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‘Women get it done’: Ireti Kingibe, Abuja’s new senator, plans for progressive Nigeria

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Ireti Kingibe is not the usual Nigerian politician. Four years ago, the engineer wife of a former minister was considering leaving the country for the US or Britain, or at least going on a cruise.

The self-declared idealist was “profoundly disappointed” with how Africa’s most populous country was being run. “I told everybody I was done with politics and went indoors,” she said in an interview.

Not long after, Kingibe’s phone started buzzing; minor parties were impressed by her independent spirit. In 2022, she joined the Labour party, led by the outsider presidential candidate Peter Obi, and then in last month’s elections the 68-year-old was the surprise winner in the race to become senator for the capital, Abuja.

In a move practically unheard of in Nigeria, Kingibe has pledged to donate her salary to an “emergency” fund to support her policies, which are focused on redistributing wealth in the city and its poor rural environs.

People cast their votes during the general election in Abuja, Nigeria on 25 February 2023.

“I see so much wrong,” she said. “I see so much that can be improved on, and I also see that most of the people that have been in the National Assembly … They are more concerned about how much money they’re going to make as opposed to what can be done for the people.”

Nigeria faces rampant financial insecurity and a crisis-riddled economy, while corruption is endemic. After the underwhelming eight-year presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, the country has elected as its next leader the ruling party’s candidate Bola Tinubu, 70, a wealthy political veteran and former governor of Lagos.

Though he fell well short of power, Obi mounted the first serious challenge to Nigeria’s two major parties since the return of civil rule more than two decades ago. He upset the odds to win the most votes in Abuja, the capital, and Lagos, Nigeria’s mammoth melting pot.

In the Abuja senatorial race, Kingibe unseated the incumbent, Philip Aduda, who had held the capital for 12 years, taking more than double his votes. She became the first female senator of the city in 20 years.

Women with protests signs march outside against legislative bias in Abuja, Nigeria

Her plans include providing water to poorer parts of Abuja, accessing federal funds for health and education and supporting farmers, of which there are many in the capital territory that makes up her constituency.

“[My values are] integrity, fairness, the more privileged should look out for the less privileged,” she said. “I keep saying society is judged by how more privileged members treat the less privileged.”

Those politics are unusually progressive in oil-rich Nigeria – and certainly to the left of Obi, who focused his presidential run on good governance. Her success in Abuja suggests things may be changing, if slowly.

One metric that is only going backwards, however, is female representation. Nigeria elected just 18 women to its 469-seat parliament in last month’s election, down from 21 in the last general election in 2019. The number of women in the senate is falling from eight to three.

Those figures leave Nigeria 180th out of 186 countries ranked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union for female parliamentary representation, and last in Africa.

Abosede George-Ogan, founder of Nigeria’s Women in Leadership Advancement Network, said political parties had female quotas enshrined in their constitutions but none paid attention to them. According to her, it takes about 5bn naira (about £9m) to run for governor, for example. “How many women have N5bn?” she said.

Another “very serious deterrent” for women is violence, Kingibe said. Politicians are regular targets; Obi’s candidate for governor of Enugu state was shot dead last month. Two female local candidates on a recent discussion programme described having been shot.

George-Ogan said there was also a wider perception in patriarchal Nigeria that women are “carers and nurturers”, not leaders. In media interviews they are often asked about family, children and the home, while men are asked about the economy.

A woman shows her hands in chains while another holds a placard during a protest against legislative bias against women, in Abuja, Nigeria 8 March 2022.

For Kingibe and George-Ogan, the only solution is legislation. Women staged protests last year after parliament rejected a constitutional amendment that would have reserved special seats for them in national and state assemblies. Some have proposed a 30% minimum quota in parliament.

Nigerian banks imposed a similar rule for their boards a decade ago. Women now occupy almost a quarter of directorship positions among the 30 biggest companies on stock exchange.

For now, Kingibe said she would try to make a difference in politics by actively pushing for more female councillors and chair people in the Labour party. She also wants to set up a national lobby for women across parties and among activists.

It is crucial that Nigeria has female leaders, campaigners say, not just because countries with more diverse leadership tend to do better.

“It is very evident that men and women lead differently,” George-Ogan said. “Often by virtue of being male they tend to think about the hard stuff: infrastructure, expansion stuff. Women think about human indicators: about healthcare, education.”

Those are the neglected areas where Nigerians are suffering most. Nigeria accounts for about one in seven global maternal deaths, for example.

There may be other advantages to having women in charge. “I find that when I have things to distribute I tend to do them more through the women,” Kingibe said. “They tend to be totally committed and get it done. The men tend to get more distracted more easily.”

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