A New Dawn for Nigerian Women? Time Will Tell

by Susan Enuogbope Majekodunmi
- Nigeria -

Nigeria is an oil-rich country in West Africa also endowed with other mostly unexploited natural resources, such as coal and tin, iron ore and other valuable minerals. Colonized by the British, their influence is still evident in many ways; an obvious legacy is that Nigeria’s official language is English. Nigeria gained its independence on October 1st 1960 and was initially ruled by democratically elected officials. However, from 1966 to 1999, the country was ruled by military dictators who seized power in coups d'état; the only exception was a short-lived second republic from 1979-1983. Upon assuming power, each democratic or military government has promised reforms, but none ever delivers. This roller coaster ride of regimes has allowed widespread corruption to flourish and has created both political and economic instability, and as a result many people have chosen to build a better life elsewhere.

Today there are Nigerians all over the world making valuable contributions to the development of the countries they now call home. Nigerian Philip Emeagwali is credited with being one of the major contributors to the creation of the Internet. Performers Sade and Seal are both Nigerian, as are former NBA players John Amaechi and Hakeem Olajuwon. And in business, Nigeria boasts several moguls: perhaps the most successful is Houston-based oil magnate Kase Lawal, CEO of CAMAC Holdings, the largest Black-owned business in the world, which moves, produces or trades a barrel of oil every second. The Diaspora has driven countless Nigerian professionals including attorneys, doctors and accountants to new homes around the world. Yet Nigeria remains a struggling Third World country in desperate need of professional help.

Nigeria re-achieved democracy in 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo was elected, but the path that led to his inauguration was anything but smooth. Obasanjo was educated in Europe and is widely traveled. He also lived in Lagos, the most cosmopolitan city in Nigeria, where he interacted with people of different races, nationalities and ethnicities. Perhaps it is this international perspective that causes him to value civility, transparency and accountability, traits that have too often been missing in Nigerian leaders. In my opinion, he did his best and was successful in some areas, such as economic restructuring, fiscal accountability, management and talent placement.
Though his tenure was criticized, Obasanjo was applauded for increasing the number of women in powerful political positions in government. The women he installed include: Maryam Ciroma, the Minister of Women Affairs; Dora Akunyili, the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control; Oby Ezekwesili, the Minister of Education; Nenadi Usman, the Minister of Finance; Remi Oyo, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media Issues; Florence Ita -Giwa, the Presidential Adviser on National Assembly Matters; Funke Adedoyin, Minister of State for Health; Titi Ajanaku, Presidential Adviser on Women Affairs and Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, the Director-General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.

Though few in number, these women managed to accomplish a great deal and successfully achieved their positions’ mandated goals. Dora Akunyuli launched such a vigorous war on fake pharmaceutical drugs that several assassination attempts have been made on her life. It is said that her passion and determination to fight this battle come from the experience of losing her younger sister who died after ingesting fake pharmaceutical drugs during an illness.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Harvard graduate with a PhD. From MIT and a Brookings Institute fellow, was the first female named as Finance Minister in Nigeria’s history. She led the influential negotiations that resulted in the cancellation of $18 billion of Nigeria's $30 billion Paris Club debt. Her achievement is an enormous accomplishment, as it is the second largest debt cancellation in the Paris Club's 30-year history. As a result, Okonjo-Iweala ranked 62nd on Forbe’s list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in 2006 and has been invited to speak all over the world.

These women’s successes set the precedent for the subsequent appointments of more women to the cabinet of the newly elected president of the fifth Republic, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. A 55-year-old conservative who served as governor of northern state of Katsina from 1999-2007, his tenure was one of the few devoid of any corruption charges. Though from a rich family, he is an easygoing former chemistry teacher who is little known among the political elite. He is a Muslim and though permitted to marry up to four wives, he chose only one, Turai Umaru Yar'Adua. Married since 1975, the couple has seven children. Since becoming President, he has publicly declared his assets, becoming the first Nigerian leader to do so.

Typically, male Muslim northerners are rigid and resist western culture, believing it too lenient on women and intrusive in men’s roles. Their culture and religion place a very high value on the male gender and encourage them to be chauvinistic, egotistical and unaccountable. Women are consequently treated as second-class citizens. However, Yar’Adua has distanced himself from every stereotypical behavior attributed to Northern Muslim men; the more I know about him, the more impressed I am. But his rise to the presidency was not completely without incident. He is very close to his Obasanjo as they are both members of the same political party and have a history together. Many people believe his candidacy and election rest almost exclusively on Obasanjo’s support and that Obasanjo persuaded other influential state governors to support Yar’Adua with everything from inducements to threats of launching fraud investigations against them. The electoral process was also fraught with charges of election tampering.

Like Obasanjo, Yar'Adua’s selection of women for key positions in essential areas of government - such as Defense, Education, Energy & Power, Environment & Housing, Health, Transportation, Science & Technology, and Women’s Affairs - has been met with approval by many. The successful track record of their female predecessors was surely a motivating factor for the next wave of women in government. Another influential factor in this new trend is Yar’Adua’s desire to secure a place for Nigeria among the 20 leading economies of the world by 2020. He realizes that this can only be possible if he has the right people to help him. The women he has appointed represent some of the best and brightest minds Nigeria has to offer. They are highly educated, have years of experience and possess international perspectives. Only after passing rigorous scrutiny were they assigned ministerial portfolios.

