By: Rivka (Becky) Zelikson
On February 23, 2019, Nigerians headed to the polls to elect their President, Vice President, House of Representatives, and the Senate. The elections transpired without major setbacks, despite a last-minute postponement of the elections from their original February 16th date due to logistical issues on the part of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The incumbent President, Muhammadu Buhari of the centre-left leaning All Progressive Congress (APC) party won the presidential bid with 55.6% of the votes, defeating his most-notable opponent Atiku Abubaker of the centre-right leaning People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by over 3 million votes. While the INEC issued a Certificate of Return to Buhari and is planning to swear him in on June 12th, 2019, Abubaker has yet to concede at the time of writing and has assembled a legal team to contest the result.
Nigeria is a Federal Republic, composed of 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Each State is entitled to pass its own legislation, so long as it does not contradict federal law and the Nigerian Constitution. Nigeria has a bicameral parliament, or National Assembly, which is the legislative branch of the government. It consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, with no legislated or voluntary gender quota. The House of Representative (Lower House) consists of 360 members, who are directly elected under a first-past-the-post system for a four-year term. As of 2017, women held 20 (5.6%) out of 360 seats in the lower house. The Senate (Upper House) is made up of 109 members, who are directly elected for a four-year term. In 2017, women held 7 (6.5%) out of the 109 seats in the Upper House. The President is elected directly by voters in a four-yearly election cycle, with a two-term limit.
Women’s Political Participation
Out of the 73 candidates running for President, there were initially six women candidates. However, all of them withdrew prior to election day. Dr. Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, who ran as a representative of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), was the most notable female candidate for president. Dr. Ezekwesili is known for her anti-corruption stance, and was one of the founders of Transparency International, where she served as Director for the Africa region. She later served two terms as Minister, first as Minister of Solid Minerals and later as Minister of Education. Following her time in national politics, she joined the World Bank as Vice-President for Africa region. Dr. Ezekwesili also became known for her activism with #BringBackOurGirls, demanding that action be taken to rescue the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.
On January 24, 2019, Dr. Ezekwesili announced that she is withdrawing from the presidential race in order to focus on building a strong coalition that could provide Nigerians with a viable alternative to the two major parties, the APC and PDP. Her decision to bow out of the race drew harsh criticisms from the ACPN, who said she did not consult them in taking this action and accused her of never intending to see her candidacy through.
The day following this announcement, the INEC informed Dr. Ezekwesili that her withdrawal was impossible as the deadline to withdraw had passed. As a result, she received 7,223 votes, or 0.03% of the vote.
Aside from Dr. Ezekwesili, 22 female vice presidential candidates, 232 female senatorial and 532 female House Representatives candidates contested the elections. Women's candidature was only 12% of the total seats available at the National Assembly. Of the 232 candidates for senate, only 7 women have been declared winners. This means the projected senate will comprise 6.5% women, the same percentage as in the previous 2015 senate.
As for the voters, despite a record number of Permanent Voters Cards (PVC) collected ahead of the election, actual recorded votes were lower than the previous election. Overall voter turnout was 35.6% of registered voters or 39.3% of eligible voters (those who collected their PVC). For comparison, voter turnout in the 2015 presidential election was 43.65% of registered voters, down from 53.68% in 2011.
While official female voter turnout was unavailable, women were publicly involved in the elections through direct actions. Groups of women were reported to take to the streets to protest both prior to and following the elections. This occurred, for instance, in Abuja, where women called on Abubaker to concede, as well as in Imo State and Kwara State, and again in Abuja, where women protested the deployment of military forces during the elections, which they saw as undermining the democratic process.
Beyond election day, the main piece of legislation currently protecting women and children is The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP) that was adopted in 2015. Under VAPP, rape and other violence against women is criminalized, as well as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage. Despite these laws, the prevalence of violence against women remains high, and successful convictions of offenders are rare, with only 18 rape cases resulting in a conviction in Nigeria’s entire legal history. As for legislation for gender equality, although the 2006 National Gender Policy sets a 35% target for women in elected positions by 2015, this target has yet to be enshrined in law. This is in spite of President Buhari’s campaign promises to do so in the previous election.
The 2019 Nigerian elections saw the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the APC party win the presidential bid. While six women initially contested the role, they ultimately withdrew from the race. For the National Assembly, women’s candidacy was only 12% of the all candidates, resulting in 11 (3.1%) female Members of Parliament, and 7 female senators (6.5%) to serve on the 9th Assembly. The representation of women in the Nigerian parliament therefore has further declined, as it has been since 2010, when women held 7% of elected seats. It is evident that in order for Nigeria to come closer to meeting its target of 35% women in elected positions, women must be supported by their party members in putting their candidacy forward, and their physical safety must be guaranteed. Female voters, too, could be further encouraged to participate in the democratic process, if measures to ensure a demilitarized yet safe election environment are implemented.