The two main candidates for the
governorship of Nigeria’s Lagos state
took to the stage, making a flurry of
promises to the all-female audience at
the select Cosmopolitan Women’s
The men even pledged a 35 percent
quota of women in the state
government and initiatives on girls’
But when Remi Sonaiya — the first
woman running for president in
Nigeria’s history — took the floor she
did so to a round of applause that
lasted several minutes.
“We have done enough of
cheerleading,” she told some of
Nigeria’s most influential
businesswomen and company
executives at the meeting on women’s
participation in politics.
“Women cannot keep on being
cheerleaders in this country.”
There may be many women at the
head of businesses in Africa’s most
populous nation and leading
economy but as in the rest of the
continent, politics remains for the
most part a man’s world.
Sonaiya is hoping to change all that,
following the example of presidents
such as Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
or Malawi’s Joyce Banda, to break
through the glass ceiling to high
In reality, she has no chance of
beating the two main candidates —
President Goodluck Jonathan and ex-
military ruler Muhammadu Buhari —
but she has brought, for reformers, a
welcomed fresh voice to the
– Exception to the rule –
According to a 2012 report from the
British Council, just nine percent of
candidates at the last Nigerian general
election in 2011 were women.
The situation has hardly improved this
year, with a presidential and
parliamentary vote scheduled for
March 28 followed by governorship
and state assembly polls two weeks
“They (the men) set the rules,” said
Ebere Ifendu, who runs the non-
governmental organisation Women in
Politics Forum in the capital Abuja.
“They made us understand that one,
politics is dirty; two, politics is not for
women; three, they brought out the
violent nature of politics.
“Those were the things they put
before us and women became
sceptical. They became afraid and
didn’t believe they will be able to
Two women in Jonathan’s cabinet
have nevertheless bucked the trend of
women’s participation in the cut-
throat world of Nigerian politics.
Former World Bank executive Ngozi
Okonjo-Iweala is finance minister and
Diezani Alison-Madueke is oil minister
as well as the first woman to hold the
rotating presidency of the oil cartel
Elsewhere, strong-willed women such
as Arunma Oteh headed the Securities
and Exchange Commission (SEC),
cracking down on corruption that has
long blighted Nigeria.
– Shoestring budget –
Sonaiya, a 60-year-old former French
professor in Ile-Ife in southwestern
Osun state, has not been discouraged
by the challenge.
She and her party KOWA decided to
prove that it was possible to campaign
without a wealthy “godfather” or a
private jet in a country where male
politicians spend hundreds of
thousands of dollars on huge public
rallies and gifts for supporters.
“Politics has a bad name in Nigeria.
Even recently a governor said that you
could not be in politics (unless) you’re
a liar,” she told AFP in an interview at
a Lagos hotel.
With a small budget of donations
from supporters and a reduced
campaign team, Sonaiya has been
travelling across Nigeria in economy
class on commercial flights like a
On the road, she puts across the
values of her party — “honesty, truth,
diligence, hard work, transparency” —
to voters on the street.
With 10,000 to 15,000 members,
KOWA is a featherweight compared
with the heavyweight electoral
juggernaut behind Jonathan and his
main rival Buhari.
– ‘Break the jinx’ –
Whatever the final result on March 28,
for the businesswomen of the
Cosmopolitan Women’s Club Sonaiya
deserves praise for bringing a
different voice to the political debate.
“Most women see politics as the dirty
game in Nigeria. The good women
need to come out,” said
For Ifendu, whose NGO supports
young female politicians and
campaigns for a quota to make it
easier for women to win elected
positions, there is still a way to go
before a woman can govern Africa’s
most populous country.
But she added: “In these 2015
elections that we are facing in Nigeria
today, we have strong women
contesting as governors.
“We have a woman who is a very
strong contender in Taraba state.
There is another woman in Akwa-
Ibom state and then women are
coming up for the Senate and other
“I think we need this period to make a
“If we are able to break the jinx of
having a woman as a governor of a
state in Nigeria in 2015, I tell you,
having a women as a vice president or
as president will be a thing that we
can achieve in a very short while