Women have been protesting at the National Assembly since Wednesday against the rejection of several bills seeking gender equality in the country. They have very clear demands, that Nigeria belongs to all citizens, half of whom are women. The systematic discrimination against women and their marginalisation in national and state affairs must stop if Nigeria is to develop into an inclusive and functional democracy. I believe that this struggle requires that progressive and democratically minded Nigerian men must come into the ring and make clear that they stand for inclusiveness so that our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters would also be part of what we enjoy and take for granted.
The National Assembly had on Tuesday voted on the 68 bills that sought to alter or amend the Constitution. Five of the bills sought to promote more opportunities for women in political parties, governance and the society at large. All five bills were rejected by “Distinguished” Senators and “Honourable” Members of the National Assembly demonstrating their contempt and lack of regard for Nigerian women.
One of the bills sought to grant citizenship to foreign-born husbands of a Nigerian woman. Currently all Nigerian men married to foreign born wives have the right to automatically confer citizenship to their wives. The National
Assembly has taken the position that this right should not be enjoyed by Nigerian women.
Another bill sought to allocate 35 per cent of appointed political positions such as ministers, commissioners and board memberships to women. This would have given meaning to the 20-year old Nigerian gender policy that first enunciated this 35% allocation. Nigerian men were ready to accept the policy as a theoretical right which had never been implemented. Precisely for this reason, the Bill sought to give teeth to this government policy so that it can be implemented and they threw it out.
One of the most important Bills sought to create special seats for women in National and State Assemblies. This was proposed because the men who are gatekeepers in political parties have almost always blocked women seeking nomination to contest for executive and parliamentary seats. The reserved seats would have gone around this problem and it is now crystal clear that these men simply do not want women to have access to decision-making meeting rooms and chambers in the country.
Given the history of male gatekeepers within political parties regularly blocking female aspirants, another Bill had proposed applying the 35% gender policy in the appointment of women into party administration and leadership. This too was thrown out.
Yet another Bill rejected by the National Assembly had sought to address the problems of marginalisation women face when they are married to men from States they are not indigenes of. The proposal was that such women should automatically enjoy the indigeneity rights of their husband’s states. This too was thrown out.
Today, I feel terrible for all the great advocacy work done by women’s groups. The Minister of Women’s Affairs has worked tirelessly to ensure success for these Bills. The First Lady and the wife of the Vice President have all gone to the National Assembly in person to add their support.
The cavalier and arrogant manner in which the National Assembly threw out these Bills very clearly says that they do not want progress for Nigeria, their sole interest in enhancing the power of Nigerian men. This is unacceptable and Nigerian men must come out and demand that all five gender Bills be reconsidered. We must not allow the men of the 9th National Assembly to get away with reinforcing the discrimination and political bias against women that is enshrined in the 1999 constitution.
Inclusiveness for women will benefit not just women but Nigeria as a whole. More women in governance will only bring progress, and respect for Nigeria in the committee of nations. Even more important, by ensuring Nigerian women enjoy fully the rights the Constitution says are for all citizens, we deepen our democracy and enhance respect and consideration to the other half of our citizens. It would simply make all of us better human beings. What the disrespect to women by the National Assembly shows is that most of the members have very little respect for democracy and we as a Nation have to use the coming elections to ensure such people do not return to power.
My concern is that the 9th Assembly has grown very distant from the core values of democracy and accountability. One of the greatest weaknesses of the Forth Republic is the immunity clause that protects the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors from prosecution while in office. While the original intention of the Constitution was to protect such officers from frivolous suits, in practice, many such office holders have abused the immunity they enjoy by recklessly engaging in criminal activities including corrupt acts and abuse of office. It is for this reason that there have been persistent calls by proponents of good governance to eliminate the clause altogether.
One of the Bills considered, but correctly thrown out in the constitutional amendment process was a surreptitious attempt to expand the immunity clause to cover the legislative and judicial arms of government. The proposed constitutional amendment would have broadened the non-accountability circle to more public officers and create conditions for the escalation of criminal acts of corruption, abuse of office and breaches of the of rule of law. The implications of extending immunity to top legislative and judicial officers could cripple the rule of law in the country as holders of such offices are likely to be emboldened by the clause and they would begin to think they are above the law. Given the massive growth of corruption in the legislative and judicial branches of government, it was an amendment that was proposed consciously to make the leadership of these branches above the law. The anger generated by the proposal was so high that they had to drop it during the Tuesday session. For the rest of their tenure, we need to keep eagle eyes on the National Assembly to ensure they prioritise amendments that are beneficial to citizens rather than seek self-serving amendments that would place our democracy in jeopardy.