Sarah Jibril, Nigeria‘s most consistent case-maker for a female president, was once described as an “irritant” who should know her place is not at Aso Villa, the country’s seat of government.
Born in 1945 in pre-independent Nigeria as Sarah Nnadzwa, Jibril has come to epitomize that generation of privileged West African women who were allowed to have formal education in a region historically known for underserving the girl-child even after colonization. In Nigeria in particular, Jibril”s story is woven into the tapestry of the legacies of formidable women including Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of Afrobeats pioneer Fela Kuti, who has been described as the “doyenne of Nigerian women’s rights”.
But the truth is, Jibril did not intend for her life to be an exemplary subject in Nigerian history. She just wanted to become a doctor.
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However, when she got a scholarship to study for a diploma in education in the UK, things began to change. She took up a role as physical education tutor at a teachers’ training college in northern Nigeria from where she left to the United States to attend the Senior Staff College in Fort Leveanworth, Kansas City, for her first degree.
Politics was the next step right after Jibril returned from the United States. She tried to represent the people of Kwara State, her home state, in the senate in 1983 but that failed and she was appointed the state’s commissioner of social development, youth and sports.
Even though there were very few women in positions of influence and even fewer who had taken it upon themselves to challenge the status quo, Jibril did not feel the need to tap strength from numbers.
“I didn’t come into politics to get popular. I came into politics with the mind of warring against the evils, and inhumanness I found when I came back from my study abroad,” she told Sun News in 2019. It was as if her gender did not matter – it was all about a deep-seated motivation to rectify public imbalances.
But Jibril’s belief in personal conviction sans feminist ideology and trust that the public that will vote for someone who is capable was tested when she, as well as others, contested Goodluck Jonathan for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential ticket in 2011. She ended up with just a single vote in the primaries.
This prompted a famous query by Jibril, asking why she had been let down by Nigerian women.
“What offense have I committed against the women of Nigeria? They should tell me so that I will know? They should check my records right from when I was a commissioner right from when I was chairman of [state] governing council and all other positions I have held in the past,” Jibril is known to have ranted.
According to reports, Jibril had been promised and expected massive support from women in her bid to become the presidential candidate of a major party. It was not the first time she had been let down and perhaps, believed 2011 would be different if the electorate remembered that she was the first woman to contest the presidency in Nigeria.
In 1992 after military president Ibrahim Babangida had sanctioned a presidential election, Jibril tried to be the flagbearer of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) but officially came fourth (although she believes she was third) in the process.
Not one to stand down, Jibril gave it another shot in 1998, this time for the ticket of the PDP, when people’s favorite Olusegun Obasanjo was tipped to win. Obasanjo secured the party’s nomination and went on to become Nigeria’s first president in the fourth republic.
In 2003, Jibril defected from the PDP and joined the now-defunct Progressive Action Congress (PAC) where she was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate. When her name appeared on the ballot in the general election that year, Jibril made history as the first Nigerian woman to legitimately attempt to win the presidency of Africa’s most populous country.
Put together, she has tried four unsuccessful times to be president but that defeat in 2011 where she received just a solitary vote stung Jibril more than usual. In the spirit of sewing together the PDP and recognizing her commitment to justice and fairness, President Jonathan appointed her the president’s special adviser on ethics and values in 2012.
These days, Jibril is no longer with the PDP although she is not staying out of national politics. And her beliefs remain as they were announced in 1992:
“My visions have not changed. And for decades, I have it in my head that as a mother and a citizen of this country, that Nigerians are teachable, changeable and transformable.”