The only female contestant and standard-bearer of the Kowa Party in next month’s presidential election, Prof. Oluremi Sonaiya, talks about her ambition, women participation in politics and plans for Nigeria in this interview with GBENGA ADENIJI
What are you looking for in politics, having proven your worth in the academia?
I am looking for a good life for Nigerians — plain and simple. With all the resources that the country has, this is not how we ought to live.
Some people are of the opinion that there are two major candidates for the forthcoming presidential election and that others are mere pretenders. Are you one of the pretenders?
The people who think so are missing the point. In fact, they are not missing it; they are just wrong. I do not know why the Independent National Electoral Commission will publish a list of 11 candidates for the election and some people will take it upon themselves to reduce that number to two. That was what was written in an opinion on the back page of The PUNCH sometime last week, to which I quickly responded. Nobody has the right to help us think or do a pre-election. It’s like when you are going to have an interview, and then you decide that there are candidates you are going to interview. That is not the case in these elections. INEC has judged 11 candidates qualified, I don’t know where people are getting only two candidates from.
Considering the fact that the Nigerian political landscape is male-dominated, don’t you think all you are seeking is political relevance?
Seeking for political relevance, in itself, is not a wrong thing. Seeking for political relevance, so that you can do well for the majority of the people, is what politics is and that is what has been driving me. Politics offers one the platform to do the utmost good for the greatest number of people. Of course, I am seeking to be politically relevant so that I can have that opportunity.
On the issue of being a woman, this is a Nigerian, maybe African thing. We still think that ‘Oh you’re a woman, you’re a woman.’ And yet, all around us in the world, even in Liberia, we have seen a woman who is the President. What is wrong if a woman becomes the president of Nigeria, when a woman is already president in Liberia? What is peculiar about us? Why can women head other countries and it cannot happen in our own land? I would like to understand what the thinking behind that is. Is it that we are completely different from other human beings?
If you are really keen on service to the country, why are you not contesting under a well-known political party?
I am contesting for presidency on the platform of the Kowa Party because values matter to me a lot. Principles matter to me a lot. And I do not think that I want to trade my conscience, values or principles for, maybe, more certain results politically. We all know what we have been experiencing with the major political parties. You, the journalists, have been telling us — the lack of internal democracy, all this shifting back and forth, the apparent lack of ideologies and principles, and things like that. Why should I go and join forces with a political party where I will be constantly hitting my head against the wall? I have chosen to join a party whose principles and values are clear to me and where I think I will be able to have a moderate impact. When you consider the larger ones, my party may seem to be relatively not well-known, but principles are just fundamental for me.
Don’t you think that there were no strong candidates in your party, and that was why you emerged?
I don’t know why you feel that I am not strong enough as a presidential candidate. People were free to contest and we had primaries; there were four aspirants for the position.
How did you emerge?
We were interviewed. We had the primaries.
How many females contested?
I was the only female that contested.
What is your political worth?
I am bringing hope and the certainty that things can be better. I am bringing freshness; no baggage with me; all the political baggage that holds us down. It is all fine when it is campaign period and a lot of promises are flying about in the air. When push comes to shove, after somebody wins the election, everybody begins to jostle for positions.
What level of support have you received from fellow women, who make up your constituency?
Who says that my major constituency is women? I really hope that we will break from the molds we have locked ourselves into. Why can’t I represent the mechanics? Why is gender that important? Yes, I am the only female candidate in the forthcoming presidential election and I certainly hope that many women will be able to look at me and be able to identify with me. That is good. I have not been monitoring all the people who have been supporting me. I have not decided to categorise them; to me, that is not important.
You don’t have a clear picture of the level of support you have received from all categories of groups…
No, I am not interested in such perceptions. You are trying to impose your kind of perception of the reality on me, which I will not subscribe to. I am interested in the generality of Nigerians. If I am interested in the level of support from women, I will be interested in the level of support I get from the handicapped, the students and all other categories.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo promised 30 per cent of women participation in politics while he was in office. Do you think this move has encouraged more women to join politics?
