Voting Rights: The Journey of Nigeria’s Women
The journey towards achieving voting rights for Nigerian women was long and arduous; it was driven by rounds of constitutional talks and protests; there were piecemeal electoral regulations whereby limited adult female suffrage, based on ownership of property and tax contributions, were legislated. Then, an electoral college system was enacted, and afterwards, a conditional universal adult suffrage law, which was not applicable in all the regions of the country, was introduced. All of this, created a patchwork of electoral regulations that delayed women’s full voting rights. Alas, there were broken promises too which were publicised in the press. It turned out to be quite a journey, one which came to a victorious end in 1976, when women in Northern Nigeria were finally enfranchised.
The fight for voting rights for women in Nigeria is a piece of history that does not get the attention it deserves. It is mostly submerged within the broader context of the country’s history.
During the colonial era, there were several women, who took up the fight and kept the matter on the public agenda. There were also a few men who genuinely raised the issue, because they believed that universal adult suffrage was “the inalienable right of a Nigerian Citizen.” Although, some male politicians spoke up for women’s voting rights, but this was within the context of female voters and not female candidates.
In a nutshell, the quest for women’s civic rights came up against a formidable wall of patriarchal resistance. Women in the Southern Nigeria have been voting for over 60 years; while women in the North, have been voting for a little over forty years. This is important because it tracks women’s progress of realising the power of their voices to shape society through the ballot box. This tells a more detailed journey of how Nigeria’s women gained their voting rights.
Female activism in Nigeria to gain the franchise for women, all started sometime after 1922, when the British colonial government introduced the principle of elective representation for four seats on the Legislative Council. Elections were in held Lagos which had three seats and Calabar, which had one. In this electoral arrangement, women were excluded from voting or to be voted for. The entire issue brought to the fore, the underlying patriarchy in society and male dominance of the constitutional, electoral, political and legislative institutions.
The system was designed as a male-centric activity, as electoral notices rolled out from 1922, specifically called for “adult males” to officially register their intentions to be electors and candidates.
At the time, the typical scenario saw a registration officer in the Town Council, Lagos, issue a memo to his compatriot in the office of the Chief Secretary to the Government stating: “Will you please cause the attached Public Notice No.2 to appear in the issue of the Nigerian Gazette of 5th November, 1936.” The actual notice called for: “……Every male person who is a British subject or a native of the Protectorate of Nigeria, who is of the age of twenty one years or upwards…” This was the law from 1922 to 1951. In 1946, a minor amendments reduced the annual income from one hundred pounds to fifty pounds, presumably to expand the franchise for men who were less well-off.
So these were the guidelines for those wishing to vote and be vote for, in the general elections in 1923, 1928, 1933, 1938; and by-elections in 1940 and 1941, as well as in what was called “partial” elections in 1943. Thus, an all-male voting population elected all-male candidates to sit on the Legislative Council to deliberate and take decisions on public affairs without any female representatives. It was a case of male aspirations being actualised. The schedule of Bills introduced to the legislative chamber was on a variety of issues included: ‘An Ordinance to amend the Income Tax Ordinance, 1940; an Ordinance to amend the Aliens Ordinance; an Ordinance to amend the Land and Native Rights Ordinance; and an Ordinance to amend the Non-European Officers’ Pensions Ordinance.
However, several women such as Elizabeth Adekogbe, Beere Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo, Senator Wuraola Esan, Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, and Malama Ladi Shehu who took up the fight and continuously kept the matter of women’s voting rights on the public agenda. It is on record that Mazi Mbonu Ojike and Prof Eyo Ita also contributed their thoughts to the cause.
From as early as 1944, suffragettes in Nigeria, such as the Lagos-based Oyinkan Abayomi spoke out about the immorality of the lack of female representation on the Lagos Town Council and also, the fact that women were not being allowed to vote and stand in elections to the Legislative Council of Nigeria. She went on to establish the Nigerian Women’s Party in May 1944.
In 1946, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, in South West Nigeria led a protest movement known as the Abeokuta Women’s Union which later on first became the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU). Its objective was: “The achievement of franchise for women; abolition of electoral colleges; allocation of a definite proportion of political representation to women and being allowed to nominate their own representatives at the local councils.” Later on, NWU became known as the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies. Ransome-Kuti is known for leading a protest against the imposition of tax on women, particularly the unemployed and petty traders. ‘No to taxation without Representation’ was their slogan.
