Celebrating the Nigerian Political Amazons
The women in Nigerian politics have come a long way. Theirs has been a very thorny and torturous journey through a very narrow and murky path in the nation’s political jungle. And while some of these women have suffered physical abuses, imprisonments and humiliations in the quest for the present-day socio-political emancipation, the consolation is that their fortitude and perseverance over the years have not been in vain.
It’s also pertinent to state here that the travails of the Nigerian Amazons, as far as political struggles are concerned, have not been an isolated case. All over the world, the fundamental attitude of people to democracy has always, at best, been misogynistic.
For instance and ironically, the United States of America is acknowledged to be the bastion of democracy, freedom and civil rights. Yet, in the year 2005 of the 21st century, there are many Americans who still cringe at the thought of a woman president. Whereas, in some Third world nations such as Sri Lanka, Israel, India, Philippines and even Liberia, women have aspired to and held the highest positions in their respective lands.
Although a woman has never occupied the apex political position in Nigeria, it’s not from lack of trying. Besides, women have long been attaining their objectives in other political fields of endeavors. In the 1957 pre-independence Nigeria, Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, Mrs. Janet Mokelu and Ms. Young were in the Eastern House of Assembly. Although not a full-fledged politician, the late Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (mother of the late Afro Beat maestro, Fela) was a very strong force to be reckoned with in the politics of the Western Region. And Hajia Gambo Sawaba waged a fierce battle for the political and cultural emancipation of women in the North.
As far back as the 1960s, the giant strides of these and some other Nigerian women in the political engineering of their emerging nation had already become legendary. And it was not as if the Nigerian political Amazons had an easier enabling terrain than their passive counterparts in many other parts of the world. Rather, it was their vision and courageous demand for a just society that sustained the aspirations.
Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, for instance, was a pace-setter in the old Western Region. She was among the first generation of highly educated women in Africa. She was also the first Nigerian nay, African woman to drive a car. She specifically achieved this feat to drive home her point that driving a car was not such a big deal that could be reserved for only men. In her pursuit of justice, fairness and equal rights for women, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti once forced the then Alake of Egbaland (Oba Ademola) to abdicate his throne over the latter’s decision to levy excessive taxation on the Egba women.
Mrs. Ekpo, on the other hand, was well-known for founding the Aba Market Women Association. This was the platform on which she launched her political career and encouraged women’s participation in Eastern Region’s politics. This no-nonsense, frank and outspoken legislator was very active in the proceedings of the Eastern House of Assembly until 1967 when the then Col. Ojukwu had her detained at the outbreak of the civil war.
Hajia Sawaba will for ever be credited for most of today’s political, economic and social achievements of women in the North. Prominently, it was Hajia Sawaba that fought for the exposure of female children in the North to Western education. And she will above all, be remembered for her role in breaking down the religious and cultural barriers that were used to relegate Northern women into an inferior class of humans.
It was these outstanding Amazons that paved the way for the subsequent generations of women in Nigerian politics. By the 2nd Republic in 1979, our nation had produced its first female senator (Ms. Franca Afegbua). There were also Mrs. Eze and Mrs. Nnaji (both of NPP) as legislators in the South-east and Mrs. Abiola Babatope (of the UPN) a member of the Lagos House of Assembly.
And in the Federal cabinet were Mrs. Ebun Oyagbola and Chief (Mrs.) Janet Akinrinade.
The interesting factor to note here is the tacit support the political aspirations of these Amazons have been getting over the years from a most unusual political group----the nation’s hitherto politicized military elite.
When the duo of Generals Buhari and Idiagbon toppled the 2nd Republic government of Alhaji Shagari, their undemocratic action did not in any way obstruct the upward movement of women in the nation’s political ladders. The new military leadership in fact, directed all the military governors to appoint, at least, one woman into their respective cabinets.
And as if that was not enough, the subsequent government of Gen. Babangida went a step further in elevating the political status of women in the nation. In an experiment with diarchy, the military president did not only order all the military governors to appoint women into their cabinets but also made certain State governors to appoint women as deputy governors. Therefore, we had women like Alhaja Latifat Okunnu, Alhaja Sinatu Ojikutu (both of Lagos State) and Mrs. Ekpeyong (Cross River State) as examples.
It was under the same transition program of Babangida that a woman, Chief (Mrs.) Titi Ajanaku became a well-known local government chairperson (in Ogun State). She dazzled everyone, including the military powerbrokers, that men did not have a monopoly over dexterity when it came to public administration and leadership.
