June 13, (THEWILL)- Prof Oluremi Sonaiya was the only female candidate that contested in the 2015 presidential election. In this interview with AYO ESAN, she speaks on issues affecting Nigeria. Excerpts:
June 12 has been chosen as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. It used to be May 29, but three years ago President Muhammadu Buhari made the change. How do you see the development?
Well, it is a response to popular sentiment really because I believe it is the people who preferred June 12 as Democracy Day to May 29. So, may be President Muhammadu Buhari was just responding to popular sentiment. The people said June 12 is much more significant than May 29. So, it may be that President Buhari just feels it is good to go along with the people’s sentiment.
For the past 22 years we have been having democratic rule. How do you see the journey so far?
I think we should situate this conversation within the things that are happening in this country. Let us not just say, Democracy Day, another one has come again. The reality of our existence right now, I believe, is that there is an assault on democracy and democratic principles. It seems as if our current government is drifting more and more into a resistance of true democracy. This is because true democracy is government by the people and for the people.
For instance, the latest ban on Twitter, under the guise of controlling hate speech and insecurity and so on, is really an attack on democracy. There is no democratic country that does not have people who are out to foment trouble. Will you say that because some people are using the Internet for hate speech you will impose a ban on it to the detriment of millions of other Nigerians who are using it in the right way and for good purposes?
Some people are doing legitimate business on Twitter. Are you going to make them suffer because of some people who are using it wrongly? That is a challenge for Democracy and that is the challenge I believe that our leaders are unable to fix and to react to right now. If your solution is to clampdown on people because some are using something wrongly, then you are really not in democracy. You are an authoritarian regime.
The Ninth National Assembly was two years on the June 11, 2021. How do you rate its performance in the last two years?
I don’t know about rating. The questions you are asking me are typical journalists’ questions. How do you rate this, how do you score that and so on. I think you people should help us to probe things deeply. You ought to go deeper than this. Let us look at what they are doing. How are they doing their work? Let us ask questions that will bring out the real issues.
The National Assembly currently has recommended some bills for passage which the President has not assented to .They have refused to pass some bills which the public might feel that they should have passed like the Gender Equity Bill. The question is who are they representing? Who are the members of the National Assembly representing? Are they representing the interests of the generality of Nigerians?
Let’s take the ongoing constitution review as an example. The House of Representatives and the Senate have had their public hearing and the people have asked, “What is the use of that duplication? Why did they duplicate efforts?” It does not look like our lawmakers are mindful of the costs of their activities and the attendant burden placed on Nigerians. They don’t seem to be mindful of it .So the money is there and they can spend it anyhow. They spent it on themselves and for their own remuneration. They also spent it in duplicating efforts. Are they conscious of the fact that every single kobo that they spent in an unnecessary manner translates into robbing Nigerians of some vital services?
Our resources are not limitless. So if they are spending money on things that are not critical or vital, it means that they are not going to have money to spend on things that are more important, such as fixing our roads, giving us a better supply of electricity, water, hospitals, schools and so on. These are the real issues and that is why somebody like me, for instance, I would like to say that I am for a unicameral legislature.
I think that the situation in the country right now and the resources that we need, do not allow us this luxury of a bicameral legislature. I think that if the National Assembly really had the interest of this nation at heart, it would include a change from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature as part of the amendment of the ongoing amendment of the constitution. And it is not as if we are saying something that is out of the ordinary.
In 2012, Senegal needed money because they had serious drought that affected a lot of people. And they didn’t just want to go borrowing like Nigeria is wont to do. They asked themselves what to do internally to save money. What they did was to scrap their Senate and use the money saved as a result of the action to help their citizens affected by the drought. That is an African country like Nigeria. We are having serious challenges in the form of banditry, kidnapping, Boko Haram insurgency, herdsmen attacks and so on. We need money to tackle these challenges, but we are not thinking of making fundamental changes that can help us to save money.
You talked about the ongoing plan to review the 1999 constitution, but some people believe the appropriate thing to do is to get a brand new constitution. What’s your take on this?
