By Ayisha Osori
What differentiates the 20 female senators of the United States Congress who signed a joint statement in support of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and the 34 collectively silent women in Nigeria’s seventh Assembly? According to the New York Times, within 2 weeks of the campaign for the Chibok girls going global, female US Senators had also met with Secretary of State Kerry to push for sanctions on Boko Haram and surveillance support for the search. Senator Susan Collins, who co-spearheaded the effort, marveled at how easy it was to get the women together, “There was no need to convince, or cajole, or persuade.” “These girls cry out for a voice”.
Unfortunately, the female legislators in the National Assembly do not collectively feel the same way and it is important to ask why.
One possible explanation is that regardless of party, female Nigerian legislators cannot empathize with the public. Increasingly benumbed by daily reports of deaths and abductions, the argument could be, that if nothing was done in February when 59 boys were murdered in school, this abduction does not warrant special reaction. Fair enough considering the body count of over 2000 Nigerians killed by Boko Haram since Jan 1 2014. But Chibok is different because there is a solution which is to get the girls back. If the stories of abductions since November 2013 were not alarming, then the impunity of moving into a school and carting off hundreds of girls in the care of a government that was under a State of Emergency should be considered a game changer.
The second theory for their silence has been that the women fear alienating their parties and sponsors. We are 10 months away from the general elections and for those in PDP and APC everything is about 2015. But this is why there is safety in numbers. Using the Violence Against Persons Bill, currently languishing in the Senate, the respective chairs of the Committee on Women Affairs – Senator Esuene and Hon. Alaaga or even by Hon. Khadi who represents Jere constituency in Borno, could have galvanized all the female legislators. They could have shown agency and taken the opportunity for bi-partisan, joint house show womanship to push for a bill that has been in the system for over a decade.
The lack of reaction is symptomatic of a larger malaise that infects all arms of government: a disconnect from the public, an increasing unwillingness to identify with social issues and/or recognize tipping points and a lack of accountability to citizens which stems from the doubtful legitimacy of those elected into office. That is the heart of the matter concerning elected representatives who are not concerned with issues which impact over 70% of the population.
While there is a global campaign to increase the representation of women in government in the belief that more women translates to sustained development, under Nigeria’s current political system and structures, it is unrealistic to expect this result. If we run a political process which is based not on valid votes but on rigging, violence, vote buying, security agency manipulation and compromised electoral officers, then we cannot expect to have men and women in elected office who are accountable to us.
This explains the problem identified in a Washington Post article where the authors pointed out that ‘the growth of women in African governance has not necessarily translated into real influence’ (‘nor translated into gains for women and children’). It also explains the silence of our female executives.
Some think that one of the biggest flaws of any feminist movement is the belief that women have an innate bond. Perhaps. But there is undoubtedly an empathy line that lights up once in a while. Sometimes all humans get the tug but there are situations, which are especially poignant for women, and loosing a child is one of them. The individual statements of a few female legislators and any behind the scenes support for the campaign are not enough. ‘I think when women come together across party lines, it is very powerful and effective,’ US Senator Landrieu said explaining why they acted. ‘When women stand united on an issue like this, we can bring tremendous amount of moral authority to the issue.’ It is a shame that our female legislators are incapable of understanding this.
It will be an even greater shame if we cannot change our political system to ensure that going forward, only the most capable and caring Nigerians get elected into office to represent us.
Ayisha Osori is on Twitter: @ayishaosori