Is This Leading Lady Nigeria’s Next President?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This political outsider might be the change Nigeria has been waiting for.
Oluremi Sonaiya doesn’t mind being called a political outsider. In fact, she embraces the term. In a country like Nigeria, where the political elite is plagued by claims of public looting and a tendency to default on promises made on the campaign trail, Sonaiya, 62, is preaching “a totally different scheme of things from what we know of politics in Nigeria so far.”
In 2015, when Sonaiya declared her intention to run for president — the first female candidate from a major political party to attempt that, and the only woman in the 14-person race — she was known simply as a former university professor. The media and voters zeroed in on Nigeria’s incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, and former military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari. Both represented prominent Nigerian parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC). Sonaiya, who won just 13,000 votes, was a sideshow; Buhari clinched the victory, and many considered the election to be merely a race between two candidates.
But, eh. “I achieved what I wanted,” she says. “I wanted to show Nigerians that they have options; they don’t have to vote for the same people they’ve been voting for for years.”
In 2019, if Sonaiya decides to run again, her best bet is being heard by Nigeria’s young voters between the ages of 18 and 35, which comprise 60 percent of the country’s registered voters. Despite the fact that many were torn between voting for Jonathan and Buhari in 2015, youth voters are slowly turning elsewhere to look for political alternatives as issues like an underfunded higher education system and a steadily growing unemployment rate persist. “She doesn’t represent the typical politician,” says Marvins Abhulimen, 33, who voted for Jonathan in 2015. “She’s a citizen first. She’s a worker, she’s one of us. That’s how I look at her, like she’s one of us.”
What new thing do you expect them to do?
Unlike a majority of Nigeria’s political parties, Sonaiya’s party, KOWA, is not an acronym. It’s a Nigerian word that means different things in three different Nigerian languages: In Hausa, the term translates to everybody; in Yoruba, let it come and in Igbo, it implies explaining or shedding light on a topic. The party has been informally dubbed “the party of the youth” or “the social media party.” The KOWA party’s strategy is clear: On social media, the party acts as a sounding board for disgruntled citizens, while simultaneously selling itself as the alternative choice.
“Our narrative is that we are a different kind of party,” says Jude Feranmi, the party’s national youth leader. “We put [our ideologies] in front of voters and say, ‘This is what you’ve always wanted.’ It’s like putting a round peg in a round hole.”
Offline, the party already plans to set up what it calls micro-groups in every city. The groups, which resemble ward meetings held in large cities, allow Sonaiya and her party to show off at the grassroots level. The party hopes that these groups will spread the word about KOWA and deter voters from pledging their votes for cash and other gifts from major parties. So far, the party is present in 13 of the country’s 36 states, with more than 10 micro-groups in Lagos, the country’s largest city.
Sonaiya could be a welcome presence given the Buhari legacy thus far. A year into his presidency, Nigeria slipped into the worst economic crisis the country has experienced in more than 20 years. A drop in global oil prices affected the oil-dependent nation, and the devaluing of Nigeria’s currency hit the citizens hard, as many Nigerians wondered if this was the change promised to them in 2015. “What new thing do you expect them to do?” Sonaiya asks of the old guard.
Although Nigeria is a major crude-oil exporter, the country depends on the import of refined petroleum-based products like gasoline. In her 2015 plan for the country, Sonaiya emphasized the importance of investing in Nigerian refineries to reduce how much petroleum products are imported into the country. She also sounded off on more heart-wrenching topics like disability rights — a new conversation — demanding wheelchair-accessible entrances in public spaces.
Raised in Ibadan, one of Nigeria’s most populous cities, with four brothers, Sonaiya is accustomed to being the only female in the room. She speaks of her personal and political identity with a kind of inevitability: She was always going to be in the classroom, after a French teacher in secondary school made it clear to her that “this is what I want to be.”
The Cornell graduate’s claim to politics comes cloaked in the same narrative: She felt drawn to policymaking after teaching French and applied linguistics at Obafemi Awolowo University, one of the country’s top institutions, for more than 25 years. Her time on campus showed her the lack of resources and infrastructure that constrains young people’s educations. Housing was cramped, with six students stuffed into rooms made for three. Today, Sonaiya still speaks with the measured, deliberate cadence of a professor. One can see how she might command a university lecture hall, or a room full of powerful policymakers.
And yet, Sonaiya’s idealism may not be enough. In 2015, she raised 6 million naira. Buhari raised 54 million. “In Nigerian politics, it’s who spends more and who is able to draw a bigger crowd that gets the attention,” says Godson Okoye, a 2015 presidential candidate under the United Democratic Party. With two years left until Sonaiya and the KOWA party declare their intentions for 2019, they must plant a seed in the hearts of voters — and hopefully stir up energy to outrun the money.