Women Sweep Appointments for Key Nigerian Court

One of every five Africans is Nigerian, yet the continent's largest nation has lagged behind many others in one key measure-the advancement of women. Now, in what may be a breakthrough, 17 out of 25 Lagos state court judges are women.

Chief Judge I.A. Sotumino

LAGOS, Nigeria (WOMENSENEWS)-When Naomi Akpan looks at her state's new high court judges, she sees more than just an unusual crop. Women took 17 of the 25 posts-stunning, even in Nigeria's bustling commercial center.

It is also an encouraging first that so many women's accomplishments were recognized by appointments to the bench.

“When Lagos state does things, other states are bound to follow suit,” says Akpan, an advocate for women's issues in the Constitutional Rights Project, a human rights advocacy group based in Lagos, the nation's cultural and commercial capital.

But more than that, there's hope that the new admissions of women to high-level public positions may be heralding a wider trend. Nigeria is by far Africa's most populated country with a population of 120 million-one out of five Africans is a Nigerian.

But, according to UNICEF, Nigeria remains a laggard among sub-Saharan African states, when it comes to placing women in top decision-making roles. Women hold only 3.4 percent of the federal government's elected seats and the numbers at the local level are lower still. Though the breakthrough in Lagos is only statewide and restricted to the judiciary, to Akpan and others, it may presage a breakthrough.

There was no deliberate attempt to recruit female judges in Lagos, but women may have had a competitive advantage, says Fola Arthur Worrey, the solicitor-general of the state's Ministry of Justice. The judiciary has a reputation for rampant corruption, so integrity became a key criterion for the new magistrates. Women, it was felt, would be more likely to keep their noses clean.

“They're conscious that because they're women they're under scrutiny,” Arthur Worrey says.

Scarcity of Female Government Officials Means Neglect of Women's Concerns

The stakes are high for those who value women's issues, Akpan says. With few female officials in government, issues such as female genital mutilation, early marriage, violence against women, land rights and HIV/AIDS don't get the attention she thinks they deserve.

“If we don't have people sympathetic to our cause in positions of power, we're not likely to get anywhere,” she adds.

But the road ahead remains long, even in the judiciary, where no woman has ever reached the federal Supreme Court. And the other branches of government have ceded less.

In 1979, there wasn't a single woman in the 95-member Senate, according to a UNICEF report. Twenty-two years later, though the Senate has grown to 109 seats, there are only three. At the state level, things are equally grim. There's never been a woman governor, and the only female deputy governor-in Lagos state-is feuding with her boss. When the governor left the country for several weeks last month, he refused to hand over command.

The causes for lack of women's advancement are mainly cultural and financial. Most Nigerian cultures discourage female candidates. Women in the south of Nigeria received the right to vote only in 1954. And in the more conservative north they remained disenfranchised for 22 more years, until 1976.

The political climate also presents vast obstacles to access-huge expenditures and feverish party politics-that hit hardest those who already are on the outside.

The government has done little but talk to address those issues. Military governments, male-dominated by nature, have paid lip service to women's issues. Yet, neither they, nor the new civilian government, have devoted serious effort to promoting women to meaningful positions.

“Overall, the initiatives taken to date have essentially been cosmetic, devoid of real substance,” says UNICEF.

Yet there is hope. Civil rule, while not solving the problem, has unlocked doors. Though there are few women politicians, women vote in equal or greater numbers than men, and nongovernmental organizations have been crisscrossing the country, trying to energize this political base.

Mobilized Nigerian Women Would Be a Powerful Electoral Force

“Right now, most women feel they're obliged to vote for a particular candidate,” says Asabe Audu, a program manager at Baobab, a Lagos-based organization promoting women's human rights. “We're showing them they have the freedom to choose their representatives.”

Many Nigerians viewed the elections in 1999 with skepticism; the previous time the country held a vote, the election was cancelled before the results were announced and the military stayed on for another 16 years.

Understandably, few dared challenge the establishment in 1999; however, elections taking place over the next two years are expected to draw a more diverse field of candidates, including more women.

Increased access to education is also helping. While there are still fewer women than men in primary and secondary schools, the proportions are leveling. And in parts of the south, where boys are dropping out to pursue careers as traders, there are more female than male students. Some schools report ratios as high as five to one, according to UNICEF, though this is not reflective of the country as a whole.

The effect is already visible in the judiciary, where the influx of female judges, along with a spate of retirements in Lagos state, has turned the high court more than 60 percent female. A woman, I. A. Sotumino, is also the new chief judge, the highest judicial post in the state. She's not alone. Across the country, 20 percent of the chief judges are women. Significantly, so are more than half the students in Nigeria's law schools.

“If they found better men, they wouldn't think of us,” Sotumino says. “But women are not waiting for them, we are pushing ourselves forward. It portends well for the country, if women are coming forward to take their rightful place.”

Stephan Faris is a free-lance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, covering Africa.

For more information:

West Africa NGO Network (Wangonet), a nongovernmental organization that provided training for the new judges:

UNICEF (latest report on Nigeria not yet available online):