INTERVIEW: ‘I’m not satisfied with the level of women’s representation in governance,’ – Rinsola Abiola

Rinsola Abiola is one of the daughters of Nigeria’s martyr for democracy, the late Alhaji M.K.O Abiola. She was the Special Assistant (New Media) to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara. She is a public relations consultant and the Founder of the Derinsola Abiola Foundation.

In a chat with Osaruonamen Ibizugbe, Rinsola Abiola spoke about her political journey and her experience running for the House of Representatives in the 2019 general elections. 

Osaruonamen Ibizugbe (O.I.): Why did you join politics, and as the daughter of a prominent politician whose experience continues to define the political history of Nigeria, what motivated you to tow your father’s line?

Rinsola Abiola (R.A.): My decision to join politics was informed by a deep-rooted level of dissatisfaction with how the country’s affairs are being run. I made the transition from general youth activism and advocacy to mainstream political involvement between 2012 and 2013. About the time that the legacy parties were in talks about forming a merger to come up with a mega position party which was what led to the APC winning the elections in 2015. It was during that merger process that a group of us – young people from the legacy party decided to form a youth coalition through which we can also advocate for youth inclusion in the new political party.  That was when I officially joined politics.

While transitioning to politics, many people were of the opinion that I am better off joining politics officially. They believed that politics was a more physical platform through which one could either influence policies or effect change as opposed to just being outside. So, eventually, I took their advice. My father’s passion also informed a number of things that I also have done…I’m very mindful of the fact that our democracy was hard fought and it is important to be mindful of the principles undermining the practice of democracy itself and that reflects a great deal in how I practice my politics and the kind of things I consider acceptable or not.

(O.I.): How long have you been in the field? And how would you describe your political journey so far?

(R.A.): I officially joined a political party in 2014 when the first membership registration exercises for the APC were held if I recall correctly. So I remember going home to get my slip but prior to that, I’ve been supporting candidates in my home state in Ogun on different platforms, ANPP, ACN, and then of course APC. I was a founding member of the party when that merger was done but the first political party membership card I got was for the APC in 2014. But I had been involved in the processes within the party before that registration exercise. I’ve been involved in politics a couple of years before that.

I’ve been very active in advocating for youth and women issues, from a political perspective and general issues that have to do with governance. I’m very passionate about women’s representation and this is something that I’ve been able to channel into my politics.  I’m not very satisfied with the level of women’s representation and I am very particular about mobilising young women and have gathered a lot of experience in that regard. So, I blend my political activities with gender advocacy, with youth advocacy.  For me, my politics is the intersection of  (politics) with other things; gender and youth advocacy and on a personal level, I’d say that I’ve grown a great deal from my political involvement.

Another thing politics has done for me that I’m particularly grateful for is that it opened my eyes to my home. I’m very particular about where I’m from, “Abeokuta” my hometown. Running for office helped me see and understand the challenges that my people face at different levels. You know, politics essentially is a vehicle. If you want to change lives, if you want to do something important for the people, if you want to change things for the better; politics is the best way to do it. If you have the will and constitutional power, there is so much you can do in the area of changing laws or even direct administration. I don’t have that yet so I do what I can as much as possible both in my individual capacity and then of course influencing others who are in the position of authority.

(O.I.): Tell us about your experience running for the house of rep in the 2019 elections.

(R.A.): I ran in a constituency with three local governments and 38 wards. It’s actually a pretty large constituency and most of it is rural and the urban centres are not very many. The urban centre in each of those local governments but like most of the wards were rural communities and then the best, and the most wonderful thing about that experience for me as I got to learn so much about my constituency, about my people, about where I’m from, about what our challenges are. If you ask me about specific areas in each local government, I can recall what the challenges in those areas are and have also been following up on them. so I know what has been addressed, what’s being addressed, and what still remains a challenge for my people and that also led to me putting up a foundation after the election to address a couple of challenges that we know.  

