When Bolanle Aliyu decided to run for governor of Oyo State in southwestern Nigeria, even her husband was initially reluctant to support her.
Aliyu knew it was going to be tough once she entered the boisterous and sometimes violent world of Nigerian politics. She’d have to figure out how to fund her campaign and deal with corrupt party officials demanding bribes for everything from nomination forms to ensuring her rallies weren’t sabotaged. What complicates matters even more is that she’s a woman.
“I had to beg my husband to let me partake,” said Aliyu, 39, who trained as a social worker and runs an events and catering company. “The politics we all grew up to know is a dirty game.’’
Aliyu’s lack of support is typical for women running for office in Nigeria, which holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Feb. 16. Africa’s most populous democracy has the lowest proportion of female lawmakers on the continent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an advocacy group that tallies representation. Just 6 percent of seats in the national parliament are held by women, compared to 23 percent in the U.S., ranking it number 181 out of 188 countries for which the Geneva-based group has data.
And that’s unlikely to change anytime soon as the two leading candidates in the presidential elections aren’t progressive on gender issues. President Muhammadu Buhari, a 76-year-old Muslim who’s seeking a second term, caused controversy in 2016 when, standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, responded to a question about his wife’s political views by saying: “She belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.’’
His main challenger, 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar, is a wealthy businessman with four wives and more than 20 children. While he’s mentioned that women should be better represented in government and business, it’s unclear from his policy program whether things would change under his watch.
“Nigeria is still strictly a patriarchal society and most times we find people paying lip service to the advancement of women political participation,’’ said Mufuliat Fijabi, head of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, an advocacy group in Abuja, the capital.
Nigeria has never had a female president or vice president, and no governor of its 36 states has ever been a woman. The most high-profile female politician to date is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who served as coordinating minister for the economy between 2011 and 2015, a role that was often compared to that of a prime minister. Of the 70-odd presidential candidates in this year’s election, six were women. The best-known of those, former World Bank Vice President Oby Ezekwesili, quit the race last month after falling out with her party.
“They’re not encouraging us,’’ said Zainab Sulaiman, 26, who’s trying to win a seat in state parliament in the northern city of Kano. “They don’t give the same chances as they do to men.’’
Sulaiman is running for a smaller party after failing twice to win in primaries for the ruling All Progressives Congress. Like many other female candidates, she thinks a quota giving women a certain number of seats in the state or federal parliaments should be anchored in law. That’s already the case in Rwanda, which set a 30 percent quota for women in elected positions in 2003 and now has the world’s highest proportion of female lawmakers.
Nigerian women have made strides in business and the arts. The nation’s richest woman, Folorunso Alakija, is a billionaire whose company was granted oil-exploration licenses in the 1990s. Equally prominent is Ibukun Awosika, who serves as chair of the First Bank of Nigeria, while writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has garnered worldwide fame with her novels and speeches on feminism.
But politics remain a male-dominated field in a country where polygamy is widespread and wives are often expected to look after children and the household. It’s a common view among voters such as David Bassey, a 34-year-old security guard in the commercial capital, Lagos.
“I don’t like women to be in politics,” Bassey said. “God created men to be at the head and men know best. Even my mom, I wouldn’t support her to be in government.”
Another hurdle is a lack of funding, according to Christina Ude, 42, a former accountant and teacher who’s running for a seat in the House of Representatives. Political parties can charge candidates asking to run on their platform tens of thousands of dollars for nomination forms alone and expenses often include paying people to come to rallies.
“When I talk to people, they’re not always interested in what I say,” said Ude. “They’re more interested in the little money I have to give them.’’
Ude is still optimistic that even without a quota, Nigerians will eventually vote for female lawmakers because while men have been in charge little has changed. But it will be an uphill battle.
“Females are not capable of ruling,” said Yemi Olatunji, who works as a manager in Lagos. “Nigeria is a tough nation and a woman cannot lead this country.”