Nigeria's Electoral Reform And The Prospect For Women's Participation In The 2011 Elections.

Democracy derives from and thrives on the principle that power belongs to the people. The people exercise powers through their elected representatives whose mandates must be subject to periodic renewal on terms dictated by the laws of the land in conformity with conventional democratic principles and practice. Where there are challenges arising from perceived inadequacies of the legislations and/ or their implementation, a review normally becomes imperative.

In this context the Nigerian reform process has been seen as an opportunity to strengthen mass involvement and participation in the democratic process by removing existing barriers in such a way that it leads to vast improvements in registration and voting practices; essentially to guarantee the voting rights of all Nigerians and ensure that the people’s vote count.

Nigeria operates a weak electoral system that cannot guarantee any form of modern day democracy. It is therefore imperative that as we move towards the 2011 elections, the frameworks on which future electoral democracy will be based should be properly debated and defined.

The inability to conduct credible elections in the country has been attributed to the long period of military rule, coupled with weak democratic institutions and processes and hosts of other historical factors, which have led to the emergence of a political culture characterized by electoral violence, monetized politics, low political accountability, abuse and personalization of power, general apathy towards elections and low participation of critical segments of the society,  especially women. This article therefore puts in perspective the historical experiences of women in Nigerian politics, their contributions to the electoral and constitution reform process, their preparedness for the coming 2011 general elections and the hope for future enlargement of the political spaces for women.


Historical analysis of constitutions and electoral laws and processes in Nigeria are incontrovertibly gender insensitive. Beginning from 1922, when the first Constitution in Nigeria was made to the 1999 constitution, which purportedly gave legitimacy to the third republic, aspirations and concerns of women, who represent majority of the population, have been undisputedly discarded.

But since the return of civilian rule in 1999, there seem to be a lot of momentums gathered around the need for constitutional and electoral reforms. This development has also challenged the women folks in the country, with several women groups lending their voices to the electoral and constitutional reform discourse. Their active participation is dated back to the first attempt at reviewing the 1999 constitution by President Olusegun Obasanjo Administration in October 1999, when the first Presidential Committee was inaugurated to do a comprehensive constitutional and electoral review. The committee had twenty four members out of which four were women. The report submitted by the committee had some gender friendly provisions, to wit;  a proposal that the  Federal Character Commission  be replaced with Equal Opportunities Commission with a more expanded and inclusive mandate; It also proposed that women should have a choice in claiming their own state of origin or their husband’s in political arrangements, the third major amendment proposed by the committee was the substitution of the word “sex” as it refers to the feminine in the Constitution with the word “gender”. On Political Parties, it also included gender as one of the grounds for which discrimination in terms of membership of the Party shall not be permissible. Unfortunately, the report was later jettisoned.

After the re-election of the President in 2003, he again convoked a National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) in 2005, to address the challenges of Nigeria’s political system. Unfortunately, in terms of representation the conference did not attempt to give equal opportunities to all Nigerians. There were only 30 women out of about 400 delegates.  Despite the obvious gender gaps in representation of women, the NPRC significantly mainstreamed gender issues in its outcomes. This attempt at political reforms also failed.
Nigeria then ran into the 2007 elections without a viable constitution but with a weak electoral law adopted a year earlier in 2006. As it has been widely acknowledged, the 2007 elections were replete with charges of irregularities, electoral malpractices, violence and various degrees of disruptions.

One would then think that  the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) inaugurated by  the late President, Alhaji Umaru Yar’ Adua on 28th August 2007 with the mandate to review and ensure quality and standard general elections would address some of the pertinent issues of Nigeria’s electoral democracy. The Committee, headed by a reputable retired Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Muhammed Bello Uwais, went round the country taking memoranda and oral presentations from Nigerians; it also met several women groups agitating for the inclusion of women issues and concerns in the committee’s recommendation to the government. The committee’s recommendation has been adjudged as one of the best in the history of constitutional and electoral reforms in Nigeria. The report of the committee acknowledged the voices of women and their proposals for gender democracy and made some gender sensitive recommendations of the committee worthy of note. For example (i)on the composition of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC): it recommended that  the Chairman and the Deputy should not be of the same gender and out of 6 geo-graphical representations 2 must be women. In addition, there should be a woman representative from the women’s organization.  ii) On political parties’ registration and regulatory Commission, the ERC recommended that 2 out of 6 persons from the geo-political zonal representatives must be women.  It also recommended further that the political associations should maintain 20% women in the membership of its governing bodies.  iii) On enhancing internal democracy in the political parties: the ERC recommended that political parties should give more attention to the nomination of women and youths as candidates and ensure that women have equal access to leadership opportunities within party organizations. The report also recommended   that political parties shall nominate for the proportional representation at least 30% female candidates and 2% physically challenged candidates for legislative elections.  

The ERC report was subsequently submitted to the National Assembly for consideration. The National Assembly has passed the 2010 Electoral law and has concluded the review of the constitution. The only probable gender friendly proposal by the National Assembly was the new clause allowing for independent candidacy which was later thrown out by the state houses of assembly. This development shows the failure of the Nigerian state once again to put a legal framework in place to support a gender friendly electoral system. One of the challenges therefore for women in the 2011 general elections in Nigeria is the need to engage political parties and demand for gender parity.


