HomeMiddle EastThe woman who could be the first elected governor of Nigeria

The woman who could be the first elected governor of Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria – Last May, Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) announced Aishatu “Binani” Dahiru as the winner of the gubernatorial primary in the northeastern state of Adamawa, making her the only female champion of any major party in elections for governor and state assembly.

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

Dahiru could be announced governor-elect on Sunday afternoon if she can defeat 13 other opponents, including current governor Ahmadu Fintiri, who is seeking re-election under the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Getting the ticket was no small feat.

In the primary, Dahiru fended off competition from male political veterans, including former anti-corruption chief and former presidential hopeful Nuhu Ribadu and Jibrilla Bindow, the state’s immediate former governor. Months after the primary, a state court overturned the result due to irregularities before a higher court overturned the ruling.

The election itself presents a different challenge for Dahiru, a sitting senator since 2019 and previously a one-term member of the House of Representatives. But experts say it could mark the beginning of a change in what is still a conservative society.

“Coming from an ultra-conservative region, many assume that a woman has no place to run for the position that she is,” Fakhrriyyah Hashim, a former member of the Africa Leadership Center and convener of the Arewa MeToo movement, told Al Jazeera. “Instead, they appropriate her inability to lead men in prayer to her alleged inability to lead a society in government.”

Religious scholars have openly preached against his candidacy. Across the region, a deadly 13-year insurrection by Boko Haram continues, which bans Western education and has kidnapped women and children.

But his supporters, especially the rural working class and women, are unfazed. Residents say that for years she has been heavily involved in philanthropic efforts across the state, helping low-income households.

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

Data shows Nigerian women are barely represented in Nigerian politics (Credit: Al Jazeera)

building a foundation

The APC’s guidelines that two out of five elected delegates from each district, the lowest level of the electoral structure in Nigeria, must be women, worked in Dahiru’s favor during the gubernatorial primaries. Already popular with women across the state, many of the delegates identified with her ambition.

It also helped that Abuja was supportive. He reportedly received the endorsement of the presidency, as well as former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the PDP’s presidential candidate in the 2019 and 2023 elections.

Still, Dahiru has built a formidable political machine over 20 years that many say could propel her to victory if there is a high voter turnout. An entrepreneur and engineer by training, she became involved in politics after returning from her studies in the UK.

Over the last decade, his reputation has skyrocketed.

In 2011, he ran for the House of Representatives elections under the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) to represent the Yola Norte/Yola Sur/Girei federal constituency. Four years later, he 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 Adamawa’s three senators and the only woman from the North in that election cycle.

He has promised to harness the state’s agricultural capacity to address poverty and inequality. She has also presented herself as an advocate for women’s rights to education and the right to vote and run for public office.

“During my campaigns, I told these women that if they voted for Binani, they would be doing their children a favor,” Dahiru said in an interview. “I told them that: “If you have a daughter, you are doing her a favor by voting for me; you will be doing that favor to a sister and, to a certain extent, to your mother”.

“I will give preferential treatment to the issue of women and young people, and especially to girls,” he added.

To counter Dahiru’s appeal among the women who form a large part of his political base, Fintiri chose a female running mate.

Female representation in politics

Nigeria once had a female governor, but she was not elected. In November 2006, Virginia Etiaba became Governor of Anambra when the incumbent Pedro Obi was charged. She resigned from the position in February 2007 when a court order overturned her removal.

Dahiru’s rise to the big stage comes as female representation in Nigerian politics is declining. The number of women in the federal parliament has been steadily declining since 2011. In the March 2023 vote, the number dropped further from 21 out of 423 confirmed seats to 15.

This comes as other African countries are increasing the representation of women in politics, said Elor Nkereuwem, a gender and social movements researcher at John Hopkins University.

“The truth is that women have been able to get those opportunities thanks to legislation that makes quotas mandatory for women,” she said.

Last year, the Nigerian parliament refused five gender bills seeking equality for women, including affirmative action quotas for women in the legislature, with members of the male-dominated parliament citing religious and cultural reasons.

“In general, women leaders tend to be relegated to the periphery because a series of social contradictions hamper their political journey,” said Irene Pogoson, a professor of political science at the University of Ibadan.

Analysts say a combination of sociocultural norms and a hostile political environment have prevented women from holding high political office.

But the law has also done it.

In 2015, former cabinet minister Aisha Alhassan nearly became Nigeria’s first elected governor after a court annulled the election in nearby Taraba, also in the northeast, only to have the decision reversed by a higher court.

An ‘exclusive men’s club’

And while Dahiru’s imprint on her communities is notable, critics point out that she sponsored fewer than 10 bills, none of them directly targeting women, in 12 years in parliament.

“Like most Nigerian politicians, they don’t play the ideological battle of ideas on which politics is built. I think the same is true for Binani. What she does better than most is sell herself and understands how to play Nigerian politics,” Hashim said.

Still, analysts point to her trip so far as a much-needed symbol of color and inclusion in Nigeria’s murky politics. Whether history will be made remains to be seen, but the broad cross-partisan appeal Dahiru has garnered could be the dawn 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 pool of women who can envision themselves in similar leadership positions,” Pogoson told Al Jazeera.

“If Aishatu wins, women will start to see that these substantive positions are not an exclusive club for men,” said Nkereuwem.

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