March 27, 2015
Teju is a 22-year-old waitress. She won’t be voting in the Nigerian election on Saturday. “My voting card has its benefits,” she says.
“I’ll use it as my ID card but I have no interest in voting. Politics is a man’s game in Nigeria, my vote doesn’t count.”
Sangosanya Tolulope, a 33-year-old philanthropist in Lagos, adds: “There’s something at the back of people’s minds that says women shouldn’t get involved.”
On Friday, campaigning for the elections draws to an end. It has been dominated by two key issues: the rampant Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east, and the corruption that has squandered the nation’s oil wealth.
Military checkpoints are being established in every city. Borders are being closed in anticipation of violence. The poll pits President Goodluck Jonathan against a former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari. Neither of the men has inspired women to vote.
Nigeria is a patriarchal society – even outside of the “caliphate” Boko Haram wants to create in the north-east. It is Africa’s biggest democracy but only 8 per of representatives in the National Assembly are women. In South Africa the number of female politicians rises to 42 per cent. In Rwanda it’s more than 50 per cent. In Britain it’s around 25 per cent of MPs.
A vendor sells popcorn in front of a defaced election poster of the former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari in the oil hub of Port Harcourt yesterday. Presidential elections take place tomorrow (AFP)
There is, however, one candidate who is representing women at the ballot box. She is 60-year-old grandmother, Remi Sonaiya. The retired professor of French is Nigeria’s first-ever female presidential candidate.
Ms Sonaiya hopes her Kowa party’s anti-establishment platform will resonate among the oppressed. “Women cannot keep on being cheerleaders in this country,” she said on the campaign trail.
“The Nigerian government does not exist in its current state for the welfare of its people and that’s why I’m here.”
In the north of the country, girls face a constant struggle to attain the right to education. They also suffer the highest incidence of female circumcision in the world.
The women’s struggle only came to the world’s attention, however, last April when 279 girls from the north-eastern town of Chibok were abducted by Boko Haram jihadists. Less than two days later President Jonathan was seen dancing at a political rally.
It was nearly three weeks before Mr Jonathan publicly acknowledged the incident. Following the muted reaction from the government, Hadiza Bala Usman was motivated to increase the awareness of the missing girls.
“In Nigerian society the women and the girls are not encouraged to have a political consciousness,” says Ms Usman, founder of the #BringBackOurGirls movement. “The government didn’t respond in any way to the abduction. Not until we came out protesting,” she told The Independent.
Still, more than 200 of the girls remain in captivity, rumoured to have been offered to fighters as slaves. They may have been joined by some of the 500 civilians abducted last week.
Despite the Nigerian army reclaiming territory held by Boko Haram in recent weeks, the location of the missing girls remains unclear, with Mr Jonathan suggesting they may be in camps in the vast Sambisa forest. And with the presidential election just 24 hours away, the kidnapped girls hardly get a mention.
“We’re all at a loss at how these girls cannot be found,” says Ms Sonaiya. “This is a real slight on us as a nation that we would have these girls missing for a year now, and we continue as if everything was normal.
“People are going about their business, rallies are going on with their dancing, and laughing, and there’s this serious issue of more than 200 girls missing. It does make one wonder whether the government cares about us at all.”
Ms Sonaiya is sure she knows where the blame lies for Nigeria’s problems. “The leaders of a country set the tone for public conduct. If there’s impunity at the level of leadership the people too will practice it among themselves”.
A Nigerian soldier inspects the former emir’s palace that was used by Boko Haram (AFP)
During her campaign, Ms Sonaiya experienced the difficulties faced by many in Nigeria. “I saw young and old people sitting down in front of their shops. They’re supposed to be welders or tailors and there’s no electricity.”
She hopes her candidacy can inspire other girls to become politically active.
“I hope that by my experience a lot of people would be inspired to get involved in politics. Just by my being there, many are taking that challenge by themselves which is a positive.”
Asked whether women were right not to vote, Ms Sonaiya was adamant: “Their actions are going to prolong our days of woe, it’s important for everybody to recognise that we are all in this together,” she said.
“Those who make the choice to stay out of it are condemning all of us to longer days of suffering. The earlier we can recognise that all of us need to be in this together the better for us.”