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The woman who could be the first female elected ruler of Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria – Last May, the ruling Nigerian Progressive Congress Party announced the victory of Aisha “Benani” Dahiru in the primary elections for the position of governor in the northeastern state of Adamawa, making her the only woman to carry the flag of any major party in the state assembly and state assembly elections.

The 51-year-old politician could also make history as the first elected female ruler in Africa’s largest democracy on Saturday, as only 24 of the 416 candidates vying for office are women.

Dahiru could be declared governor-elect on Sunday afternoon if she can defeat 13 other opponents, including incumbent Governor Ahmadu Venteri, who is seeking re-election under the opposition People’s Democratic Party.

Getting a ticket wasn’t easy.

In the primary, Dahiru fended off competition from male political veterans including former anti-corruption chief and former presidential hopeful Nohu Ribadu and Gabriela Bindu, the former governor of the state. After months of trial trial, the state court overturned the finding due to irregularities before a higher court later overturned the ruling.

A proper election presents a different challenge for Dahiru, an incumbent senator since 2019 and formerly, a one-term member of the House of Representatives. But critics say it could lead to change in what is still a conservative society.

“Coming from a very conservative region, many assume women have no place to run for office,” Fakhriya Hashem, a former fellow at the Center for African Leadership and organizer of the Arewa MeToo movement, told Al Jazeera. “She fits instead her inability to lead men in prayer to her supposed inability to lead a community in governance.”

Religious scholars have advocated publicly against her candidacy. Across the region, the deadly 13-year-old insurgency of Boko Haram, which outlaws Western education and kidnaps women and children, continues.

But her supporters, especially the rural working class and women, remained unfazed. Residents say she has for years been widely involved in philanthropic efforts across the state, helping low-income families.

“This is the path that Aishatou charted a long time ago,” Yasmin Bouba, an advocate for girls in Yola, the capital of Adamawa, told Al Jazeera. “Unlike other politicians who reach communities through stakeholders, Aishatou interacts with the people directly.”

Data shows that Nigerian women are barely represented in Nigerian politics [Credit: Al Jazeera]

Build a base

APC guidelines that two out of five delegates elected from each ward, the lowest level of Nigeria’s electoral structure, must be women, worked for Dhiru during the Conservative primaries. Already popular with women across the state, many delegates have identified her ambition.

It also helped that Abuja offered its support. She was reportedly backed by the Presidency as well as by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the DPP’s presidential candidate in the 2019 and 2023 elections.

However, Dahiru has built up a formidable political machinery over the past 20 years that many say can spur her to victory if there is a high voter turnout. A trained businesswoman and engineer, she became active in politics after returning from her studies in the UK.

Over the past decade, its reputation has skyrocketed.

In 2011, she ran for election to the House of Representatives under the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) to represent the Yola North/Yola South/Giri federal constituency. Four years later, it moved to the All Progressives Congress in 2015 after Muhammadu Buhari defeated then-incumbent Goodluck Jonathan to become president.

There, Dahiru lost her bid to enter the Senate before finally being elected in 2019 as one of the three senators for Adamawa and the only woman from the North in that election cycle.

It promised to harness the country’s agricultural capacity to tackle poverty and inequality. She also presented herself as an advocate for women’s rights to education and the right to vote and run for office.

“During my campaigns, what I told these women was that if they voted for Benani, they would do a favor for their children,” Daher said in an interview. “I said to them, ‘If you have a daughter, you will do her a favor by voting for me; You will render this service to your sister and to some extent to your mother.”

“I will give the issue of women and youth, especially the girl child, preferential treatment,” she added.

To counter Dhiru’s attractiveness among the women who make up a large part of her political base, Venteri selected a female candidate.

Representation of women in politics

Nigeria once had a ruler, but she was not elected. In November 2006, Virginia Itiapa became Governor of Anambra while she was in that position Peter Obi has been isolated. She gave up the seat in February 2007 when a court order overturned his impeachment.

Dahiru’s rise to the big stage comes with the decline of women’s representation in Nigerian politics. The number of women in the Federal Parliament has fallen steadily since 2011. In the March 2023 vote, the figure has fallen more than 21 out of 423 seats to 15.

It comes as other African countries are working to increase women’s representation in politics, says Elor Nkrewiem, a gender and social movements researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

“The truth is that women were able to gain these opportunities because of the legislation that provided for quotas for women,” she said.

Last year, the Parliament of Nigeria unacceptable Five gender bills seeking equality for women, including affirmative action quotas for women in the legislature, with members of parliament being male-dominated for religious and cultural reasons.

“In general, women leaders tend to relegate to the sidelines as a range of societal contradictions impede their political journey,” said Irene Pogoson, a professor of political science at the University of Ibadan.

Analysts say a combination of social and cultural norms and a hostile political environment prevented women from holding senior political positions.

But so is the law.

In 2015, former minister Aisha Alhassan nearly became Nigeria’s first elected woman ruler after an election court in neighboring Taraba, also in the northeast, overturned the decision, only for a higher court to overturn the decision.

“Exclusive club for men”

And while Dahiru’s footprint is noticeable in her communities, critics point out that she has sponsored fewer than 10 bills – none of them directly related to women – in her 12 years in parliament.

“Like most Nigerian politicians, they don’t play the ideological battle of the ideas on which politics are built. I think the same is true of Benani. What she does best than most is selling herself understanding how Nigerian politics plays,” Hashim said.

However, analysts point out that her journey so far is a much-needed symbol of color and her inclusion in Nigeria’s murky politics. Whether or not history will be made remains to be seen, but the broad cross-party attraction that Zahiro has gained could be the beginning of a new era, they say.

“We should not underestimate the power of seeing another woman in such a leadership position – because, as role models, they can help broaden the base of women who can envision themselves in similar leadership positions,” Pogoson told Al Jazeera.

“If Aishatou wins, women will start to see that these core positions are not just a men’s club,” said Nkryouim.

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