Rinsola Abiola, one of the daughters of the late politician and businessman, Chief Moshood Abiola-the supposed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, is becoming increasingly known for her advocacy on gender equity and youth inclusion in governance. In this interview with Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha, the card-carrying member of All Progressives Congress in Ogun State emphasises the need for young women’s participation in politics through both partisan and nonpartisan platforms
Do you believe that having women in political leadership provides a different kind of voice?
I certainly do. Society is made up of diverse groups and representation is key; the better represented all these groups are, the more representative democracy will become, and the more effective governance will be for the people. This has been proven in several countries where we have witnessed improved representation for women, and I can thus say that it would hold true here also.
Take, for instance, the protracted battle to get the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill through; it is not an exaggeration of any sort to say that if we had more women occupying seats in the National Assembly, it wouldn’t be such a difficult task. The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act also took several years to pass, and the refusal to adopt affirmative action in governance as recommended by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Nigeria is a signatory to, is also an example of the negative impact of women’s underrepresentation in governance.
We have state assemblies across the country where women are not represented at all; despite the best efforts of gender focused organisations, it is an uphill task getting such assemblies to prioritise issues affecting women specifically. Sometimes, the discrimination is not even deliberate, it is just that you cannot factor an experience which you do not share and do not understand into policy making.
What barriers are still in the way of optimal participation of women in the political process in Nigeria?
There are a number of challenges with our political system; some are gendered, and some are not. The high cost of political participation when running for office, for instance, is one challenge which affects women more although it is a general issue with our politics. I say it affects women more because women are often unable to muster the resources required to compete favourably with more established male politicians.
Crowdfunding would be a veritable tool for overcoming this particular challenge; running for office is expensive all over the world, but one thing that is done in advanced democracies which we haven’t embraced here is the culture of crowdfunding.
For me, perhaps due to my direct involvement, President Buhari’s 2015 campaign was the first time I saw people from all walks of life being eager to support their chosen candidate with funds. When we identify candidates whom we are confident have what it takes to deliver on good governance, then I believe we should support them with our time by volunteering on their campaigns, and funds if we have the capacity to. Doing this will greatly help not just women, but young people and other qualified candidates too.
Electoral violence is not as widespread as it used to be, but it remains a challenge, especially in the weeks leading up to the polls. Although violence affects everyone, it is mostly perpetrated by men and particularly bothers a lot of women who would ordinarily like to participate. To address this, I believe it is important for security agencies to do more to curtail violence not just on election day, but also keep the usual suspects under close watch as elections approach and apprehend them swiftly once the need arises.
We also need policies implemented at party level which will ensure the emergence of more women candidates.
In addition to all of these, there is a lot of unlearning that needs to be done regarding the perceived place of women across cultures. There are people who, due to their societal conditioning, will not vote for a woman candidate no matter how qualified she is. We have a lot of work to do regarding reorientation and behavioural change, so people are less hostile to women and their aspirations.
Can you assess the inclusion of women at different cadres of governance by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration?
Looking at appointments, in addition to the women ministers, we also have some women DGs and heads of agencies, and on boards.
We must also pay attention to what is being done at the state level regarding inclusion, though, because if representation is going to improve, then deliberate steps must be taken in every tier of government.
At the local level, Kogi state, for instance, has women serving as vice chairpersons in all local governments. This is a step in the right direction, and it would be a welcome development if other states replicated this.
Governors should also make efforts to appoint more women.
Which Nigerian governor would you commend for exemplary demonstration of walking the talk when it comes to appointment of women to decision making positions?
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna state has been exemplary and so has Governor Abdulrazaq of Kwara State. Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State has also done well in ensuring that women emerged as vice-chairpersons in all local governments in the state. Governor Babajide Sanwoolu also has a number of young women holding key positions in his cabinet, including the very brilliant commissioner for agriculture, who is doing a great job.
Defining a pathway through activism like Oby Ezekwesili has not yielded positive results, what strategies can women deploy to get desired results?