Fidelia Njeze is now the Minister of State for Defense. Aishatu Jibril Dukku, once a secondary school teacher and a strong proponent of female empowerment, now serves as the Minister of State for education. Fatima Balarabe Ibrahim, the Minister of Power, holds an MA and LLM from Harvard. Halima Alao, the Minister of Environment and Housing, served at the Kwara State Civil Service at both the Ministry of Works and Transportation and was Minister of State for Education and Health. The Minister of Transportation, Diezani Alison-Madueke, was the first female External Affairs Director of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria; she holds an architecture and MBA degree from Howard and Cambridge Universities respectively. Adenike Grange, the Minister of Health, was a professor of Pediatrics at the College of Medicine at the University of Lagos. She is the president of the International Pediatric Association (IPA) and coordinator of the Women’s Health Organization of Nigeria. She was also the World Health Organization adviser on reproductive health programs in Nigeria from 1993-1999. She has authored over fifty scientific papers in national and international peer-reviewed journals. Grace Ekpiwhre, the Minister of Science and Technology, has been a career civil servant since 1977 and became the Head of Service before retiring. She was also the Chairman of the Delta State Civil Service Commission, having been nominated by former governor James Ibori, one of Yar’Adua’s best friends. Saudatu Usman Bungudu, the Minister of Women Affairs, a Muslim, is very passionate about women’s affairs.

Each of these female ministers has hit the ground running, aggressively attempting to improve situations that have deteriorated for decades; they intend to improve Nigeria’s international reputation. And they are making it clear that their appointments are well deserved. Although the placement of only eight women out of 39 ministerial positions is far below what it should be, this is still a good start for a patriarchal Third World country with a male Muslim president. I believe in time the numbers of women in government will increase as women continue to prove themselves in this male dominated sphere.

African women are raised to be selfless, humble and nurturing. They are more flexible than their male counterparts and are able to resolve complex issues to Nigeria’s advantage with people who have something to hold over their heads as evidenced by Ngozi Iweala’s ability to effect the reduction of Nigeria’s Paris Club debt. Nigerian men are raised to be just the opposite. They would have literally been unable to interact humbly enough with our debtors to get the results she did.

So is Nigeria ushering in a new dawn? I believe so, at least as far as women are concerned. Men have run the country for so long and it shows: Nigeria is in a terrible state. That’s not to say that no man has made positive contributions to the nation’s development, but in terms of the difference between what should have been and what has been accomplished in 47 years of independence, it’s obvious that their contributions have not been commensurate with the opportunities they were given. They are too often distracted by greed, corruption and unaccountability. It is quite common for an elected official to loot the treasury and go on spending sprees, acquiring wives, mistresses, real estate, vehicles, throwing lavish parties and stashing money in foreign accounts. Currently four former governors are now in jail on corruption charges.

I hope that with women in key governmental roles in this regime Nigeria can cultivate the political climate it needs to improve the country’s infrastructure and become a leading world economy. It’s a tall order - these women will need to go back to the basics, starting with infrastructure like repairing Nigeria’s ailing roads, telecommunication and electricity. They will also need to encourage improvement in the transparency and accountability of all elected officials. A positive political environment will benefit Nigerians in Nigeria, and encourage Nigerians in the Diaspora to return and contribute to its growth.

Nigeria is in the process of transformation as the current administration attempts to make its vision of Nigeria a reality. If this goal is to be achieved, women in all levels of society must be encouraged to become active participants in decision-making roles. Nigerian women can be successful in any office - many have wanted to contribute to the nation’s well being for a long time, but were helpless to do so before. A female vice-president, female governors, more ministers and commissioners are needed. Time will tell as we watch the progress of this administration; however this is indeed a new era for Nigerian women, who are now being allowed to make a difference.

About the Author

Susan Enuogbope Majekodunmi is a Nigerian freelance writer, songwriter and the Managing Editor of Glory International Magazine. She has worked in various fields and is currently exploring her creative interests. She is also avid reader and currently lives in Ellicott, Maryland.

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3 comments on “A New Dawn for Nigerian Women? Time Will Tell
  1. Nancy Van Ness says:

    If more people in positions of power were unselfish, flexible, and nurturing of others, would this world look better? Women’s perspectives are badly needed in every sphere, especially in government, especially in crisis situations. When traditional women’s qualities are enriched by higher education and experience in business, government, labor, finance, we can hope for leaders who make positive change in this world.
    Thank you to the WIP for this story which I would not have found anywhere else.

  2. Hello Susan,
    I really appreciater your article. I strongly believe that it is an eyeopener for me. Having not been in Nigeria for nearly ten years now it has given me the awareness of what’s actually going on in the government and Nigerian society from a female’s perspective. And as for the former and current appointed female ministers i just applaud them for taking their place in the government and i believe that with God’s help and their own determination would carry out their office duties to the best of their ability.
    Thanks once again.

  3. shola dada says:

    I love the fact that Susan was very objective in her analysis of the Obasanjo and Ya’adua administrations. It is quite true that although these governments came into power in what one might term ‘questionable’ ways, Nigeria really has taken giant leaps forward since 1999. My general opinion also is that it’s not really about what gender is occupying what or how many positions in government, but who is qualified and able to create that desired change. However, one cannot argue with what can be clearly seen; which is, when a women in power decides she wants something done, it gets done! For this reason i passionately look forward to seeing more women in key positions, doing it the way only women can.

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