Nigeria’s female candidates seek victory despite harassment

KANO, Nigeria (AP) — Nervous ahead of Nigeria’s delayed election, a group of young women picked up their cellphones and wished each other well.

“Honestly I’m so tensed and scared,” one typed.

“I feel like crying. This is so touching,” another wrote.

“What we are about to do is the beginning of an era,” texted a third.

They are among dozens of first-time female candidates in a country where the percentage of women in parliament is one of the lowest in the world, under 7 percent, and the idea of a woman as president brings a belly laugh from many men.

While Ethiopia and Rwanda in recent months drew global praise for announcing two of the world’s few “gender-balanced” Cabinets, Africa’s most populous nation and largest democracy has been largely stuck in a political culture heavy on cash and brawn.

“You know how women are,” explained Abdulaziz Maidubji, a 41-year-old businessman in the conservative northern city of Kano, in an interview with The Associated Press as others gathered and agreed. “They are very weak. They cannot endure these challenges.”

The nearly 50 female candidates for state and local seats who ping each other with emoji-speckled messages of support in a WhatsApp group are eager to prove a country of 190 million people wrong. When the election was delayed at the last minute until Feb. 23, they urged each other to stay focused.

“God please let it come and pass because I’m so exhausted,” one typed, echoing many Nigerians.

The group including activists, entrepreneurs, a fashion designer and a lab technician was created as part of a youth electoral movement to break the grip of Nigeria’s two main political parties, which traditionally have been less about issues and more about seizing power at all costs.

Their chats on how to parse electoral data and polish talking points also created a safe space for venting frustrations about discrimination familiar to many Nigerian women, candidate or no, while a wide-ranging gender and equal opportunities bill has languished in the National Assembly for years.

One candidate from Zamfara state in the north was told her photo couldn’t be on the same campaign poster as the governor because she is not his wife, though they share a political party. Another candidate was asked by a journalist, “Who is your husband?”

“Look, no one asks men this!” said Chioma Agwuegbo, a 32-year-old communications specialist who allowed the AP to join the group for the final push to election day.

She believes Nigeria can become more progressive once its legislative body sees new faces: “It’s not a retirement home.”

Some female candidates have been asked, or ordered, to step aside for a man. Some have been booed out of events. Some have seen embarrassed family members distance themselves, though many have received warm support and even been told, “What took you so long?” Many struggle with the high costs of running.

Still, the number of female candidates in certain cases is growing. Among this year’s 73 presidential contenders, six are women, though former minister Oby Ezekwesili surprised many by dropping out in the final month after becoming the highest-profile female candidate in Nigeria’s history.

Of the more than 1,800 senatorial candidates, however, only 12 percent are women — down from 17 percent four years ago.

Stay strong, one candidate in the WhatsApp group urged in a rousing post that ended with the exhortation, “Joy comes in the morning.”

Among those checking in with good wishes was 26-year-old Zainab Sulaiman Umar, who is among Nigeria’s youngest candidates. Her goal is especially groundbreaking: If she wins a seat in Kano state’s house of assembly she would become its first woman.

At one campaign rally, she was attacked by thugs and her brother was almost stabbed. “It’s something we just have to get used to as women to run for office,” she told the AP, adding that it gave her more confidence to push on.

She left Nigeria’s ruling party for a smaller one when it became clear that without a “godfather” she would have no chance.

“People talk negatively, but I answer them with positive answers,” she said, although she hears “Are you married?” far too often.

As she goes door-to-door in her largely Muslim community, profiting from her access to female voters in their homes, she explains that she seeks to represent others, which religious leaders say is allowed for women, and not lead, which some see as taboo.

To her surprise, some local Muslim leaders have preached that women should be given a chance in office. She’s ready to seize it.

“Of course I’m going to win,” she said with a smile. She plans to provide primary health care centers while combating domestic violence and “empowering my people.”

The spirit seemed to be catching. Across town at the electoral commission offices, a young woman boxed up polling materials for the vote.

Zainab Aliyu, 24, called this her first election and was excited, volunteering to help with preparations. She spoke glowingly of female candidate Hauwa Ibrahim al-Yacoub, a senatorial hopeful whose campaign poster had been spotted at a street roundabout, pink headscarf blazing amid a thicket of male candidates. “I trust her,” Aliyu said.

And where many Nigerians, even women, hesitate to predict a female president any time soon, she responded immediately.

“2023,” she said. “Inshallah!” If God wills.

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