You know, I think activism is very key. Take the Not Too Young To Run Act for instance, it took joint efforts by young people in the civil society space and those of us within the political system to make it work. Women politicians also collaborate with development agencies and gender advocacy groups and organisations frequently, and many have benefitted from their support through different programmes. These agencies also play a key role in engaging elected officials when seeking support for proposed legislation and policies, so I would not say that activism has not helped, because it has.
To get the results we seek, we need to collaborate more and sustain engagements. We also need those of you in the media to help counter narratives that hurt our women by projecting women politicians and professionals in a more positive and more competent light.
It does a huge disservice when a woman politician is interviewed and she is asked demeaning questions about rumoured affairs and headlines are crafted around domestic chores, thus reinforcing cultural sentiments about a woman’s place. I am aware that there is a general sentiment among media practitioners about women politicians being media shy, but this is actually a key reason why many stay away.
Would you say there is a difference in behaviour in politics between men and women? Is there a common ground that can be exploited by women?
We can look to countries led by women and see how their affairs are being managed. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has been remarkable in the role and so have other women leaders of countries across the world. Citing a recent example, the Coronavirus pandemic also seems to have been managed better in countries with women leaders.
Now, this is not to say that women in positions of authority are perfect, because I particularly do not like keying into tropes that inadvertently place women on a higher pedestal than their male counterparts, but it just goes to show that women are competent too and our gender does not rid us of the ability to make decisions in the best interests of our people.
Returning to the Nigerian political terrain, the primary interest of any political group or platform is to win elections. It is, therefore, important that women with political aspirations key into this by offering value both individually and as members of a larger political family. As we advocate for enhanced inclusion and work to secure enabling policies, we must also work to develop our political capacity and value and build strong networks.
Are there issues around women’s political leadership that concern you?
I worry about dwindling numbers. Take a look at the legislature, for instance. If I recall correctly, in the Eighth Assembly, there were 22 women in the House of Representatives. In the current assembly, we have 11. That is a 50% decrease, and I worry that if we do not take steps to secure enhanced representation for women, we could have an even smaller number in 2023.
The onus to prevent this lies on the leadership of political parties. INEC, of course, has a role to play in all of this, but we need legislation to support it so there is no wiggle room for anyone.
People also often talk about how certain women in positions of authority do not seem particularly concerned with the larger gender agenda, and I think this boils down to perceived value and how they ascend to these positions.
The Nigerian political terrain is tough. In a system controlled entirely by men, it goes without saying that a good number of people – not just women – who ascend to elevated positions do so because they were backed by powerful figures, who are mostly men. Also, I spoke about the cost of participation earlier and for the most part, you need a lot of personal resources to make it through the ballot. For those who raise funds, this is mostly done through close associates.
Essentially, people who are elected owe their success to those who helped them get there, so they may not always feel like they need to be accountable to other groups or treat their demands as a priority.
To this end, I believe that rallying more strongly around each other would help give that sense of sisterhood and accountability that many consider missing. For example, I know of an organisation working to raise funds for women candidates at the next elections and yet another working to prepare female aspirants for the rigours of the campaign process. Initiatives of this sort, if sustained, would go a long way in nurturing that spirit of togetherness as we will essentially owe our successes to each other.
Do you think that young women can drive the change in political leadership for women?
I am a huge advocate for young women’s political participation, not just because I also belong to that group, but because I believe that encouraging young women’s political participation will go a long way in correcting underrepresentation in the long term.
Presently, I have initiatives aimed at doing just this both within the party that I belong to and from a non-partisan perspective
The Nigerian political terrain is tough. In a system controlled entirely by men, it goes without saying that a good number of people – not just women – who ascend to elevated positions do so because they were backed by powerful figures, who are mostly men. Also, I spoke about the cost of participation earlier and for the most part, you need a lot of personal resources to make it through the ballot. For those who raise funds, this is mostly done through close associates. Essentially, people who are elected owe their success to those who helped them get there, so they may not always feel like they need to be accountable to other groups or treat their demands as a priority