FAVOUR FOR JULIANA

The participation of Nigerian women in politics is key to achieving the 35 per cent Affirmative Action. However, events at the 2023 General Elections in Nigeria were indicators that most politicians and the government were not playing by the rules, as violence ran rift, further pushing women off the political sphere, shattering political dreams and ambitions. JULIANA FRANCIS examines the issue.

 

Mrs Bina Jennifer Efidi’s resilient nature is seen in the smile she bestowed on the journalists as she ushered them into her sitting room in the Surulere area of Lagos State.

She was attacked at her polling unit on February 25, 2023, when she went to cast her vote. She almost lost an eye but persevered to cast her vote.

The attack left Efidi traumatised, especially since her attackers are yet to be arrested.

She said: “My blood pressure shot up because of the attack. My husband and children were traumatised. My children cried and I had to give them a different orientation about the election and all about going out to vote.”

Many expected her to go home and cry her eyes out following the attack, but she stoically returned to the polling unit to cast her vote.FAVOUR FOR JULIANA 3

She said: “I returned to cast my vote after the attack because I wanted my voice and vote to count.”

The attack propelled Efidi into the growing statistics of women electorates and politicians that had been attacked and threatened in Nigeria during elections.

Most elections in Nigeria are characterised by violence, this is despite the massive deployment of law enforcement agents to forestall such occurrences.

Nigerians have become used to the violence that characterised elections, but this violence has continued to edge women out of active participation in politics as most prefer to stay at home and wait out the recurring turbulence.

The National Gender Policy is expected to push a certain number of women into the political arena, but actualising it remains a pipedream, coupled with violence in elections.

Alliancesforafrica.org states: “The national Gender Policy (NGP) has formulated a 35% Affirmative Action (AA) in Nigeria since 2006. This policy demands that 35% of women be involved in all governance processes. The NGP is recognised but is not practised as the structures and processes to use are not in place.”

Indeed, ahead of the last political campaigns and elections, political parties were compelled to sign a Peace Accord, which was supposed to check electoral violence.

The parties truly signed the Peace Accord, but it turned out to be a mere function, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. On the election days, violence reigned in different parts of Nigeria and women were not spared.

According to the

Incident Centre for Election Atrocities, (ICEA) a total of 137 persons were killed, and 57 abducted during the 2023 general elections.

Efidi, who is a first-time voter, recalled how suspicious-looking characters strolled into the polling unit. They looked fierce and their ages ranged between 15 and 20.

Tension suddenly enveloped the air as everyone watched the gangsters with worried and fearful eyes. The group left as suddenly as they had arrived.

Efidi said: “We thought they had left, but less than 20 or 30 minutes later, I felt an impact on my face and simultaneously I heard the sounds of gunshots. I had been hit and everyone started running helter-skelter. I placed my hand on my face, blood was already dripping down my elbow. I ran into people’s compound, crying for help, but people were scared and many locked their doors.”

She remembered thinking she was going to die. A Good Samaritan handed a handkerchief to stem the blood and advised Efidi to seek safety first. The injury would be sutured later, and she was told she needed to see an ophthalmologist.

She expressed shock that the government did not make a statement on the matter, stressing that such statements could give voters confidence and check reoccurrences of attacks.

She also opined that what happened to her could cause the number of women’s participation in politics to continue to drop.

She advised the government to ensure it follows up on victims of electoral violence, especially women, asking about their mental health.

The Nigeria 2023 General Election was liberally laced with violence, leading to avoidable deaths and injury of voters.  Thugs snatched ballot papers and boxes in some instances and many voters were openly threatened because of ethnicity and political affiliations.

Mrs Elizabeth Arigo Owie, 41, a mother of three was shot to death during the 2023 General Elections. She was shot in the chest by suspected political thugs who invaded a polling unit on Saturday, February 25, in Ogheghe community in Ikpoba Okha Local Government Area, Benin City, Edo State.

Elizabeth’s brother, Ejike Michael, who spoke with our reporter, revealed that reports from eyewitnesses insisted that other voters sustained bullet wounds.

Michael said: “She was shot at her polling unit. According to reports we got, INEC came to the polling unit late, at about 6:pm. The people voted and soon officials started counting the votes.

“At a point, it became clear that the Labour Party was leading and she, among others started rejoicing. Suddenly, some men drove into the place and opened fire. They shot at people and escaped. She was not the only person shot. We heard that about three people died, while another person is in the hospital.”

Nigerian actresses like Chioma Akpatha were attacked, and Iyabo Ojo was threatened.

Think Tank European Parliament, states that, “Violence against women in politics takes multiple forms, from physical attacks to psychological and symbolic abuse, including sexual and sexist comments, online hate speech and sexual harassment. Women surveyed tend to consider the impact of this type of violence significant in terms of psychological discomfort.”