And still under that era, Chief (Mrs.) Kofo Bucknor-Akerele was the only female senator in the nation.
Under the current dispensation, the nation boasts of the largest number of female law makers to date. There are female senators in the persons of Mrs. Iyabo Anisulowo, Chief (Mrs.) Florence Ita-Giwa, Mrs. Stella Omu and Hajia Gwadabe. Our nation also boasts of quite a large number of female legislators at both the Federal and State levels. In fact, this same period produced the first female Speaker of a State legislative house (Mrs. Margaret Icheen).
To complement the role of all these law makers are several female Ministers, State Commissioners, Directors-General and Special Advisers.
It’s therefore safe to state that Nigerian women have been making their bold marks in the nation’s political arena. They only need to consolidate their numbers in the senate, Federal/State legislatures and the executive arms of government. Above all, the time is absolutely ripe for some women to go in pursuit of presidential tickets of their respective political parties.
Incidentally, the pool of potential female presidential candidates is so vast as to be intimidating. Among the materials who can accomplish great wonders in the nation’s leadership are women who, in the past and present era, have proved their mettles in public administration.
There is Dr. (Mrs.) Kema Chikwe who, as Minister of Transport/Aviation, did something which her numerous male predecessors were too scared to even contemplate. She dismantled all the “toll gates” that were erected at the Apapa sea ports. Serving as illegal customs duties collection centers to enrich some influential individuals, these artificial barriers had been in place since the advent of military rule in 1966.
She did not stop at that. In the past, Nigerian and foreign travelers had always sniffed and sneered at the stinking state of public toilets in our nation’s international airports. However, nobody, not even the officials whose offices were directly responsible for the airports found it necessary to correct this anomaly. And why should they do so anyway? The “timbers and calibers” in the nation’s corridors of power have always had access to neat, cute VIP lounges. It was Mrs. Chikwe who had the courage to “tidy” up and ensure “custodian equity” at all the airports.
There is also Mrs. Icheen who, in spite of the world-wide stereotypes attached to her gender, campaigned and got elected into the Benue State legislature. Even then, the woman did not rest on her oars. She went further to rally support among the other legislators for her election as the Speaker of the House. But if her male colleagues thought this would be a license for them “to do and undo”, they had got another think coming. The Speaker soon got the Police to round up and arrest all the offending colleagues for “playing pranks” with public assets.
Many of us can never forget the roles performed by the then senator (Mrs.) Kofo Bucknor-Akerele as a strong, fearless member of the famous National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). She stood shoulder to shoulder with her male colleagues in facing off the draconian military regime of Gen. Abacha. Even when the heat got so unbearable as to make some of the NADECO members flee abroad for dear lives, this political Amazon insisted on staying the course in the country. Ironically, many of those who are now reaping the dividends of democracy were either collaborating with the Abacha regime or sitting on the fence in those glorious days of the NADECO political struggles.
And lest we forget another woman of substance among the Amazons. When president Obasanjo “discovered” a hitherto unknown woman and appointed her to head the crisis-prone NAFDAC, some Nigerians sneered. Many of these horribly incorrigible cynics were of the myopic opinion that the government agency was just too sensitive and problem-ridden for a woman to manage successfully
But before anyone could say “Nkem”, Dr. (Mrs.) Dora Nkem Akunyili had descended heavily on those accursed, greedy and evil individuals who used to thrive in killing and maiming their fellow citizens through illicit business in adulterated pharmaceutical drugs. And trust the typical Nigerian get-rich-quick imbeciles. They have since tried every way and manner to blackmail, intimidate and even eliminate this great Nigerian.
Ever incorruptible, selfless and patriotic, the indefatigable Director General is in the same league with some fresh, young, up and coming Nigerian leaders who are dedicated to smashing the ugly, moribund stereotypes that every Nigerian is corrupt. Simply put, Akunyili is a great example of the new generation of Nigerian leaders who are not motivated by ethnic sentiments, corrupt enrichments and personal aggrandizements. They are only consumed with the urgent passion to see our nation attain its growth potential.
The greater news, in the final analysis, is that even the aforementioned Amazons are just a tip of the iceberg. There are several others within and without the nation’s shores who have the great potentials to further uplift our nation to greater heights. An increase in their number in sensitive positions and the eventual ascendancy of one of them to the highest position in the land will, among other things, contribute to our nation’s deserved victory over the evils of low self esteem, inferiority complex, tribalism, religious intolerance, corruption and nepotism.