By de-registering Kowa Party, others, INEC has rewarded parties that engage in violence, vote-buying —Sonaiya, ex-Kowa Party presidential candidate
A retired Professor of French and Applied Linguistics from the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife, Osun State, Professor Remi Sonaiya, was KOWA Party’s presidential candidate in the 2015 election. She speaks with DARE ADEKANMBI on the de-listing of 74 political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), what the leadership need to do to fix the country, what must be done before 2023 election, among others.
WHEN you heard or read the news that KOWA is among the 74 parties de-registered by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), what was your immediate reaction?
I was surprised because although Kowa Party remains what we can call one of the smaller parties, I don’t accept the term ‘mushroom’ party that most people used. Yes, KOWA is smaller than the parties we know. We have participated in elections in Nigeria consistently since we were registered in 2009. KOWA won a position in Bayelsa State House of Assembly in 2011 and even right now, we have a councillor in Imo State. So, I was surprised we would be lumped with every other party. It is not as though we have not proven ourselves, of course, within the limitations of the conditions imposed by INEC itself and the condition of the electoral laws operative in the country.
Given all that has been happening in the country, we are getting to a point where you almost don’t get surprised anymore, I mean the impunity and lack of regard for the laws. So, they are pushing us up to a point where you hear a thing and you say it is another instance of their impunities, the overbearing attitude of those in leadership and government.
INEC’s argument has been that parties like KOWA pose logistic challenge to it when preparing for elections. For instance, all parties must have their logos on the ballot papers, even parties that may not get any vote at the end of elections.
Only a thoughtless person would not recognise that we have a problem. So, I quite accept that having 90 something parties is unwieldy and extremely expensive and wasteful. Imagine the amount of money that we waste on elections in the country. The question is: what makes it possible in the first place for INEC to register over 90 parties only to turn around and de-register 74 of them? They should be aware that something is wrong in the system. Could it be that INEC needed to look more closely at the system and process of registration? What I was expecting was that there would be a serious discussion, study on the changes that we need to make to run a better electoral system. That would involve re-examining the entire laws and requirements regulations and so on. We might have to ask, for instance, why should all parties be national? INEC says you must have an office in Abuja, which is understandable, and at least 23 states of the federation, and I am thinking: why? What if there are a group of us who live in Osun State and our desire is to seek political power so we can transform Osun State? What is wrong in that? Why must INEC force me to go to Zamfara State, if all I am interested in is making Osun State a showcase, maybe even a local government or a senatorial district in Osun State? Why should we be forbidden from doing that? If INEC really is seeking to improve on the system and is really interested in getting Nigeria running better, I would have thought that it is that kind of fundamental review of the situation that should have taken place. What are those things that are keeping us down? What are we constantly running around in circles? It is because we have given ourselves an impossible system. We are running a structure that does not make sense, given our circumstances. We should be bold and courageous to admit that we need to rethink the entire system. The system we are running is over-centralised, concentrating all the power in a few places at the centre. The system is killing so many things and that is why people are calling for restructuring because everything needs to be restructured. There is no doubt that having so many parties is ridiculous. But it is not for INEC to come out and wield the big stick. Why didn’t INEC call all the political parties to discuss how to go about the whole thing in a fundamental manner and so we can all propose a better system for the country?
Will KOWA be joining other parties that have threatened to challenge the decision in court?
KOWA, I believe, has already written to INEC, pointing its attention to the fact that we have a serving councillor in Imo State. But I don’t know whether there has been a response from INEC as yet. But the letter has been acknowledged by INEC. I guess we will just wait for what their response will be.
Do you see the decision as one that infringed on the freedom of association of Kowa party members as some people have argued?
Not only KOWA party members, but members of other parties as well. We are free to associate and, of course, one expects that there will be guidelines and what I am saying is that there should be realistic guidelines. I find INEC’s action as lacking in humility. I know that very often we don’t think about that in terms of public office and leadership. Humility is something that is strange to our leaders and yet it is so vital in order to serve people properly. INEC should have looked at itself. INEC is telling parties that they have not performed; it should have asked itself how well has it performed? At least on two occasions that I can remember, INEC told us they were ready for elections, only for them to go and cancel the elections at the last minutes. Who went ahead to ‘de-register’ INEC when that happened? INEC has given us elections that have been adjudged less than free and fair by international observers. Think of the pains that many would-be voters go through to register and get their voter cards. INEC’s performance has been less than optimal. In the last elections, only 35 per cent of registered voters turned out to vote. Is that a good performance? Where then does this arrogance come from? What is it based on? Given the prevailing circumstances in the country, none of the parties so de-register can perform optimally. There is also the argument that we have not completed the electoral cycle. We have had the presidential and governorship elections. Yet, there are still pending governorship elections as well as local government elections in most states. So, INEC does not yet know whether some of the de-registered parties would have been successful in those elections. It is obviously not a clearly thought out decision.
