Additional NASS seats for women is about justice, equity, solidarity – Mufuliat Fijabi

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Mufuliat Fijabi is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF), a foremost support organisation for women in politics. In this interview with ENE OSHABA she speaks on the nation’s political system, readiness of women for 2023 amongst other issues.

How would you assess the Nigeria’s political system as it affects women?

Nigeria has been recording low participation of women in both elective and appointive positions. This is a growing concern to many Nigerians, especially since this has been the case despite concerted efforts by the government, non-governmental organisations, civil society, women’s rights activists, and women’s group to increase the level of participation of women in politics in line with the declaration made at the 4th World Conference on women in Beijing, which advocated 30 per cent affirmative action.

In Nigeria, the extant National Gender Policy (NGP 2006) recommended 35 per cent affirmative action instead and sought for a more inclusive representation of women with at least 35 per cent of both elective political and appointive public service positions respectively.

The sad reality is that, to date, this hasn’t been achievable as the Nigeria’s political system is characterised by the marginalisation of women in politics due to various inhibiting social, cultural, and religious forces.

These forces have affected women’s perception of politics leading to a very low level of political interest, knowledge, and activities of women in politics.

With the prevailing statistics, politics in Nigeria is male-dominated almost making the women virtually politically invisible and as such policies made are not gender-sensitive as issues that border around women are not adequately taken care of because of the absence of more women in the governance structure.

What is the Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF) doing to ensure that women have good outing in 2023?

The Nigerian Women Trust Fund in her bid to close the prevailing gender gaps in the leadership and governance spectrum of the country has been building the capacity of women to undertake leadership positions in the country through mentorship and sensitsation training workshops in various states of the country.

The NWTF has also been involving critical stakeholders, policymakers, government agencies, traditional and religious leaders in terms of advocacy and commitment towards ensuring increased women’s participation in politics and leadership positions in the country.

In the build-up to the 2023 elections, as is the usual practice with NWTF, we have started the mobilisation of women in various states across the country.

We also understand the role of community-based and faith-based organisations in this and have innovatively engaged them in the process. We are currently building the capacities of CBOs/FBOs, Women’s Group, and Network on organizational development to be able to mobilize grassroots women for their effective political participation in 2023.

We are also identifying women who intend to contest in elective positions to support them technically.

Would you say women will make any difference in elective positions?

Yes! I am very optimistic that the narrative will not be the same in 2023. There have been a lot of engagements at both the national and state levels by stakeholders and women’s rights activists.

These engagements are on various fronts including reviewing the constitution and gender-related laws that will improve women’s political participation. Furthermore, as more women are sensitised and are willing to contribute their quota towards nation-building, and also with the commitment from the National Assembly; especially the House of Representatives to be deliberate in the creation of additional seats for women, we envisage a favourable difference from what we have always witnessed.

How does NWTF aim to strengthening the capacity of women in decision-making processes?

The aim of strengthening the capacity of women in decision-making processes is to create an enabling environment where women and men can participate equitably in the leadership and governance structure of the country.

I mean, we cannot continue to be in a country where half of its population is not carried along in governance. This is not sustainable.

It also means that in terms of policy formulation and implementation, we are not getting the right perspective on issues which means that policy may fail and would not meet the needs of all citizens.

At NWTF, we are interested in changing this narrative to ensure that democracy works for everyone in the society; leaving no one behind. This is actually what will lead to the national development that we all are craving.

We are also interested in value-based leadership. We want to have a new generation of citizens that are aware that politics is about public service.

The narrative of leadership without accountability is something we want to see dismantled in the country. We are strengthening women’s capacity to ensure that when they get into governance, our nation’s common wealth is used for our collective well-being and not for a few.

How would you assess the representation of women at various levels of governance and leadership?

Women’s representation and political participation have remained abysmally low. The national average of women’s political participation in Nigeria has remained 4.3 per cent in elective and appointive positions, which is far below the Global Average of 22.5 per cent, Africa Regional Average of 23.4 per cent, and West African Sub Regional Average of 15 per cent.

Nigerian women have always played a significant role in the democratic process since 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic rule. Unfortunately, 22 years after Nigeria returned to democracy and 25 years after the country adopted the Beijing Platform and Declaration for Action, progress made is yet to translate into significant gains in recent years.

The facts and statistics are out there and speak to this. For example, as of the 2015 election, Nigeria had 20 women out of 360 in its lower house (5.6%) and 7 out of 109 in its upper house (6.4%). This puts it at 181st in the world (Women in Parliaments: World Classification, 2019).

Following the 2019 elections, women make up 7.3 per cent of the Nigerian Senate and 3.6 per cent of the House of Representatives. No state governors are women (NWTF, 2019). This shows a reversal in some of the gains women have made in the past.

The scenario is no better in the executive with only seven women in ministerial positions, representing 18.9 per cent and a handful of women across boards of Departments and Agencies.

