By Mma Odi, Executive Director, BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, Nigeria

An abbreviated version of this presentation was delivered during the fifth convening of the International Women’s Democracy Network during the World Movement for Democracy’s Seventh Assembly in Lima, Peru in October 2012.


The low level of political and civic participation of women in Nigeria is alarming and disturbing. This hinders women from contributing their quota to the development and consolidation of democracy in Nigeria. Empirical observations have shown that Nigerian women in positions of responsibilities are noted to be hard-working and firm in decision-making and have contributed in no small measure to the development of the country.  Despite their enormous contributions in economic and social spheres; they have been marginalized in civic and political participation.

The place and role of women in politics in Nigeria is situated in the histories of different nationalities that make up the country. They have always played roles as kings’ wives, daughters and chiefs or title holders in the community. The contributions of such women in pre-colonial era in the administration of their communities were immense. (Although these contributions were often discounted and unrecognized)

In contemporary Nigeria women play multiple roles within the family, community and the society at large, but there is still a lot of gender discrimination in the public sphere where women are marginalized in the electoral process and where they are still under-represented in key sectors of the economy, politics and social institutions.

The essence of political participation in any society, either primitive or civilized is to seek control of power, acquisition of power and dispensing power to organize society, harness and distribute resources and to influence decision-making in line with organized or individual interests.

Political participation as one of the tenets of democracy is found to be liberal and unrestrictive and is “freedom of expression, association, right to free flow of communication, right to influence decision-making process and right to social justice, health services, better working condition and opportunity for franchise” It is one of the key ingredients of democracy in its real sense. (Okolie 2004:53).

Democracy is a system of government that provides equal opportunity platform for political participation and fairness in such competition; thus: a system of government that meets three essential conditions, meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and groups, especially political parties for effective positions of government power, at regular intervals and excluding the use of force; a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, at least through regular and fair election, such that no major (adult) social group is excluded; and a level of civil and political liberties, freedom to form and join organizations sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation. (Larry Diamond 1989: xvi)

In a similar perspective, Onyeoziri (1989:6) conceptualizes four indicative domains of democracy which include: “the domain of individual and group rights and freedoms; the domain of popular and equal participation in collective decision; the domain of accountability of government to mass publics and constituent minorities; and the domain of the application of principles of equal citizenship in all spheres of life- social, economic and political.

The running theme of these definitions is that any claim to democratic regime or state must essentially embrace a high degree of competitive choice, openness, and enjoyment of civil and political liberties and popular participation that embraces all groups of the society, one that is not segregationist or discriminatory. The underpinnings of the definitions are freedom and equal opportunity for political participation that democracy avails both men and women. If democracy does not ordinarily discriminate on the grounds of race, sex, religion, then restrictions experience in Africa, nay Nigeria suggests a level of artificiality and man-made imposition.

However, the twentieth century industrial capitalism ushered in secularization of politics and the legitimization of universal civil rights; therefore women began to form themselves into groups in consciousness of the waves and potency of globalization and industrial capitalism that inevitably moved towards loosening the socio-economic and political shackles of women and attempted to hasten the pace and tempo of institutionalization of equal rights for all. Women now, to varying degrees depending on the levels of modernization and technological development in different societies, participate in education, economic activities and the political processes with little or no formalized hindrance.

Women’s Political and Civic Participation in Nigeria: Opportunities and Challenges to the full realization of Democracy:

The major thrust of this presentation is to look at the level of women’s civic and political participation in Nigeria and the form of hindrances that prevent women from actively participating in politics, discuss the challenges and opportunities and conclude with what needs to be done to ensure progressive increase in the trend of women’s participation in politics in terms of elections and appointments.

Nigerian Women have been marginalized in political participation despite the essential social and economic roles they have played over the years.  African women especially those from Nigeria in response to the opportunities created by industrial capitalism and globalization started seeking to influence the dispensation of power in line with their articulated interests, needs and issues as fundamental motives for political participation in order to create and ensure sustainable democratic governance in Nigeria.

Since the inception of the current democratic governance in Nigeria in 1999, conceited efforts have made by women’s groups, women advocates and activists, civil society organizations, Nigerian government and International agencies and donor community to increase women’s participation in both political and public life; however statistics reveal a very low and disproportionate representation of women in governance. This situation falls way below the recommended 30% of the Beijing Platform of Action and 35% recommendation of National Policy on Women adopted in July 2000. Although the adoption of democratic rule in 1999 in Nigeria provided opportunity for women’s participation in politics, the reality is that the position of women thirteen years later has only slightly improved. This very low representation of women in governance can be argued as responsible for the slow pace of democratization process in Nigeria.

Women in the Nigerian National Assembly (1980-1992) Table 1:


Gender Women Men % of women % of men
Senate  1 56 1.8 98.2
House of Representatives  3 442 0.7 99.3


In 1980 only 1 woman was elected to the senate, while 56 men made it to the same senate, in the same        year 3 women were elected to the House of Representatives, while 442 men were elected to the house the same.


