Democracy Dialogue held by Girls Education Mission International in Jos, Plateau state, Nigeria, 18 July 2018

Participants: 43 women and 3 men representing civil society, media, academia, ethnic/religious groups, political parties, government and the private sector


Held on 18 July 2018 in commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day, this dialogue to reimagine democracy by addressing the challenges faced by women in Nigeria was convened by Girls Education Mission International under the patronage of Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).

The session focused on the way the quality of democracy in Nigeria has declined over the past few years, which stands as a threat to women’s development in the country. The opening discussion considered the systems, institutions and mechanisms for participation and possible ways for women to get involved and change the currently male-dominated democratic practices with a gender-balanced system of government in which everyone is included regardless of gender and which helps correct the existing inequities of development that disfavour women in Nigeria.

  1. Definitions and concepts of democracy

Following discussion of personal views, participants agreed on a shared understanding of what democracy means to them. Democracy is understood as an inclusive system of both family and government. It includes both family and government because a healthy family produces a healthy society. A healthy democratic society is defined as one in which:

  • Everyone matters. It is a society in which everybody is carried along regardless of gender, location, religious background, marital status, age, ethnicity etc.
  • Everyone has freedom to be at his/her best and is allowed to reach their full potential.
  • The welfare of citizens is guaranteed; the focus is on general wellbeing.
  • Democracy is a game of numbers, as the majority have their way and minorities still have a say.
  • The rights and freedoms of everyone are considered and respected. It allows for the enjoyment of the freedom of expression and the right to engage in activities without hindrance as long they do not infringe on the rights of others.

It is therefore obvious that democracy is something that goes far beyond government and voting in elections. Worth of note is also the understanding that democracy begins in families: it starts at home. When human rights and freedoms have a place in the family, this translates to society, the governmental system and politics. Every political actor’s values are shaped by the family where they were raised.

  1. Key problems/issues of democracy in Nigeria

With a strong expression of dissatisfaction with the way democracy is being practised in Nigeria, participants identified a number of current challenges and issues they are experiencing. These include regressions seen in some of the key indicators of democracy such as social injustice, impunity, vote rigging and electoral fraud, godfatherism and challenges posed by insecurity and poverty.

In many contexts, politics is a male-oriented and male-dominated enterprise. Female political participation is not as good as expected. It is becoming increasingly harder in Nigeria for women to participate in decision-making, both at home and in the government. The marginalisation of specific groups such as women and ethnic minorities, and religious manipulation for political gains are currently on the rise.

The imposition of political leaders by members of the elite in the form of a candidate who will be loyal to them and help them achieve their personal interest and agenda stands as the best practice of the day. In elections, candidates are not chosen based on majority votes of any kind; rather they are whoever the party leaders say should run.

The prevailing poverty situation in Nigeria is making it quite easy for the few rich to buy the votes of the poor majority during elections. This in the long run leads to a situation where only the rich have access to political power.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is highly unable To guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This is obviously seen in the repeated incidents of vote rigging and other forms of electoral fraud.

The Nigerian government institutions are yet to imbued with the basic principle of a constitutional democracy and the rule of law. The prevailing impunity of government officials and other agencies is becoming comfortably accepted.

Political opposition groups or individuals are being demonised and experience attacks on their freedom of expression.

  1. Key civil society responses

A democratic government cannot be stable unless it is effective and legitimate, that is, unless it has the respect and support of its citizens. Civil society is both a watchdog and a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between a democratic government and its citizens. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are responsible for voter education, monitoring and evaluation before, during and after elections.

Civil society responses to democratic challenges include:

  • Limiting and controlling the power of political leaders. They control corruption by exposing the conduct of public officials and lobbying for good governance reforms.
  • Promoting political participation by educating citizens about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens while encouraging them to listen to elections campaign and vote in elections.
  • Lobbying for access to information freedom and legislation.
  • Advocating for the needs and concerns of citizens or particular groups such as women, children or youth.

  1. Challenges for civil society response
  • Most CSOs rely on government funding and politically involved people for support, which breeds loyalty of such CSOs to the government.
  • The poor economic conditions in Nigeria make it additionally difficult for CSOs to shun being loyal to the government and politically involved individuals. Most civil society groups strongly believe that if they show loyalty to the incumbent government, material resources are assured.
  • The appointment of civil society leaders to political office also turns them to nothing more than political action committees and proto parties that have more than in common with political parties than civil society.
  • There are threats of insecurity for civil society who stand up to correct the wrongs of political leaders. For example, several people opposing wrong decisions of political leaders were arrested. On a specific note, this report was delayed because there the owner and manager of the radio station where our Democracy Radio Talk was held experienced an attempted arrest as a result of their participation in a peaceful protest against the killings of innocent citizens and for accommodating political sessions that exposed the wrongs of the incumbent government.