In January 1949, at the opening of the National Youth Movement Representative Council, the Lagos Daily Service Newspaper, reported Abayomi saying: “Nigerian women were very backward and their menfolk were responsible” in reference to the continuous denial of women’s right to vote and representation on the Council that legislated for society.
But any amendments to legislation to grant constitutional rights to females in elective representation were still a few years away.
Nigeria at this time was being governed according by the 1946 Richards Constitution. There had been plenty of misgivings about this legal framework, because it was said to have been drafted, without any input from Nigerians. To remedy the situation, a nationwide conference was organised on a four-level basis to afford the people the opportunity to debate their aspirations at the district, provincial, regional and general level constitution review conferences. One of the issues scheduled for debate was: “The Women’s Vote.” But this was not a priority in all of the deliberations. For instance, a headline in the Nigerian Citizen Newspaper of 18th March 1949 said: “This Is What Kano Men want in the Constitution”:
“A large and representative meeting on the Kano Emirate Library on Saturday discussed the Richards Constitution. Native Authority Malams, businessmen, local malams and others attended. Sarkin Shanu in his opening address, explained the object of the meeting – to enable them to suggest any necessary amendments to the present Constitution…The meeting recommended that the present composition of the Legislative Council be continued because it had enable Northerners to have representatives there.”
It should be noted that the Northern legislative institutions from 1946 to 1966, were an all-male assembly. The topic of the women’s vote however did receive some attention during the Enugu review Conference which was held as a part of the Eastern Region’s contributions to the national discourse. The same newspaper covered the Enugu debate and described it as a “long” debate about women’s vote during which a nationalist politician known as Mazi Mbonu Ojike put up a paper asking for women to be given the right to vote. The debate was recorded by the Nigerian Citizen Newspaper of 11th August 1949 as follows:
Women’s suffrage brought about a long debate. Mr Ojike held that the rest of the world is progressing with their women, and it was important that in any democracy women should take part. Most of those present agreed with this in principle, but felt that any attempt to compile a register of adult women would be met with both suspicion and active opposition. Instance of riots following such attempts for taxation purposes were quoted. Mr Ojike said that Nigeria must eventually tax women, but felt that the franchise in the meantime would increase their sense of responsibility and make them more amenable to such a measure when the time comes to introduce it. Some members felt that if women were responsible enough to vote, they were also responsible enough to volunteer to pay tax. However, after ways and means of compiling a voting register had been discussed, the Conference decided to amend the Committee’s resolution to include all adults instead of only allowing the franchise to taxpayers.
Apparently the topic of enfranchisement for Nigerian women also received the backing of the some sections of the press. The Lagos-based Daily Service Newspaper which was the mouthpiece for the National Youth Movement, one of the nationalist political parties, devoted its editorial of March 3, 1949 to women’s right to vote:
….. it will be the height of absurdity to suggest that a great percentage of the men who enjoy the right of the franchise, even under the present unwanted constitution, have better sense of civic responsibilities or better understanding of current events than many of our womenfolk… Our women must be enfranchised.
Come January 1950, the matter of women’s franchise came up again at the final General Conference (on the Review of the Constitution) in Ibadan. According to the Report, a total of 53 men participated in this final rounds of deliberations on Nigeria’s future from 9-18 January 1950. Two male delegates, Mazi Mbonu Ojike and Prof Eyo Ita, brought the issue of women’s vote (Universal Adult Suffrage) to the notice of the Conference but when it was put to the vote at the committee stage, it was rejected by forty-two to six votes.
The Minority Report (in favour of Universal Adult Suffrage) which was authored by Ojike and Ita said: “The aim of Universal Adult Suffrage is to enfranchise our people without sex, educational or economic barriers. The objective of the motion is to give every Nigerian adult the freedom and the opportunity and the right to participate actively in the political advancement of our people.”
But this matter was not going to go away anytime soon. Suffragettes had put the matter on the conscience of colonial government and it began to yield dividends. In May 1948, a draft bill seeking “wider franchise” for the Lagos Town Council elections, which provided that “every male and female over the age of twenty-one before January 24, 1950, are entitled to vote” was enacted. Several women including Oyinkan Abayomi, Tinuola Dedeke, Henrietta Lawson and Adebisi Adebiyi contested in the elections to the Lagos Town Council.