To be honest with you, I do not think that we have got the best women into politics in Nigeria. Several women who have gone there did so because they were the wives, daughters or sisters of some people. I would prefer women to compete on their skills. There are competent women in our land — many; but many will not get there because of the system that we have been operating. Because of this tokenism, we just put this person there. I would not agree to be put there; I want to get there by my own scheme. I want to really compete.
What do you think are the chances you have?
I think my chances are great because I think that deep down within them, Nigerians will recognise that they have been suffering in the hands of those who have been there all these years. It does not take any special abilities to recognise that.
How will you assess the incumbent President?
I am not interested in scoring anybody. I have said that what has been happening to us is unacceptable. We had broken promises. Do you know how long the government has been promising us to fix the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway? Do you know how long we have been on that issue? How long will it take to repair how many kilometres of road? People still spend up to three, five hours on the expressway. Is that the way to live? I’m just asking. I am asking the people out there; are they satisfied with that kind of life? I have retired from the university and I have my pension. I could jolly well, go and rest my head somewhere and be enjoying myself.
Why are you not doing that?
I am not doing that because this is my country and I have a stake in it. I have stake in it for you and everybody else. Somebody has got to do what I am doing.
But you could also join hands and work with the eventual winner of the presidential election to move the country forward?
Support people who do not share your values? What kind of support are you going to get in terms of these fundamental principles that I am talking about? — Principles of fairness and justice for all, and not just for a few people; principles that build a system that allows the resources of a nation to be equitably shared. We remember that a former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria ignited a wildfire when he revealed that 20 per cent of the overhead of the budget was going to the National Assembly. Is that fair? Is that equity? These are the issues that I’m concerned about. Have the people who are there demonstrated that they are really concerned about such? It seems all there is to it is to give some handouts or token.
I don’t believe in government by handouts or benevolence. They distribute 10,000 motorcycles for people to do commercial transportation; pepper-grinding machines, sewing machines, Keke Marwa (tricycle), etc. How many of us will they distribute that to? Is it not better to build a system that functions, so that all of us can actualise our dreams and all of us can work? If there is an enabling environment, people will be ready to work. People will be able to pursue their ambitions, their areas of talent and so on.
Why are you not contesting for governorship or a seat in the National Assembly, at least for a start?
Not that I see anything wrong with that; I have given much thought to what I am doing. I have written three books on the Nigerian conscience. I really think I should contest at the level I am contesting now. I am convinced about what I am doing. I come from Oyo State. I am from Ibadan. I have lived in Osun State practically since 1972, when I became a student at the Obafemi Awolowo University. I have never really gone back to live in Ibadan. I have gone for studies somewhere and come back to Ile-Ife. Now, do you think Osun people will allow me to contest under Osun State? Won’t they ask where my father’s house is? Isn’t the National Assembly also a representation from the state? That’s what I’m telling you.
What is in your manifesto?
My manifesto is about ensuring that there will be no exclusion. I have a vision of a Nigeria where nobody is excluded; where no individual suffers avoidable exclusion. That is what my manifesto is about. Of course, that has to be broken down into different issues of security, job provision or employment, education and ensuring that there is rule of law. But the overreaching idea is to ensure that nobody suffers exclusion — the handicapped person that needs to get on a ramp to access a bank or something like that; providing safety and ensuring that we have a functioning policing system so that young girls are not held in baby factories; no child trafficking; protection for the citizens so that there will be no brutality from people in the armed forces. There are also security issues — how do we solve the Boko Haram insurgency? All of us must be protected and all of us must work together.
Political campaigns involve a lot of money. How are you funding yours?
People like you are supporting me. I do not have one single moneybag, for which I am truly grateful because, as I have told you before, I do not want to carry any baggage. Part of the phrases that you will be seeing on my posters and online is ‘Clean hands.’ All the people throwing billions at campaigns are making investments and they will be waiting to collect the yields on their investments.
All over the world, political campaigns gulp money, so what are you trying to say?
I’m not saying campaigns don’t gulp money. I am saying that people like you are contributing their N5,000.
How much have you realised?
