Lagos, Nigeria – Last May, Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) announced Aishatu “Binani” Dahiru as the winner of the primaries for governor in the northeastern state of Adamawa, making her the only female standard-bearer from a mainstream party in the elections for the governorship and the state assembly.
The 51-year-old politician could also make history on Saturday as the first elected female governor in Africa’s largest democracy, when only 24 of the 416 candidates vying for the office are women.
Dahiru could be named governor-elect as early as Sunday afternoon if she can defeat 13 other opponents, including incumbent governor Ahmadu Fintiri, who is seeking re-election under the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Getting the ticket was no sinecure.
In the primary, Dahiru fended off competition from male political veterans, including former anti-corruption chief and ex-presidential candidate Nuhu Ribadu and Jibrilla Bindow, the state’s former governor. Months after the primary, a state court overturned the result for irregularities, before a higher court later overturned the ruling.
The election proper poses another challenge for Dahiru, a serving senator since 2019 and formerly a one-time member of the House of Representatives. But experts say it could herald change in what remains a conservative society.
“Coming from an ultra-conservative region, many assume that there is no place for a woman to run for the office she is,” Fakhrriyyah Hashim, a former member of the Africa Leadership Center and organizer of the Arewa MeToo movement told me. , to Al Jazeera. “They instead attribute her inability to lead men in prayer to her perceived inability to lead a society in government.”
Religious scholars have openly preached against her candidacy. Across the region, Boko Haram’s deadly 13-year insurgency, which has banned Western education and kidnapped women and children, continues.
But her supporters, especially the working class and rural women, remain unfazed. Residents say she has been widely involved in philanthropic efforts across the state for years, helping low-income households.
“This is the path that Aishatu laid out long ago,” Yasmin Buba, an advocate for girls in Yola, the capital of Adamawa, told Al Jazeera. “Unlike other politicians who come to the communities through stakeholders, Aishatu interacts directly with the people.”
Build a base
The APC’s guidelines that two of every five deputies elected from each ward, the lowest level of the electoral structure in Nigeria, must be women worked in Dahiru’s favor during the governorship primaries. Already popular with women across the state, many of the delegates identified with her ambition.
It also helped that Abuja was supportive. She was reportedly supported by the presidency and by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential candidate in the 2019 and 2023 elections.
Yet in 20 years Dahiru has built a formidable political machinery that many believe could lead her to victory if there is a high turnout. A businesswoman and trained engineer, she became active in politics after returning from her studies in the United Kingdom.
In the past ten years, her reputation has skyrocketed.
In 2011, she ran for election to the House of Representatives under the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) to represent the Yola North/Yola South/Girei federal constituency. Four years later, she moved to the All Progressives Congress in 2015 after Muhammadu Buhari defeated then-incumbent Goodluck Jonathan to become president.
There, Dahiru lost her bid for 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.
She has pledged to leverage the state’s agricultural capacity to tackle poverty and inequality. She has also presented herself as a defender of women’s right to education and the right to vote and run for office.
“During my campaigns, I told those women that if they voted for Binani, they would please their children,” 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 do that favor to a sister and to some extent to your mother.
“I will give preferential treatment to the issue of women and youth, especially the girl child,” she added.
To counter Dahiru’s appeal among women who make up much of her 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 incumbent Peter Obi was impeached. She relinquished the seat in February 2007 when a court order invalidated his removal.
Dahiru’s rise to the big stage comes as women’s representation in Nigerian politics declines. The number of women in federal parliament has consistently declined since 2011. In the March 2023 vote, the number fell further from 21 of the confirmed 423 seats to 15.
This is because other African countries are increasing women’s representation in politics, said Elor Nkereuwem, a gender and social movements researcher at Johns Hopkins University.
“The truth is that women have been able to get those opportunities because of legislation that mandates quotas for women,” she said.
Last year, the Nigerian parliament rejected 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 are relegated to the periphery because a range of societal antagonisms hinder their political journey,” said Irene Pogoson, a political science professor at the University of Ibadan.
Analysts say a combination of socio-cultural norms and a hostile political environment has prevented women from holding top political positions.
But so is the law.
In 2015, former cabinet minister Aisha Alhassan nearly became Nigeria’s first elected female governor after a tribunal overturned elections in nearby Taraba, also in the northeast, prompting a higher court to reverse the decision.
An ‘exclusive gentlemen’s club’
And while Dahiru’s footprint is noticeable in her communities, critics point out that in 12 years in parliament she has sponsored fewer than 10 bills — none directly about women.
“Like most Nigerian politicians, they do not play the ideological battle of ideas on which politics is built. I believe the same is true for Binani. What she does better than most is sell herself and she understands how to play Nigerian politics,” Hashim said.
Still, analysts point out, her journey so far symbolizes much-needed color and integration into Nigeria’s otherwise dark politics. Whether history will be made remains to be seen, but the broad, cross-party appeal Dahiru has gained could well be the start of a new era, they say.
“We shouldn’t underestimate how empowering it is to see another woman in such a leadership position because role models can help broaden the pool of women who can envision themselves in similar leadership positions,” Pogoson told Al Jazeera.
“If Aishatu wins, women will come to see that these substantive positions are not an exclusive men’s club,” Nkereuwem said.