2019 General Elections:  Case for Increased Women Participation through Affirmative Action

May 3, 2018


Emeka Iloh


Nathaniel Urama, Ph.D

The need for gender parity in the political cum socio-economic life of every country has become so germane that the United Nations General Assembly, during the Millennium Summit in 2000, dedicated Goal 3 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to promoting gender equality and empowering women. Member countries were expected to have achieved this by 2015. In the same vein, Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was also dedicated to achieving gender equality. Several conferences, workshops and symposia have been organized both internationally and locally with the singular aim of bridging the gap between the sexes. Despite all these, several countries, including Nigeria, still grapple with the problem of equalizing gender representation not only in politics but also in other spheres of societal life. However, while most countries have taken concrete steps towards addressing this imbalance, Nigeria is yet to see it as a problem, let alone tackling it, especially in politics where the gap is very conspicuous. As the country prepares for another round of general elections in 2019, there is need to bring this in focus.

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. This is a milestone for two important reasons. The first is that it is the longest period of civilian rule in the country since independence in 1960. The first republic lasted for only six years – from 1960 to 1966. The second republic lasted for four years – from 1979 to 1983. The third republic lasted for six years – from 1987 to 1993. The present fourth republic, which was midwifed in 1999, would have lasted for 20 years in 2019. The second reason why the 20th anniversary of Nigeria’s democracy is a milestone is that this republic has witnessed five successive general elections (2019 general elections will be the sixth). These elections were conducted in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. The most remarkable of these elections was the 2015 general elections that witnessed a successful transition of power from a ruling party to the opposition party. No matter how imperfect these elections were (as many of them have actually been adjudged to be far below acceptable standards), at least they have not created an impetus for the military to return to politics. Despite these success stories, however, an issue that seems to have become a recurring decimal in all these elections is persistent very low percentage of the female gender elected into different positions both at the state and national levels. It is, therefore, imperative that as Nigeria celebrates 20th anniversary of return to democracy in 2019, there should be more women representation at all levels of our political life.

The 2006 national census figures show that women constitute over 49 percent of Nigeria’s population. However, a flashback from 1999 indicates that the female gender has never occupied up to 10 percent of elected positions in Nigeria since 1999. As regards the National Assembly elections, only 3.19 percent of women were elected in 1999; 5.54 percent were elected in 2003; 7.46 percent in 2007; 6.39 percent in 2011; and 4.47 percent in 2015 (NBS, 2008; INEC, 2003; 2007; 2011; 2015; Iloh, Nwokedi and Ekeocha, 2018). In executive positions, except Dame Virgie Etiaba who became governor of Anambra State from November 2006, when Mr Peter Obi was impeached, to February 2007 when he was reinstated by the Appeal Court, no other woman has ever occupied the position of governor, vice president and president in Nigeria. However, Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ekiti, Rivers, Plateau, Enugu and Akwa Ibom States have all produced female deputy governors since 1999. These figures above are very discouraging when examined in the context of the roles women have played and the contributions they have made in the socio-economic development of the country, as well as the fact they constitute almost 50 percent of the population.

Several reasons could be adduced for this gap in political representation of women, but the most compelling is the absence of enabling laws in the form of a quota system or affirmative action. Affirmative action is a deliberate policy of protecting members of society or groups that are known to have previously suffered from discrimination. Such system or action will ensure a certain percentage of all elective positions are reserved for women. Presently, extant laws guiding elections in Nigeria – the 1999 constitution (as amended) and the 2010 electoral act (as amended) – have no provisions for quota system or affirmative action. The National Policy on Women adopted in 2000, and its successor, the National Gender Policy, adopted in 2006, have become mere policy rehearsals without any serious commitment on the part of the government to implement them. The same has also become the fate of the Beijing Platform for Action, African Union Solemn Declaration for Gender Equality, African Protocol on People’s Rights and the Rights of Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and all the other international statutes Nigeria has signed in support of the elimination of gender disparity.