Though the 1950 Motion by Ojike and Ita failed, the MacPherson Constitution which came into effect in 1951, allowed for the Adult Taxpayers Suffrage. This meant it provided for an expansion of the electoral regulations to allow adult male and female taxpayers in the Western and Eastern Regions to vote and participate in elections. However, in the Northern Region only adult males could vote and contest in elections. The Constitution also introduced a complex set of electoral guidelines which stipulated a three-stage Electoral College. So only female taxpayers, who were quite few at the time, could vote and contest in a multi-level electoral process. Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, though a critic of the tax-payer regulation and Electoral College system, however still took advantage of the widening of the franchise space for the 1951 elections, but lost at the intermediary level. The limit placed on female enfranchise clearly affected her performance and the importance of women being allowed to vote and be voted for stood out clearly.
Mrs Elizabeth Adekogbe of the Women’s Movement of Nigeria who as early as 1950 was referred to in the press as “Ibadan’s First Lady in Politics,” was also a critic of the Electoral System because it locked out majority of the women, and those who were able to contest did not have enough support from female population.
Pressure for universal adult suffrage however was kept on all over the country as women’s voices regularly called on the government to do the right thing and the colonial government could no longer shun the principle of representation of the population in the legislative institutions.
Albeit in a disjointed manner, the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution became the enabler of women’s voting rights written into electoral laws. But, there were different electoral laws for the different elections to the regional and federal legislative institutions. Universal Adult Suffrage was permitted in the Eastern and Western Regions. The slight difference was that in the Eastern Region both sexes could fully participate in elections, while in the Western Region, it was only adult male taxpayers could vote. However, in the Northern Region, only adult male taxpayers could vote and be voted for in the regional and federal elections. In effect, women’s voting rights in Southern Nigerian were achieved on a piece meal basis: In the 1954 elections, for women in the Eastern Region and 1959 general elections for women in the Western Region. The leadership in Northern Nigeria however, still did not allow women in the Region to participate in electoral matters.
This constitutional right enabled women like Mrs Wuraola Esan and Miss Rachael Brown to contest in the 1959 Federal Elections, from Ibadan and Port Harcourt respectively, on the platform of the Action Group; while in Abeokuta, Ransome-Kuti contested as an independent candidate. All three women lost their elections. Earlier in the October 1959 elections to the Lagos Town Council, four women- Mrs Keziah Fashina, Madam B. Ogamba, Miss S. King, and Mrs L.F. Joseph – contested for seats. Of the four women, only Miss S. King lost her election.
In Northern Nigeria, there was still a lot of resistance to women’s voting rights by the male ruling class. This region was seen as the last battle front and women from different parts of the country spoke out about it. Despite the loss, Ransome-Kuti said the advocacy for Northern women to be given the franchise will not stop, and led the Federation of Women’s Societies to a meeting with the last Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir James Robertson to discuss this.
Mrs Elizabeth Adekogbe of the Women’s Movement of Nigeria was quoted in the press calling on the Prime Minister of Nigeria Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and the Northern Nigeria Premier, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, to “grant the women of the North the right to vote and be voted for,” adding that: “Women of this region could not exercise any political judgement, if they were not enfranchised.” Mrs Margaret Ekpo is also reported by the Daily Times of February 3, 1959, calling on women not to despair that “Northern women have been denied the vote.” The Daily Times also in its front page commentary saying the big question was: “Can Non-voting North Women be elected?”
The quest for female suffrage in the North was taken up directly by Hajiya Gambo Sawaba and Malama Ladi Shehu. Sawaba whose home base was in Zaria, took up the mission for women’s enfranchisement and suffered numerous arrests and imprisonment. In 1964, she called on the Regional Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello to “fulfil his promise in respect of enfranchisement in the North.”
Recalling what she said was “ the earlier pledge that he would consider giving the women the right to vote and be voted for,” Gambo said “ the time had now come for the Sardauna to give the order to enable Northern women to exercise such an important part of their civic responsibility.”
