Amb. Dr. (Mrs.) Kema Chikwe is a former Nigerian Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. She later emerged as the National Woman Leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). As a strong proponent of women inclusion, she has lived it, practised it and can testify that she is a good product of gender inclusiveness. All she got, she earned, with preparedness and hard-work. She became one of the pioneer MMS Hall of Famers and the Chairperson, Governing Council of MMS Woman of Fortune Hall of Fame(WoFHoF)Initiative on account of her passion to make living better for Women. To cap her passion for gender mainstreaming, she founded the Women Leadership Institute (WLI) in Abuja, Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with MMS Plus newspaper, she speaks on a wide range of gender issues and the implications for the Nigerian society. She Spoke with KINGSLEY ANAROKE. Enjoy it:
2023 Presidential elections are just months away and we have not seen women coming out to indicate interest for presidential or gubernatorial positions. What could be the problem? Are they scared?
It is not that women are scared but the environment does not encourage women to declare for such positions as men declare. For women to make such declarations, there must be an enabling environment and the right grassroots structure which cannot be achieved overnight. This means that we need to have more women at the local government level, and in both state and federal legislature. We need to establish a framework that will motivate women and boost their aspirations for such positions. There are courageous and competent women who are not afraid to declare for positions but there is no framework for them to participate.
The male folk use women to their advantage because statistics have shown that women accounted for about 47.14 per cent of the registered voters nationwide in 2019 elections, while in 2015 presidential elections, data shows that housewives were the third highest group that voted out of nine groups that voted and recall that in 2019 also housewives rank third on the list of registered voters, representing 14.10 per cent of the total registered voters by groups next to farmers and fishers. Why can’t women use this to their advantage?
It is true that women vote men into power, but if we don’t have a framework where women are in positions to influence policies, the efforts of women will be frustrated when they attempt to attain top political positions.
The truth is that the men in Nigeria who have been exposed to education should live up to it and align with global best practices. If the men who make the policies do not have the openness to accommodate women, it will be difficult for a woman to occupy the position of a Senate President, for instance. People that hold the structure and wield the power have to convince themselves that women can perform. Maybe women should also begin to change their political strategies because we are moving at a very slow pace. With the collective power of women, if the strategies are reviewed more women will get into top positions in governance.
How can women prepare better for the future with this strategy review to get more positions in the political space?
If the solidarity rallies and all the efforts by women are redirected such that no woman goes to the polls to vote for a man, we can make serious impact and I think this is worth doing. If they stick to it, the first consequence will be that no male candidate will be qualified to stand election because they would not be able to amass the required votes at the polls. They would not get the required percentage of votes because the electoral power belongs to the women. If in 2023, women decide that no woman should be seen voting and they stick to that, the desired results will be attained.
We can go to the National Assembly to protest their streaks of gender bias and the intention to restrict female votes to female candidates, this is very good but the impact may not be felt because the greatest challenge of Nigerian women is cultural. So, if at the local government and community levels there are solidarity protests, the women in the villages and streets will be aware of the situation and when you tell them not to vote male candidates, they would not vote. I think we should get to the root of the problem.
All the members of the National Assembly have constituencies where they were voted, so we can take the rallies to the communities that these legislators represent. We can also use the religious groups, women societies and community structures. A contract with the women should be entered into at the constituency level. Local Government Councilors, Governors and every elective position holder must have a contract with the women. The protests that hold in Abuja are only for the federal level because the senators and representatives all have their local constituencies. So, we should get back to the basics to sensitize the women at those levels. The rallies in Abuja do not resonate with the women in the constituencies of the legislators who have kicked against the women’s bills. There must be interaction between women in Abuja and the women at the constituencies.
If there is a Local Government Councilor who does not have an agenda for women, the women could decide not to vote that candidate or sponsor a woman to oppose him and she will likely win. If the women at the local levels continue to vote for men amid these issues, it means the elite women have not done their homework. This is because at the grassroots, there is a high level of ignorance and we must be able to eradicate this so that women can begin to advocate for and support the cause of women.
Another handicap of women is lack of finance because the poverty level in Nigeria is quite high. Money means a lot especially in politics therefore, women have to be empowered financially. It is also important to address household management financially, socially and otherwise. If women start contributing money at the grassroots like the men are doing, this disregard for women will reduce. Moreover, I do not see why the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) should not begin to promote women bank.
Wealthy women of like minds can come together to aggregate funds and partner with CBN to set up women banks that will assist women with funding, help them better run their businesses, grow their investments and they will be financially empowered. There was a time this women’s bank initiative was on the front burner of the National Council for Women Society(NCWS) programme. Women should have banks dedicated to them, including Micro- Finance banks which should not be run by the government because they will manipulate it.
