President of the Nigerian Senate, H.E. Godswill Akpabio [in blue] with a section of the Somali delegates (Photo: YouthHubAfrica, 13-Nov-2023)
Between 13-19 November 2022, Somali female members of parliament (MPs) embarked on a study tour to Nigeria. Facilitated by the United Nations Population Fund in Somalia, the visit aimed to foster collegial bond and knowledge exchange on the legislative experience in both countries. I arrived in Nigeria together with the highly enthusiastic members of the delegation with two primary objectives. The first was to understand how Nigeria was able to pass bills on gender-based violence and other gender-related bills. The second was to share experiences and compare notes and learn from each other in the process.
Given our aim of achieving this relational dialogue and learning, the choice of Nigeria was natural. This is down to several commonalities between the two countries. Though Nigeria is a much older democracy compared to Somalia, both countries share cultural, religious, and social similarities. Nigeria has also dealt with issues of women rights where religio-cultural pushbacks have posed a stumbling block to legislation. However, these hurdles were eventually overcome through concerted efforts from civil society organisations, development communities and federal legislators. Nigeria also made for a revealing case study because we share a similar governance structure; a bi-cameral legislature at the federal level and unicameral legislature at the state level. Importantly also, both countries share similar challenges in combating terrorism and dealing with humanitarian situations.
Our tour was marked by high level visits to the Office of the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representative (HoR). The Senate President, Godswill Akpabio warmly received the 15 visiting female MPs drawn from 54 members of the Somali House of the People and 14 members of the House of Senate. He hailed the visit as a critical development that must continue because “we share the same objectives of ensuring good governance and prosperity,” were his exact words.
The Office of the Speaker equally welcomed the team in a meeting chaired by the deputy speaker, Hon. Benjamin Kalu. Acknowledging that Somalia had more women representation in its parliament than Nigeria, he remarked that 13 out of 16 women MPs are chairing various committees. In effect, Somalia could show the way on how to increase female representation in parliament while Nigeria presents a worthy example of entrusting leadership positions to women in parliament. Interestingly, the deputy speaker went on to propose the possibility of establishing a Nigeria-Somalia MPs Association to cement the friendship and dialogue between both sides for the strengthening of constitutional democracy, legal protection and freedoms for all.
That said, there were more dialogue opportunities with legislative and gender advocacy organisations in Nigeria. The National Institute of Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS) hosted the delegates where the director of the institute, Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman offered to partner with the MPs to expand their capacity through training and related resources. Our visit to the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) was an equally instructive and encouraging experience. Welcoming the delegation, the Secretary-General of WRAPA, Saudatu Mahdi praised the MPs for their courage in being part of the political decision-making by putting themselves forward. As the leader of the delegation – Hon. Zamzam Ibrahim Ali noted that the experience of female politicians as well as the perception of women in both Nigeria and Somalia were likely similar, making the dialogue not only timely but something that should carry on into the future. The Secretary-General of WRAPA presented an incisive account on the challenges witnessed in Nigeria’s attempt to push through its GBV law. “It took 14 years to get the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act to be passed in Nigeria” she remarked, while noting the lessons learnt from the arduous advocacy involved. Overall, there was a lesson to reflect on regarding the anticipation of pushbacks by and the influence of cultural and religious gatekeepers. In the Nigerian case, she concluded, it has taken over a decade of research and constant dialogue with religious authorities to convince them that the rights of women are not at odds with Islam. But progress has eventually been made, and that is what truly matters.
Further, I was honoured to have moderated a session at the United Nations House, Abuja, which brought together members of UNFPA-Nigeria and UNESCO-Nigeria leadership, as well 14 CSO and NGOs who have played their part in pushing gender advocacy at the federal and state level. The enriching discussions that took place touched on how daunting gender advocacy can be and the importance of never relenting.
There were opportunities for informal discussions facilitated by the Senate Committee Chairperson on Women Affairs, Senator Ireti Kingibe who hosted the delegates at her residence. It was an opportunity to deliver the unique blend of Nigerian hospitality and culinary experience. Also, there were television and radio interviews, which gave the Nigerian public a peek into what brought the delegates to the country. Speaking on the Voice of Nigeria (VON) radio programme, Hon. Nadia Saleh Abdi, who is chairperson of the social committee (House of the People, Somalia) mentioned that their visit has lived up to their expectations. Hearing from CSOs, NGOs and parliamentarians themselves on how they worked in tandem to move bills forward was one of the highlights of their visit, she noted.
Further encouraging on this mission was that every organisation or state institution that we held a dialogue with assured us that their doors were opened for more substantive discussion on the particularities of the Somali condition. On their path, the delegates relayed their keenness on inviting their legislative colleagues and interested NGOs to Somalia to witness the country firsthand. It feels good to say that UNFPA-Somalia and the Somali female MPs dared to dream; believing that Nigeria holds some of the answers to the questions they have.
I am exceedingly thankful for all the high-level personalities and agencies that kept their doors open to us and supported us: the National Assembly, UNFPA-Nigeria, Youth Hub Africa, amongst others. This marks the beginning of stronger bilateral ties between Somalia and Nigeria on gender advocacy and legislative cooperation.
Niyi Ojuolape is the Country Representative of UNFPA Somalia