When you earlier used the expression that INEC lumped KOWA party with others in taking the decision, I got the impression you agree with those who crusade the position that most of the parties are just there to add to the numbers and act as ready tools for the main parties to spring surprises against one another.
When I used the word ‘lumped,’ I was not thinking of that. All I meant was what I already explained, namely that since 2011, we have been participating in elections and we have at least won a couple of seats. Yes, that might not be big enough. For goodness sake, we are all in Nigeria and you know that politics is heavily monetised in the country. So, in a sense, I feel that what INEC has done is to reward the parties that had access to loads of money and could buy the votes of the people. When a people are kept deliberately poor, you ensure that they will be susceptible to selling their votes. How many Nigerians hold maybe N5,000 in their hands at once? And all of a sudden, during the season of election, somebody comes around and offers N5,000 or even N2,000 for each vote. This means a lot to the people who sell their votes. INEC is headed by a professor who is an academic and he should be able to address the issues more fundamentally. INEC is not asking how the big parties are able to sustain themselves and main this stranglehold on the voters and mar the elections with violence. INEC is only rewarding parties who can do violence. We saw what happened in Kogi State and the parties involved are not questioned. Money is brought in bullion vans to someone’s house the day before election, this should matter. INEC has not even said anything about the parties that were involved in the violence that usually marred elections. Once the votes are counted and winners declared, that is the end. It should matter. INEC should ask questions. After all, what INEC says is that for the presidential election, the candidates should not spend more than N1billion. Does INEC bother to find out how much each person spent? Are you telling me PDP and APC candidates only spent N1billion each in the last election? These are fundamental issues. It is a pity those who are in charge are not willing to address these issues.
In 2015, you were KOWA’s presidential candidate. Now that the party is no more, according to INEC, will this kill your motivation to aspire to the highest office in the country in the future or are you contemplating joining any of the more popular parties?
My motivation is the political transformation of Nigeria. KOWA was an avenue to express that motivation and I did not join KOWA Party lightly. I am not shopping for political parties so that I can get there by all means. If that was my intention, I could have joined the parties that I knew would at least win election and maybe probably give me some position. I am not interested in that and I am not shopping for any party. I can’t join people with whom I don’t agree, whose values are strange to my own. How can two people work together except they agree? So, for me, that is the bottom line.
Is the motivation to aspire still there?
I contested in 2015 partly because I did not believe in the candidates that I saw. I knew I could not vote for either of them. If I see a candidate that I can support wholeheartedly I will. If I see a candidate that I believe has integrity and the love of the country at heart and is willing to work hard and govern with fairness and justice, it will be my great honour and pleasure to support such a candidate.
Given the conditions that propelled your aspiration in 2015, would you say you have been justified five years after, looking at the happenings in the country at the moment?
Is it not obvious? If you go on the social media, you will know that many of the people who actively supported President Muhammadu Buhari are now saying if only they had known and things like that. Everybody has their reason. I knew in my heart that I could not support either of them. It was clear for me.
What advice do you have for those in the leadership position on how to lead the country to prosperity and make it secure?
I think that de-centralisation also called restructuring is the only saving grace left for Nigeria and I believe that Nigerians should demand it from the current administration. We should demand it because we have the right. Those in leadership must not continue to impose this unprofitable, centralised system on us all. It is evident that it is not working. We all know what restructuring means. We were running a truly federal state before the military came and imposed this centralised government on us. The regions were basically autonomous and could determine their priorities and pursue their objectives. I think that is the best thing to happen to Nigeria now.
We may not be able to go back to the Western, Eastern and Northern Regions that we had, but we can work out something with the six geopolitical zones that we have carved out for ourselves. These issues were even debated at the 2014 National Conference. But the current government has refused to look at the reports of the conference. I do not think we should have another round of elections based on the current system we are running. This is my firm belief if we truly want to set ourselves on the part of progress and development.
I read in the news, the position of Professor Akin Oyebode who said it is not a review of the constitution that we need, but that we need to re-write our constitution. All this tinkering with a bad constitution is not what we need. We need to be bold to say we want fundamental changes. Why are other countries able to take bold steps? In 2012 or 2013, Senegal decided to scrap its Senate because it needed money and did not want to go and borrow. The country took that decision because it had a terrible flood and needed money to rebuild their infrastructure and resettle people. They asked themselves the question: what are we doing with two chambers of parliament? So, they scrapped their Senate and used the money to rebuild. Will Nigeria consider such a thing? Do you know the amount of money that will save us if we were to take such a decision? Instead, we keep borrowing and mounting up debt for our children. Why are other countries able to take the right decisions for themselves and Nigeria, in spite of the fact that everybody recognises that Nigerians are gifted people, can’t do the same thing? Nigerians are the most of educated of the immigrants segment of the United States› population, even more Nigerians have Ph.Ds than the US citizens. We know how to excel, but somehow this issue of leadership has always been our problem.