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Report: Women’s political participation and representation in the Niger Delta

Report summary

This report assesses the status and trend of women’s participation in politics as citizens and as holders of political positions in the Niger Delta. It is based on research undertaken in three states—Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Rivers—as part of the More Women in Governance project, led by Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) in partnership with Nigeria Women’s Trust Fund (NWTF), with funding from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

Very limited research exists on women’s participation in politics in the Niger Delta, although there is a common, but anecdotal, understanding that women are largely excluded or marginalised in most forms of political participation—for instance, due to high levels of violence, beliefs that women are incapable of performing leadership roles, or because of the personal scrutiny that female political candidates are confronted with. Therefore, the purpose of the research was to assess the status of women’s engagement in politics and to understand the reasons for this, in order to better inform the work of SDN and others working on women’s participation in politics in the Niger Delta.

Overview of politics in the Niger Delta

Women are severely underrepresented in politics across Nigeria, but the situation in the Niger Delta presents particularly unique challenges. The Niger Delta’s large oil and gas resources are a significant source of national revenue, and have shaped politics in the region. Elections are often fiercely and violently contested, as political godfathers, politicians, political parties and other factions seek to control and benefit from resource rents from the industry. These rents, in turn, enable those in power to maintain large patronage networks in order to sustain support. In this sense, the Niger Delta’s politics is heavily characterised by money and violence. The Niger Delta also has a recent history of conflict between militant groups and the Federal Government and is now subject to high levels of everyday violent conflict – for example, at the hands of cult groups, which are often involved in political violence themselves. These political contests and violent conflicts are dominated by men.

Women voters

As citizens, we found that women’s most visible engagement in politics is during voting. However, they are often mobilised through vote buying, usually with support from a female party member in the position of woman leader. Unfortunately, this interest in women tends to dissipate once the elections are over.

While both the average man and woman in the Niger Delta has limited opportunities to meaningfully engage in politics and with politicians, the situation is worse for women. For instance, when political meetings are held, it is typically men who are invited. Both men and women reported extremely limited opportunities to engage directly with their political representatives. Finally, women participants in the research expressed their disappointment in current female politicians, whom they feel do not sufficiently support the interests of women at the local level.

Women leaders

In terms of women in politics, our findings confirm that the number of women in elected and appointed political positions is very low at all levels of government. Across the State Houses of Assembly and National Assembly seats for Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Rivers, women were elected into 7% of positions. The overarching explanation for this was linked to a societal expectation that women should fulfil domestic roles, while their male counterparts are responsible for decision-making and taking on positions of leadership. This then explained more specifically the limitations related to female aspirants and candidates in elections, including lack of family support, lack of financial means/support, sexual harassment, late night party meetings which exclude women, and electoral violence. And when women are elected or appointed into political roles, these are often into lesser positions with limited capacity to bring about change.

It is perhaps for these reasons, combined with negative public perception of female politicians, that women and girls show little interest in getting into politics. Women in the research suggested community mentorship programmes, led by female politicians, as a means of encouraging more women to aspire into political positions.

Hope for the future of women in politics

Despite poor female representation in politics in the Niger Delta, both male and female participants in the research noted a perceived increase in awareness among women about their voting rights and the political system, as well as the need for more women to enter into politics. Our findings identified that male figures can also be instrumental in promoting female involvement in politics, and there are some positive, if incremental, examples from the Niger Delta. In Rivers State, for instance, women have been appointed to all positions of Deputy Chairperson at the local government level. Changes such as this can help to stimulate interest among women in society for more women in politics.

Methods

For this report, desk-based research and election statistics published by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) were combined with civil society consultations, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews across the study locations. Participants included university students and other civil society, politicians and political aspirants, and state INEC officials. We examined women’s political participation in the Niger Delta from two perspectives:

  1. Participation as citizens; including as voters, engagement and debate in campaigning, and access to/engagement with party representatives.
  2. Participation in formal politics; including as aspirants and candidates in elections, women in elected and appointed positions, and the roles and actions of women in both elected and non-elected positions.

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