  1. Support civil society needs to respond to democratic challenges

Civil society independence needs to be secured through the following:

  • Acquisition of basic organisational facilities and equipment that are necessary for organisational efficiency, effectiveness and measurable output.
  • Development of a broad coalition of organisations, unconnected to political parties or candidates, to monitor electoral processes.
  • Diversification of funding sources and additional support by donor agencies.
  • International security support.
  1. Recommendations for civil society and other actors to reimagine democracy
  • Disadvantaged segments of the population such as women need to be further involved in the development and implementation of policies concerning their wellbeing.
  • Civil society should strive for financial independence and not rely on the government and/or political leaders.
  • There should be promotion of the active participation of women and other political actors as a development approach. Their active engagement could include voting, standing for office, joining political parties and exerting influence in the decision-making process through public debate and dialogue with elected representatives or through their capacity to organise themselves, or exercise public power by holding public office at different levels of the administration.
  • Civil society should advocate for higher representation of women in the political sphere and push for the enshrinement of this in the Constitution of Nigeria, bringing to the surface the issues that affect women and girls in rural areas. It should also promote dialogue among women to support and groom women for public and political life.
  • Every citizen needs to take pride in Nigeria’s history, uphold the good name of Nigeria every day in every action, and commit to full and peaceful participation in elections, such that Nigeria emerges as a winner in the end.
  1. Conclusion

As a mechanism with which to evaluate the achievements attained and subsequently work together to ensure a sustainable and gender-balanced democratic system in Nigeria, a communiqué was released following the Democracy Dialogue.

The communiqué summarises key points raised during the event, as follows:

  • Women constitute a powerful demographic in Nigeria – both in numbers and collective potential. And the choices they make will not only shape their own lives, but that of a whole new generation of Nigeria and its future.
  • The participants affirm their citizenship and all the rights of inclusion, participation, equality, respect and dignity guaranteed them by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as human beings, citizens and as women.
  • Participants recognise that in order to make democracy in Nigeria more meaningful, the inclusion and full participation of women in decision-making and political processes at all levels is an indispensable requirement - for the truly democratic, peaceful and sustainable Nigeria we aspire to.
  • Participants decry the woeful under-representation of women in particular in high political positions at both local, state and national levels, and the limited number of female candidates in the last general elections in 2015.
  • Participants stand in full solidarity with all their bold sisters who were among the few young women who made it as parliamentary candidates for their various parties and wish them victory come February 2019.
  • Participants reaffirm the principles and demands of important national gender equality efforts including the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill that is pending at the national assembly.
  • Participants emphasise the importance of the 2019 coming elections and the opportunity they hope these will provide women to contribute to agenda-setting and public policy formulation in Nigeria.

As stated by the communiqué, the collective demands and recommendations made during the dialogue include the following:

  • Political candidates should take a public stand against intolerance, impunity, violence and injustice. They should openly commit to respecting the voices and choices of the people during and after the February 2019 general elections. Issues of critical importance to women and girls should form the highlights of their priorities in their campaign, debates and post-election agenda. Participants particularly want to hear candidates speak to and prioritise issues of increasing access to free quality education, entrepreneurship and jobs among women and girls; ending violence against women; promoting women’s reproductive health and ensuring women’s access to land and productive assets; ending child marriage; promoting peace; and budget allocation for gender equality initiatives, agriculture and the political participation of women in Nigeria.
  • The electoral commission should reaffirm its commitment to organise free, fair, transparent and credible elections in which every Nigerian citizen, including women and girls, can freely exercise his or her right to vote and be voted for. It should intensify efforts to develop and strengthen systems and processes that can assure citizens and candidates of credible, transparent and fair elections.
  • Law enforcement agencies must professionally discharge their duties in enforcing and maintaining law and order without fear or favour. Especially, they should commit to swiftly deal with political impunity and political violence targeted at female candidates before, during and after elections.
  • In the allocation and distribution of campaign resources, political parties should make deliberate efforts to support female candidates. They should take deliberate steps to ensure that women in general play more visible leadership roles in their parties and campaigns. They should consider in their appointments placing women into more visible campaign leadership at the national, constituency and grassroots levels. They should demonstrate their commitment to gender equality and respect for women and girls by openly discouraging sexist language, intimidation and political violence against women, and when this happens, take a strong public position against it.
  • The Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development should facilitate legislative reforms, mechanisms and programmes that foster women’s participation in political activities as candidates, representatives and voters. They should create platforms enabling women and girls to come together and discuss issues affecting them. And in collaboration with civil society, they should advocate for high representation of women in the political sphere and push for the passage of the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, while making efforts to bring to the surface the issues that affect young women and girls in rural areas.
  • Female candidates are encouraged to stay focused, remain bold and support each other. They should reach out and mentor other younger women and girls to be active citizens and not shy away from holding political office or leadership positions. And above all, they should GO and WIN.