By Sunday Adaji Esq
Wednesday the 26th of July 2017 will go down in history as the day Nigeria’s National Assembly (the country’s law-making body) acknowledged the need to reduce the age limit for elective offices thereby encouraging active participation in governance for younger Nigerians. If the executive does its part and the bill is eventually signed into law, 25-year olds can attempt to have their voices heard in the hallowed chambers of the law-making body, a far cry from the status quo which stipulates 30 years. And while the bill still leaves mixed feelings even amongst Nigerian youth dreading elite capture of the opportunity presented, it does signify a step in the right direction. The same cannot, however, be said for Gender equality as the bills seeking 35% Affirmative Action at Federal level and 20% at state level both received the death blow.
A whopping two thirds of the senators voted to throw the bills out.
Looking at the current composition of the National Assembly, perhaps this should have been anticipated. Out of 469 members of the two arms of the legislature, only 21 are female. Statistically, this means women comprise only 4% of the National Assembly. The situation is not significantly different in the executive arm which has only ever produced 1 female governor, Dame Virginia Ngozi Etiaba of Anambra state, whose tenure only lasted 4 months. Equally abysmal is female representation in other spheres such as economic activities, the labour market, social activities, trade and industry etc.
discrimination, including gender-based discrimination. To this end, section 42 (1) and (2) of the CFRN stipulates:
“42. (1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person: –
(a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject; or
(b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions.
(2) No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth.”
The Global Picture
It seems strange that while countries famed for being extremely conservative such as Saudi Arabia are becoming more open to providing better opportunities for their womenfolk, Nigeria, a democratic nation and the largest black nation on earth, seems to be regressing.
In January 2013, King Abdullah Bin Aziz, the Saudi leader, issued a decree introducing a 20% quota for women in the country’s 150-member Shura Council (the equivalent of Nigeria’s National Assembly), and appointed 30 women to join the consultative assembly. The king went a step further in May this year when he issued a decree ordering government agencies to list services women can seek from the authorities without permission from a male guardian as has been the norm. All this in a country which still won’t let women drive…but has at least conceded to provide transportation for them.
Closer home, in 2013, the Rwandan parliamentary election ushered in a record-breaking 64% seats won by female candidates. The government of Rwanda with the UN as a partner, has been pursuing gender equality since 1994, a concept which has remained alien to the Nigerian government owing to religious and cultural mores as the recent damage to the Affirmative Bills glaringly shows.
Yet, in the words of the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu: “I recall that this senate is a very gender sensitive senate. We support women at all material times. Anytime we had issues concerning women, we stood by them.” Words which somehow failed to carry weight when it mattered most. Perhaps, memory fails him. It will be recalled that prior to the jettisoning of the 35% Affirmative Action Bill, the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill (GEOB) suffered a similar fate despite several modifications and re-presentations. At present, the Bill is again before the National Assembly, has passed the second reading and is currently before the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters. Whether it will be rejected again or be eventually passed into law, is anyone’s guess. Going by recent events, the prospects are bleak.
Although the National Assembly had unanimously agreed to merge the 35% Affirmative Action Bills with the GEOB, there are doubts about the legitimacy of their words owing to the overwhelming number of legislators who voted against the bill in the first instance.
Aftermath of Non-passage of the 35% Affirmative Action Bill
Data provided by Nigeria’s National Population Commission shows that women constitute more than 50% of Nigeria’s population. Going by these numbers, women clearly have vital roles to play in the growth and development of the country. However, they cannot perform these roles if denied the opportunity. The essence of the 35% Affirmative Action for women ministers at the Federal level is to encourage women participation in governance. The same thing goes with the 20% Affirmative Action for women as commissioners in the 36 states of the federation.
It should be noted that the non-passage of the Affirmative Action Bills by the National Assembly stands in direct contravention of the pillars of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to which Nigeria is signatory. The document strives to attain gender parity in all spheres of governance.
Again, by the non-passage of the Affirmative Action Bills, Nigerian women despite their huge numbers, continue to be marginalised and discriminated against both in governance and in other spheres of national life.
There is no gain saying that with such a large population, the more women participate in governance, the more the nation, as a whole, benefits. Empowered women would contribute significantly to the economic, socio-political development of the country. It does seem, sadly, that our legislators have knowingly put the wheels in motion to achieve the reverse.
For Nigeria to become an egalitarian society, we must consider the issue of gender equality seriously. We must consider the changing roles of women in Nigeria. Nigeria is not a male society, it is a mix of male and female, and ironically, females constitutes the bulk of the population.
The way forward is for the National Assembly to now live up to its word and merge both the Affirmative Action Bills and the Gender & Equal Opportunities Bill into one document for assent into law.
We are a nation of approximately 170 million people. We cannot leave half that number out of governance based primarily on biological differences and hope to maximise the gains of human capital.
The capacity to change the course of history lies with our legislators. Let’s hope they seize it with both hands to give Nigeria a competitive advantage in the comity of nations.