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) stresses that violence against women in elections (VAWE) is a “threat to the integrity of the electoral process and the quality of democracy because it coercively excludes women from having a voice in the political life and governance of their country. VAWE is a violation of political and human rights and frequently also a criminal or civil code violation that harms voters, candidates.”

IFES noted that it has been observed that few VAWE offenders are “held to account, despite laws on the books and multiple punitive mechanisms that might exist across different institutions. There is often a double standard for electoral violence cases involving women’s political participation, relegating them to second-class citizen status.”

A report, titled  Preventing Violence Against Women In Elections: A Programming Guide states that “standard datasets on electoral violence are gender-blind, and therefore unable to provide much data on VAWE. This means that a large portion of the election-related violence that women experience is undocumented, and there is no systematic data collection on a national, regional or global scale.”

The article argues that despite limitations in data, research has shown that VAWE was widespread across countries.

The report also maintained that “Sex-disaggregated findings from one cross-country study, which compared over 2,000 acts of election violence in six countries between 2006 and 2010, estimated that women were victims in almost 40 per cent of all acts of election violence. However, prevalence is presumed to be substantially higher because the study did not collect data on the full range of forms of violence that women experience, including in the private sphere.”

The report further highlights the possible impact of VAWE on women as the reduction in the number of “women contesting elections and aspiring for political office, prevention of political campaigns. Limited visibility of women in political parties, women run for reserved seats instead of elected ones, reduced number of elected women, difficulty in recruiting female election or polling staff, reduced voter turnout.”

The former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, opines that “impunity for violence against women compounds the effects of such violence as a mechanism of control. When the State fails to hold perpetrators accountable, impunity not only intensifies the subordination and powerlessness of the targets of violence but also sends a message to society that male violence against women is both acceptable and inevitable.”

Efidi urged the government to look at how to put measures to check violence during elections. “There should be policies to check such violence and there should be policies to take care of women after election violence.”

The government, she argued, should begin to, “give women hope, so that people will know that government stood for this or that person and that government will stand for another injured person. So that we wouldn’t fear going out to vote.”

The former minister of Women’s Affairs, Yom Josephine Anenih, said: “Women are not serious because these things are not exclusive to women, men also face the same violence. Women should be able to face political violence, women should be ready to buy whatever they get from the political market. I’m tired of hearing women playing victim always, they should come out and fight. We fought and we got it.”

A civil rights activist and President of Lawyers Alert, Mr Rommy Mom, said that he would not quickly attribute violence as part of the landmines checkmating Nigerian women from political participation.

His words: “Violence occurs and happens even to men. Women can also be violent and have their thugs. It is not only restricted to men. Men are said to be this solid and violent because they have the money to finance violence, and this is because violence itself is not free.

“You must pay these boys, buy the guns and so on, so all these things take money. If women had the same money, they would do the same. When we say violence in politics, it means that the violence still goes to the issue of money and economic empowerment.”

The only female presidential candidate for KOWA Party during the 2015 presidential election, Professor Remi Sonaiya, opined that women are more careful about their safety, and this can hamper their decision to participate in politics and elections.

She further stated: “They would think of their husbands and children, but I still think that if there was not so much money in politics, the violence would go down. If the stakes were not so high, that’s why people are willing to kill others so that they can get to that position.”

A former Labour Party’s Deputy Governorship candidate for Lagos State, Princess Islamiyat Oyefusi, said that election violence will continue to edge women out of politics unless drastic steps are taken. She stressed that the last election in Nigeria was a pointer to that fact.

She said: “Violence during the election is an unfortunate thing that we have managed to bring into our nation, and it is not fair for any democracy to have this level of violence. It starts with intimidation, and we are gradually taking away the freedom and the right to choose because when you use intimidation, you’ve already divided the people because of fear.

“When they create that kind of environment, it discourages women and they tell you women are too fragile, but they’ve already disenfranchised us. It’s very wrong that we bring violence into our election. Nobody should be beaten or killed for an election.”

In the Nigerian Electoral Act, violence, and intimidation are not allowed, yet election violence continued to be the order of the day during political campaigns and elections.

In the last 2023 elections, social media space was awash with videos of groups targeting particular ethnic group voters and political parties, but the government and law enforcement turned blind eyes to these contraventions of the Electoral Act.

Section 93 of the Act states: “A party, candidate, aspirant, or person or group of persons shall not directly or indirectly threaten any person with the use of force or violence during any political campaign to compel that person or any other person to support or refrain from supporting a political party or candidate.