Evidence has shown that without affirmative action or quota system, it will be difficult to attain gender equality in the political process. Many countries that have achieved parity between the sexes have adopted one form of quota system or the other. For instance, Rwanda, which has the highest percentage of women representation in parliament globally, was able to achieve this by allocating a certain percentage of seats to women. This is constitutionally guaranteed. However, women in Rwanda have always surpassed the constitutionally-guaranteed quota. Before the civil war in the early 1990s and the genocide in 1994, Rwanda had achieved up to 18 percent of women representation in parliament. Between 1994 and 2003, during the nine-year period of post-genocide transitional government, women’s representation in parliament (by appointment) reached 25.7 percent. However, it was the first post-genocide parliamentary elections of October 2003 that saw women achieve nearly 50 percent representation (Powley, 2005). Presently, Rwanda has over 60 percent women representation in their national parliament. A Rwandan female parliamentarian once remarked that:

In Rwanda, 24 of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are reserved for women. The quota system is just a push, the rest comes naturally…We have made female representation in parliament a political priority and we put in place systems to ensure we achieved gender equality…. Today, you wouldn’t find a single Rwandan – man or woman – who disputes that the influence and leadership of women has been essential to Rwanda’s social and economic progress. The proof of this is in the overwhelming public election of women to our parliament. Our constitutional quota only provides that 24 of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies be reserved for women, but the electorate has consistently voted for more women (Kantengwa, 2013).


Many other countries have also made progress in bridging the gap between men and women in politics, both within Africa and across the world, using affirmative action or quota. In Latin America and the Caribbean countries, for instance, affirmative measures (quota laws) have been implemented since 1991. Since that year, fourteen countries in the region enacted these kinds of laws to promote greater women’s participation in legislative bodies. Most of these countries in Latin America reserved between 20 percent and 40 percent of the seats in parliament to women, and in some cases, more than that percentage are elected. In Europe, countries like France, Belgium, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina etc. allocated between 30 percent and 50 percent of their parliamentary seats to women using the quota system. In Africa also, apart from Rwanda, countries such as Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea allocated between 20 percent and 30 percent to women.

Table 1 shows the top ten countries with the highest percentage of women in national parliaments, while Table 2 shows the progress regions have made in bridging the gap over a fifteen-year period (from 2000 to 2015). These countries and regions have been able to achieve this by taking concrete steps such as an affirmative action or a constitutionally-guaranteed quota system.

Table 1: Top 10 Countries with the Highest Percentage of Women in National Parliaments by 2015


S/N Country Region % of Women
1 Rwanda SSA 64
2 Bolivia LAC 53
3 Cuba LAC 49
4 Seychelles SSA 44
5 Sweden Europe 44
6 Senegal SSA 43
7 Ecuador LAC 42
8 Finland Europe 42
9 Mexico NA 42
10 South Africa SSA 42

Source: Extracted from World Bank (2015)

Table 2: Proportion of Seats held by Women in Single or Lower Houses of National Parliament across Regions (%)


Regions 2000 2015
Oceania 3.6 4.4
Western Asia 4 12
Southern Asia 7 18
South-Eastern Asia 12 18
Caucasus and Central Asia 7 18
Eastern Asia 20 22
Sub-Saharan Africa 13 23
Northern Africa 4 25
Latin America and the Caribbean 15 27

Source: Extracted from The Millennium Development Goals Report (2015)


Note: SSA: Sub-Saharan Africa

LAC: Latin America and the Caribbean

NA: North America


For Nigeria to join the comity of nations that has attained gender parity in the political process, introduction of the quota system or affirmative action is inevitable. Dahlerup (2005) has noted that quotas increase and safeguard women’s presence in parliaments and are now being introduced all over the world. Nigeria cannot be left out. In an election, quotas for women entail that women must constitute a certain number or percentage of elected officials, which can be surpassed. The 2019 general elections provide another opportunity for Nigeria to increase the number of women elected into various offices. At least 30 percent of all elective positions in the country should be reserved for women across local, state and federal governments through affirmative action or quota system. There is still ample time to revisit the electoral act by the National Assembly to give this the legal backing it requires. To this end, female members of the National Assembly should pick up the challenge while other women advocacy groups should join also. Nigeria’s democracy cannot be said to be fully entrenched when the female half of the population still occupies less than 10 percent of elective positions in the country.


(The opinions expressed in this write-up are personal opinions of the writers, and do not in any way represent the opinion or position of AfriHeritage)

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