Nigerian Women and authorship of the Constitution, By Tayo Agunbiade

Nigerian Women and authorship of the Constitution, By Tayo Agunbiade

In June, Chile made history when its citizens voted for a gender-balanced process to write a new constitution. This means that Chilean women will form 50 per cent of the Constituent Assembly, the body charged with the assignment of drafting the Constitution. The U.K. Guardian, described it as “the first (constitution) anywhere in the world to be written by an equal number of men and women.”

Could such a feat be achieved in Nigeria? After all, women make up 49.5 per cent of the total population of 200 million. A walk in history shows Nigeria’s women have never had meaningful participation in the authorship of the country’s Constitution.

The 1922 Clifford Constitution introduced the principle of elective representation. This was the first taste of elections the country was to experience, with activities limited to the Lagos and Calabar municipal areas.  But the Constitution also did something else. Through its provisions, it created a pattern for the exclusion of women from public decision-making processes. It provided that only “male subjects” were allowed to vote or stand in elections, a state of affairs that went on till 1951 when female tax payers were permitted to electoral rights in the then Western and Eastern regions of Nigeria. This set the scene for male-domination in electoral politics and public decision-making institutions.

The pattern continued when the 1946 Richards Constitution also did not allow women’s voting rights or electoral participation. It reduced the annual income of voters from one hundred pounds as stipulated in the 1922 Constitution to fifty pounds. This in effect widened the net for male suffrage and political participation.

Between 1946 and 1951, some interesting events relating to constitutional matters, which also neglected to include the full participation of Nigerian women, took place.

Nigerians were displeased with the Richards Constitution and the agitation for reform led to the colonial government’s decision that there will be a constitution review process. The process, which was in the four stages of Village, Division, Province and National was reported to have only one woman delegate in the person of Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, at the Provincial level. What is certain and confirmed in the Minutes of the review process, is that when the National General Conference took place in Ibadan in January 1950, fifty-three men sat, to decide the country’s future. This was Nigeria’s first constitutional review exercise.

The outcome of the Conference was the 1951 Macpherson Constitution, which, amongst other things, provided for universal taxpayers’ suffrage and a three-stage electoral college. Neither was of any benefit to women. In the first place, very few women were eligible to vote as tax payers and secondly, the Electoral College derived its delegates from Native Authority units in districts, divisions and provinces. Ransome-Kuti, who decided to stand in the federal elections did not go beyond the primary stage. She is quoted to have described the electoral process, which picked delegates from traditionally male local institutions, as chauvinistic.

Between 1951 and 1960 when Nigerian gained Independence from the British colonial government, a handful of women were invited to Constitutional Conferences that took place in 1953, 1954, 1957 and 1958. These were Tanimowo C. Ogunlesi and Margaret Ekpo. The status of the female attendees was that of advisors/observers. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that while they were on the delegation list, they were not invited into the actual deliberations. Available minutes and official documents from the Conferences did not always contain their names. At other conferences, speeches from the government officials showed that only “Gentlemen” were present in the room.

Arguably, the most notorious example of women’s exclusion from the Constitution process was when the late head of state, General Murtala Muhammed inaugurated the 49-man Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) on Saturday, October 18, 1975.  Although the press quickly dubbed them the ‘49 wisemen,’ Nigerian women were not amused. A few, such as Laide Soyinka, Kemi Ajayi and Dr Keziah Awosika criticised the composition of the Chief F.R.A. Williams-led Committee. The government was unapologetic:

Our learned men are in disciplines considered to have direct relevance to constitution-making, namely – history, law, economics and other social sciences, especially political science. Eminent Nigerians with some experience in constitution-making were brought in to complete the spectrum. It is not possible within such a small group to include all shades of opinion and all interests. Nor is this necessary, it is enough to ensure that all broad areas of interest and expertise are brought into the committee.

The consequences of this are that the CDC’s product which eventually became the 1979 Constitution was a document that did not contain gender-sensitive language and provisions. The Committee introduced the principle of Federal Character “to ensure that the predominance of persons from a few ethnic or other sectional groups is avoided in the composition of government or the appointment or election of persons to high offices in the state.” This was detrimental to the aspirations, interests and concerns of Nigeria’s women. This document has been the template on which all other Constitutions were based.

Between 1977 and 1978, some respite came for women’s participation, when the military administration under General Olusegun Obasanjo, appointed four women to the 230-member Constituent Assembly, a body of elected representatives and appointees to the review the 1977 Document produced by the CDC.

In addition to Janet Akinrinade, the sole female elected delegate, the quartet of Abigail Ukpabi, Toyin Olakunri, Faustina Kariba Braide, and Jummai Jarma were up against 225 male voices. Ukpabi is on record as saying that following:

“There is something that really strikes one about the Draft Constitution. All through it, there seems to be a dumping (sic) in the spirit of our women. Even where fundamental rights are talked about, there is a provision to make sure that women are kept in their place.  It really pervades the whole Draft Constitution and this is very disheartening to us…”

The numbers were too few to make an impact, but their views still resonate in the country today.

Subsequent constitutional processes have fared no better. From 1986 to 1998, every national meeting under the military-driven transition programme lacked any meaningful presence of women. Under General Ibrahim Babangida, the 567-member Constituent Assembly had fourteen women delegates, while the 1994/95 National Constitution Conference had only eight.  In the latter, sub-committees set up to discuss fundamental national issues such as Law and Order and National Security; National Defence; Revenue Allocation; Power Sharing; Economy, Population and Revenue Generation; Elections and Electoral Process, had no female members.

The 1999 Constitution is said to mention the pronoun “He” a total of 66 times. Is that set to be amended?

The recently- concluded Constitution Review exercise saw a flurry of women’s groups attend the two-day session in the six geo-political zones.  The Ad-hoc Constitution Review Committees included the twenty-one women lawmakers in the National Assembly.  Still, one attendee to the South-South Public Hearing in Port Harcourt, Rt. Hon. Lizzie Ativie, a former speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly, in a WhatsApp post wryly noted that “the proceedings were presided over by an all-male high table.”

There’s no doubt that authorship of a Constitution affects the product. We wait to see if this time, the outcome will be different for Nigerian women.

Tayo Agunbiade is the author of Emerging From the Margins: Women’s Experiences in Colonial and Contemporary Nigerian History.


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