In the Nov 6, 2018 midterm elections in the US a record number of women was voted into leading electoral positions at federal and state level. About 100 women who contested for seats in the US House of Representatives were victorious in the high-stakes 2018 midterm elections.
The success came in a climate where misogynistic language and hate speech dominated the political discourse, not only in the US. And, as a recent article from the New York Times noted, many of the women running for office experienced harassment and threats during their campaigns: “Harassment is not new for women in politics, or anywhere else — and men face it too, especially if they are African-American or Jewish. But for women, the harassment is ubiquitous and frequently sexualized…”.
Presidential and legislative elections at federal and state level are also nearing in Nigeria, scheduled for February and March 2019. Party primaries have gone and electoral campaigns are taking off with full steam. It’s a moment to reflect how the patriarchal social system shapes the social media discourse between female candidates in Nigeria and the electorate and to explore whether repeated gender-biased stereotypes are used here as well to ridicule their agendas, how the candidates respond to these attacks, and if the attacks originate from specific troll social media accounts.
Gender stereotypes are common in the Nigerian political sphere. In 2016, Senator Abiodun Olujimi proposed the Gender Equality Bill, but it did not pass a second reading as opponents rejected it as an attack on religious beliefs and the Nigerian constitution. According to Premium Times, Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe stated: “The bill was defeated at the second reading when its details were highlighted to the senators. Some lawmakers started expressing deep worries about some parts of the bill that they think could give women too much freedom and lead them to prostitution, lesbianism and other social vices.”
Besides this, the Nigerian constitution buttresses the power imbalance between the sexes due to legislation that disfavours women: abortion is illegal in Nigeria; sex work is a crime; women cannot bail people in police custody, and there is a heightened incidence of crime against women. These prove the Nigerian is patriarchal and that sexism is largely institutional.
As expected of patriarchal societies that violently push women to the margin, it is the consensus that women should not sniff power because men, not women, are born-leaders. However, this has not hindered women from vying for positions in government. For few examples such as Remi Sonaiya (Presidential Candidate KOWA Party), Idiat Adebule (Deputy Governor, Lagos State), Stella Oduah (Anambra Senatorial District), we can say this narrative is changing, albeit at a snail’s pace.
In 2015 Remi Sonaiya was the only and first woman to contest for the presidential seat in Nigeria. At the time, a sizable number of the Nigerian population were vehemently against her running yet this was not a deterrent to her, and she forged on to run in the 2015 Presidential Election. Ultimately, she got 13, 076 out of 28, 587, 564 valid votes!
So far, out of 109 members in the National Assembly, only seven are women. In the House of Representatives, there are 21 women out of a total of 360 members. At the moment, there are no female governors. Aisha Jummai Al-Hassan (aka Mama Taraba) came close to seating in the Taraba State Government House in 2015, but that dream was crushed to dust when allegations of electoral malpractice sprang up. Were it not that the then governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, was impeached in 2006, Virginia Etiaba would not have been governor.
Ministerial positions are given based on personal merit, not votes. One would expect a gender-balanced ministerial cabinet, but this is not the case: there are six women in President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet, which comprises of 36 ministers.
Judging from these, we can rightly conclude that the political landscape is unfair to women. As a result, we might witness malicious moves to stymie women political candidates in the coming 2019 Elections and their aspirations of getting into political positions. This can be done by defaming and discriminatory responses to their social media activities. At this point, it should be noted that most women vying for political seats are not active on social media, except the three presidential candidates Remi Sonaya, Oby Ezekwezili and Eunice Atuejide. It happens they all run on the platform of parties which have not the slightest chance of winning seats. Dr. Qasim Akinreti, Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) wonders why, since women have shown they can deliver as political appointees. Oby Ezekwezili e.g. worked as a minister in three different ministries where she was appointed based on merit. Still, had she joined any of the two party’s fighting for the presidency, she would not have come out as their candidate.
