Election cycles and Nigerian women: A historical perspective (1), By Tayo Agunbiade – Premium Times

The Daily Times published the results that Soyannwo scored 18,222 votes and Onabamiro 2,149. Yemi Onagbesan, a columnist in the Nigerian Tribune, hailed Soyannwo’s electoral victory in the following words: “She is a courageous woman who can even defeat great men in a ghastly battle. This was shown in her glorious victory against her opponents in the last west regional elections.”
The next election cycle in Nigeria is scheduled to hold between February and March 2023. It will be interesting to once again evaluate the progress of women candidates. A historical narration tracing women’s paths towards electoral power may offer insights into what may be the outcome.
Electoral politics commenced in Nigeria in 1922, when the principle of elective representation was introduced for elections to the Legislative Council of Nigeria. The law stated that only men, by virtue of their gender, were qualified for the franchise. Eligible men were to be nominated as candidates by three other men. So, for instance, Barrister Theophilus A. Doherty was nominated by Phillip Williams, Eric O. Moore and Laurenco A. Cardoso, who respectively were a merchant, barrister and licensed auctioneer.
Eligibility to contest and vote included this public notice:
Every male person who is a British subject or a native of the Protectorate of Nigeria, who is of the age of twenty one years or upwards and has been ordinarily resident for twelve months immediately preceding the date of registration in the Municipal area and was, during the calendar year immediately preceding, in possession of a gross annual income of not less than one hundred pounds, shall be entitled to be registered as an Elector…
The gendered election law was in place till 1951, when the Macpherson Constitution introduced a new political framework.  At the municipal level, the Lagos Local Government Ordinance N.17 of 1950 provided an opening for women. It provided “for the election of twenty-four members on the basis of a universal suffrage for men and women twenty-one years of age or over before 24 January 1950.” 
In the Abeokuta Province, four women had already won seats to the Egba Central Council by July 1949. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Egba Alake Section), Amelia Osimosu (Egba Oke-Ona Section), Victoria Adetutu Soleye (Egba Owu Section) and Nusiratu Oduola (Egba Agura Section) made headline news.  “Women become N.A. Councillors of the First Time” said the Nigerian Citizen of July 8, 1949. At the Council’s inauguration, the acting resident of the Province, J.H. Beeley, noted that: “I am glad too, to see four elected as opposed to nominated, women members. No community which tries to leave its women out of the picture will progress far, and it is hoped that an increasing number of women will find their way on to your Council.”
In Lagos, colonial documents show that the municipal election to the Town Council took place on Monday, October 16, 1950. Voting began at 8 a.m. and concluded – with an hour’s break from 12 noon till 1 p.m. – at 6 p.m.  Thousands of women voters were captured by colonial filmmakers at polling booths. The pioneer women candidates, Adebisi Adedoyin-Adebiyi, Tinuola A. Dedeke, Oyinkan Abayomi and Henrietta Lawson contested from Wards A, E, G and H respectively. Abayomi and Dedeke belonged to Nigerian Women’s Party, while Adedoyin-Adebiyi and Lawson were of the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)/ Democratic Party/ Labour Alliance, locally known as “The Demos.”
In the East, Margaret Ekpo and Janet Mokelu of the NCNC stood in the 1961 election from Aba Urban District and Enugu South East constituencies respectively. Both had convincing wins: Ekpo scored 4,510 votes, well ahead of independent candidate, U. U. Anyiam-Osigwe, who scored 2,087; while Mokelu scored 3,059 votes over Byron Onyeama, another independent candidate, who received a total of 2,535.
According to the election result sheet, Adebiyi came 3rd out of four candidates; Dedeke came 5th out of six candidates; Abayomi came 4th out of seven; and Lawson came 2nd out of six candidates. However, when Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, the winner in Lawson’s Ward, was nominated through an Electoral College to the House of Representatives at the centre, Lawson as the first runner-up became the first elected woman councillor to the Lagos Town Council. 
