A hundred years ago, the principle of elective representation was introduced to Nigeria, courtesy of the Clifford Constitution, so named after the Governor-General, Sir Hugh Clifford.
The 1922 Constitution provided for African elites in a new 46-member legislative council of which 27 were officials and 19 un-officials. With the new law, four African representatives were to be elected as un-officials – three for Lagos and one for Calabar municipal areas- every five years. Suffrage was however limited to adult males who must be at least 21 years-old, were propertied and natives of the protectorate with a gross income of not less than 100 pounds per annum. Nominations for candidates were made by a minimum of three male registered voters who must also meet the above criteria.
A flurry of renewed nationalist activity was triggered and political parties were formed as vehicles into elective office. The Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) founded by Herbert Macaulay ruled the electoral space, until this was broken by the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) in 1938.
Historically, Nigeria’s political parties started off on a patriarchal and hierarchical note. This may be traced to that fact that the Constitution with its underlying victoria ideologies, did not allow women to vote or contest in elections. Of course, this colonial philosophy merged with existing indigenous patriarchy, and a male-dominant political class was birthed in Nigeria.
Both in character and conduct, political parties promoted and entrenched male interests, power and authority. Yes, women were invited to rallies and campaigns, but it was to listen and carry forth the political messages to their menfolk. So for example, NNDP’s rallies were populated by market women led by Alimotu Pelewura. Eventually, recognition of the value women added to the electoral politics, led parties to establish women’s wings/sections.
Indeed, it was due to the fact that the organisational structures of the NNDP and NYM did not include women, that Oyinkan Abayomi (a member of the NYM) formed the Nigerian Women’s Party in May 1944. During the launch at her Broad Street residence in Lagos, she said: “The interests of women are sorely neglected.”
Newspapers affiliated with some of the parties, campaigned for the inclusion of women in electoral politics. One of the earliest editorials was published by the NYM’s Daily Service in March 1949, titled “Enfranchisement of Women.” But this did not reflect in the party’s organisational structure and activities. Indeed the same year, NYM created an all-male representative council to discuss Nigeria’s constitutional problems.
The next group of political parties were the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), Action Group (AG), Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC). Just like their predecessors, these parties also established women’s sections and with some fanfare too. For instance, the launch of the AG’s Women’s Section was advertised in the 24th February 1953 edition of the Daily Service.
Sometimes women were in invited to sit on a party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) which is the highest decision-making body. But this too had its limitations. They for example were invited to adhoc committees on the NEC. In the NCNC, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Keziah Fashina and Felicia Obua were invited to serve on the Manifesto, Appeals and Finance Committees respectively. The likes of Wuraola Esan and Rachael Brown, were at some point in the AG’s Executive Committee. In the NPC, the Executive Committee of the Congress accompanied by other party structures such as Provincial Committees, Central Working Committee, Parliamentary Committee were all male-dominated party organs. However, there was a thriving women’s section with Shugaba Jallo Baturiya and Malama Laraba Tashim Gobe known to be leaders. In NEPU, Hajia Gambo Sawaba, served as the president-general of the national women’s wing and Malama Ladi Shehu who was also a female columnist, served as the Secretary-General.
In general, women were expected to operate in their own section, form their own executive committees with posts such as President Women’s Wing, Secretary-General Women’s Wing, Organising Woman Secretary, Regional Woman Leader etc. The pattern of patriarchal culture which drove the first and second waves of political parties, has remained in place ever since.
Political parties in the Second and Third Republic adopted a slightly different format. History shows that the women’s section was merged into the main body of the party, and a position called National Women Leader became fossilised. During the Second Republic, the main parties of National Party of Nigeria, Unity Party of Nigeria, Peoples’ Redemption Party, Great Nigeria People’s Party and Nigeria People’s Party, institutionalised this position. Though, it was not unusual to find a female running-mate to a presidential candidate, women’s inclusion in a party’s structure, remained a cosmetic arrangement.
The array of political groups of the Third Republic including the initial thirteen parties, as well as the military regime-created National Republican Convention and Social Democratic Party, also followed the same pattern.
In the current Fourth Republic political landscape, the main parties have retained the historical status quo for women in the structures. Party organs and compositions listed in their Constitutions, show the eternal position of Women Leader is stratified into several other layers at the National, Zonal, State, Senatorial District, Local Government and Ward levels. Hence, several positions revolve around the Women Leader as follows: Deputy Women Leader, State Women Leader, State Assistant Women Leader, Senatorial District Women Leader, Local Government Area/Area Council Party Women Leader, Ward Women Leader and Ward Assistant Women Leader etc. It appears they were created to mollify women’s demands for inclusion in party hierarchy.
In the recently-held national conventions of the All Progressive Congress (APC) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), women were unsurprisingly not included in top key positions in the national executive party structures/ national working committees. They were relegated to the usual National and Deputy Women leader posts; a few others were made assistants and ex-officios.
Promotional video clips from party chieftains pledging to comply with 35 pr cent affirmative action as contained in their constitutions, have so far not yielded any fruit. For instance, despite its public pledges, PDP in March, inaugurated 37 men as its 2023 zoning committee. In the APC, only a handful of women made it through to the 77-person National Executive Council. The picture is the same for other parties including the Social Democratic Party and the All Progressives Grand Alliance.
One of the consequences of a political party system that practices patriarchy and discriminates against women members in its organisational structure is, it produces male-dominated candidate lists and legislative institutions. Today, 449 out of 469 (96 per cent) legislators in the National Assembly are men. The under-representation of women in our legislatures has always been the pattern.
Last month’s shocking rejection of five gender bills by the National Assembly is one of the consequences of this imbalance in electoral politics.
Nigeria cannot move forward without the meaningful inclusion of its women in public office. As the gatekeepers to the democratic process, political parties must provide equity from the starting blocks, all the way to the top.
Tayo Agunbiade is the author of ‘Emerging from the Margins: Women’s Experiences in Colonial and Contemporary Nigerian History.’