, and not easy to clinch their tickets to contest office. Big politicians here influence decisions of “who gets what” in this party elections.

  • Unpopular or smaller parties refer to the opposite of the popular parties. Some are newly registered parties that are yet unknown by the people while some are old parties that have not or hardly been in the corridors of power. These set lack structures in many states and have little or no presence in the grassroots. People see them as struggling parties because they are usually underfunded and can hardly afford to hold campaigns across all states or sponsor media publicity. They hardly have enough members. In some elections, they do not have candidates contesting for all positions, and sometimes they have no one contesting at all. People either do not know if they even have a candidate during an election, and people feel that voting their candidates could be a waste of votes as they do not have the winning “might”.


Special seats: Depatriarchalisation in action 

The persistent challenges hindering women in Nigeria's politics means there is increasing pressure to adopt a quota system. The quota system is rooted in the concept of compensatory justice; it emerged as a crucial mechanism to empower women for inclusive governance. 118 countries have adopted quota systems, either through constitutional provisions or electoral laws, to elevate women's political representation. However, despite twenty-five years of democracy, Nigeria has yet to embrace any form of gender quota. 

In a transformative development in 2021, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, a female lawmaker, spearheaded the Special Seats Bill, co-sponsored by 80 other senators in consultation with civil society organizations and women's groups. This Bill advocates for legislated reserved seats exclusively to be contested for and occupied by only women to help meet the 30% representation at both federal and state levels. The Bill aims to amend certain sections of the constitution and add 111 seats in legislative houses.  

Importantly, this proposal states that contesting exclusively for these extra seats does not restrict women from contesting other general seats in the National and State Assemblies. The additional seats are meant to operate for only four electoral cycles to enable political socialisation that normalises electing women and challenges the patriarchal structures preventing women from contesting and winning elections in Nigeria. The fact that this is only applicable for four electoral cycles is why it is referred to as a ‘temporary-measure bill’. This approach is synchronised with depatriarchalisation, a potent strategy for inclusion. 

While this proposal introduces an avenue for enhancing women's representation, it has raised concerns about its impact on the size and cost of governance. Addressing these concerns, PLAC conducted an analysis using the 2021 national budget. It revealed that implementing this Bill would cost less than a one percent budget increase and consume less than five percent of Nigeria's annual security expenditure. Also, the increase in size does not surpass historical precedents, as the 1979 constitution provided more seats in the National Assembly.  

Projections indicate that closing the gender gap in Nigeria could lead to a nine percent GDP gain by 2025, which demonstrates that implementing the Bill would be a strategic investment in achieving more inclusive governance and economic prosperity.


A bold step in the patriarchy’s fertile ground or a pendulum of hope? 

The Special Seats Bill advanced to a second reading in 2021 but faced a setback in 2022 when the male-dominated parliament voted against it. In reaction, various women's groups launched protests and mobilised at the entrance of the National Assembly, calling for its reconsideration.  

It's now 2024 and Nigeria has a new government, yet the fate of the Bill still hangs in the balance, at the mercy of another male-dominated assembly.  

It's noteworthy that Nigerian women, in our pursuit of equal opportunities, are not requesting preferential treatment. Instead, we are pushing for a constitutional mandate to break free from patriarchal constraints and historical marginalisation, providing us with an equitable opportunity to actively contribute to national development.  

Approving this legislation guarantees that despite political maneuvers and structural obstacles, each state will have at least one female representative in both the National and State Assembly. I invite you to stand in solidarity with women and support calls for Nigeria to adopt a quota system, which would result in more inclusive governance. 


Author: Faith Chiazor (Class of 2024)



Twitter: @faith_chiazor 

Instagram: faithchiazor 

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