There was one moment during a plenary session in the House of Representatives on March 1, 2022 when lawmakers openly jumped for joy. The chamber was filled with cheers, wide smiles and fist bumps that would make you think they’d just solved world hunger or negotiated debt cancellation for Nigeria. However, what they had just done was vote against a bill that would have given women special seats in federal and state legislative chambers.
In the Senate chamber, just across the hall from the representatives in the National Assembly complex, the mood was not so different when they voted against the same bill. The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, was in a fit of laughter that lasted for nearly 30 seconds as he recorded the vote. He said he was reluctant to declare that the vote had failed, but it was hard to believe him.
What happened in those two chambers on March 1 was a missed opportunity to advance the rights of women in what has been a robust constitutional amendment process.
Constitutional what now?
Think of the constitution as a document that guides how a home operates. It outlines how the head of the family is chosen, how they’re supposed to take care of the home and how everyone else conducts themselves so the home does not collapse.
Since human behaviour is guided by the social times we live in, the way people lived 40 years ago would be different from the present — hopefully for the better.
And this is why the constitution leaves room for itself to be updated occasionally. Nigeria’s current constitution was enacted in 1999 and has been updated four times since then.
After years of consultation on a new list of amendments, the National Assembly voted on 68 bills covering many issues. Five of those bills especially affected women.
The main rule was that each of the bills had to be approved by both the House and the Senate. Failure in one chamber meant failure in both.
What did the National Assembly do to the women?
This is the short version of how lawmakers voted on all the bills that affected women:
Here’s the long version:
1. No special seats
Only 4% of the 469 lawmakers in the current National Assembly are women — a statistic that spotlights the low visibility of women in elected office in Nigeria. This bill would have created 111 exclusive seats for women in the National Assembly and 108 seats in the 36 state legislative chambers if it had passed. It would also not have prevented women from contesting for other seats against male candidates.
The most popular argument against this bill is that it would inflate the size of legislative chambers at a time when many Nigerians are calling for a reduction, especially in the size of the National Assembly and wages of lawmakers.
2. No citizenship for foreign husbands
Section 26(2)(a) of the 1999 constitution allows any foreign woman married to a Nigerian man to become a citizen by registration. Nigerian women have no such gift to hand to their foreign husbands. This would have been corrected if lawmakers voted for a bill to fix it on March 1.
But they said:
The bill failed to pass in the House of Representatives. When House Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, tried to explain the importance of passing it, in an attempt to force a second round of voting, a lawmaker off-camera said, “We know this thing; we don’t like it.”
The bill was passed in the Senate, but that won’t matter.
3. No affirmative action in party politics
The low representation of women in elected public office is partly tied to their low representation in party politics. This was why a bill was proposed to ensure 35% of executive committee positions of political parties are filled by women. Many parties have promised to do this on their own in the past but hardly implemented it. Codifying it in the constitution would force implementation. The bill failed in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
4. No indigeneship
The bill on indigeneship would have allowed a woman who is married to an indigene of another state for more than five years to automatically become an indigene of that state. Since Nigerian women face so many issues over getting cleared for appointive and elective positions based on indigeneship alone, this bill should have passed easily. The bill would also allow anyone to become an indigene of a state where they’ve been resident for 10 years. It passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives.
5. No cabinet quota
The cabinet quota bill was another attempt to ensure at least 10% of federal and state cabinets are filled by women. A frustrated Gbajabiamila found a way to force the bill through in the House after increasing the quota to 20%. When lawmakers rejected it through electronic voting, he ignored the result and put it up to a voice vote, the mode of voting in which they shout “Aye” or “Nay” like it’s 1982. He then passed the bill even though it was hard to tell which side’s voice was louder. The Senate voted against the bill anyway.
At the end of the day, women finished with zero bills passed in their favour.
How are Nigerian women taking this?
What Nigerians should be worried about is not just that all those bills were rejected, but the manner in which they happened. Lawmakers jumped in glee and rejoiced over the rejection of the bills like they weren’t alienating half of the population.
This happened while the nation’s Second Lady, Dolapo Osinbajo, was seated in the House of Representatives chamber to observe the process and press for women’s rights. The First Lady, Aisha Buhari, had also been present in both chambers when the bills were presented on February 23.
The rejection of the bills did not sit well with Nigerian women who mobilised and protested in front of the National Assembly complex on March 2.