Gender Women Men % of women % of men
Senate 1 90 1.0 99
House of Representatives 14 575 2.4 97.6


In 1992 the story was not different, 1 woman to the senate, 90 men to the same senate. 14 women and 575 men were elected to the House of Representatives.

Women in the National Assembly (1999-2007) Table 2:

Senate Total number of seats Men Women % of Men % of Women
1999 109 106 3 97.2 2.8
2003 109 105 4 96.3 3.7
2007 109 100 9 91.7 8.3


House of Representatives Total number of seats Men Women % of Men % of Women
1999 360 347 13 96.4% 3.6%
2003 339 318 21 94% 6%
2007 358 333 25 93% 7%


The situation of women at States and Local levels are not different:  Women in the State Houses of Assembly (1999-2007).Table 3:

Houses of Assembly Total no of seats Women Men % of Women % of Men
1999 978 12 966 1.2% 98.8%
2003 951 39 912 4% 96%
2007 990 54 936 5.5% 94.5%



Chairperson of Local Government Total no of seats Women Men % of Women
  774 8 765 1.2
Councilors’ 8810 143 8667 1.6


The April 2011 elections in Nigeria led to election of 32 women to the national assembly, a short fall from 2007 performance which does not reflect the considerable resources put in by women groups, CSOs and donor agencies in addressing the barriers to women’s participation as candidates and as votes in elections.

The position of women’s participation in the executive arm of government is alarming, no woman president and no woman governor from 1980 to 2011. The best women have enjoyed so far is four deputy governors in 2011 April elections.

Although there is a slight improvement in women’s participation in politics from 1999 to 2011 but Nigerian women are still very far from the enjoyment of equal participation in civil and political liberties that democracy avails them.


Observation and empirical evidence point to and reveal that a number of factors have militated against women’s equal participation in politics and in decision-making bodies in both private and public arena; these factors are man-made deliberately designed by some Nigerian men to further confine the women to sedentary activities. These challenges include but not limited to the following:

Cultural Practices:

A number of barriers are imposed on women active participation in politics by cultural practices. Nigerian society is permeated by patriarchy whereby women are expected to conform to and confine themselves to male dominance and female subservience. Women are seen to belong to the home, because they are incapable of making sound decisions and are not allowed to expose themselves in public for political activities such as campaign rallies. Some Nigerian men often find it incredible and impracticable to see women participating in politics.



Violence, Thuggery and Intimidation:

Other impediments preventing women from active participation in politics and governance are patriarchal dominance in political parties, god-fatherism, indegeneship, intra-party rigging, political violence, thuggery and high level intimidation. Political violence and thuggery easily scare women from politics.


Poverty, money politics, high cost of financing political parties and campaigns are big obstacles to women’s active and effective participation in politics.

Nature of Political Party formation:

Political party formation in Nigeria evolved from club and informal meetings initiated by male friends and business partners, women are contacted at a much later stage when party structures are already in place for membership. Therefore women are excluded from the formation stage of political parties thus denying them the benefits accruing to foundation membership and collective ownership of the parties. Also the non-inclusion of women in top party hierarchy and structure leads to the absence of women in the mainstream political parties.

Non adoption of affirmative action in the constitution, and political party constitution and manifestos:

The non adoption of affirmative action in the constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, constitution of and manifestos of political parties has further widened the gap between women and men’s participation in politics.

Non-domestication of CEDAW:

Non-domestication of CEDAW and other regional and international instruments have also affected the participation of women in politics.


Linking local to global:

  1. Nigerian women groups, advocates, activists and partners to Key into the global reawaking of the consciousnesses of the inherent power in a strong women movement to alter power equation in favor of women and the application of best practices across the globe to enhance women’s civic and political participation.


  1. Adaptation and use of great resources available globally to build skills and ensure issue based movement and campaigns and enhance the economic status of Nigerian women.

In order to sustain the little gains made over the years in women’s participation in politics and ensure equal participation of women in civic and political processes and positions, there is an urgent need for the formation of a broad based women’s political movement that will advocate and lobby for women’s equitable representation both in elective and appointive positions. Membership should be open to all Nigerian women across states and regions. This movement should define the issues, and carryout effective and efficient campaigns for constitutional and electoral reforms and domestication of international instruments favorable to women’s participation in politics. The movement should establish linkages and partnerships with other likeminded movements across countries and regions to share ideas, best practices and tap into each others’ strengths and opportunities available in each movement.

The coming together of Nigerian women to create political spaces, occupy them and struggle for equal participation in politics and against discrimination and corruption that have been entrenched in the political life of Nigeria will go a long way to make democracy a reality in Nigeria.


* All opinions expressed here are those of the author’s and do not reflect those of WLP

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