Prof. Remi Sonaiya was the presidential candidate of the Kowa Party in the 2015 elections. In this interview with Juliana Francis, she speaks on challenges female politicians encounter in their bid for public offices and suggests a way forward
What led you to politics?
The state of Nigeria; I couldn’t believe the way my country was being run. I was in the university teaching and every year things were just getting worse. I was teaching at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), which was the same university I did my undergraduate studies; OAU was top-class in the early 70s it ranked among the top universities in the world.
People were admitted for post-graduate studies from around the world and they excelled.
But teaching at the university, the conditions were so terrible. It was not in any way the standard that I experienced as an undergraduate and it dawned on me that it is our politicians who determine the quality of our lives, the quality of our education, the quality of our infrastructure because they have all of our money and resources are in their hand so they will put the money wherever they want, either in their pocket or into something reasonable. So, that was what led me to politics
If you say the state of Nigeria was what led you into politics; did you in any way help to improve the system even though you were not able to occupy the office of the president?
I did my best wherever I was. In as much as I did my best in whatever position I occupied; I believe I tried to make things better. The students who passed through me, I gave them the best quality possible given our environment and circumstances. So, I felt I contributed in my own way to making things better
What is your reaction to the belief that money edges women out of political participation?
We know that money plays a huge role in Nigerian politics. Money plays a big role generally everywhere because one needs money for campaigns, traveling, advert and so on, but we know that the case of Nigeria is a special one.
For instance, look at the amount of money that is needed to buy the nomination form as we saw in the last election, between N40 million and N100 million just to buy the presidential nomination form.
I believe that made a statement that only very rich people or people who are sponsored by very rich persons can enroll in politics and that doesn’t make sense because if we see politics as an avenue that is opened to people who are capable of service, people who are capable to serve the people, people who have skills and ability that will advance the country, does it make sense to block access by putting that kind of a stumbling block on their way?
So, I believe it’s not only women who are edged out by money. The incredible role that money plays in our politics also impedes men. Where is someone like me who is a professor in the university supposed to get N100 million from? It gives a very bad impression and I believe from the start that this is all about money. If you don’t have it, don’t venture into politics and we see the aftermath as those elected into office have to recoup all the money they have spent by stealing from the treasury.
Did you have that kind of challenge; being forced to run around looking for money for the expression of interest form when you contested the presidential election?
I did not run around looking for money at all because I did not believe in the politics of money. I believe that politics is supposed to be about ideas, so the little money I was able to put together from my husband who first gave me N1 million and someone else, who gave me N1 million, in total I think I spent N6 million the whole of my campaign but I didn’t put myself under pressure because I wasn’t trying to be like others. I ran the campaign by myself; I was not going to look for money by all means. I wasn’t going to sell anything.
The money I had, I decided how to use it. So, the few places I was able to go for the campaign, we went there and I didn’t borrow from anyone. But it was a wonderful experience that I had. The thing is that I don’t succumb to running my life on the pattern of other people. I do my own thing according to my own personal conviction
Why is it that women in politics don’t consider crowdfunding?
It’s not that we don’t bring them in. People often think that if you are a woman, all other women will support you. No, it won’t happen because many of them have been bribed already. Many of the men would have gone around and distributed gift items to them. So, it is a systemic issue that we have to deal with because many women are not even free to support those they would like to vote for. People often say that poverty had been weaponised.
How many women have been able to walk away when someone comes and gives them N5,000 or N10,000? It’s not easy for them; we all know how much that money will mean to them and their families. But I will like to say that things are changing gradually because, in this last election, several women organised and supported female candidates and I know that for sure because even me, I contributed some money to female candidates that I know. But even after we did that, the men still came and rigged the election.
What will you suggest as the way out for women who want to venture into politics?
This is why many of us have been advocating that it is time to resolve some issues by law for women in all legislative houses; the Senate, House of Representatives and state Houses of Assembly. This thing will not happen if we leave it to the current situation that we are in because we remember that the men who are craving these positions won’t give up easily. When the Gender Bill was presented at the National Assembly, what happened? It was rejected.
So, we must pursue that now to ensure that we have some number of seats reserved for women. This is not something that has not been done before, there are countries that have done that and they have vouched that it has greatly benefited them. When more women participate in governance and decision-making, it is to the benefit of the entire country.
Imagine a home where the woman is not involved in running affairs. It is the same for the country; women are 50 per cent of the population, they have abilities and competence that they can bring in solving some of the challenges that we have. So, we shouldn’t see it as competition, we should see it as something that is beneficial to us.
The second thing I will point out is that we need to make politics less lucrative, people gain too much by going into politics but there are countries where they hardly pay anything to their politicians. They say if you want to come and serve us then do so, it’s not about making money.
Our politicians have so much money that falls into their hand and this are money that is supposed to be used for the benefit of everyone. When we make politics less lucrative and not for money making, we will have genuine people who will come out for it and I bet you there will be many women.
Will you agree that even if we de-emphasize money in politics, there are other factors like cultural issues that will still hinder women from participating in politics?
We shouldn’t have to speak about the role of women because it’s such a bad idea. It’s not worth repeating anymore but I know there are some places where the men say women do not have the ability of a leader but many of such men have bosses in their offices who are women. It’s only in politics that women are sort of lacking; if you go to the public and private sectors, women are holding reputable positions. So, why is it that it is only for political leadership that women are not supposed to participate in? It’s such a shame and we should really abandon it and move forward
During this year’s International Women’s Day celebration, you mentioned that electoral violence is another barrier for women in politics
Women are more careful about their safety, they would think of their husbands and children, but I still think that if there was not so much money in politics, violence will go down. The stakes are so high that’s why people are willing to kill so that they can get to positions.
For young women who want to venture into politics but don’t have money, what is your advice to them?
If you really have a passion for politics, you must network. You would need a network of people around you to make you get involved and register in the political party and begin to participate, learn the ropes, and interact with people and gradually the opportunity will present itself.
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