Sophia Noor breaks cultural barriers to become first woman to win constituency seat
After gruelling and tough political campaigns in Northern Kenya between preferred male candidates hand-picked by elders, a liberal wind was blowing in Ijara Constituency of Garissa County.
Ijara was the only constituency in Garissa County to have had a woman candidate gunning for a National Assembly seat which attracted five other male candidates.
The candidates took advantage of conservative cultural beliefs and practices by castigating and lambasting the only woman with the aim of intimidating her out of the race.
Most candidates were taunting her to take up position of women representative as that is the only seat reserved for women with others using the Holy Quran and giving wrong interpretation on the role women should play in community leadership and decision making.
“Madam Sophia Abdi Noor entrance into the Ijara race unsettled many candidates and they used all tricks like religious interpretation, cultural beliefs and above all trying to incite women against her,” says Khalif Abdi, a human rights defender from Ijara Sub-County headquarters. He notes: “All the tricks failed as the community down here understand her ideals and development records from when she was nominated Member of Parliament and head of a local non- governmental organization.’’
Negotiated democracy played key role in the sharing of all available elective positions to various clans with a view to building community trust and cohesion as well as stemming electoral armed violence which is registered in northern Kenya during the electioneering period.
The negotiated democracy system involves elders and other community members who deliberate on a number of seats to be shared amongst the populous and minority clans and also collect list of all candidates interested in the seat.
Each clan elects their representative to the traditional system who then join elders in vetting all the candidates and endorse a line-up which generates disenchantment within the community.
“Some elders were opposed and uncomfortable with candidature of Noor while others supported and encouraged her to go for it,” says Abdi. He explains: “They was no general consensus on who was picked by the community for the Ijara seat though some political heavyweights were favouring Noor’s rival who was also the incumbent Ahmed Ibrahim who clinched the much coveted Jubilee Party ticket for the Ijara seat. Noor was nominated through the Party for Democracy and Reforms. Despite the high Jubilee Party wave in Garissa that also hosts the leader of Majority in the National Assemble Aden Duale, Noor still went ahead to win.
The only woman MP-elect for single constituency from Garissa and the entire northern Kenya region, Noor played a key role in fighting for women’s rights and empowerment and ensuring communities in Garissa value girl child education.
Noor has also played a key role in mobilising women from Ijara to embrace agro-pastoralism. She encouraged and built their capacity which led to their establishing the only community operated irrigation scheme managed by women in Masalani area of Ijara.
Noor garnered 6,001 votes against the incumbent who received 5,705 votes.
Noor’s support for women’s empowerment bore fruit during the announcement of the final constituency election results in Masalani with thousands of women carrying sticks camped a distance away from the tallying centre waiting for the announcement as they showed their solidarity with her.
Some hours to the announcement of the results tension was high as women from various wards and villages hired vehicles and ferried their colleagues to Masalani to witness the winner being declared.
“They were confident their preferred choice would win the seat and prepared for any eventuality. It was the first non-violent action by women in Garissa in ensuring one of their own clinched a leadership position,” says Bishar Amey, a youth leader from the region.
Halima Abdi Gedi, a woman leader from Ijara defended their action of guarding the woman MP-elect votes so as to avoid a repeat of mistakes they made during 1997 General Election when Noor made her first debut for the Ijara parliamentary seat.
During 1997 contest, the ruling party short changed Noor and declared a little known public health official as the winner for the seat under behest and order of a powerful individual who wanted the health official to warm up the seat for him till he retires from civil service.
“Once bitten twice shy and we as Ijara women decided that the nasty incident of 1997 which robbed us of our woman MP did not happen this time round,” says Halima Abdi. She adds: “We saw sustained campaigns in maligning the name of our candidates and traditional system in undermining her candidature.”
Noor managed to beat all the male candidates due to her agenda and manifesto which she had unveiled to the community and other stakeholders in Ijara Constituency that borders the expansive Boni Forest that straddles across into Somalia.
In the rest past Al-Shabaab terrorist group has used the Boni Forest as a strategic command centre where it has launched various armed attacks targeting non-locals and government facilities in the remote area.
In her manifesto, Noor promised to empower the community and building trust between them and the government in eradicating the terrorist cells and setting up a robust community policing which will bring peace to the area and creating conducive atmosphere which allow socio-economic activities to thrive.
She also promised to empower women and girls through the Affirmative Action Fund in accessing financial literacy, entrepreneurial skills, setting up of a vocational training centre in Ijara and linking women and girls to local financial institutions for Islamic sharia-compliant loans and other financial products.
She also promised to sponsor a bill in parliament to introduce an element of Islamic sharia into the Women Enterprise Fund so that women from the region can tap into the fund and start business.
“ Ijara MP-elect’s manifesto came with many good promises addressing the problems that are currently affecting women, youth and girls as well as involving the community in security related matters,” says Ali Issak, a resident of Bodhai area of Ijara. He adds: “She touched hearts of many people.’’