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Why the bill to create special seats for women?

By Cynthia Mbamalu Global trends indicate the slow-paced progress in closing gender gaps across major dimensions of human development in different countries. Nigeria remains one…

By Cynthia Mbamalu

Global trends indicate the slow-paced progress in closing gender gaps across major dimensions of human development in different countries. Nigeria remains one of the poor performing countries with respect to closing its gender gaps, especially under political empowerment.

In 2020, Nigeria ranked 145 out of the 153 and in 2021 149 out of the 153 countries surveyed under the political empowerment dimension (World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report). For women’s representation in parliament, Nigeria ranks 184 out of the 187 countries assessed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2021. To put these rankings in context; if Nigeria was a student in a class of 153/155/187, it will be that student always among the last 10 in class. Nigeria is that “F student” who either needs extra lessons, substitute classes or special care to perform better. The Special Seats Bill is that necessary decision like a “special class” that can help boost Nigeria’s status as one of the countries making efforts to improve women’s representation in elective office.

The Special Seats Bill is one of the gender bills whose fate is still in the hands of the National Assembly. Co-sponsored by Hon Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, Rt Hon Speaker Femi Gbajabiamilia and over 80 legislators, the bill seeks to increase women representation in legislative houses.

Almost 23 years of democracy, Nigeria is yet to adopt any form of gender quota notwithstanding the decline in women’s representation. Women’s representation in the 9th National Assembly is currently at 4.47 per cent (21 of the 469 legislators). So far, the highest number of women in the National Assembly was in 2007 with 36 women out of 469 legislators at 7.6 per cent. Currently, 15 states in Nigeria have no woman in their assemblies.

The 2019 general elections revealed that while there is an increase in women aspirants, the percentage of women emerging as party candidates reduced post-party primaries, especially for legislative houses. In 2019 women candidacy for the senate was at 12.3 per cent a decline from the 17 per cent in the 2015 elections. For the House of Representatives, women’s candidacy was at 11.6 per cent in 2019 a decline from 15 per cent in 2015 elections and for State Assembly at 12.7 per cent in 2019 a decline from 14 per cent in 2015 (No Country without Women, Yiaga Africa).

Nigeria practices a first-past-the-post-post/majority electoral system designed to ensure that the winner takes all. This is why political parties/candidates fight dirty to win elections at all costs. The challenge with this system is that it is averse to minority or marginalised groups’ representation. The Special Seats Bill seeks to amend sections 48, 49, 71, 77 and 117 of the constitution and proposes additional seats in the legislative houses: 37 in the senate, 74 in the House of Representatives and 108 in the state assemblies. The bill empowers the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in line with its power in section 71 of the constitution, to divide the state and the FCT into two electoral constituencies for the house of representative’s seats. For the senate, the additional senator will represent the state and for the state ssembly, the three women will be elected from each of the senatorial districts. The additional seats will be contested by only women who successfully emerge as candidates from their party primaries and do not preclude women from contesting for the other seats in the national and state assemblies. The additional seats will operate for only four electoral cycles to enable political socialisation that makes electing women a norm and dislodge patriarchal orientations that create impediments for women contesting and winning elections in Nigeria.

The additional seat proposal is not an alien proposal in Nigeria. Uwais Report 2008, proposed a combination of First-Past-The-Post and modified Proportional Representation for legislative elections at all levels. Which included the creation of 108 additional seats to be filled by proportional representation. The report recommended for 30 per cent women representation in the party list for the proportional representation. As Nigeria retains its majority electoral system, the Special Seats Bill is reasonably the best fit to increase women’s representation.

Interestingly, for both the sceptics and champions of the Bill, the issue of an enlarged legislature and the cost of governance remains a concern. In 2021, the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) conducted a cost analysis of the Special Seats Bill using the 2021 National budget. The analysis highlighted that it will cost between N5bn to N18bn per annum which was less than a one  per cent increase to the Budget and less than five per cent of the security expenditure. Imperatively, reviewing the national budget to remove wastages and extraneous budgetary allocations will enable the budget to cater for this cost sufficiently. More importantly, is the need for analysis of the cost of exclusion and the value of women’s inclusion in Nigeria’s economy. In 2016, UNDP noted that gender gaps cost Sub-Saharan Africa $95bn a year.  Studies have shown that countries with increased women leadership achieve better economic growth, development and peace. It is projected that closing gender gaps in Nigeria can lead to nine per cent GDP gains by 2025 (Growing Economies Through Gender Parity Analysis). Out of the top 10 most developed countries in 2020 (United Nations Development Report, December 2020), eight of these countries have at least 30 per cent women representation in their legislative house with the other two within 20 per cent. When you juxtapose the supposed cost to the budget with the humongous cost of exclusion or the possible gains in GDP with more women in government, it only makes economic sense to pass the Special Seat bill. For size, this will not be the largest Assembly, in Nigeria’s history. The 1979 Constitution of Nigeria provided for five senators per state and 450 seats in the House of Representatives at a time when Nigeria had 19 states.

In 2021, the WEF estimated that it will take an average of 135.6 years to close the gender-gaps globally. Meaning majority of us living today may not live to see the world close its gender gap. No matter how worrisome that seems, only the actions we take today can contribute to building a better world for women and girls in the generations ahead. Nigeria remains a case study in assessing how the failure of the intentionality to close the gender gap can keep women and the country behind while other nations move ahead in development. Passing the Special Seats Bill will ensure that every state has at least one woman representative in the national and state assemblies notwithstanding political party antics, structural challenges and other impediments limiting women. Nigerian women are not asking for special treatment, they are simply asking for a constitutional mandate to lessen the burden of the chains of patriarchy and historic marginalisation. 

Mbamalu is the Director of Programmes at Yiaga Africa

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