The Agencies set up for women welfare in Nigeria like the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs can domicile this project. However, I believe that women can raise funds individually to set up a bank but it has to be managed properly. It is unfortunate that even the National Council for Women Society (NCWS) has been taken over by the government at the national and the state levels. This problem is eminent in Nigeria today because there is no independent umbrella body for women.
At the state level, Micro Finance Banks (MFB) could be set up to support women. After my tenure as the National Woman Leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), I started the Women Leadership Institute (WLI) because as at 2017 when the Institute was established, no Nigerian University was awarding degree in women studies. It shows that we look down on issues that concern women. My daughter has a degree in Gender Economics. A degree in women studies is like human studies because it incorporates every aspect of life and development; political, economic, social, etc. Everything about women or gender in learning institutions is subsumed under social studies. This should not be the case. I am happy that the Institute is addressing this lacuna with Masterclasses every quarter. I am still not aware that any tertiary institution in Nigeria is offering such degree but we need to dignify issues about women.
The Women Leadership Institute (WLI) provides a platform to develop leadership capacity in women and we are setting up at the state level so that the leadership traits in women are intrinsically acquired and harnessed such that they can excel in leadership. The strategies within the reach of women should be applied because it is obvious that the men who wield power would only accommodate the women they choose. Sometimes, they don’t accommodate women because they are qualified. I am sorry to say but the truth is I know how long and how hard it took me to rise to the peak of my political career. I had to join numerous associations, socially, politically, and religiously just to be recognized. It takes a certain kind of a leader to be able to recognize ones potential, otherwise, people are appointed for wrong reasons and some women get this appointment and fizzle out afterwards. However, others get the appointment, use it to fight for the interest of women and continue this fight even after the appointment.
In Nigeria, the struggle for women is around cultural bias and this bias is being wielded by the men at the grassroots level. So, let women take the campaigns to the grassroots level. Let us have structures from the grassroots because the orientation on that level is no joke. This is why we talk about empowerment and education.
We should have universities dedicated to women and they will do better because there will be respect for women affairs and penchant for excellence. Check the background of some of the top women achievers, you will mostly find that they attended top-notch girls’ colleges across the nation. While they were in school, there was huge competition and there was respect. We urgently need universities dedicated to women and we have to put up structures where women will be given their true value.
Those in the National Assembly come from constituencies and they might go to their localities to say they want to reserve a seat for women and the people there will say they do not want it. However, if we sensitize the women there and they demand to sign contracts with the candidates before voting, they will know that women are serious. If women can demand these contracts and agreements ahead of the 2023 elections, it will go a long way to show the level of seriousness and alter the outlook of the election.
You talked about cultural bias and the 2022 International Women’s Day(IWD) hashtag is Breaking The Bias. What other forms of bias do we have against women in Nigeria and how can we conquer them?
In the traditional setting, how many women hold positions in the cabinets of the traditional rulers? In most communities there are no women title holders and in the few progressive communities, the women are very few. Even in the churches, women are hardly given leadership positions; instead there is usually the women’s wing of the church but the men dominate especially when it comes to controlling funds and administration of the churches.
There is a mindset about positions women should hold and if they cannot be mainstreamed, they form the branches. Look at all the political parties and you will find the women’s wing but they are not even autonomous. When you check the National Working Committee (NWC), you most likely find the woman leader as a member of the NWC. However, it is rare to find another woman holding a national position or a state representative in a given regime. This is an atrocious setting because the political parties produce the leadership of states and federal level. So how do we expect a woman to come out from such a lopsided arrangement to be Governor or President?
The people taking decisions at the political parties are men and they take these decisions with the feelings and considerations of men without recourse to gender sensitivity. Only one woman is usually on the committee to represent women when these issues are decided on. When it comes to money she may not know how the funds are raised and spent. She may write her own proposal about budgets but how many political parties execute or implement the budgets of the women’s wing? I was a woman leader and no one looked at my budgets.
The worse thing about the political parties is that the president’s wife and the governors’ wives take over after their spouses win elections. They are in-charge of the women at the political parties and the women affairs ministry report to the governor’s wife or president’s wife who has no structured position in government. The funds for women are also passed through the first ladies. How can the women have a say when the governor’s wife does not attend Executive council meetings? She operates through her husband, so the women are weakened already because there is bias in the political structure.
I was excited to see the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike campaign for women recently. He has a very radical approach to governance but he is performing in his state. He is very vocal and says things as he sees them. I listened to him talk about the National Assembly issue about women. He noted that women attend schools and excel in other endeavours in the country and asked why we should not be given opportunities in government. You might say he is in the opposition party and may have political bias but he is speaking the truth.
