Nigerians headed to the polls on March 28th to elect a President and members of the National Assembly. The general election was initially slated for February 14th but was postponed by Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) by six weeks to “allow international forces to regain control of areas in the north-east of the country held by the Islamist extremists of Boko Haram.”  In the words of Attahiru Jega, the chairman of INEC, “calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility.”[

The opposition described the delay as a “setback for Nigerian democracy” while several voices dismissed the postponement as politically motivated, in order to borrow incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan additional time to regain the momentum in the race. From the starting point of the campaign, Jonathan’s decision to seek a second-term exacerbated divides within the country, as it seemed to further undermine the “gentleman’s agreement” that the Presidency should rotate between the Muslim North and the Christian South. The Muslim northerner in the race ended up being his challenger, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, a retired Major General of the Nigerian Army who ruled Nigeria in 1983-85 after a military coup and perennial presidential candidate.

Security, governance and the state of the economy were key issues in the election. While Jonathan’s supporters pointed to the dynamic performance of the economy, his critics touted the high unemployment rate and rising inequalities. Cases of corruption made the headlines on a regular basis, with the state oil company at the centre of “missing” money scandals, projecting high-level impunity. However, though issues are relevant in any electoral environment to some extent, ethnicity seems to be a major driver of Nigerian politics: “They have long voted on an ethnic basis rather than on issues; issue-based campaigning barely exists because politicians distribute their resources and attention along ethnic lines. It is in this context that Jonathan operates. He is a southerner from the minority Ijaw group, and his home region, the Niger Delta, has been mired in extraordinary poverty compared to the rest of the country. […] The northeast was the domain of the Hausa and Fulani groups, and particularly because northeastern politicians were widely believed to be involved in Boko Haram’s creating and growth, Jonathan saw the group’s campaign as a problem for local state leaders to deal with on their own.”

With regards to the political fundamentals of the country, the president serves as both the head of state and the head of government, is elected for a four-year term and is eligible for a second term. Under the Two-Round System, a candidate gets duly elected when (a) he has the majority (if there are only two candidates) or plurality (if there are more than two candidates) of the votes cast at the election; and (b) he has not less than one-quarter of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two-thirds of all the States in the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

The bicameral National Assembly is the legislative branch of the government, consisting of the upper house (Senate) and the lower house (House of Representatives). 109 seats comprise the Senate, 3 from each of the 36 states and 1 for the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and 360 seats the House of Representatives. Members of both houses are directly elected in single-seat constituencies under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to serve 4-year terms.

Women in Politics and Gender

Following the 2011 election, women gained only 24 out of the 360 seats in the House of Representatives and 7 out of the 109 Senate seats, an extremely low performance that ranked Nigeria 125th, at the very bottom of the world classification about women in national parliaments. Nigerian women’s setbacks in politics in Africa’s richest economy serve as a reminder that macroeconomic prosperity does not necessarily trickle-down to deliver progress on all fronts. In the absence of legislated quotas or reserved seats, the nature of the political competition in single-seat constituencies has proved time and again to be particularly ruthless to women who lack the resources and the networks to get recruited, compete and eventually win.   

Given the low numbers of women in the national legislature, the significant presence of women in executive positions is somewhat surprising. In Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet, women Ministers comprised more than ¼ of the cabinet and the interesting element is that were not just assigned stereotypically perceived soft, ‘feminine’ portfolios such as Education (Ruqayyatu Rufai) and Women’s Affairs (Zainab Maina) but also hard, ‘masculine’ portfolios, as was the case with Finance Minister (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala), Foreign Affairs-State (Viola Onwuliri), Defence-State (Erelu Olusola Obada) and Aviation (Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi). The presence of women wielding power and authority in a patriarchal society has generated backlash and severe instances of violence. For Harvard-educated, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala “death threats are no rarity”[while her mother was kidnapped in 2012. The culture of intimidation does not only manifest at the national but at the state level with the late Mrs. Emily Olufunke Omope-Aborisade being one of the worst victims of violence when she was “bathed in acid” for her involvement in Ekiti state politics.  

Outside the political realm, women and girls face a state of emergency, especially in the north where “Boko Haram Islamic militants have kidnapped at least 2,000 girls and women since the start of last year, turning them into cooks, sex slaves and fighters, and sometimes killing those who refused to comply.” The kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok was a turning point for global awareness, resulting in the powerful #BringBackOurGirls campaign, though one year later the vast majority of the girls are still missing.