The absence or under-representation of women in the very process of decision making and implementation undermines the fundamental concept of a democratic form of governance which assumes that participation and representation in all areas and levels of public life will be equally available to women and men. However, politics and political arrangement in Nigeria has undermined female legitimacy resulting in women’s political powerlessness. From available statistics women’s overall political representation and participation in government is less than 7%.

The consignment of women’s roles to the domestic arena while the public space is seen as the traditional place for men, tend to perpetuate discrimination and distinctions on the basis of sex although there is growing emphasis on gender equality, which is a central component of the process of democratization. The case for promoting gender equality in governance is simple: the increased involvement of women in the democratic process of any country is essential to broadening and deepening its commitment to democratic governance. Thus, canvassing for support for gender equality is not just a consequence of democratization. It is part of a broad cultural change that is transforming industrialized and developing societies and bringing growing mass demand for increased democratic institutions.

Among the factors affecting women participation in politics in Nigeria are: gender and cultural patterns, ideology, pre-determined social roles assigned to women, male dominance and control, conflicting demands on the time of women candidates due to their domestic and social responsibilities and women’s lack of confidence to run elections. Others include women perception of politics as a dirty game, lack of funds and resources as politics is heavily monetised, poverty and unemployment, illiteracy and limited access to education, the dual burden of domestic task and professional obligation, lack of confidence in other women, lack of access to information and the multiple effect of violence against women. Nomination and selection processes of candidates in political parties usually consider women as the second best. In most cases, women are usually considered fit for nomination only if they have powerful men as their pillars. Besides, the processes are usually so heavily monetized that most women with lean financial muscles are elbowed out of the race from the outset.

For these and other reasons, the choice of our electoral system has important and significant impact on a range of issues. It is within this context that the recommendation of the ERC that political parties should have 20% of women in their governance bodies becomes significant. It is believed that such representation will have positive effect in engendering party democracy in Nigeria.

Since the commencement of indigenous politics in Nigeria in the mid-1950s, one remarkable feature has been the near absence of women in the parties especially in party leadership. Although there has been improvement over the years, the situation today still leaves much to be desired. Despite several efforts made by women locally and internationally to improve the situation of women in politics, very little progress has been made as women are still excluded from the mainstream while the support they enjoy is at best cosmetic. As a result the marginal increase in their participation has not enhanced their positions within the party hierarchy; their influence in decision making is equally minimal and not commensurate with their number.

An analysis of Nigeria electoral system shows that 2003 and 2007 elections witnessed unprecedented increase in the number of female aspirants and heightened local mobilization of the generality of women, yet only a handful made it to the end. Also a review of the manifestoes and constitutions of over 30 political parties in the last elections showed that almost all the political parties in Nigeria, at best, paid lip services to women’s political development since they are still considered ‘outsiders’ in the game of politics. The experiences of women during the last elections show that the political parties have refused to integrate women’s needs and concern in the business of democracy. There are only few women in the National Executive of political parties in Nigeria, Where they manage to get to this level, they are  given the post of  welfare, social organisers or ex officio which may be politically redundant. For example the Peoples Democratic Party has 52 National Executive Officers out of which only 6 are women with 3 holding ex officio positions and 2 occupying the position of national woman leader and deputy national woman leader and the third, the position of deputy national publicity secretary.
In the opposition Action Congress (AC), there are only 4 women out of 32 National Executive Officers. The four occupy the positions of national financial secretary, the deputy national publicity secretary, national legal adviser and the national women leader.

There are 28 National Executive Officers in the All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP), only 4 are women, two national internal auditors, one national women leader and one deputy national women leader. 

These forms of marginalisation and poor representation of women run through all the other political parties. Incidentally, an analysis of the manifestoes of the parties shows the inclusion of gender provisions despite that in practice this is not evidenced. For example Article 6 of the PDP manifesto titled the ‘The character of the Party’ states that ‘it shall be a non tribal, non religious and non sexist democratic organisation’ (6.1). Section 6.5 says it shall promote the emancipation of women by encouraging their representation at all levels and combat sexism while Section 16 (a) specifically provides for the position of a woman leader from national to Ward level (local). The ALL PROGRESSIVE GRAND ALLIANCE (APGA) constitution and manifestoes has a chapter 16, titled the Policy on Women, which gives a brief but incisive analysis of gender discrimination and emphasised the need to work in accordance with the Beijing Declarations and promote gender parity and more inclusive democracy. The policy proposes to ‘fight gender inequality and insensitivities in all aspect of national life through public enlightenments, promote affirmative action in employment,  promote girl child education and compulsory education for girls until 16...”

Also the National Democratic Party dedicated her Chapter 20 to Women Policy. The party promises to take active practical and concrete steps to empower women and facilitate their entrance into various organs of the party; women will be encouraged to contest elective party and public political post and as a matter of politics women will be given their fair share of appointment and accept equality of men and women.
Some ofthese provisions provide opportunities for women to hold their party accountable and demand internal democracy and parity towards 2011 general elections, such interventions can only yield fruits if it is well thought out.


