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To be or not to be…

To be or not to be…women and 35% representation Or Campaign Promises Part I – will the promise to women be the first broken promise?

A lot of promises were made in the heat of the campaigns and a lot of campaign promises will broken under the magnifying glass of reality. As the fierce lobbying to alter the zoning formula of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) wages and the ministerial list overflows with hundreds of funny, scary and down right outrageous names, women are battling to ensure that they are not forgotten. Voices are raised to ensure that President Jonathan does not forget that during his one-man debate on March 30 2010 he said women would make up 35% of his cabinet, something no government pre and post independence has ever done. Banners are flying to ensure that as PDP carves up the country for the most lucrative government positions, women get a relatively fair share within the executive and the legislature. And equally important, daggers are raised, poised to stab to death, the dream of increased participation of women in setting the agenda for the development of Nigeria.

So to be or not to be?

To be for women and 35% representation in government means to recognize at least three things. One, that Nigerian women have contributed to society for years and in this time of great need caused by the shrinking of the global network and the exponential growth of available knowledge, women need to get more publicly involved. For years their valuable contribution to society in the basic social unit – the family has been discounted and only in the private sector are they allowed to thrive and compete honestly and successfully. Two, that gender affirmative action is the fastest way to bridge the gap between men and women in positions of power and decision making. Insisting on a minimum representation for women in all arms of government is not a Nigerian invention. Within patriarchal Africa Rwanda, South Africa and Botswana lead the way with Rwanda the new poster child for development ranking as number one in the world for the most number of female legislators. In macho Latin America more than eleven countries have minimum representation for women and in resolutely Islamic Indonesia, Pakistan and Jordan, they too are acknowledging the issue and have taken the leap of faith for women.

Some find the idea of gender affirmative action to be patronizing and/or unreasonable either because women should be purposefully taking 50% of all positions or because women belong to cooking pots and diapers; they refuse to acknowledge that women are at a disadvantage and the race at this point can never be fair. No matter how hard and diligently we practice, if Nigeria insists that women start running from the starting line when men are more than half way through, then we will never catch up. There has to be a concerted effort to close the gulf in fair gender representation within society. And three, there is a reason why nations are encouraged to utilize all their human resources – because having men and women actively engaged, participating and representing the different needs of various factions of society ensures sustainable development.

To not be for 35% representation for women in all spheres of government, there are a few reasons. One, is that so far most of the women – especially in elective positions have been uninspiring. The mildly satisfying defense that the men are just as insipid, still wins women no points because for cultural and psychological reasons, Nigerians prefer non performance from men to non performance from women. Besides, what special edge are women bringing to the table if they are going to act just like men? Some part of the truth is that the reason elected officers achieve little is because historically they were not held accountable; not by the electorate and rarely ever by the civil society organizations. However, with the 2011 elections we caught a glimpse of what arrogant underperformers (because Nigerians will excuse failure in a humble person) will routinely face during elections – they will be voted out where our votes actually count.
Two, that as far as appointive representation is concerned, women in decision making positions have no incentive to focus on development and social policies which will improve the lives of Nigerian women. This is because as Prof Pippa Norris of the Harvard Kennedy School points out, “women appointed by a president or party leader lack the democratic legitimacy that arises from an independent electoral or organizational base”. The women come to function as mere appendages of powerful men to support the party position and since the people did not vote them in – they owe the people nothing. So while women might celebrate the inclusion of these women in the cabinet and decision-making, in real terms, there is little progress in terms of policies and programs which deal with issues important to women.

There are two key issues at stake: how to balance quality and quantity and how to hold elected officers – regardless of gender, accountable to their office and their constituents. We want to be fairly represented by women and men who know the issues, have probable solutions and have the will to push through with the very many reforms which Nigeria needs. There are women who have proven themselves in their fields and finding 15 of them for the cabinet is as possible and certain as finding seeds in a watermelon. We do not want party chieftain wives, governors daughters or dusty old relics who will be grateful for the chance of one last feed at the trough and this applies to the men too. A scorecard for legislators and senior members of the executive will be kept and published once the race for 2015 begins – it is only by publicly naming and shaming that those who pretend to serve will be weeded out.

What President Jonathan’s cabinet is going to look like after May 29 2011 is anyone’s guess but one thing will be immediately clear – whether or not he is a man of his word. Because by the composition of his cabinet shall we know what his real plans are for 2015 and how seriously he wants to address the national debt of marginalization which Nigeria owes women.

May 12, 2011

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