Q&A with Professor Remi Sonaiya and Laila Johnson-Salami

Nigeria is trapped in a patriarchal system where the role of women in politics and public life is weakening the notion of democracy. Heinous acts such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual and domestic violence are still too prevalent and too few women are at the forefront of politics, helping us move toward stronger support for our most basic, shared human rights.

Are we liberated? As Nigerian women, do we have access to universal human rights? Our constitution may say yes, but misogyny and the mindset of millions of citizens may disagree. Professor Remi Sonaiya is a scholar, social activist and in this past year’s elections, the progressive KOWA party’s candidate for Nigeria’s presidency from.

I recently shared a conversation with Professor Sonaiya during which she spoke about the hardships faced by Nigerian women, reasons why she said she believes women lack political representation in Nigeria and what can be done about it.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, with minor edits for clarity, and to keep things moving…

(LJS) Good morning Professor, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

(RS) Thank you for having me, this is an important topic for discussion and I am glad that I can share my views with you.

(LJS) Great, let’s get started. In your opinion, what are the key issues we face as a nation with a lack of women at the political forefront?

(RS) Our nation is clearly not getting the benefit of having the perspectives of half of her population represented at the highest levels of decision-making. This is a pity, because we know that men and women complement each other in a very significant manner. For example, research has shown that women prioritize education and social services in terms of the allocation of funds, which is very important. Women are also concerned about matters relating to the welfare of the family; that definitely contributes to stability in the society. By keeping the women out, we are robbing ourselves. Imagine keeping the women out of participating in the affairs of the home!

(LJS) But what solutions can be implemented to improve female civic engagement in politics and public life?

(RS) I believe that if we could evolve a new political culture, more women – and even more men! – would be attracted to participate. The current political culture of violence, carrying money around in Ghana-Must-Go bags for bribing people, holding night meetings, etcetera, does not give politics a good reputation and keeps women away. I always make the point, whenever I have the opportunity to talk about politics, that it is actually a very honorable endeavor, and that it provides one the opportunity to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I challenge people to begin to think differently about politics – that is, violence and stealing are not an intrinsic part of politics.

(LJS) Do you think the lack of female participation is due to lack of interest or barriers to entry?

(RS) I think it is both. There is lack of interest because of the bad reputation politics has in our country. It is seen as a domain for men alone, and women who venture into it might be considered as being of loose morals – if you find yourself as the only woman among so many men. Because of that, a lot of women don’t even think of engaging in politics at all. But the entry barriers are also a problem. Imagine the amount of money involved in buying nomination forms and conducting campaigns – how many women have access to those kinds of funds? Of course, we know that men have a way of raising the funds too, like taking it from the government’s coffers. That is why “god-fatherism” is such a big issue in our politics.

(LJS) Politics is male dominated in Nigeria. What challenges have you faced as a woman with a strong interest in politics and how did you get around it?

(RS) Personally, I had to take some deliberate decisions, like joining a relatively small party, rather than one of the big ones where I was sure I would run into well-entrenched systems which might not be very democratic and which would not allow me to express myself as an individual. I also did not want to have to contend with moneybags and godfathers. KOWA Party gave me a platform where I knew my opinions would count as much as anybody else’s, and I really want to appreciate the founders of the party who established a truly democratic platform which could lead to somebody like me emerging as the party’s presidential candidate.

The challenges I face as I campaigned were mostly about people’s expectations, especially regarding the distribution of money. Most people expected me to come to them with loads of money to dish out. But I explained to them that since they were taking money from other candidates, then they should not expect an improvement in their standards of living – since they had already collected money upfront. A few people also felt that a woman’s only place was in the home – but I was pleased to find that there were not so many of such. Perspectives have begun to change.

(LJS) You inspired several upcoming female politicians through the KOWA party. It was refreshing to see a strong female presidential candidate during the elections and also to see you running as a member of a smaller party. What are you doing to encourage more women into politics and break the barriers to entry?

(RS) Oh, I am traveling around and talking about it. I have been getting a lot of invitations since the elections, and I make it a duty to accept them since they provide the necessary platforms to get these important ideas out there. I love to engage people on these issues and challenge their preconceptions. I am happy to say that I have been getting some really positive responses, which is encouraging. I do quite a bit of writing; I have a column in a Sunday newspaper called “The Niche”, and from time to time I express these ideas in my writing.

(LJS) So how is the lack of female representation going to effect the next generation of aspiring female politicians and public servants?

(RS) I think that the situation is changing, and I hope that the change will continue and be faster, so that the next generation of women will have examples and role models as politicians and public servants to inspire them.

(LJS) Do you feel we can achieve our Sustainable Development Goals without equality of opportunity in government?

(RS) It would be difficult to attain those goals, and I really hope that our governments at all levels will recognize that fact and work to ensure that women are brought in to contribute their part. There are seventeen sustainable development goals, many of which have to do with women directly. They should be at the forefront of issues that concern them directly. It should be realized that a more just, more equitable world would be a happier world for everybody. I am sure that this is a fact that even men would agree with, and I always like to engage men on these issues as well – we are in it together.

(LJS) I read an article not too long ago that argued all of the goals relate to goal five, gender equality. What advice do you have for the next generation of influencers with a strong passion for civic engagement?

(RS) The advice I always give is, conquer the fear. Don’t let anybody’s negative attitudes influence or dissuade you and pursue your dream of contributing to your country’s development in this vital area of politics. Civic engagement is something that all of us should be involved in. After all, it is our society, and if things are not going well all of us are suffering. Should we all not rise up to do something about it? Of course, not everybody will get involved full-time, but definitely we need to all be concerned and to ensure that we support those who will devote their time to running our affairs. And also monitor them and hold them accountable.

(LJS) Thank you very much, Professor. I appreciate everything you are standing for and hope to see more women following in your footsteps.