Nigeria’s first-ever female candidate for president, Remi Sonaiya went into the 2015 Nigerian presidential campaign with eyes wide open.
Most voters going to the polling stations March 28 had only two names in mind: Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari.
Though Sonaiya acknowledged that her chances of winning the election were slim, her goal was to change the conversation in a country where politics have long been considered a man’s game. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Remi Sonaiya and her Nigerian presidential bid.
Sources: Independent.co.uk, News24.com, 360NOBS.com, VanguardNGR.com, INECNigeria.org
Despite the fact that Nigeria boasts a democracy, women have largely been left out of the political world. With 8 percent of female National Assembly representatives, Nigeria remains a powerfully patriarchal society. By contrast, Rwanda’s parliament is majority female at 64 percent. South Africa has more than 45 percent female representation. Women are notoriously underrepresented in government, occupying just 21.9 percent of all elected seats worldwide. In the U.S., that number is even lower, at just 18 percent.
Though several women served as members of President Jonathan’s cabinet (Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke), Sonaiya was the first female presidential candidate in Nigerian history. Though her chances were always slim, she hoped to “break the jinx” that has seen women shut out of Nigerian politics for decades.
Before her foray into politics, Sonaiya worked as a professor of French language and linguistics at Obafemi Awolowo University, her alma mater. She retired in 2010 to devote more time to politics, adopting a “why not me?” philosophy. She said in an interview, “When you see so much suffering around you simply because the situation of the country is not what it should be, you get motivated to bring about a change. This is not the way Nigerians ought to live, given the resources available.”
Sonaiya’s KOWA Party presented an anti-establishment platform that was meant to appeal to oppressed Nigerians who felt left out of the country’s political process, namely women. She often said, “The Nigerian government does not exist in its current state for the welfare of its people and that’s why I’m here.” KOWA has approximately 10,000 to 15,000 members, a drop in the bucket compared to Jonathan’s PDP and Buhari’s APC parties.
Sonaiya urged women to stop “cheerleading” — a common phrase in her campaign — and take an active role in Nigerian politics. She spoke to the traditional sidelining of women from the political realm in the country, and the need to break through the glass ceiling to propel women to high office in Nigeria.
Sonaiya and her party operated her campaign on a small budget of donations from supporters and a reduced campaign team. Rather than use a private jet and unlimited funds from “wealthy godfathers,” Sonaiya traveled to campaign events in economy class on commercial flights, and advocated for “honesty, truth, diligence, hard work, and transparency” throughout her campaign.
Following President Jonathan’s muted response to the 279 kidnapped schoolgirls in Chibok, Sonaiya joined the #BringBackOurGirls movement to help bring more awareness and attention to the matter. She was adamant that the government was not doing enough to help find the girls and bring them home. “We’re all at a loss at how these girls cannot be found. This is a real slight on us as a nation that we would have these girls missing for a year now, and we continue as if everything was normal. People are going about their business, rallies are going on with their dancing, and laughing, and there’s this serious issue of more than 200 girls missing. It does make one wonder whether the government cares about us at all.”
From the start, Sonaiya recognized the small chance she had of being elected, but saw her campaign as an opportunity to change women’s roles in Nigerian politics. She said, “I hope that by my experience, a lot of people would be inspired to get involved in politics. Just by my being there, many are taking that challenge by themselves which is a positive.”
Sonaiya said women who refused to vote were responsible for “prolong(ing) our days of woe.” She was quick to criticize those who did not participate in the political process. “Those who make the choice to stay out of it are condemning all of us to longer days of suffering,” she said. “The earlier we can recognize that all of us need to be in this together, the better for us.”
Buhari won the presidency with nearly 15.5 million votes, or over 52 percent of the vote. By contrast, Sonaiya received just 13,076 votes, coming in 12th place out of 14 candidates running for president. Despite the low turnout for Sonaiya, however, she became one of the best-known names in the Nigerian election.
In her concession speech, Sonaiya said,“While we congratulate the incoming government on their victory at the polls, we also remind them that something has changed significantly about the Nigerian people at this election, and that governments will from now on be held to account.”
While the KOWA political party was relatively unknown at the beginning of the campaign cycle, Sonaiya’s candidacy increased its public recognition and support.
Kowa is not an acronym. It has meaning in several Nigerian languages. Kowa in Hausa means everybody. In Igbo language; it means be “to be open, no covering up, no hanky panky,” according to the International Center for Investigative Reporting. In Yoruba, it means “let it come.” It can also mean “teach us, show us the way.”
Sonaiya said she is determined to see KOWA represent a “solid and attractive platform of excellence for politicians of character and integrity” in the future. She said she’s convinced that “many Nigerians saw in our audacious candidacy the possibility of real change and a clear departure from what we have known so far as a nation.”