Nigerian Women and the Promise Keeper

For long, women in our country were extremely restricted in terms of political appointments. This is in spite of the Beijing Declaration in 1995 where leaders and governments were pressured to allot a reasonable number of offices in decision-making to women. However, we are currently witnessing a quiet revolution with the deployment, into critical positions, of Nigerian women who have distinguished themselves through their various callings. And in government, they are using their power, talent and moral examples to shape our lives.

The book, Champion For Women, is about one man’s efforts to change the balance of power, narrow the gender gap and put aside the deep-seated social and indeed, political prejudices against our women. As Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, petroleum resources minister, a beneficiary of this gender-sensitive administration, wrote in the Foreword: “This is not just historic, but something special in the history of Nigeria. Half the world’s population is female, but the international average of women in elected office is only around 20 percent. Look at the top office-holders, and the figure is lower still; in Nigeria, however, one in three members of the Federal Executive Cabinet is a woman. It is a fact of which all Nigerians, male and female, can be justly proud.”

Vice President Namadi Sambo amplifies this further in the Preface: “President Jonathan’s willingness to take the risk and put women in charge of some of the most critical sectors of the economy demonstrated one of his outstanding qualities- bravery. He had the courage of his convictions and, more than that, a healthy respect for the ability of the Nigeria woman and was determined to give her, her due.”

Despite the foregoing glowing words, it would be premature to conclude that the gender battle is won in Nigeria. But nobody will contest the fact that something has changed. And it is a credit to this administration that it has managed this radical and inclusive paradigm shift not only in the number of women appointed into cabinet positions but also in the strategic portfolios placed in their care.

The 313-page book traces the trajectory of President Jonathan to power and the challenges of the new office: how to contain issues of corruption, power outages, violence in the Niger Delta among many others. It particularly emphasises that though providence played a crucial role in Jonathan’s ascent to the presidency, analysts tended to have focused too much attention on a superstitious interpretation of his first name, Goodluck, rather than the qualities that stood him out.

Rightly, it argues that while fate might have played a role in Dr Jonathan first becoming the governor of Bayelsa State and later the president, “the fact that he later stood for election and won both these positions on his own merit, is often lost in the narrative.”

But perhaps the greatest revelation here is the background to the president’s avowed belief in the power of women as agents of change. In his own words: “My admiration for the ability of women to thrive in a challenging and adverse environment is drawn directly from watching my mother’s strength when I was growing up… This contributed to my decision to entrust the women in my government with the responsibilities of high office.”

The book details some of the frontline measures adopted by the government to enhance the status of women in the country. Particularly noteworthy are the appointments of women into key positions by the president. For the first time in the history of the country and indeed the continent, Mrs. Itunu Hotonu became the first woman to be appointed a Rear Admiral in the Navy. Remarkably too, the first female military pilot in the Nigerian Air force, Blessing Liman, was commissioned alongside 126 men who had completed the Direct Short Service Course in October 2011.

Still on military matters, 20 female officer cadets attended the 63rd Regular Course of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) on the directive of President Jonathan, the first time and a major milestone in the history of the 50-year-old institution. Rightly dubbed “Jonathan’s Queens” they proved that given equal opportunities, our women will excel beyond measure.

The book is also devoted to the “power” behind the throne, the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan. Indeed, in Patience, President Jonathan found an energetic advocate for women’s liberation. It also highlights the President’s vision for women, some notable women in politics all over the world and the present efforts to bridge the gender gap. It devotes a chapter to President Jonathan’s Leading Women, their portfolios, their activities, their vision and their biographical details. They are indeed profiles in courage. Here is the line-up:

– Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, GCON, Chief Justice of the Federation, the first ever female Chief Justice of Nigeria. Indeed, she has been a woman of many firsts: first female lawyer of northern extraction, first female High Court Judge from the north and she has served at all levels of court. An independent-minded woman whose current efforts-to restore faith in the judiciary by cleansing it of impunity and corruption, speak volume of the sterner stuff that she is made of.

– Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance. A major national newspaper headline some few weeks back described her as the “Backbone of a Rising Economy”. A hard worker with powerful negotiating skills, she is a household name all over the world and a respected authority on developmental economics. Pictured in her signature Ankara and “headgear” dress, she has imposed some fiscal discipline on the economy and had at times pushed through unpopular measures to make the state run more efficiently and encourage growth.

– Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke is Minister of Petroleum Resources, the first woman to hold the position. It is a measure of confidence in her ability that she is entrusted with the ministry that is actually “the backbone” of the economy, by generating about 80 percent of government revenue. Mainstreaming her experience in the private sector as a former Director in Shell, she has managed to prune down the number of marketers in the downstream sector to contain corruption and instil greater transparency. A strong advocate of local content and the empowerment of Nigerians, she is currently pushing through the National Assembly a revolutionary Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) that is intended to reposition the oil and gas sector.

– Mrs. Omobola Johnson is the pioneer minister in charge of Communication Technology. With degrees in electrical and electronic engineering and digital electronics from the United Kingdom, she is well trained to man the fastest growing sector of the Nigerian economy. Prior to her appointment, she was the Country managing director of Accenture, a management consultancy.

– Mrs. Hadiza Ibrahim Mailafa is the minister tendering our environment. She is working hard to battle the rage of floods, pollution, deforestation and climate change through raising public awareness. A former school teacher and businesswoman, she has done well in promoting reforestation.

– Hajia Zainab Maina, is the minister in charge of Women Affairs and Social Development. Which is really fitting for someone who is a powerful advocate of women’s rights. Her campaigns for increased investment in women, children and the vulnerable groups in the society have been yielding results.

– Mrs. Sarah Reng Ochekpe is in charge of the challenging Ministry of Water Resources. In Nigeria, the statistics say 58 percent of the population has access to clean water, figures many would question. Access to clean and potable water in addition to good sanitary measures save lives, particularly of children. Ochekpe has vowed to raise access to water to 75 percent by 2015 the bid to meet the Millennium Development Goals and evidence suggests she is equalt to the task.

– Princess Stella Oduah is in charge of the important Ministry of Aviation. She is a good copy for the administration’s transformation agenda as Nigerians can today see physical changes at the airports due to her remodeling efforts. Most of the obsolete equipments at the airports are now functional, besides promoting the airports security and safe operations.

– Lady Amal Pepple is the Minister, Lands, Housing and Urban Development. A former career civil servant with first class honours degree, her duty is to provide decent shelter for Nigerians, a challenging area where she has been making serious impact.

– Prof. Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufa’i, a Chevening scholar with Ph.D from West Virginia University, looks after the Education Ministry, a ministry whose activities can contribute greatly to bridging the sexual divide. She is strengthening the institutional management of education.

– Oloye Olajumoke Akinjide is Minister of State for the Federal Capital Territory. She, in alliance with the Minister, is working hard to seeing that Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, is the place to be and investors’ destination.

– Hajia Zainab Ibrahim Kuchi is the Minister of State for Power, the ministry on which much of the administration’s transformation agenda rests. Although there are noticeable improvements, a lot still needs to be done to restore the confidence of the Nigerian people.

– Erelu Olusola Obada is the Minister of State for Defence. For a long time now, she has been superintending the ministry all by herself at a period our military has been involved in internal security and, by all accounts, she has done a pretty good job.

– Prof. Viola Onwuliri is a professor of biochemistry and minister of state for Foreign Affairs. She is evidently a pillar in the efforts to rebuild Nigeria’s image abroad even as our country remains a regional leader of repute within the continent.

The list of prominent women in this administration seems endless but one I cannot fail to mention here is Prof. Joy Ogwu, OFR, who is the country’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. An erudite scholar, she is a member of the Presidential Advisory Council of Nigeria in International Relations.

All factors considered, this book celebrates the achievements of President Jonathan’s Transformational administration through the aid of the driving force – the women in his government. It is a powerful argument for continued and perhaps even greater presence of women in government.

The authors have written an admirably balanced account of the women in government with a wealth of information but still incisive and engaging; some with close-up moments of tangible intimacy and of course, with some sympathy.

No less important are the brief biographical sketches of the major characters interspersed with very revealing interview sessions; the passion with which the women are going about their duties and the attention to the home front; their achievements in office and their goals and extent to which they want to take the administration.

The book is well produced too, illustrated with relevant, aesthetics and colourful pictures, maps and charts. The interactions of the President with Nigerians and the outside world leap out of the pages. It is a book worth collecting, indeed perhaps the warmest souvenir yet of the forces of women in government.

Interestingly, of the ten contributors to the book, eight are women; also of varied backgrounds but with education from the best schools in the world. This is therefore a book about women, commissioned by a woman and written largely by women. The simple lesson: In Nigeria, our women have seized the stage, and the momentum. It is now left for them to make this collective mission a long lasting winds of change and make our society much better.

Idoko is an Abuja-based public affairs analyst

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