By Henry Okonkwo
Prof Remi Sonaiya is one of the few vocal female politicians in today’s Nigeria’s political scene.
She is an educationist, writer and chieftain of the KOWA Party.
Prof Sonaiya rose to national limelight in politics when she stepped out and became the only female presidential candidate to lock horns with formidable contestants like former President Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the current President Mohammadu Buhari of the All Progressive Congress (APC) during the 2015 general elections.
In this interview with Sunday Sun, the Ibadan-born Professor of French Language and Applied Linguistics bared her mind on a plethora of topical political and national issues.
Your party – KOWA Party – chose another candidate ahead of you during their primaries. So, what has happened to your ambition?
My ambition is about my country. I’m very passionate about seeing a new political system emerge and Nigeria coming out from these terrible systems that we have accepted to be foisted upon us. And that does not depend on me as an individual. So, I’m very committed to doing whatever I can do to advance that cause. So, running for president is not about me. Wherever I can contribute to moving Nigeria forward, I’ll continue to do so.
Talking about the KOWA Party presidential candidate- Adesina Byron, what are his chances of pulling a surprise win at the oncoming elections?
Let me be blunt. I don’t appreciate this kind of questions. That is precisely what I just said about our poor mindset as Nigerians. When you ask yourself such questions, you’ll come out convincing yourself that your chances are low, so you needn’t take a shot. That kind of mindset doesn’t just work for me. I don’t ask such questions. The questions I ask are, ‘am I supposed to do something about the situation’? And if my answer is ‘Yes’, then the next thing is to ask ‘how can I give it my best shot to come in and make a change’. And I would really beg you journalists, to stop asking such questions because honestly, it is not helpful for the country’s growth and development. When young people sit down and are considering their chances of whether they’ll succeed or not, it would discourage them from taking risks. And yet we know that risk-taking is such a major factor in development. When people make moves to go to the moon, what were their chances of succeeding? Of course, there would be a few failures, explosions and destructions of the spacecraft, but in the end, they finally got there. So the issues of probabilities and chances shouldn’t come up when you have a vision. Because if you don’t try something you don’t know what your chances would be.
Why was it difficult for your party and the other political parties to form a strong coalition and endorse one formidable presidential candidate that would battle the incumbent at the polls?
To be honest with you, I don’t really know what happened. Because I was not directly involved, and the members of my party knew that I was not enthusiastic about forging an alliance that seemed to have been skewed to favour a particular candidate. So, I was not involved in all the issues and negotiations. And obviously what happened was that many parties ended not really backing the candidate chosen because in the long run the alliance was working towards a particular answer. So that is why we still have so many candidates running. Because they did not agree with how the decision at that point was taken.
What big lessons have you learnt since your foray into Nigerian politics?
My biggest lesson is that if you really set your mind to doing something, you can do it. Regardless of how overwhelming and impossible it might appear to be. And that is something I would like to communicate to Nigerians. We tend to have the mentality of ‘oh it’s impossible’, ‘my efforts cannot yield anything’ or ‘it is not worth trying because the odds are against me’ and so on. We should get rid of this sense of complacency or resignation in front of big challenges if we are looking to advance as a nation. So for me to actually imagine that I could run for the presidency of the nation, and then go ahead to actualize that vision is important. Many get too focused on the outcome, that they may not likely to win. So because of that, they choose not to try at all. With this sort of mindset, many of us would end up dying without making any tangible effort to change things for better. So I think we should not focus so much on the outcome. Rather, we should devote our energy into doing that which we’re convinced needs to be done.
How did your family and friends feel in 2010, when you made up your mind to quit lecturing to delve into active politics, especially with the wide belief that politicking in Nigeria is too dirty and dangerous for a woman to come into?
