Thursday, 14 May 2015

Akwa Ibom women in the 2015 elections: A post mortem

Akwa Ibom women in the 2015 elections: A post mortem

The 2015 general elections has come and gone with all its high drama, nerve-wracking suspense and unexpected surprises. In Akwa Ibom State, several support groups had rallied around the core politicians, organising and mobilising support for their parties’ candidates. For supporters of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and its governorship flag bearer Udom Gabriel Emmanuel, it was a battle of relevance. Youths, women, students, artisans, transport workers, non-indigenes, civil servants, market women and professionals all stood up to be counted, jostling to register their mark on the canvass of a momentous political tide. 

Among the lot, however, one group stood out in its unrelenting enthusiasm and the quality of its engagement. It was the women. With the wife of the state governor Ekaette Unoma Akpabio as their arrowhead, the women held meeting after meeting- at the state level, at Senatorial District levels and in their communities. They mobilised; they organised; they strategised for Udom Emmanuel and other PDP candidates.
And then in the course of three weeks, Mrs. Akpabio and her band of women leaders traversed the state on a meet-the-women tour, storming the 31 local government areas and electrifying crowds in a manner that, many have argued, will for a long time challenge the best stunts by their male counterparts. 

It was not the first time that Akwa Ibom women have galvanized around Mrs. Akpabio’s inspiring leadership. They did it before in 2011, in support of Akpabio’s re-election bid. At the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly complex where the women held a rally to endorse Governor Akpabio in 2011, Mrs. Akpabio had famously declared: “Women are the salt of politics. These are days of positive change and development for the women. Women today, more than ever before in our state, have a big voice and can determine outcomes in matters of election and politics.” That prescient statement not only came to pass in 2011, but also in 2015, as the women became major determinants of electoral outcomes across the state.

But what could have been responsible for that groundswell of support for Udom Emmanuel from the women? Wife of the PDP flag bearer, Mrs Martha Udom Emmanuel, answered at the Eket forum: “Before now women were not enlightened on political issues. Today, we are the decision makers, courtesy of the PDP which has ensured that women are carried along. By coming out here today in this number, you have demonstrated your confidence in a party that will never deceive our women.”

Also at the Eket rally, the Eket Council Chairman acknowledged: “Before 2007, our women never had it this good. The awareness the governor’s wife has brought to the women is remarkable. We have no doubt that this will translate to votes at the polls.” 

Buttressing the point, Dr. Glory Edet, a strong ally of the governor’s wife and Commissioner for Women Affairs, said: “The administration of Governor Godswill Akpabio has raised the bar for women’s empowerment. We have more women participating in governance than ever before, and the women and girls are enjoying several social and economic programmes targeted at them”. She continues: “The massive support by women for the Udom Emmanuel project is therefore a demand for continuity and consolidation of those programmes. It is the women’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to a government that has done well for them”.  

The rallies also gave the women a space to extract commitments from politicians. The women saw their permanent voters cards (PVCs) as a bargaining chip for better days ahead. During the Nsit Atai rally, Engr. Mike Enyong, then House of Representatives candidate and now member-in-waiting for Uyo Federal Constituency pledged: “We will create programmes that will put money in the pockets of women. Women are the best managers. Now they are saying the women have taken over the whole place, but they ain’t seen nothing yet. We will change the story of our women.” In a similar vein, Bassey Albert, senator-in-waiting for Uyo Senatorial District had assured: “I want to re-assure the women that we will not let them down. We will report progress”.
But the women’s campaigns were not only about what politicians could do for women, but also about what women could do for politicians. It became a platform for women to showcase their skills, their political value. “Our women are out here today because Mrs. Akpabio has empowered us. She has taken us out of the kitchen and given us our rightful place in the society” said Idara Ephraim Akpan, wife of the Mkpat Enin council chairman. 

Mrs. Nelson Effiong, who was then campaigning for her husband’s senate bid for Eket Senatorial District, admitted: “In the past, I had no idea of my political value. I would sit at home and wait for my husband to come back from political meetings before he would tell me what transpired. But now all that has changed. Imagine me today talking politics, coming out here to work for the party, and going home to give him feedback.  This is what I call transformation.”

The rallies also showcased the women’s role in building bridges and cementing political fractures. At Ibiono LGA, Nkeiru Bassey Albert, wife of a former governorship aspirant who later settled for the Senate ticket, said: “My husband and I agreed that one man’s ambition is not more than the peace and unity of the entire state.”

The meet-the-women forums also provided a platform for the women to extract commitments from youths on the issue of non-violence and protection of women at the polls. At venue after venue, the women were reassured by youth leaders that they will be protected from harassment during the polls and that there would be no violence. This definitely had a positive effect on their turnout on Election Day.

Reflecting on the women’s outing, the party chairman, Obong Paul Ekpo, acknowledged: “Our women have become a political force that you can only ignore to your own peril.”

Christy Edwards-Akpan, a political activist and Special Assistant to the governor on education monitoring, said: “Women constitute about half of all eligible voters in Akwa Ibom State. I am not surprised that they took the lead in this campaign. It is the future of their children that is at stake”. She added: “This, of course has been made possible through the amazing leadership that the governor’s wife has provided. She is the driving force who has inspired Akwa Ibom women to leave the backseat behind and step out to become the very best that they can be.”

One can then understand why, on the day after the elections, the governor-elect Mr. Udom Emmanuel spoke in an emotion-laden voice during a rally to celebrate his victory. “I must thank all the women of Akwa Ibom. It wouldn’t have been possible without your support” he said.   

True, the outcome of the 2015 elections may have been markedly different without the phenomenal outing of Akwa Ibom women and their leader, the campaigner-in-chief, Ekaette Unoma Akpabio.

Bolton-Akpan is an Uyo-based development policy analyst.  

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