In 2015, Prof. Comfort Oluremi Sonaiya stood up to be counted in a male-dominated league; she dared to dream as the only female candidate in Nigeria’s last presidential election in 2015.
Had she won the country’s presidential election in 2015, she would have rewritten the course of history by becoming the second elected female president in democratic Africa following the unprecedented feat of the current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Nevertheless, 61-year-old Sonaiya, a mother of two and retired professor of French Language, Linguistics and applied logistics from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, still took Nigerian politics by surprise when she contested in the 2015 presidential election, a male-dominated space, under KOWA party. She polled 13,076 votes, a feat that distinguished her from her predecessors, women who had also contested the presidential election in post-military Nigeria – Mojisola Adekunle-Obasanjo, ex-wife of former president Olusegun Obasanjo who ran for the presidency in 2003 and 2007 but lost with just 0.01 per cent of votes; and Ebiti Ndok Jegede, who ran in 2011, but only managed to get 0.06 per cent of votes.
Sonaiya, a distinguished academic, reveals why she joined politics and her intention to run for the presidency in 2019, in this exclusive interview with Kayode Oyero. Enjoy the excerpts.
Can you tell us about your educational background?
Sonaiya: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria on March 2, 1955. I am the fifth and last child of my parents. I was the only girl so I grew up with boys, therefore quite confident among men. I began schooling in 1961 at St. Luke’s Demonstration School, Ibadan, from where I proceeded to St. Anne’s School, also in Ibadan, for my secondary education. I obtained a Bachelor of Arts in French from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1977, graduating with the best result in my faculty. I went for the mandatory National Youth Service at the Nigeria Military School, Zaria, and got married along the way. I then proceeded to Cornell University, USA, from where I obtained an M.A. in French Literature 1980 andanother M. A. in Linguistics in 1984 from the now Obafemi Awolowo University. I later bagged a PhD in Linguistics at Cornell University in 1988.
Why did you join politics despite being an educationist?
Sonaiya: I was concerned about the falling standards all around, especially as I had studied in the same university where I was teaching. I was concerned that students who belonged to my children’s generation could not have the same standard of education I had. I realised that politicians determined the quality of our lives. So, I decided to quit the university and join politics.
Looking at your scorecard at the 2015 presidential election, are you glad you did?
Sonaiya: I am very happy I participated. I had no illusions going in; I knew it would take time to bring about a shift in the political culture of money and violence, which had been so entrenched in our system. I was glad that I had votes in every single state in the country. I believe the chauvinists too would come around when they realise we need a change.
Do you feel you and KOWA party would have done better if you had been elected as Nigeria’s first female president?
Sonaiya: Of course, I would have done better by God’s help! For example, I would have consulted widely in selecting members of my cabinet, so that we would get the best people to manage our affairs in different sectors. The interest of the country, not party considerations, would have been the primary focus. Also, I would have gotten the cabinet in place before my inauguration, so that we would really hit the ground running. It’s strange to nominate people for ministerial positions and not have them assessed by the Senate on their competence in specific areas.
KOWA party seems to be a silent opposition…
Sonaiya: KOWA is not a silent opposition party; the fact is that, in Nigeria, if you do not have plenty of money it is difficult for your voice to be heard. We are very active on the social media, where we have quite some amount of following. We are gradually building up the party, and we are very hopeful that soon we will become more visible as more people join us and contribute to funding the party. KOWA does not believe that parties should be funded by money from government coffers.
President Muhammadu Buhari was democratically elected as Nigeria’s president only after his fourth attempt at running for the office. Do you intend contesting for the presidency again in 2019?
Sonaiya: Of course, it is the person who emerges as the party’s candidate after we must have conducted our primaries who will represent the party in the presidential elections. Who knows, maybe it would be me.
What drives you?
Sonaiya: What drives me is a passion to see my country well governed and her citizens live a dignified and prosperous life, as in so many other countries that I have had the opportunity to visit. I believe there is nothing fundamentally different from us and other human beings in terms of the abilities we were created with. How come we won’t use them to improve our lives? How come we allow a few people get away with so much theft and condemn the overwhelming majority to a life of penury? I am driven by a passion for truth, righteousness and justice. When there is righteousness in governance, the people will rejoice. I also believe Nigeria owes itself the responsibility of getting her act together and taking her rightful position of leadership in Africa.
What is your message to African women?
Sonaiya: African women should be bold; there is no need to be afraid of politics. Let us begin to see participation in the political life of our nations as a duty we owe our nations, ourselves and our children, just like we participate actively in the running of our homes. If half of the population is missing, we are being short-changed. Women have their peculiar contributions to make, which will complement those being made by men. It has been shown that, in societies where women are present in governance, such societies become more stable, more prosperous, thereby leading to better standards of living.
What are your hobbies?
Sonaiya: I love to travel, cook, bake, sing (I’m a chorister in my church). I also write. Asides academic publications, I have three published works: A Trust to Earn – Reflections on Life and Leadership in Nigeria (2010); Igniting Consciousness – Nigeria and Other Riddles (2013); and Daybreak Nigeria – This Nation Must Rise! (2014).