I am not going to tell you that. I am not about to declare how much I have realised right now. It’s still coming in. As money comes in, I can do this or that. I don’t have a huge sum of money streaming in. As money comes in, it gives me the opportunity to do something else that I had not done before.
How far have you gone to convince the electorate that you are the best candidate among the rest?
I cannot measure in that sense, but what I know is that I am exploring all the avenues that are available to me. I have been on television and radio. I have been interviewed by newspapers, both foreign and local. I am getting my message out as powerful and as clear a manner as I can. I am getting good feedback. Of course, there have been a few skeptics who say, ‘A woman’s place is in the kitchen.’ They are living in the past; it’s their choice. They are free to do so. But I am very happy with the encouragement and the kind of feedback that I am getting. It is really energising me.
Are you confident that INEC will ensure free, fair and credible elections?
I really hope so. I often think and I believe I actually wrote an article on this before that when they are given an opportunity at historical moments, they have an assignment to do for Nigeria. All eyes are on Nigeria. Everybody has been saying that the 2015 elections will be like a watershed for Nigeria. You know how much expectation there is concerning the coming elections. When one is given an assignment at such a historical moment in history, one dares not fail. It will be a big slap if one fails at such a moment. I really hope they don’t let us down. I will pray for them. I really hope they will be able to get their acts together. The consequences of failure at these elections are just too great. I’m sure they don’t want that to happen to us as a nation.
If you don’t win the election, what will be your next political step?
I am sure I will win the election. However, when I get to February 15, I will think about what to do next. I’ll see what God would have me do next.
Did you consult God before taking the decision?
I did. In all my ways, every single day, I ask him: ‘Direct me God. What is your will is for me; let me not go astray.’
What did God tell you?
Let’s keep that between me and Him. That’s a personal thing between me and God.
Some Nigerians have advocated for a two-party system, arguing that such would ensure a virile, stronger democracy. What is your take on this?
If I were to agree with that, we must also make room for independent candidacy. There may be somebody who does not like Party A or Party B, and that person should also be given a chance to vie for positions. If the country wants to go totally bi-partisan, that’s fine; but they must have independent candidates. That is the way I look at it.
Have you ever held any political office?
No, that is why people are saying ‘You are starting from the top.’
Who is your political godfather?
No, I do not have a political godfather. I have God as my father and that is sufficient.
What are the challenges you have encountered so far?
I don’t think there is any particular challenge I am battling because I am female. What I have noticed is this reluctance of the Nigerian media to latch on to the reality that there are nine other contestants and they too need to be made known to the people. They seem to be struggling over themselves, popularising those who are extremely popular already. I don’t know how much percentage of the articles I have read are about the Peoples Democratic Party or the All Progressives Congress candidate. I don’t think they are doing a good service to Nigerians by not giving full coverage to the other candidates who are there because they are not letting Nigerians know what other choices that they have. They all seem to have reduced their choices to two. We keep doing the same things; we keep voting for the same people who have kept us in the mess that we are in.
How supportive have your colleagues been towards the realisation of your ambition?
I think you mean how supportive my husband has been. My husband is my number one supporter. I really want to publicly appreciate him and his sense of support. He is not your usual Nigerian man in terms of his ideas and perceptions. And he’s always been like that. Throughout my academic career, he was the one that woke up some day and said, ‘If you really want to be a serious academic, you really have to get yourself a PhD. And I went off to the United States for three and a half years and he was content to be at home. I don’t know how many men would do that. Even my being in Lagos right now came from him. He said, ‘Look, you cannot conduct a campaign from Ile-Ife. It won’t work. Get up, pack your luggage and relocate to Lagos, so you’ll be closer to the journalists and the airport if you have to travel. I really appreciate the spirit of sacrifice and support I have enjoyed from him all these years. My colleagues have also been very supportive. I am not sure that the Academic Staff Union of Universities likes to take a public position, so I will leave them to decide what they want.
What is your message to the electorate?
My message to the electorate is that they should dare to believe in change. They should not agree that we do not have a choice. We cannot continue doing things the same way and expect things to change. They should let us work together. Let’s take that bold step towards the change that we have all been yearning for, so that we can have a good life for ourselves in Nigeria.