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NIGERIA: What Have Eight Years of Democracy Done for Women Politicians?

Sam Olukoya

LAGOS, Apr 14 2007 (IPS) - “Men are the decision makers; women should be cooking in the kitchen while men play politics.” This is the type of comment that Dorothy Ukel Nyone’s male counterparts repeatedly made when she announced her intention to contest a seat in Nigeria’s state elections, which got underway Saturday.

Nyone, who wanted to represent the Gokana area in south-eastern Rivers State for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, was undaunted.

“I drew up a manifesto and went ahead with mobilising a lot of support, especially among my fellow women, and I was confident that I would win the party primaries,” she told IPS. But on the day of the primaries, held to elect candidates, Nyone learnt a hard lesson about Nigerian politics.

Certain contestants came to the venue with armed thugs, and violence broke out even before the start of the vote. Chairs were thrown, then guns, knives and other weapons were used.

“A ward chairman was shot dead; all the women and most of the men fled the scene. My husband rushed there and quickly took me home. I was scared,” said Nyone. “Men who were fully prepared for the violence were the only ones who remained behind to hand pick the various winners.

Nyone’s case is not unique.

“Women in Nigeria face a lot of odds when they contest against men,” Princewill Akpakpan of the Civil Liberties Organisation, a non-governmental grouping based in the financial hub of Lagos, told IPS.

“Our politics has never been on merit or issues; rather it is about those who have all it takes to force their way into office,” he said. “The parties often want those who can match violence with violence, those who can coerce people to vote for them.” Men are widely held to be more prepared to engage in violence than women.

Since independence from Britain in 1960, no woman has been elected governor in any of Nigeria’s 36 states – and the West African country has never had a female president.

Emem Okon, executive director of the Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre – a non-governmental organisation based in Port Harcourt, south-eastern Nigeria – told IPS that meetings held with female aspirants had identified other problems confronting them.

“One of these is the lack of economic power to run for elected office,” she noted, saying men were generally better off than women, something that gave them a head start in financing campaigns.

Okon also pointed to the role played by so-called “god fathers” in Nigerian politics. These are persons who provide the financial and physical muscle for campaigns in return for political favours: god fathers are often accused of using their proxies to loot public funds.

“God fathers would rather invest their resources in men than women,” Okon said; the belief is that men stand a better chance of winning than women.

Notes Great Ogboru, a candidate for governor in Delta State, southern Nigeria, “Women are stifled because of greed and avarice, and something must be done to correct this.”

In addition, said Okon, men at the helm of affairs of political parties sometimes subject women seeking elected posts to sexual harassment.

Tradition, customs and religion also hamper women, as Nyone can attest. “In a male dominated society like Nigeria, female politicians are faced with the difficult task of convincing their husbands, families and society that they are capable,” observed Okon.

The Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre is amongst groups trying to ensure that women get more representation. Okon says her organisation has a programme to assist women contesting the April elections – which also include next week’s poll for the presidency and national assembly.

“We are training female candidates in campaign strategies, and also giving them material assistance – for example, posters are being printed for some of them.”

But Nyone believes political violence will remain the strongest factor militating against female politicians; this marks a new hurdle to be overcome by Nigeria, which has just experienced eight years of civilian rule after 16 years of military dictatorship.

“I am not ready to go through it again. I was in the field doing all the hard work in order to win the party primaries, but the men sat at home taking decisions as to who should be declared winner,” she said.

“Very few women have the courage to go through this kind of violence a second time.”

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