Nigerian women are continually being marginalised in official and non-official decision-making positions from executive appointments and elective positions to internal political party structures as shown by their insignificant number in the parliament.

Currently, women constitute only 4.38 per cent of leadership positions in Nigeria, from 6.1 per cent in 2017; and despite constituting about half of the nation’s population, women remain grossly voiceless and subsequently underrepresented in leadership and decision-making positions in public offices. Also, with the 22 years of uninterrupted democratic governance (1999-2021), Nigeria is yet to produce a female governor in any of the 36 states of the federation.

What is your position on the Bill seeking 111 additional seats for women in the National Assembly sponsored by House Member Nkeiru Onyejiocha?

It’s a fantastic idea and we commend Hon. Nkeiru Onyejiocha for being at the forefront of sponsoring the Bill.

We equally commend the Speaker of the House of Representatives for being a co-sponsor of the Bill. The Bill is quite timely and we are glad to see that the Bill has gotten the signatures of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives.

At NWTF, we are in support of the Bill. For a long time, we as women’s right organisation alongside other women’s rights activists and civil society groups have demanded affirmative action but efforts have been stalled. This bill is a form of affirmative action for women; it’s the right step in the right direction.

It may not give us the 35 per cent affirmative action stipulated by Nigeria’s Gender Policy but it at least offers us 25 per cent to start with.

This ensures that we have women’s representation from all the states which is good because as you may know, we have some states that do not have female representation at the National Assembly and this has been so in the past.

We support the Bill and encourage others to support the Bill as well. The Bill is first about creating access for women in the political space. This is a critical first step for women to set the right agenda for a productive governance process.

Some have said that the bill looks like women are being done a favour. It is not. This is about justice, equity and solidarity. It has a sun-set clause. What this simply means is that we have 16 years from now to review it. This way, we would have had four cycles of four-year electoral periods to weigh our options.

What challenges are there for women in politics ahead of 2023, and how do you think they can be surmounted?

No doubt, women over the years have been saddled with so many challenges as it relates to political participation ranging from social, cultural, and religious challenges. However, women are resolute to upturn these challenges and not to let these challenges deter them from contributing meaningfully towards nation-building.

Finance is a major challenge for women vying for political positions as Nigerian politics is characterised by so much spending and a lot of female politicians do not have the well withal to match the male counterpart in terms of finance to prosecute the process.

Societal acceptability is also a challenge for women vying for political positions as a good number of the society believe that women cannot lead thereby they won’t give them the needed support and backing they need to go through the process.

Violence over the years has also been a major concern in our politics and that to a very large extent has discouraged women from participating in politics as women are largely affected when this happens.

Are there new strategies women could embrace to enable them win elective positions?

Female politicians should start early, build their capacity, build their constituency and engage meaningfully in the buildup of the 2023 general elections.

The NWTF sued the federal government last year for not being gender-friendly and inclusive. What’s the update on the case?

NWTF did not sue the federal government, but rather led the process of joint litigation by women’s groups, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders, also known as the Legal Strategy Team, to seek constitutional clarification on the position of the law on the inclusion of women in the country’s democratic process as it relates to women’s inclusion in leadership and decision-making positions in Nigerian governance.

Specifically, we are asking the judiciary to interpret Section 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The first hearing was slated for December 2, 2020, at the Federal High Court Maitama, Abuja. The case was adjourned for further hearing on February 5, 2021, due to the absence of the defendant.

The second hearing was again adjourned for April 13, 2021, on the plea of the defendant to study the case. Some days before the proposed hearing, the judiciary went on strike which has been on up to now; hence, the case is still pending. We however remain hopeful that the strike would be called off soon and we can continue with the process.

Has there been any positive difference since that court case?

There has been a significant difference and there is hope for Nigerian women. There are several Bills currently at the National Assembly dealing with gender issues following the constitutional review process. There are conversations around Section 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, especially on its adequacy.

Women’s groups are also demanding that it should not only be reviewed to include persons with disabilities but that it should be expanded to make it clear that the principle of non-discrimination and equality should be applicable in all laws and practices.

There are also conversations around Section 43. Women are also seeking an amendment to this section of the constitution. Section 43 talks about the composition of the government and also for the inclusion of gender indices in the federal character as well as the creation of gender and equal opportunity commission.

All of the past efforts by civil society groups as well as the strategic litigation has contributed to making a shift in the narrative; thus creating ongoing conversations on the need for a gender-balanced society.

Since the ongoing litigation, there are also several pushes at the National Assembly. Other issues have emanated leading to more focus on some of the sections of the constitution. For example, there are issues around Section 147 and 192 that deal with appointments and appointive positions like that of ministers of the federation of Nigeria (Section 147) while 192 deals with the appointment of state commissioners, there are Bills seeking amendment of those sections to ensure proportionate inclusion of women.

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