Nigeria's only female presidential candidate done with 'cheerleading'

Lagos (AFP) - The two main candidates for the governorship of Nigeria's Lagos state took to the stage, making a flurry of promises to the all-female audience at the select Cosmopolitan Women's Club.

The men even pledged a 35 percent quota of women in the state government and initiatives on girls' education.

But when Remi Sonaiya -- the only female candidate in this year's presidential election -- took the floor she did so to a round of applause that lasted several minutes.

"We have done enough of cheerleading," she told some of Nigeria's most influential businesswomen and company executives at the meeting on women's participation in politics.

"Women cannot keep on being cheerleaders in this country."

There may be many women at the head of businesses in Africa's most populous nation and leading economy but as in the rest of the continent, politics remains for the most part a man's world.

Sonaiya is hoping to change all that, following the example of presidents such as Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or Malawi's Joyce Banda, to break through the glass ceiling to high office.

In reality, she has no chance of beating the two main candidates -- President Goodluck Jonathan and ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari -- but she has brought, for reformers, a welcomed fresh voice to the campaign.

- Exception to the rule -

According to a 2012 report from the British Council, just nine percent of candidates at the last Nigerian general election in 2011 were women.

The situation has hardly improved this year, with a presidential and parliamentary vote scheduled for March 28 followed by governorship and state assembly polls two weeks later.

"They (the men) set the rules," said Ebere Ifendu, who runs the non-governmental organisation Women in Politics Forum in the capital Abuja.

"They made us understand that one, politics is dirty; two, politics is not for women; three, they brought out the violent nature of politics.

"Those were the things they put before us and women became sceptical. They became afraid and didn't believe they will be able to participate."

Two women in Jonathan's cabinet have nevertheless bucked the trend of women's participation in the cut-throat world of Nigerian politics.

Former World Bank executive Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is finance minister and Diezani Alison-Madueke is oil minister as well as the first woman to hold the rotating presidency of the oil cartel OPEC.

Elsewhere, strong-willed women such as Arunma Oteh headed the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), cracking down on corruption that has long blighted Nigeria.

- Shoestring budget -

Sonaiya, a 60-year-old former French professor in Ile-Ife in southwestern Osun state, has not been discouraged by the challenge.

She and her party KOWA decided to prove that it was possible to campaign without a wealthy "godfather" or a private jet in a country where male politicians spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on huge public rallies and gifts for supporters.

"Politics has a bad name in Nigeria. Even recently a governor said that you could not be in politics (unless) you're a liar," she told AFP in an interview at a Lagos hotel.

With a small budget of donations from supporters and a reduced campaign team, Sonaiya has been travelling across Nigeria in economy class on commercial flights like a common citizen.

On the road, she puts across the values of her party -- "honesty, truth, diligence, hard work, transparency" -- to voters on the street.

With 10,000 to 15,000 members, KOWA is a featherweight compared with the heavyweight electoral juggernaut behind Jonathan and his main rival Buhari.

- 'Break the jinx' -

Whatever the final result on March 28, for the businesswomen of the Cosmopolitan Women's Club Sonaiya deserves praise for bringing a different voice to the political debate.

"Most women see politics as the dirty game in Nigeria. The good women need to come out," said businesswoman Amodugbe Okanlawon.

For Ifendu, whose NGO supports young female politicians and campaigns for a quota to make it easier for women to win elected positions, there is still a way to go before a woman can govern Africa's most populous country.

But she added: "In these 2015 elections that we are facing in Nigeria today, we have strong women contesting as governors.

"We have a woman who is a very strong contender in Taraba state. There is another woman in Akwa-Ibom state and then women are coming up for the Senate and other positions.

"I think we need this period to make a statement.

"If we are able to break the jinx of having a woman as a governor of a state in Nigeria in 2015, I tell you, having a women as a vice president or as president will be a thing that we can achieve in a very short while."