As the years went by, women’s participation in local council elections increased. By the late 1950s, more women won seats to District Urban and Town Councils in Ibadan, Akure, Ijebu, Aba, Enugu, Onitsha and Port Harcourt.  
In October 1959, elections to the Lagos Town Council saw three women: Keziah Fashina, Bassie Ogamba and L.F. Joseph of Wards C5, D4 and G3 respectively, win seats.  
However, at the federal level, participation was minimal. The 1951 Macpherson Constitution introduced Adult Taxpayers Suffrage and a three-step Electoral College i.e. Primary, Intermediate and Final. Very few women had taxable income and the delegates at each level of the Electoral College were drawn from pools of male-dominated native authorities.
In the 1951 federal election to the House of Representatives, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of the NCNC scaled through the primaries, but lost at the intermediate level. By 1959, she was leader of NCNC opposition in Abeokuta Urban District Council, and indicated her interest to contest in the December federal elections. But the party preferred the incumbent, Mr J.A.O Akande, so Ransome-Kuti contested as an independent candidate. She came third with 4,665 votes. Akande received 9,755, and Prince Adedamola of Action Group got 10,443 votes. Mrs Wuraola Esan and Miss Rachael T. Brown, both of the Action Group, also lost in their respective constituencies in Ibadan and Port Harcourt.
Perhaps the biggest electoral victory came during the 1965 regional election in Western Nigeria.  A former principal of Anglican Girls School, Ijebu-Ode, Esther Oladunni Soyannwo of the Action Group (United Progressive Grand Alliance), contested for a seat to the House of Assembly, and not to the Federal House of Representatives, as is widely written.
In the regional elections to the Western and Eastern Houses of Assembly, there was further loss, but there were some historic wins too. In August 1960, Ransome-Kuti contested from Egba Central 11 to the 124-member Western House of Assembly on the platform of the Majeobaje Alliance, but lost. In the East, Margaret Ekpo and Janet Mokelu of the NCNC stood in the 1961 election from Aba Urban District and Enugu South East constituencies respectively. Both had convincing wins: Ekpo scored 4,510 votes, well ahead of independent candidate, U. U. Anyiam-Osigwe, who scored 2,087; while Mokelu scored 3,059 votes over Byron Onyeama, another independent candidate, who received a total of 2,535. In a by-election in 1963, a third woman, Ekpo A. Young won a seat to represent Calabar West constituency.
Perhaps the biggest electoral victory came during the 1965 regional election in Western Nigeria.  A former principal of Anglican Girls School, Ijebu-Ode, Esther Oladunni Soyannwo of the Action Group (United Progressive Grand Alliance), contested for a seat to the House of Assembly, and not to the Federal House of Representatives, as is widely written.
Given the political status of her opponent from the Nigerian National Democratic Party (National Nigerian Alliance), the mother of six from Ijebu-West constituency made front page news. “Woman to Oppose Onabamiro” proclaimed the Daily Times. But, the Nigerian Tribune reported that she received threats to her life and was offered money to step down. She refused and instead sought police protection. On October 12, 1965, she defeated the two-time minister of Education and Agriculture, Dr Sanya D. Onabamiro of Ijebu North constituency.
The Daily Times published the results that Soyannwo scored 18,222 votes and Onabamiro 2,149. Yemi Onagbesan, a columnist in the Nigerian Tribune, hailed Soyannwo’s electoral victory in the following words: “She is a courageous woman who can even defeat great men in a ghastly battle. This was shown in her glorious victory against her opponents in the last west regional elections.”
Unfortunately, due to the prolonged political violence from October to December 1965 in the region, the members-elect of the Western House of Assembly did not take their seats. By January 1966, a military coup put an end to Nigeria’s First Republic.

Tayo Agunbiade is the author of Emerging From the Margins: Women’s Experiences in Colonial and Contemporary Nigerian History.

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