He thinks various socio-cultural factors are ruining the chances of women who aspire to top political offices in Nigeria, according to him, “Our culture believes that there are specific roles for women: Women can be in leadership in certain aspects, but not really in public services – being governors.”
He further explained: “It is cultural because the way political processes are configured is disadvantageous to women. They hold nocturnal meetings, and there is no man who will allow his wife to go and attend a meeting at 2 a.m. And politicking is associated with thuggery, hooliganism, name-calling, and perhaps, mud-slinging and intimidation. The height of it is murder. These are the things people believe women would not ordinarily go into. Culturally, we believe women are decent human beings. There are certain things women would not sign up for. The support base for women is just as wide as there is for men.”
His view is buttressed by a tweet from gender activist, Juliet ‘Kego.
Another Twitter user statement that “A lady won’t play politics the way it is done in Nigeria” is in itself sexist. This goes on to show the reality of the Nigerian society: based on how we have conditioned women.
We say politics is a dirty game, and as such, we do not expect women to soil their delicate hands. Renowned writer and gender activist, Chimamanda Adichie stated in a lecture, “There is nothing a woman should be because she is a woman, and there is nothing a man should be because he is a man. Women are not special, women are human, women are flawed just like men… If we keep saying women are special, then we judge them at a higher and unfair standard”.
Most of the electorate feel women are not tough enough to join in the power tussle. This inadvertently might make voters dismiss women candidates, as they do not want to waste their votes.
Unlike what one would expect from a largely misogynistic society such as Nigeria, women contesting for political seats, on the average, receive positive and encouraging comments, as our little survey has shown. Although compared to reactions male candidates get on the social media, one can notice that the reactions towards the female candidates hover around their personal competencies; men are more likely to be judged on their past performances in politics or their personal businesses.
Albeit Nigeria being misogynistic, it is surprising to find that women politicians enjoy similar support from the public like their male counterparts.
Nevertheless, Gender Activist, Dr. Marian Nwaokolo, in an interview explained the reason for social media support. “The real misogyny is outside social media. I’m sure the larger voting masses are not on social media.” Dr. Akinreti confirms that social media is more of an elitist tool. A lot of the people using social media do not even register to vote. Many of the voters in the rural areas do not have access to the internet, not to talk about smartphones, but they will decide the fate of the elections. Most of the electoral campaigns are still done on the ground, face to face with the electorate, or on radio where it is much more difficult to remain anonymous and unchallenged; certainly one of the major reasons why hate speech – regardless whether directed towards female or male contenders – has not yet conquered the campaign discourse on social media.
Troll accounts are common in Nigeria but are not differentiating between the sexes. All candidates have received one or more vituperative comment but they do not discredit the female contenders based on sex, they simply troll candidates that are not from their party.
To Dr. Marian, women and males contending in elections should be trolled. “Social media is the only space citizens have to speak their minds; at least for citizens who have access to social media politicians. Street protests are out of the way in Nigeria, we know how such protests end up for us.” Like their male counterparts, women political candidates hardly engage people who throw mean words at them on social media. Mostly, they ignore these trolls. For the few times they enter online conversations, it is mostly to explain their agendas.
Women, more than men, are susceptible to online violence and cyberbullying. This comes in several forms such as cyber-stalking, defamatory statements, and impersonation, to mention a few. However, looking at the Nigerian social media sphere, it would seem as though women contesting for political offices do not encounter social media violence the same way counterparts in Western countries do. Like their male counterparts, they get backlash, but these statements are not predicated on their sex.
The Nigerian online space is kind to women politicians. They get a lot of support, with a sprinkling of online defamation, which is not based on their sex. Nevertheless, most women contestants will not win the seats they are contesting for, because of several mitigating cultural factors. The most salient of them is that the true nature of Nigeria’s misogyny is expressed outside the borders of social media. A large percentage of the Nigerian population does not have access to the internet. Even at that, not many people who support women politicians have Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVC).