Gender balance remains the biggest casualty of the recent ministerial nominations. Goal 5 of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), calls for achieving gender quality and empowering all women and girls. Of the 17 SDGs at least, 6 goals – goals 2, 3, 5, 8, 10 and 16 – can be tied directly to women’s empowerment, protection and the overall promotion of women’s welfare and role in society, including in governance. Ditto the just elapsed MDGs. Going by the just concluded ministerial nominations, the Buhari administration is either unaware of these SDGs or has set out to reverse achievements and gains made by Nigerian women over fifty-five years. By international standards, Nigeria is no paragon of women’s rights and now, we encounter a severe reverse of Nigeria’s limited achievements in gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment.
Equal rights advocates can easily accuse this government of being gender insensitive and gender unfriendly, if not chauvinistic. Clearly, there can be no justification for the current ratio of four female to thirty-two male ministerial nominees. The dismal numbers should perturb, considering the number of women ministers and advisers in the Obasanjo and Yar’Adua presidencies. Moreover, the 13 women in the Jonathan government represented some 31 percent of the 42-member cabinet. Demographically, Buhari’s four nominations are off base with our nation’s female population and with our six geo-political zones. The grossly reduced numbers are equally vexatious to many, since if indeed Nigeria has been misruled all these years, the blame is justifiably assignable to our male leaders.
But perhaps, privileged Nigerian women are their own worst enemies. If the seven incumbent female senators had formed a nonpartisan caucus and on principles, threatened to boycott the screening of the predominantly male nominees, they would have framed the dialogue on this policy reversal and raised the subject to the proper level of public discourse. President Buhari and his advisers might listen. After all, the President will need the support of the senate moving forward. Interestingly, the Eight Senate has the same number of women as did the Seventh Senate. So why should the number of female ministerial appointees differ? It ought to be recognized that in global politics, focus on gender balancing and gender mainstreaming are now the kernel of progressive politicians. Gender is now a wedge issue; and so, for good reasons.
As a policy analyst who for many years worked within a multinational and multilateral institution where gender diversity and sensitivity were accorded primacy, I find the evolving policy trend troubling. The argument might be made, that the President is yet to complete his political and nonpolitical appointments, but he has set off on the wrong foot by setting a controversial example. Perhaps, the glossing over is attributable to the extended delay in appointing his closest advisers. Or perhaps, his advisers are unaware of evolving global gender trends. Unlikely! Whatever be the case, public policies do not emanate in a vacuum. They must be properly articulated and properly driven. Continuity of good policies only adds value. As far as measurable benchmarks and policy evaluations go the evolving gender policy points to an egregious setback for Nigerian women. That the matter is not being fervidly debated is all the more troubling. Ironically, this glaring, if unwitting reversal of our national gender balance policy is happening against the background of our national failure to protect our women folk as represented by the Chibok Girls. What is more disconcerting for our women folk is that they were responsible for over 55 percent of the 15.4 million votes that brought President Buhari to power.
These facts aside, global trends, policies and realities speak more eloquently to women empowerment than we are witnessing in Nigeria. Gender mainstreaming ought not to be a sexy topic or the butt of sexism. Women broke the glass ceiling a long while back. Women are appointed to public offices for the added value they bring, not because they are in-chamber figurines or bureaucratic odalisques. Beyond the family, women globally are taking their rightful places in the public and private sectors – board rooms, governance structures and corridors of power. I know this, since I have a spouse who is accomplished, exceptionally intelligent and a competent professional in her vocation of choice, and two daughters, already on the trajectory to supersede their mother’s accomplishments without being bashful. It would not serve us well, that they and their ilk that constitute Nigeria’s posterity are now made to feel that they can be easily sidelined or cannot seek ministerial or other high public positions, including Nigeria’s presidency.
Hard facts speak power to the truth. As it is, big and small nations alike, including Britain, Germany, Norway, Ireland, Liberia, Senegal, CAR and Jamaica had or have incumbent female presidents or prime ministers. Twenty two nations are today led by women. Women are partners not supplicants. Women are critical players in new and expanding global frontiers. Women are globally engaged in all development areas including governance and even in the military, where an Arab female pilot was recently engaged in combat roles and took part in the airstrikes against ISIS. Nigeria can’t be averse to such positive global developments or be seen to pursuing policies that suggest such a disposition.
Indeed, a 2014 Pew Research Center report points to evolving global patterns that indicate that women’s college enrollment “outpace males in college enrollment.” By implication, graduate female entry into the workforce would soon outstrip those of males. This may already be happening in Nigeria. In case President Buhari is not aware, the number female students studying to be lawyers, teachers and nurses in Nigeria outstrip the males. These numbers also trump the 35% appointment ratio that is now being eroded. Hence, the present reversal cannot pass for good governance or reform, even if women get more appointments in other public sector spheres later on.
Since political appointments are highly visible and the remit of Mr. President, the nation expected the President to set the positive example he wished others to follow. Seemingly turning against women is a political risk the President and the ruling APC need not take, even as 2019 is still long ways away. Unexpressed as it seems, Nigerian women are grumbling as they watch with utter dismay, their expansive hope for broader representation beyond 35 % curdle into disillusion. Disparate and uncoordinated as they seem and separated by education, ethnicity, religion and wealth as they are, 87 million Nigerian women retain the voting clout to dislodge any president or sitting government that is perceptibly unkind or inattentive to their collective welfare. Nigeria already has a track record of voting out an incumbent President.
We should respect our diversity. Advisedly pruning the number of women appointed into the Federal Executive Council (FEC) – a definite policy reversal and miscue – blurs the inextricable nexus between democratic advancement and correlating women’s rights and equitable representation. It trumps sensitivity and inclusivity. Equitable representation of women in governance like federal character is a constitutional dictate, even if the emphasis differs. Not to accord such a public policy the attention it deserves, suggests that the Buhari government is still trying to find its governance feet. Immediate remedial measures are advisable. That’s a safe proposition.
• Obaze, MD/CEO Selonnes Consult is a strategic public policy adviser and the immediate-past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.
Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.
Selonnes Consult Ltd. is a Strategic Policy, Good Governance and Management Consulting Firm, founded by Mr. Oseloka H. Obaze who served as Secretary to Anambra State Government from 2012-2015; a United Nations official from 1991-2012 and a Nigerian Foreign Service Officer from 1982-1991.