It is less than 24 hours to the presidential election in Africa’s largest democracy, but not up to a fraction of Nigeria’s 180 million people know that OluremiSonaiya is contesting. A retired professor with no previous attachment to political power, she runs as an ‘ordinary Nigerian’ under the banner of KOWA—a party that has never held power at state or federal level. But ordinary Nigerians—powerless and mostly poor—have never been known to massively support one of their own, the reason the country’s rulers have virtually remained the same since independence. Sonaiya has not relented however; she avows her genuine care for the country and believes it is time for the many ‘silent’ clean citizens to wrestle politics from the dirty hands of the current leaders.
In Nigeria it is naive for a politician to claim that he or she genuinely cares about the country or its people. After over 50 years of avaricious, deceptive and disconnected leaders, Nigerians regard those gunning for political power as pranksters to whom they pay attention only when there is something in it for them. This ‘something’ cannot be promises of societal development–those kinds are scorned at. Only things like cash rewards and promise of lucrative contracts or positions can attract people’s attention. Thus, a Nigerian politician who runs around with the message of love for fatherland, and no brown envelope to prove it, risks ending up lovelorn—loving and not being loved. This is Sonaiya’sfate.
For ‘a whole’ presidential candidate, Remi doesn’t go on her campaigns with brown envelopes. Instead, she carries with the books she has written about Nigeria. One of them is Daybreak Nigeria: This Nation Must Rise! Reminiscent of Barack Obama’s the Audacity of Hope, the book laments this nation’s frustrations with the angsts of Jeremiah and expresses its hopes with the passion of Isaiah.Another, Igniting Consciousness: Nigeria and Other Riddles, plants incisive questions and waters them with sagacious commentaries, both germinating deep thoughts on what really is Nigeria and Nigerian. When I interviewed Sonaiya last month, these books were the only ‘gifts’ she gave me. I told her that her fellow contestants were sharing products ranging from bags of money to sacks of rice. She replied that she is just a retired professor living off her meagre pension. In my mind I retorted, no wonder you came here with just one car and two companions.
This is how Sonaiya goes around for her campaigns; with no convoy, no armed guards, no thugs, no rented crowds… she does not even have singing troupes. She only parades an amazing intellect, a rare nationalistic fervour and pride-crushing simplicity. Her gatherings are hardly ever noisy and often resemble brainstorming sessions. In these gatherings, she always displays a calmness that speaks volumes of her confidence, and an enthusiasm that shows her strong convictions.
This rock-solid belief in her cause is part of Remi’s problem; her stand on integrity and clean politics has left her a bystander in Nigeria’s election movie. Her campaign organisation is broke. It could not even afford posters and billboards, not to talk of adverts on national TV and Radio stations. Remi has had to do much of her campaigning through social media, tweeting and posting on Facebook by herself. But even in that turf she is bossed out by the big boys. Her little over 2000 twitter followersand less than 5000 Facebook fans are evidence of her decision not to, like her political contemporaries, rent social media cherubs to sing her praises. Sonaiya also tries to sell her vision through her website where she published a lucid and inspiring manifesto free of the gargantuan and abstract rhetoric regular politicians. But even that effort has had very limited success because most Nigerians are more prone to selling their votes than buying ideas.
During our interaction, Remi told me her campaign did not have the funds to tour the country and put up ads, because Nigerians were not donating. Apart from members of the upper class with vested interests, Nigerians generally don’t give money to politicians. They collect instead. The politicians are already looting the treasury, they would argue. But Remi does not have the keys to any treasury, and has refused to promise any of the upper class bigwigs the key, if she gets it. As a consequence, she does not have godfather(s) or a well-oiled political machine to impose her on the people and buy her victory. Ideally, this should make her the frontrunner, given that more than 90 percent of Nigerians are suffocating under the strangling grip of the few wealthy and powerful. However, ethnic and religious differences perpetuated by ruling class, have hindered the formation of such cross country rally against poor governance.
Remi has pledged drastic change in the concept of governance, the political culture and the socio-economic focus. But Nigerians, again, are not fans of drastic change. They could manage a little shift; from the ruling PDP to the opposition merger APC–half of whose members are former PDP anyway, or from a southerner to a northerner, even if both have a proven track record of failure. But when it comes to a candidate charging for an overhaul of the nation’s flawed structure, they are not so eager. Many are not even comfortable with a woman leading them.
Yet, a total overhaul is what Nigeria desperately needs. The current system of government, flawed and ineffective, requires total restructuring to make it truly federal efficient, just as the attitude towards governance needs an aggressive re-orientation that enshrines integrity, transparency and accountability. The same radical push is needed to pull the economy out of its dependence on oil, convert its rapid growth into real development, reduce the terrifying inequality gap, and most importantly to provide jobs for the millions of unemployed.
There are several other critical issues in demand of drastic measures: the extremely poor national cohesion and very high cultural cum religious intolerance, the appalling level of impunity and corruption in high and low places, and the often blatant disregard for human rights. One of the emphasis of Sonaiya’s manifesto is the reformation of the police, a paragon of the institutional ineptitude and indiscipline that plagues the country. Unsurprisingly, none of the two big parties made such emphasis; weak institutions serve their interest.
Given the mounting odds against a possible victory for her at the presidential polls, I asked Sonaiya if her candidacy was more or less a political statement. “No”, she said emphatically, “it is a process.” “I hope you will get this perspective,” she added,“We are trying to build something here. We are trying to sensitize Nigerians, to shift our attention from this kind of politics that is just draping with money but no service. I got her perspective. But judging from the body language of those on the streets, on whose account Sonaiya calls for this change, they don’t still get it.
About author: Onyedimmakachukwu is the Policy Editor of Ventures Africa, a pan-African business magazine and online business news and analysis platform. He resides in Lagos, Nigeria. You can follow him on twitter @afeksionate.