“A political party, candidate, aspirant, person or group of persons that contravenes the provisions of this section commits an offence and is liable on conviction— (a) in the case of a candidate, aspirant, or person or group of persons, to a maximum fine of N1,000,000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months; and (b) in the case of a political party, to a fine of N2,000,000 in the first instance, and N500,000 for any subsequent offence.”

The Executive Director of RULAAC, Okechukwu Nwanguma, said: “We find that despite signing the Peace Accord to maintain peace, political parties still behaved like that Peace Accord never existed. This shows desperation.”

Nwanguma said that political parties do not keep to the Peace Accord because they know there would not be punishment for flaunting the agreement.

According to him, the 2023 election was so mired in violence that it left sane Nigerians gasping in shock. He said the display of violence was a means of suppression of voters.

He added: “We saw videos of political thugs threatening a particular ethnic extraction in Nigeria, and others threatening voters not to vote if they were not voting for the All Progressive Congress (APC) party.  We also saw a woman who was stabbed at the polling unit.

“The election could not be held in some places due to thuggery and in places like Rivers State, even youth Corp members were assaulted and brutalised and some were killed. Ballot boxes were snatched and there was forceful thumbprinting. The violence was so widespread. We saw voters’ oppression, intimidation, and manipulation of results.”

He opined that politicians were constituting electoral obstacles in Nigeria. Nwanguman said that election violence mostly affects women, including limiting their political participation in politics.

He expatiated: “Women are the most affected because ordinarily for being women, they are already marginalised, let alone when there is violence.

“In conflict situations, women stand a chance of being raped simply because they are women, and they are seen as weaker vessels. Women bear the greatest bond of every form of violence whether it is electoral violence or communal violence.”

The human rights activist said that a lot of deliberate steps needed to be taken to ensure women’s safety and political participation.

He stated that in many countries, measures were taken to enhance the chances of women and one such measure is called affirmative action.

While stressing that political violence is caused by the desperation of politicians who wanted to win by all means, Nwanguma added: “They do that over and over again because there is no consequence. If we increase the risk of involving in electoral malpractice by making it nearly 80 per cent that someone will incur consequences, it will reduce because people will be deterred. It is because there are no effective measures to check the desperation of politicians and to make sure that those who go outside the Electoral Act are made to pay for it.”

Sonaiya questioned why it was taking so long to see any development in women’s participation in politics.

She said: “I feel there’s going to be fewer women in the National Assembly because of the prevailing condition. When merit and capacities become the criteria for governance in Nigeria, I believe women will show up. But this system of rigging, violence and godfatherism is affecting women.

“Across the world, women are heading important positions. Nigerian women are knowledgeable everywhere, but what is keeping them down? Nigeria women are saying we can’t be part of this and men who are interested in rigging do not even want women there! We must engage our minds on these issues. We seem to be regressing because those who are supposed to bring their talents are relegated because of the culture of rigging and violence entrenched in the system. Let’s us provide a level playing ground for our women and men.”

The founding Director of the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC), Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, who is also a lawyer said: “Electoral violence is another major challenge for women. What we saw in the 2023 election brought to the fore how women are affected differently.

“Violence comes to women not only from a point of view of physical, but it could also be psychological. It could be fear around places you want to go and electoral violence only happens to voters and women who are also candidates.

“In the last election, we saw a lot of cyber-bullying of women and we also saw a lot of psychological violence through what people write to women and also verbal assault to some women.

“Beyond voters, candidates have their share. In the last election, we got a report of even people who were ad-hoc staff working for INEC who were violated and raped. Electoral violence is a major issue, so women don’t want to go to places where they know that violence will occur so it discourages people from participating in the election.”

Akiyode-Afolabi said that the solution was to push for regulating election violence.

She noted: “ For instance, I have observed an election in Liberia before and there is a mobile tribunal on the day of the election, so if you commit any electoral violence or any malpractice on Election Day you are subjected to a court, and you can go to prison.”

CLEEN Foundation Situation Analysis of Election Security Management and the 2023 Gubernatorial and State Assembly Elections, states: “Findings show that widespread violence, ballot box snatching, assaults, fatalities, marred the elections.”

CLEEN observers tracked the killings of people in Benue, Kano, Ebonyi, Cross Rivers, Gombe, and Rivers state.

It also described as saddening, the level of thuggery, violence and voter suppression by non-state elements observed in Lagos, Gombe, Edo, Kano, Enugu, Imo, Bayelsa, and Rivers where incidences of voter suppression, intimidation and thuggery were recorded.

CLEEN urged INEC to work with security agencies to ensure that all electoral offenders were investigated and prosecuted according to the law.

It also suggested that “Political parties need to desist from turning the political space to a combative, do-or-die practice where they resort to any means to retain or acquire power at the detriment of public peace and democratic stability in the country.”

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