Yes, a brand new constitution. That is my own personal opinion. I am part of a group known as ‘Fix Politics’. We want to fix Nigerian politics. We made representation at various centres during the public sitting on review of the constitution. And I will like to let you know that, what we are asking for is a brand new constitution. Of course, the members of the National Assembly have said they are not empowered to do that. According to them, what their power can do is to make amendments. So our suggestion is that they can just do one thing for us. They should not worry about the issues that various interests groups have brought before them. Let them do one thing: Amend the constitution to allow the citizens to have a referendum on the constitution. Let them just do that one thing for us.
Once that is done, then the citizens can take over. This is because what we want now is a citizens-driven constitution. It is not the one that a group of people will impose upon us. The citizens are already talking, anyway. Some are saying, let us first of all revert to the 1963 constitution. That one was clearly negotiated and agreed to by the different regions of Nigeria. May be we can go that way and then each region, which retained autonomy, can now decide what kind of structure they want internally for their region. Some are saying no because the regions in those days were divided into three: Western region, Eastern region and Northern region. What if we just take the six geopolitical zones that we have now and say let them be the federating units of our country? And then each federating unit can now decide what kind of structure it wishes to have internally. These cases of listing local government areas is not the business of the constitution. These are the issues we are concerned about.
What do you think can be done to improve our electoral system as we move forward as a nation?
Again we made our submission to the National Assembly, regarding the ongoing electoral review. We also learnt that work has been completed on it. Unfortunately nothing has come out. The National Assembly has not come out with what they have proposed as amendment. I think the general comment about the constitution also applies to the electoral law. The problem with Nigeria is that we are running a terribly centralised system. That cannot help us.
The reason why it cannot help us is because we are a diverse people and we have not been able to evolve a system to effectively manage our diversity. That is important and that is also reflected in the way that our elections are conducted. We conduct our elections as if the whole of the country is the same, may be in term of development and so on. But we know that is not true. You can’t compare the level of Lagos State with the level of some other states. So why do we think we must have a blanket system for the entire country?
If INEC only managed the presidential election and the regions have complete authority over the elections at their different levels is it the state governor that they want to call the head of their region? Whether it is Prime Minister, local government, districts or whatever, this is the way democracy functions effectively. Democracy does not function well when you run a unitary system of government.
A few days ago on Channels TV, I saw somebody speaking in defence of the government on the ban on Twitter. He was making a comparison between the situation in Nigeria and other countries and kept referring to China and Russia. It was very instructive that his examples are not democratic countries. China does not run a democracy and Russia does not run a democracy. So why are his examples only from China and Russia? Why was he not talking about the United Kingdom? Why was he not talking about America? Those are the established democracies that we know? So it is important to realise that these are the issues we have to confront. Let us truly live up to our name of being a federal republic. We are a federation. That means a lot of autonomy for the federating units. And then the only structure that binds all of us together would be national issues.
I can quickly say that, for instance, when elections are conducted in some states in the United States of America, people don’t even bother to leave their homes because it has been decided that voting would be by posting ballots. You post your ballot. Of course, you post it freely. They send ballots to every voter and you are required to return it through the postal services. So there is no going out to line up on Election Day. People can respond to the challenges within their own localities in a sensible manner. May be this is possible because of the high level of literacy in such states.
Similarly, we can engage our people with written documents and things like that. In some cases they do both electronic voting and stamping of papers. So why are we behaving as if we cannot think and find our way out of this mess? Nigerians are gifted people. The government should not confine us to a state of sleeping giant. We used to say that we are the giant of Africa, but people are no longer calling us that. It is true we have slipped and now we are called a failed state and it is a shame because Nigeria does not deserves to be in that position.
You contested the presidential election in 2015. Now that 2023 is almost here, what are you gunning for in the next election?
Personally I am hoping that we are not going to have another election with the system that we have now. That is my hope, my prayer and my desire. I pray that we will be determined to change this system and restructure this country. That is the language people are using. I also pray that we should restructure before another election. Who is the present system helping? Honestly it is not working. So why should we keep on repeating the same thing? That is my sincere hope.