Now, down to the experience itself, when I ran, there were a number of limitations but at the same time, it was a very good experience in that it opened my eyes to quite a number of things but one thing I know for certain now, is that anyone who’s running,  who is serious about it, probably have one or two factors that really helped them, that could really help them increase their chances of success, they deserve every support necessary because it is not easy.

(O.I.): So far, would you say you have faced any form of discrimination or violation because of your gender?

(R.A.): When it comes to issues of age, the times that I faced discrimination was among other young people or within other youth structures and then there is this funny thing in Nigeria, it is so funny that even within youth structures, you find people saying oh, this person is too young!

Yes, and that’s even within youth structures and I think a major reason for it is because our politics doesn’t really give room for a lot of successions. So you find a lot of people who are technically no longer young still hanging onto youth formations. And then on gender, when I ran for youth leader, there were lots of talks about me vying for a position meant for a man because it was a youth leader position I was interested in and not the women leader. Only a number of persons understood that the term youth is gender-neutral and that the youth leader position can also be occupied by a woman as long as the person is a youth. A couple of people said to my face that I was a feminist and asked why I was running for a position that is meant for men. 

But then at the same time, I also had a number of people who showed support. For the fact that I was doing something that has previously not been done within the party. But you know, opponents say “oh! Why should a woman occupy this when we also have women leaders? Won’t it be unfair? Nobody ever questions why we have the group leader position occupied by men when we also have a package for men who are mostly going to be men. I feel just by coming out and the fact that the campaign was very visible and you know, I pulled no stunts at all for publicity and promoting my candidate. I actually had a meeting with stakeholders. I think it further addressed that issue with reservation about women aiming for youth leadership positions and I’m very hopeful, God willing that the next time another woman comes out and aims for that position and she qualifies for it. I’m very hopeful that this time around she will clinch it.

(O.I.): Do you share the view that social and cultural biases limit women from fully immersing themselves in the service of governance and that in doing this they

are able to actualize their full leadership potential?

(R.A.): Yes, definitely. There are areas where we have very strong women politicians but they run for offices in these spaces and they lose out simply because they are women. Not because they’re not qualified, even in cases where people are supposedly more enlightened, you still find comments about how women should focus on their home. They believe that once a woman wants to be in politics, you’re looking for big men, you’re looking for sugar-daddy. you’re not going to stay with your husband, or your husband will be intimidated by you. 

In some instances, if you happen to be divorced, it’s even much worse. They will be like “ah! We said it, you can not be in politics and stay under the control of a man. You know, there’s a lot of orientation that needs to be done for people to actually see women as being capable to offer something and contribute to developing the society that we live in. A bird can not fly with one hand and we can not have two genders in one society and expect that society to reach its potential with one gender being repressed. It doesn’t make any sense, women have a lot to offer, our women have a lot to add and we should be allowed every opportunity to participate at the same level as our men.

(O.I.): Would you say there is a level playing for women to thrive in a male-dominated political space considering how rough it could get down there? What are those specific factors that make the political terrain rough for women’s participation?

(R.A.): I would say “No” the plain field isn’t level. Though we are making some progress. I feel there is still a bit of foot-dragging regarding those things that need to be done. In some political parties now, like in the APC, women only paid for the expression of interest form in the last primaries. 

And then for the convention, I paid just half of the cost of the nomination form for the youth leader position that I was interested in. But I would say that unless we actually have policies that make it mandatory for women to emerge or you know, maybe to occupy a certain position within the party’s leadership or to emerge and occupy a certain portion of the candidate slots within the party, these concessions that we keep granting on the cost of forms will not give us the kind of results that we want.  And then, advocacy is a work in progress, We have to keep at it. But I think we do need these enabling policies if we truly want women to emerge and occupy these positions and the same thing goes for elective office. So, we’ve been able to secure a judgment of the federal high court that says, women should have no less than 35% of appointed positions at the federal level. We also need more states to come on board and we need that particular judgment to be adhered to by the incoming administration and in the states. 

There are states where the only woman in the cabinet is the commissioner for women’s affairs and we even have a case in Adamawa where that commissioner is a man. Those are the kind of issues we need to be looking at. We need enabling laws and policies that will see to it that women emerge beyond the concession granted on the cost of forms. 