Going by the amendment to the 1999 Constitution as recently concluded, elections are expected to take place between 150 and 120 days to the end of every tenure. The implication is that the forthcoming elections must hold between December 30, 2010 and January 29, 2011. Unfortunately women   seem not prepared enough for the coming elections, although there might be slight victories compared to the representations between 1999 and  2007. The reasons for this forecast is simple, women are still faced with the numerous challenges that have contributed to their marginalization from mainstream politics. Though there is growing awareness and resolve by women to influence the decisions that affect their lives and their families, the political, economy and social environment as well as the structure of the nation still define their political participation and representation.  Their strong- will must be tapped into to change the situation of women in politics in 2011 and beyond

As it has been noted above, one of the forward looking approaches to 2011 is that women in political parties must negotiate gender parity through the party system as a temporary measure. Since there is no legal framework backing affirmative action, the National Gender Policy 2007 remains the only persuasive document that can translate into a good negotiating instrument for concession for women. Women   activists in Nigeria can mobilize around the policy, create awareness particularly, regarding the provisions relating to 35% affirmative action and through this demand electoral accountability from political parties.  

Political Parties are the ultimate political gatekeepers because they produce party or candidate lists. Although women account for a significant number in party membership in Nigeria, it is commonplace to have parties presenting consensus candidates (most of whom are men backed by their godfathers). Women activists and politicians should explore the opportunities created by some gender friendly provisions in political parties’ manifestoes and constitutions to demand accountability for women.

Another opportunity existing for women groups in 2011 is to proactively identify and recruit women members with political potential for future elections. In addition,   party women members must insist that parties democratize their leadership structures and reform their financing mechanisms to ensure increased participation by women. Success in recruiting and promoting women’s leadership within parties may also point the way for engagement of other under-represented sectors in social change processes in 2011 and beyond.

Another door of opportunity is for women activists to engage INEC. The recent appointment of Prof. Attahiru Jega as Chairman INEC and 10 other national commissioners, as well as 19 resident electoral commissioners have been largely well received, except for the pocket of protests about the partisanship of few of the nominees, which however the President responded to by dropping them.  Also, out of the 13-member board of INEC, there are three females. Women can work with INEC to begin to model an electoral process that mainstreams gender. Through collaborative partnership with INEC, the possibilities of gender parity in political structures could be more open.

Change in political parties will require commitment from the top and pressure from below. Unfortunately, leadership of a party’s “women’s wing” is rarely seen as a desirable position in the party hierarchy, perhaps because it lacks real responsibility. Women party members cannot rely only on quotas to bring real change to their political organizations. Rather, they will need to mobilize and organize for change from within, through alliances that may include other party members, women from other parties and gender-focused civil society groups. Women should also be encouraged to register with parties of their choice as card carrying members and be actively involved in the party primaries. Besides campaigns for balanced gender representation in political decision-making positions, an integral part of the core of strategies for women's political participation is building women's agenda for change.


Nigeria needs an electoral system and a constitutional arrangement that can adopt shades of proportional representation as had been canvassed by the Electoral Reform Committee to further widen the scope of opportunities for women. The only obstacle to having these recommendations in our constitution and electoral laws is the government’s real commitment to reforms that will benefit every sector of the polity. Political will is also critical to the practice of governance that includes gender mainstreaming strategies that promote a culture of gender sensitivity in government and national machineries for women, which have the primary role of leading and monitoring gender mainstreaming strategies of governments. We can only force this will out of the government by consistently insisting on our issues and holding them accountable to their words and commitment locally and globally.

Aside from increasing women's access to decision-making positions in government, women in government should continue to invest on sharing of strategies and information resources, as well as forming networks and strengthening linkages with other women in government and non-government women's groups and experts. They should also continue to study the increasing complexities in politics and economies brought about by globalization.

Nigeria as a nation must realize that a gender balanced political leadership is crucial to the sustenance of her democracy. The under representation of women in politics is a political deficit and failure to redress this undermines the legitimacy of the contemporary democratic principles.

(Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is the Executive Director of Women Advocate Research & Documentation Centre - WARDC, Lagos)


• Memorandum submitted to the Senate, ERC and House of Representative
• Caroline Rodriguez Bello, “Women and political participation”- A WHRnet publication, 2003
• Memorandum to the Senates Submitted by CSCC at the South West Zonal Hearing,2009
• Tunde Aremu “Redefining priorities: the post-2007 elections challenge for Nigerian female politician” – Gender Audit of the 2007 elections and issues in women political participation in Nigeria, A WARDC publication (2008).
• See Joy Ezeilo, Gender, Constitutionalism and Electoral Reforms in Nigeria- A Working paper series prepared for Gender and Constitutional Reform Network (GECORN), 2009.
• Gender Mainstreaming: Competitiveness and Growth, Nordic Council of Ministers/ XGOECD, November 23-24, 2000
•  Facts and figures on women's participation in politics, governance, and decision-making, Online Women in Politics