If more governors can speak up like Gov. Nyesom Wike against what is happening at the National Assembly, we can have better opportunities. We talk about appointive positions but very few governors give women the opportunity to operate as they should after appointing them. This is an area where I commend President Olusegun Obasanjo. I led the ministry independent of his interference. I gave my reports and he never interfered. He also did not allow anyone to interfere.
As a woman, if you are being oppressed or dominated in your home it is a bias. So many women develop illnesses because there is a stereotype about what a woman should endure. In some communities, women are denied family inheritance because they are not men. Even in farmlands, how many women have farmlands? They have to lease farmlands from the men because they are not given farmlands in most traditional settings. Nevertheless, most of the small scale farmers are women. Almost in every aspect of life you will find that there is a bias against women. If a woman speaks up, people say, “Look at this woman, she cannot keep quiet, in fact, she is a crazy woman”. Or she is trying to behave like she is superior to men.
What’s your take on the women’s bills killed at the National Assembly?
What happened at the National Assembly is a shame because I assumed that there is a minimum qualification for men who are members of the National Assembly. Anyone who has been educated sufficiently to be at the National Assembly, and has been exposed to civilized societies should not turn down such bills. These are very easy bills to pass. It is a shame that they should truncate such bills at their level. I listened to someone’s analysis, he said that the women lobbied late. But why should the women even lobby for such bills? Shouldn’t the people at the National Assembly know at that level that these are important bills to be passed?
I personally thought that these bills would sail through but I hope that the members of the National Assembly are seeing women on a comparative level with women from other climes. When there are international opportunities they handpick women to represent Nigeria, why must we continue to remain on this level? Isn’t this stereotype? This is an embarrassment not only for the legislators but the entire nation. Every well-meaning Nigerian in public and private sectors should rise up and condemn this.
My guess is that the legislators feel obligated to their cultures but culture is dynamic and we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. What the National Assembly did was to isolate Nigeria from the rest of the world in terms of progress and development. Something has to be done. I think women have to go back to the grassroots level and have a rethink of their political strategies.
National Assembly has murdered sleep and Nigeria should sleep no more on the issue of women. The men want to compete for everything but it was made easy by saying there should be one extra seat for women in every state. This shows that women are still in the minority, so how does this affect the legislators who still have their positions? Isn’t this greed? Why are they preventing women from being part of the national and state assembly just by bringing one more person per state? Men denied women an opportunity for growth and denied themselves the dignity of the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and their entire male colleagues.
This issue is even beyond women, it is about the level of development and progress in the nation. They have exposed Nigeria as a nation that is not ready for development, even in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an economic zone for the region, women have to be carried along. Other countries are going to bring their women to that economic zone, what will Nigeria get by not bringing her women? Yet, it calls itself the giant of Africa?
Let’s look at the just amended Electoral Act, especially the Section 84 which says Ministers and other political appointees must resign before primaries. President Buhari has directed the legislators to expunge this segment of the Act. What do you make of this development?
During our time, President Obasanjo will not tolerate you doing campaigns from his cabinet. You will have to resign to chase your new political ambitions. Even in doing business, he would say if you want to be successful at your business you have to resign and he said to some of us, if you stay to the end and you want to go into business he will support us.
I recall when Danjuma Goje wanted to run for Governor, he resigned and Obasanjo mentored him and he emerged governor. Why should someone be a Minister and want to contest even in primaries while having powers to interfere in the process? I think anyone who wants to contest as a Minister has to resign before the primaries because he or she has to be on a level playing ground with other contestants. They should not go there with an advantage. It is not good for the political system, but I have expressed my opinion.
Anything happening in Nigeria affects other nations, so the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has to sit up. We observed how the last Local Government election was affected by lots of interference as people carried thugs, police and all categories of military personnel to pounce on innocent citizens. This approach is usually utilized by people who have problems in their constituencies. They want to use government forces to oppress the people because they do not have the genuine support of the electorate. Even within the same party, people use government forces to rob one another of their victories.
INEC is also adding to the problems because they fail to act independently even though they were brought in by one political party or another. When you look at the previous INEC bosses, they failed to make a name for themselves because they allowed themselves to suffer interferences and manipulation by their bosses. People who have not become Chairman of INEC are well respected until they serve there and they begin to lose respect and regard in the society. In common Local Government elections, we use military and paramilitary forces to oppress people and deprive them of their civil rights, we should be ashamed of ourselves. I am not best of friends with Governor Nasir El Rufai but he is the first governor that I have seen that allowed the electoral system to run independently during the Local Government polls. I may not like his style of administration but I must commend what he did with the Local Government elections because it is different from what other governors are doing. There is too much impunity in this nation and that is why we have problems everywhere even in gender issues.