‘It’s been 25 years since the Beijing platform for action, but women’s participation in political leadership remains abysmally low’
The University scholar furthered her studies with a Master’s Degree in French Literature, from the prestigious Cornell University, in the United States and then a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the same institution. Sonaiya started her career as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Languages, Obafemi Awolowo University, rising steadily to attain the academic rank of a Professor of French Language and Applied Linguistics in 2001. She has served as a French interpreter for international conferences since 1989, including sub-regional summits like that of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Sonaiya retired as a lecturer from the Obafemi Awolowo University in 2010, to join politics and was the National Public Relations Officer of the Party, before emerging the flag-bearer of the party for the 2015 general elections.
As an Educationist and Writer, she has published several books which include, Culture and Identity on Stage: Social-political Concerns and Enactments in Contemporary African Performing Arts (2001), Language Matters: Exploring the Dimensions of Multilingualism (2007), 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). Despite losing in the 2015 general elections, Sonaiya has remained focused and steadfast in her party by not defecting but rather building its political base in the country. She shares with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA her ideals on women-related issues, the recent delisting of her party by the INEC and other sundry issues.
After your brilliant and bold outing in the 2015 elections, why didn’t you represent your party in the 2019 elections?
I actually did participate. I was among the three aspirants who contested in the presidential primaries of KOWA Party, along with two men. One of the men, Dr. Sina Fagbenro-Byron, was the winner. That was my party’s choice.
What is your take on the fact that most state governors do not include women in their cabinets?
I’m wondering why you’re limiting it to state governors. How about at the federal level? Having said that, I don’t think it’s true to say that they don’t include women; rather, the criticism is that they tend to have very few women in their cabinet. This is very disappointing, given that Nigeria has been a signatory to several charters and protocols requiring governments to be more inclusive. It’s been 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, but see how so abysmally low women’s participation in political leadership is in our country.
Is it because they do not believe that women are competent?
If any one of them believes that, it would be very sad because it would be blatantly untrue. Nobody needs to be convinced that Nigeria has very many capable women who are demonstrating their capabilities in various areas of endeavour.
Since you are passionate about serving the nation, will you take up any federal appointment if given the opportunity? For one, I don’t believe that I could be invited to serve. Having said that though, I wouldn’t automatically accept any invitation. It matters to me what kind of government I would be a part of.
Would you love to contest in the elections again?
Sure. If I feel led to do so.
What are you currently involved in now?
I am still involved in the affairs of KOWA Party, at the leadership level. We’re still trying to build the party. It’s not an easy task, given the prevailing political climate in the country – with corruption being rife and basically defining the political space. Also, I have become more interested in recent times in citizenship education. Nigerians seem to be incapable of choosing the right leaders. We keep choosing the wrong people and complaining. We must learn how to be better citizens – for our own good. Along with some other people, we have registered a Renaissance Centre for Leadership and Civic Education to drive home our message.
In what ways have you been promoting issues of women and girls, despite not being in government?
I have the opportunity frequently to be invited to speak to women and girls at different fora – in secondary schools, universities, and conferences. I also am very active on social media (I was once introduced as a ‘Twitter guru’); so I use all these platforms to draw attention to the different issues having to do with the wellbeing of women and girls.
What is your take on the boy child campaign, which has been recommended to be included in gender issues? This is a point several people, including myself, have been making for quite a while. Focusing uniquely on girls addresses only half of the problem. If you take the case of rape, for example, you can talk to girls about what to do to keep themselves safe, but what about the perpetrators of the crime? Is it not important to address the issue from their perspective too and try to socialise them away from criminality? In this regard, I would like to commend and recommend the work done by an NGO, Voices4Change, which carried out some very important research on the topic, “Being a Man in Nigeria: Perceptions and Realities.” Their report was published in 2015 and is a useful reference for anyone interested in the topic.
How important is it to get men involved in gender issues, as some men are seen at gender programmes driving the message of gender balance?
I am always pleased to see such men, and I salute them for their depth of understanding. It should be clear that gender issues are important and affect everybody. The injustices that women and girls suffer affect the overall well-being of society. Imagine the psychological trauma that a young girl suffers when she is raped and the impact that could have even on her relationship with her husband in later years. Or if a woman is forced out of her home when her husband dies and the impact that would have on her children. Thoughtful men recognise that such issues concern everybody. Indeed, any injustice done to any member of a society demeans the entire society if there aren’t people to rise up and defend the victim.
In your opinion, what do Nigerian women want from the government?
To be recognised as full human beings, too, with needs that should be met and abilities that should be employed for the good of society. They want all forms of discrimination and violence being perpetrated against them in the name of tradition, culture or religion to be brought to an end. They expect their government to defend them when their rights are violated, and the offenders to be brought to book. They want to live in a society in which they are respected and given the opportunity to realise their God-given potential.
KOWA party is included among recently deregistered political parties by INEC, what is your take on this development?
As much as I am not in the place to make comments about this development, the party has said that they do not know why it should be reregistered. We have won in the elections before; we won a seat in the Bayelsa State House of Representatives in 2011. Currently, we have a councillor in Imo state, so we are surprised at what led to this. The party has, however, said that they are going to take up the issue with INEC.
Do you have plans to join another political party?
How should women live their dreams, pursue a passion and be their best?
In the book I wrote, “One Woman’s Race”, detailing my experience as a candidate in the 2015 presidential elections and my reflections on the entire process, I mentioned that I grew up around competent and disciplined women (both at home and at school) who had goals and pursued them and did their work with passion. They excelled at whatever they did. My mother, who obviously had the greatest impact on my life growing up, was one such woman. So were my teachers in primary and secondary schools (St. Luke’s Demonstration School and St. Anne’s School, both in Ibadan). I never saw any of them being sloppy in their work or cutting corners; so I concluded that was the only way in which things should be done. What I’m saying is that having inspiring women as models is a great benefit. The only limitation is one’s lack of imagination or motivation. Once your goal is noble and true (Philippians 4: 8 is one of my favourite texts in the Bible), go ahead and pursue it. If it doesn’t materialise, you would come out being better for trying. Don’t listen to nay-sayers, people who already conclude that something is impossible without even trying.
Is there any memorable moment in your life’s journey which you would like to share and how it has shaped Prof. Sonaiya?
There have been several memorable moments in my life’s journey, and I find it hard to single out any one of them. For example, losing my father at the age of 10 and yet having God step in so incredibly, and ensuring that I got the best education possible in Nigeria and abroad. What I am mindful of, and what has shaped my life, really, is the realisation that I have been the recipient of God’s grace and love. It really does blow my mind.
What is your life mantra?
That’s a question I’ve never been asked before! At least, not in those same words. But let me just say this: Fear God and you have nothing else to fear. And I really mean it; absolutely nothing else to fear.
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