(O.I.): The recent constitution review saw the rejection of 5 gender bills by the national assembly. What are your reactions to those rejections?

(R.A.): It’s sad that we started dealing with all of that because there’s nothing in those legislation proposals that was out of order. It’s just a matter of men who greatly outnumber us in Parliament and besides this, women’s emancipation is not a priority to them. I know it was eventually decided that some of those bills will be revisited but I’m not sure where they are now with that. The advocacy had been on for a long time, so it’s not as if women groups are not trying. We are.

It is very unfair that we are in a country where “a Nigerian woman married to a foreigner” can not transfer citizenship to her spouse. Her children will also have to take the citizenship of their husbands. We have some women who have been able to run for office successfully in the community they married into but for a vast majority of others, it is a huge challenge because they remind you that you’re not from there. Women who marry outside their communities also experience discrimination as they are reminded that “they have a husband from somewhere else.

All of these make me wonder about the kind of challenges women in politics are dealing with and, of course, the gender and equal opportunity bill. We have a number of practices that are thoroughly discriminatory. They are not really deploying political will to do anything about these things and as women, we just have to continue pushing. We can not afford to give up until our male counterparts realise that we are citizens just like them and we should enjoy the same rights.

(O.I.): What, from your perspective, are the benefits of a gender-sensitive parliament, and how can it help in addressing Nigeria’s socio-economic challenges?

(R.A.): At the moment, the speaker of the house of representatives, Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila is gender sensitive and understands that we don’t have a lot of women in the house. (Just about eleven (11) down 50% from the 22 in the last assembly). They are all committee chairpersons from what I understand, that’s a good thing you know, giving visibility and good responsibilities to the few women in the house if we have more women, it will be easier for bills relating to gender issues to be passed. The 11 women in the house of 360 people mean 11 women and 349 men! They’ve been doing a lot of work lobbying their colleagues but as the outcome of the gender bills have shown us, it is quite a task and there is so much more to be done. 

If we had a much gender-balanced parliament, it would be easier for such issues to be voted on successfully in favour of women. Research shows that when you have women being adequately represented in politics, and in government, and decision-making structures, there is still a lot more attention to the more people-oriented aspects of leadership. Things like education, and health get more attention and budgetary allocation because women are more sensitive to these issues. They approach things from a more humane angle as research has shown across the world. 

(O.I.): As Nigeria journey’s towards 2023, how do you think we have performed with political gender-equal participation?

(R.A.): Women actually have a much better chance of emerging in smaller political parties but the challenge with smaller political parties is that there are smaller chances of winning elections. It is usually the mainstream political parties and candidates on their platforms that are more likely to emerge at the end of the voting process. 

So, the major responsibility still lies with the mainstream political party, the APC, the PDP, and other strong political parties. There is a need for policies that will enable women to emerge as candidates and see them occupying more appointive positions, within the cabinet, at the state level, and at the federal government levels.  We also need to have women playing leadership roles in the management of agencies, particularly the crucial ones too, because that is how we can actually get them to participate and contribute meaningfully to the process of governance. 

(O.I.): How would you encourage women to get into the playing field rather than staying on the sidelines?

(R.A.): I would say join a party, contribute there, support other women who are running for offices and always make sure that your voice is heard. Organise, where your voices are heard and, participate actively like this 2023 election process, is a great opportunity for women to come out and participate in their numbers. Participate, and build your network. Make the right connections so that when you’re done you can show evidence of your work and say “look, we want adequate representation for our women and this is what we contributed to the process”. 

Women vote in really large numbers. Look at voters’ registration statistics, there might be a slight difference in the level of men and women participation but when it comes to election day, politicians know that women vote in larger numbers. And when women pledge to support you, there Is a very large level of likelihood that they will actually follow you and that you’ll most likely emerge. A woman’s vote is critical but politicians know this and they value it and women are very well involved in political parties. We are the ones who do all the canvassing during elections. So, it’s high time all these efforts are actually repaid by ensuring women are adequately represented when appointments are being made.