LAGOS, Nigeria – Maneuvering for Nigeria’s 2019 elections has already begun. In July, the country’s main opposition parties banded together to oppose current president Muhammadu Buhari; later this month, parties will begin selecting formal candidates. Five women have announced their intention to run for president so far: Oluremi Sonaiya, Funmilayo Adesanya-Davies, Adeline Iwuagwu-Emihe, Elishama Rosemary Ideh and Eunice Atuejide.
But the upcoming campaign has put long-fought gender equality legislation under threat. First introduced in 2010, the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill has floundered in the Senate for eight years, opposed by many in the male-dominated upper house of Nigeria’s parliament. Now, campaigners fear the looming election will scare off any future male advocates the bill needs to pass.
The Difficult History of the Gender Bill
The first person to present the gender equality bill to the national parliament was senator Christina Anyanwu, a retired journalist. Anyanwu’s efforts failed, and when she ended her tenure in the Senate in 2011, her fellow senator from the People’s Democratic Party, Abiodun Olujimi, took up the baton.
The bill has a wide scope: It aims to eradicate gender inequality in politics, education and employment in Nigeria. It also seeks to enforce women’s land rights and offer protection from gender-based violence.
If passed, the law will state that 35 percent of ministers in Nigeria’s government have to be women, as well as 20 percent of state commissioners, who oversee policy at the state level. Currently, women occupy just 7 percent of elected positions in Nigeria. The bill also seeks to uphold 18 as the minimum age to get married in Nigeria. UNICEF statistics show that 44 percent of Nigerian girls are married by the age of 18.
On Tuesday, March 15, 2016, six years after first being introduced to the Senate and after being scrutinized at the committee stage, the law was presented for first reading at the plenary. A majority of senators voted down the bill later that day.
Five months later, it was presented again, after some modifications regarding inheritance and widow’s rights. This time, it went through to as second reading, raising hopes that it will eventually be passed into law. But again, in March 2018 when it was finally brought forward for a vote, the majority of senators rejected it.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Sani Yerima of the All Nigeria Peoples Party said: “For the bill to provide that a widow shall automatically become the guardian and custodian of her children is in conflict with the Nigerian constitution. Where it also said widows shall have the right to an equitable share in the inheritance of property of her husband is also in conflict with Nigerian constitution … this law cannot stand.”
The bill was condemned outside the Senate, too. Nigeria’s most senior cleric, the Sultan of Sokoto, Mohamed Sa’ad Abubakar, called for the rejection of the law based on its provisions for equal inheritance.
“Our religion is our total way of life. Therefore, we will not accept any move to change what Allah permitted us to do,” he said in comments reported by the BBC.
Dr. Bukola Saraki, the Senate president, has advised Olujimi to present the bill once again, removing “contentious issues” that are currently holding it back.
“The contentious issues are those relating to the clauses on inheritance and widowhood which the northern senators say it is against Islamic laws,” Olujimi told News Deeply. “Other senators argued that the constitution of Nigeria has already provided for the rights of women, but the constitution is blank and vague.”
Nigeria’s Marriage Act of 1990 says a woman is entitled to at least one-third of her husband’s estate. But this law only applies to women who are married under statutory law, and only if the husband has a will. It does not apply to women married under customary or Muslim law. Some customary and statutory laws in parts of Nigeria dictate that wives and daughters do not have the authority to inherit anything at all.
Olujimi says she is willing to make some amendments on these issues, but she will only go so far to water down provisions for widows.
“No widow will be driven out of the husband’s home if the bill is passed to law,” Olujimi says. “That woman will have the opportunity of staying there for at least one year.”
Finding Male Supporters
Olujimi is not the only woman fighting for the bill to be made a law. Binta Garba, who chairs the Senate Committee on Women Affairs, is one of the seven women in the Senate supporting its passing. The International Federation of Women Lawyers has also backed calls for the bill to be enacted.
Another strong advocate is Oluremi Sonaiya, who was the only female presidential candidate in the 2015 general election. She says she will run again year.
Sonaiya says the bill will encourage greater participation from women in politics.
“The marginalization of women in politics is unacceptable,” she told News Deeply. “The percentage of women in governance today is obviously very low.”
“It is known that men and women do not always perceive things in the same way. You cannot say the men are representing the women and everybody. More women need to be accommodated, not because they are just women, but because they are qualified to do a better job.”
But with women making up only 6 percent of senators, it’s vital the bill’s supporters get a majority of men on board. Some male senators, like Senator Ben Murray-Bruce, have pledged their support to the legislation. In 2016, Murray-Bruce tweeted that he backed the bill, despite not being in town to vote for it.
But Olujimi says the majority of the male senators who once backed the bill are afraid to support it again because they don’t want to lose their re-election bids in 2019. Many senators don’t want to be seen to pass a law that could hinder their political ambitions.
“When people of their constituency know a senator supports the bill, they are bound to turn their back against such a senator in 2019,” Olujimi says.
Now, her only hope to pass Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill lies in getting it pushed through during a brief period after the elections next year.
“Since the rejection, the Senate president made a way for us to return it to the floor,” she says. “We will do a public hearing on the bill after the elections are over in 2019. The elections will be done in February and March of 2019, but our tenure ends in May 2019, so we will still have time to address it.”
Correction: This piece originally stated that Oluremi Sonaiya was the first woman to run for president in Nigeria. That was Sarah Jubril.