I’ve actually written about that in my book entitled: ‘One woman’s Race’, where I narrated my account of running in the 2015 presidential race. But I was not taken aside by my family. And it is because of the kind of family that I am from. They all encouraged me, my husband, children, my two brothers and cousins, members of my extended family and in-laws. They have not known me to be a flippant person, and that I don’t take decisions lightly. So when I told them, many of them were quite happy, and they were not surprised that I would take that kind of decision. Also in my place of work, I took the decision to resign my appointment from the university, at a time when university lecturers have just begun to earn a decent salary. So maybe a few people wondered ‘oh is it now that salary has improved that you are deciding to leave’? But none of them called me to say ‘Ahh! Don’t go into politics.’ And I feel it is because they know me and they know that I am not one that is given to fear. But I must mention that I chose not to go join any of the established parties that are already known for violence or night meetings. So, I chose the party that I would join carefully. I knew that there would be no point joining a group where you would feel like fish out of water. Or where you cannot fully identify with the way in which things are being done.
How would you rate the performance of this PMB-led administration?
To be honest, I can’t really talk about disappointment because I ran against him. The two main candidates back then were President Jonathan and Buhari. And I knew I couldn’t support either of them. So, I decided to contest because I was not comfortable with the choices that Nigerians where being presented with. So, I think all of us are experiencing the consequences of the choice the majority made. I know that one of the areas people feel somewhat disappointed to use the word is in the area of security. We had hoped that at least in terms of taking on Boko Haram and the herdsmen given his background as a military general. But unfortunately, we’re still struggling with terrorism. I am also grieved that for almost five years now, the remaining Chibok girls and Leah Sharibu are still in captivity. These are grievous things. Yet they don’t seem to grieve the leaders as much as one would expect. The leadership makes it seem that the lives of Nigerians are dispensable.
Girls go to school and they are abducted, and they stay there for five years, but business goes on as usual. The leaders continue to be comfortable, and sometimes you see them at meetings happily beating their chest about their accomplishments, joking and backslapping one another. I’d be mourning every day if I were responsible. So, it is a very sad reality that we’re living through in our nation. It all about the political leaders, it is not about a better life for the generality of the people, a concern for the pro-Nigerians, the millions that are out of school, living in abject poverty. Look at what we hear in the news, it is constantly about the individual, about who must have the upper hand and things like that. It is all about APC against the PDP, members of APC running to PDP, and PDP running over to APC. Is that what governance is about? That is the issue for me and it is so disappointing. And it is such a terrible level of performance from both the executive and legislature. This country needs both good leaders and followers. But I cannot blame the followership very much because there is a high level of illiteracy and poverty. And the lack of values can be attributed to the failure of education the people have received. Unfortunately, all of these came from the military incursion into government, because things were not like this before.
But the military has repeatedly stated they came into power for patriotic reasons after seeing the level of rot the country was plunged into back then. Do you agree?
What rot? They were the one that foisted the rot by centralizing the system of government. And that is where the issue of restructuring comes up.
Are you for it?
Yes! I am strongly for restructuring. Strongly! In fact, for me, it should be the major issue for this election.
What then would you say individuals and even sections that all term ‘restructuring’ a vague suggestion to Nigeria’s problems?
It is not vague. We were a restructured entity before. Aren’t we? Nigeria was not a centralized entity before. So all those saying ‘restructuring’ is vague to them or speaking against it are just showing pretense. They don’t want to lose control at the centre, which the military has set up. When we had our different regions, each region determined their priorities. Back then you had control of the resources that are found on your land and you contribute it to the centre, not this kind of overbearing centralized government that we have now where people just sit and wait for when oil money would be distributed. Many regions don’t bother about developing both the natural and human resources they have in their various areas. We are called a Federal Republic of Nigeria, so let us live true to our name. We’re not a federation the way we’re being run right now. We are a central government right now; we are not a federal government. So, these are the issues. So, what is the pretense about when people say they don’t know what restructure is? Did the military not restructure us? Did they understand what the military restructure meant at that time?
But how can it be attained when most political leaders don’t believe in it?
Did we not have a national conference? What has happened to the reports and recommendations that were made?