On her part, Malama Shehu who was the first female columnist in a Northern newspaper, the Nigerian Citizen based in Kaduna, said: “Northern women want to march side by side with their men.” Way back in March 1958, the Daily Times quoted Malama Shehu who was the secretary-general of Women’s Wing, Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) saying:
In 1956 a conference of her party was held in Kaduna and a delegation marched to the Northern Premier to demand franchise for Northern women. the Premier she claimed, assured the delegation that at future parliamentary elections, necessary arrangements would be made to ensure than Northern women exercised their civic rights, but they soon realised that the promise would not be kept when the Premier made a contradictory statement in a television interview in the United Kingdom.
As a columnist, her ‘radical’ ideas did not always please management. In an interview with First Nation Magazine in 1990, Malama Shehu said:
It was felt that my writing was making women to rebel not just against society in which they lived but also against their religion. That is asking women to come out and to claim their rights. It went to the extent that I felt rather than allow the papers to publish distorted views of my writing, I had to stop writing all together.
The late Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, explained his views on voting rights for Northern women in his autobiography:
We are often taken to task about votes for women. The Eastern and Western Regions have given their women the vote, and during the recent Cameroun plebiscite the United Nations insisted on registering and voting. I agree that no particular harm has been done, though I must claim that no outstanding good has come out of it. I dare say that we shall introduce it in the end here, but- and this is important—it is so contrary to the customs and feelings of the greater part of the men of this Region that I would be very loath to introduce it myself. The education of women must reach a far greater strength, and the numbers of properly educated women must be increased to many times the present, before the vote would be used to full advantage. It would of course, greatly strengthen our position as a party, for all the women would vote in the same direction as their menfolk and thus our support would be more than doubled by the stroke of a pen. But the unrest and trouble that would ensue would, I am convinced, be serious and widespread, and I would not like to have to delay with it in the present circumstances. Most of the men, and certainly all the older ones, would be quite incapable of understanding the need for such revolutionary change. I understand that there are still countries in Europe in which the women have no vote and in which there is no intention of granting them one, so we are not alone in our attitude. Women have a great influence in this country and they will continue to use it for the right, and for stability and peace: to thrust them into the political arena at this stage in our development could only, I think, reduce this influence and would gain nothing for the public interest. This point of view is not particularly due to prejudice nor to Islamic teaching, for there have been many important and influential women, as well as many highly educated and pious ones, in history of Muhammedan countries. But here simply have not reached the right stage for so great an innovation.
The issue of women’s franchise in the Northern Nigeria never really went away. In 1965, it was tabled by Senator Wuraola Esan from Ibadan who was one of two females nominated to serve in the Senate on the platform of the Action Group. Senator Esan decided to use her voice to send a reminder to those concerned:
I would like to remind my Northern brothers that ….it is time the women of the North had the franchise. It is relevant for me to remind our Northern Brothers of their promise that the women of the Northern region will be given the franchise in due course. I am only appealing to them to make that “due course” soon.
In 1975, the Federal Military Government under the late General Murtala Muhammed inaugurated a 49-man Constitution Drafting Committee, which turned out to be an all-male structure given the mandate to draft a new constitution for the country. The following year, at a meeting of the National Council of States, the government led by Lt. General Olusegun Obasanjo, announced the promulgation of the Local Government No.189 Edict of 1976 establishing local government areas as the third level in governance saying: “All women in the Federation will be entitled to vote and be voted for in the Local Government elections.”
Thus, concluded the journey of women’s right to vote in Nigeria.
Voting Rights: The Journey of Nigeria’s Women is Part 2 of Crater blog series ‘HerStory: History through the lens of gender analysis’ by Tayo Agunbiade.
About Tayo Agunbiade
Tayo Agunbiade is a Media Consultant with 30 years + of experience in Media and Communications covering
Reporter, Researcher, Writer and Editor/ Legislative Advocacy; An Alumnus of the Lagos Business School (School of Media Communication), holds a 1984 Bachelor of Arts Degree in History, University of Lagos (2:2) and a 1996 Bachelor of Science Degree in New Technology and Women Development Studies, University of East London,Barking (2:1).
She currently works as an Editorial/Research Consultant, Speech Writer, Book Content Developer, Ghost-writer, Broadcaster, Legislative Researcher/ Drafter of Bills & Motions, Gender Data Analyst (collection and collation of raw data to compile gender statistics for public presentation); Publisher, ‘Gender Perspectives’ Newsletter.