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POLITICS-NIGERIA: Watershed Elections – For Men, That Is

Sam Olukoya

LAGOS, Apr 20 2007 (IPS) - Declarations of no confidence in the electoral commission, threats of an opposition boycott, a key candidate clawing his way back onto the ballot at the last minute…There has been no shortage of political theatre concerning Saturday’s milestone elections in Nigeria, or debate on whether the country can successfully hand over power from one civilian government to another for the first time since independence in 1960.

But has time and energy remained to discuss another pressing, if less dramatic issue: the prospects for women in polls for the presidency and national parliament? In the absence of such debate, was there even fair coverage of those who managed to become candidates in a country where women are sorely under-represented in politics?

While women are making strides in a number of other African states, they number just 22 in the 360-strong lower house of Nigeria’s outgoing national legislature; and, only three of the West African nation’s 109 senators are women. Of the 2,484 candidates running for the lower house this year, 141 are women – while 54 of the 792 senatorial candidates are women.

Longe Ayode of Media Rights Agenda, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the commercial hub of Lagos, says women were relegated to the margins of campaign coverage.

“They (women candidates) were hardly given a mention in the Nigerian media,” he told IPS. “I think women received limited coverage based on the state of mind of the reporters, who believe it is men that make the news…They also may have believed that politics is a game for men and not for women.”

But Gbenga Adefaye, editor of the Lagos-based Vanguard, a leading newspaper, insists that media coverage of female candidates simply reflected their limited presence on tickets of the main parties.

“The women did not get nominations on strong platforms. This may affect the kind of projection they got in the media. The leading parties generally had all male candidates,” he said in an interview with IPS.

“Women were not deliberately left out of the media…It has nothing to do with gender, but (with) your background – and clear merit to be in the news.”

Nkechi Nwaogun’s experience may give Adefaye cause for question. While this member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives is contesting a seat in the Senate on behalf of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), she still found it difficult to attract the attention of reporters.

“The lack of access to the media was a setback to me. I could not get my views across to the populace,” she told IPS.

“Nigeria is still in the process of integrating women into politics. There is this cultural feeling that politics is for men alone (although)…your qualification, ability and background are the things that should count. We need to do some advocacy with men, so that they can look at women on their merits.”

Whatever the reasons behind women’s lack of media visibility, they may have caused important issues to fall by the wayside.

“The campaign issues of the women revolve around the gap between men and women, for example in education and participation in the economy. Women are talking of gender equity; the men are generally not concerned about these gender related issues,” says Agina Udeh, director of Gender and Development Action, an NGO headquartered in Lagos.

Limited visibility may also contribute to a poor showing for women at the polls and entrench the reluctance of political parties to have them as candidates in future – feeding into a vicious circle of low political representation for women. “People are not likely to vote for politicians they don’t know,” said Ayode. “They have to hear you before they can vote for you.”

The violence that often accompanies campaigning in Nigeria serves as another obstacle for female politicians, perceived as less willing or able than men to engage in bare knuckle persuasion (see ‘NIGERIA: What Have Eight Years of Democracy Done for Women Politicians?’).

Financial resources also enter into the equation. “What we play here is politics of money, and the men – who are generally richer – are better off playing this kind of politics. I don’t have as much money as my male counterparts,” said Nwaogun.

While Nigeria is the largest oil exporter in Africa – and eighth in line internationally – its citizens are amongst the world’s poorest. Corruption has ensured that the country’s oil wealth benefits just a few, leaving almost 71 percent of Nigerians to survive on less than a dollar a day (this according to the 2006 Human Development Report, produced by the United Nations Development Programme).

Some 60 million of the 140 million citizens in Africa’s most populous country will queue to vote Saturday, amidst fears that weekend elections will be dogged by the same problems that occurred during the Apr. 14 polls for state governors and legislators.

Reports indicate that upwards of 50 people lost their lives in violence linked to last week’s elections. A litany of other abuses, ranging from ballot box theft to intimidation, cast a further pall over the PDP’s victory in 27 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

The Independent National Electoral Commission has reportedly ordered that polls be re-held in two of the states; however, observers are said to have queried results in some 10 states. A commission official told IPS that the body has yet to compile figures on the number of women who won seats during the Apr. 14 ballot.

In a speech to the nation Friday, President Olusegun Obasanjo admitted that the Apr. 14 elections were flawed, but said efforts must proceed with this weekend’s vote – seen as key to consolidating democracy in a country that has been under military dictatorship for the better part of the last half century.

The electoral commission has also played down the seriousness of abuses in the Apr. 14 ballot. Earlier this week, 18 opposition parties threatened to boycott the upcoming elections if they were not postponed to allow a new commission to be set up.

However, the two leading opposition candidates for the presidency later indicated they would participate in the election. Former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari is running for the All Nigeria People’s Party, and Vice President Atiku Abubakar for the Action Congress. The PDP is represented by Umaru Yar’Adua.

Official figures indicate that 46 political parties are registered in Nigeria – although just 25 are fielding presidential candidates.

One woman is standing for the presidency: Mojisola Adekunle-Obasanjo, representing the Masses Movement of Nigeria. There are six female vice presidential candidates.

Abubakar was initially banned from the race by the electoral commission on grounds of alleged corruption. In a Mar. 28 report titled ‘Nigeria’s Elections: Avoiding a Political Crisis’, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group described efforts to disqualify him as “politically-motivated”, and expressed concern at “Obasanjo’s attempts to impose a successor by excluding strong candidates such as…Abubakar”.

The two men have been at odds for several years. However, matters worsened after Abubakar helped engineer the Senate’s rejection of Obasanjo’s 2006 attempt to change the constitution, so that he could stand for a third term in office.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court overturned the commission’s ruling; millions of new ballot papers are reportedly being provided to ensure the vice president can make a bid for the top office.

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