Gender gaps remain wide open in almost every sector. A few of the most egregious examples include the“38% female youth literacy rate” the unacceptably high maternal mortality rates the fact that only “35% of deliveries are attended by skilled birth attendants”  and serve as reminders that women and girls are left behind. Furthermore, laws and social norms constraining women’s economic opportunities and access to land and resources need to be dealt with in order to equalize development outcomes. 


Voter turnout was 43.65%, a significant drop from the 53.68% recorded in 2011.

The final result was not as close as the polls had suggested and marked a landslide victory for Muhammadu Buhari who won 53.96% of the vote as opposed to 44.96% for the Goodluck Jonathan. Despite irregularities in some states, with Rivers State  being one of the most blatant examples, international and regional observers deemed the election free and fair. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered his congratulations “on the largely peaceful and orderly conduct of presidential and parliamentary elections.”

The election was a watershed moment for the country since it marked a democratic transfer of power and the defeat of an incumbent president. Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to call his challenger to concede the election and congratulate him was celebrated as a sign of a deepening democracy and helped reduce tension in the polarized country. A spokesman for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) praised Jonathan for his action by saying “He will remain a hero for his move. The tension will go down dramatically.”   

Women’s Political Participation

With regards to women as political actors in the election, out of the 14 candidates contesting the election, Oluremi Sonaiya of the KOWA Party was the sole female presidential candidate. The 59-year old professor of French Language and Applied Linguistics has an impressive resume: “she has done research work abroad – in Germany, France and the United Sates. She has lectured at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria for 30 years.” She has also authored three books “A Trust to Earn – Reflections on Leadership and Life in Nigeria (2010); Igniting Consciousness – Nigeria and Other Riddles (2013); and Daybreak Nigeria – This Nation Must Rise! (2014).  

Sonaiya ran on a message of social change, promising to put an end to corruption and criticized the old boys’ club that rules Nigerian politics. In her political manifesto she described herself as an “ordinary” Nigerian, “a true representative of the people”. In an interesting reference on her website she quoted the most recognizable woman in US politics – “It was Mrs. Hillary (sic) Clinton who said that Nigerian leaders ‘are able but unwilling’ to make life better for their citizens.” Eventually, Sonaiya gathered only 0.05% of the vote, a performance similar to women presidential candidates in previous elections. In 2011, Ebiti Ndok of the United National Party for Development (UNPD) received 0.06% of the vote, and in 2007, Mojisola Obasanjo of the Nigerian Masses Movement gathered 0.01 of the vote. Sonaiya’s limited appeal highlights how hyper-masculinized elite politics in Nigeria remain. Her choice to grab the mantle of change is consistent with the legacies of women’s movements in Africa; however, in an environment marked by security challenges, the display of masculine traits and issue expertise might have helped her drum up additional support for her candidacy. In any case, Nigeria’s highest glass ceiling seems to be holding strong.

With regards to women members of the National Assembly, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, there are 20 women out of 360 members in the House of Representatives, which accounts for only 5.56% and in the Senate, there are 7 women out of 109 members, which accounts for 6.48% only. These numbers are indeed very disappointing considering the stature of Nigeria as one of the biggest economies in Africa.


This decline in women’s representation, in a country where women in politics were already sidelined, necessitates dramatic political moves. As was the case in other African nations that faced extremely low levels of female representation, affirmative action has the potential to turn the tables. With the odds stacked against them, Nigerian women need a platform to break into politics, and it has been proved that this will not happen unless accompanied by binding measures. Given the competitive nature of the FPTP single-seat constituencies, reserving seats for women in the 2019 election seems like the most effective way to boost women’s representation. Of course, adopting such measures will be hard and the resistance from the male gatekeepers will very likely be significant. The women’s movement in Nigeria needs to reach out to other women’s movements in the region and through open and honest exchanges can learn how they managed to overcome resistance and choose the most context-appropriate actions. The enormity of the challenge for women in Nigerian politics and society is such that requires far-reaching, multi-dimensional approaches to engage several stakeholders -- parties, activists, civil society, media, etc., embark on capacity-building activities, as well as adopt tools such as gender mainstreaming that will put women and gender issues front and center in Nigeria’s development efforts.


Women’s Representation Statistics


Women’s Political Representation

As of 2011

As of 2015

Female Members of House of Representatives

24/360 (6.7%)

20/360 (5.56%)

Female Members of Senate

7/109 (6.4%)

7/109 (6.48%)




Go to top