By Morenike Taire & Ebele Orakpo
Mr Omoyele Sowore, 48, is a human rights activist, publisher of Sahara Reporters, and 2019 presidential candidate of the African Action Congress, AAC. Dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the country, he rallied youths and supporters for the #RevolutionNow protests that were staged in some parts of the country on August 5. Two days to the protests on August 3, he was arrested by operatives of the Department for State Services, DSS, in Lagos and later taken to Abuja where he has been detained since then. A few days before his arrest, Sowore, in an interview in his Ikeja, Lagos office, spoke to Vanguard on the state of the nation, insecurity, how he was rigged out of the election and the way forward for the country among others.
You are one of the newer candidates in the last presidential election that made an impact by winning your ward. What did you do differently?
I came with a message. I ticked every box in the political sphere regarding how many places to go to, people to go to, the kind of messages and ideas that could make a difference. The result allocated to me as the outcome of my efforts is unacceptable. I met people in places as far as Kano who said to me: ‘We campaigned for you and people voted for you but when it got to the collation centre, we didn’t see your result.’ I have met so many of such people and that’s the reason I know the election was not credible and was neither free nor fair. Even in my village, they sent soldiers and they shot at the drone I was using to monitor the elections four times.
So what do we need to do to hold credible elections?
A number of things! First is determination by the people who are voting. People know how to vote and stand by their votes but in a situation where elections have been so bastardised that people get bribed to vote and ensure their votes don’t count, it will require some other interventions and one of them is digital electronic voting in which people can vote without leaving their houses or they can go to a polling unit to vote and ensure their votes are counted as they are leaving the place.
India has way more voters than we have yet, their elections don’t last more than 24 hours before you know the results. They deploy electronic voting and all kinds of digital and technological interventions that make votes count and people are also determined to ensure that when they vote, their votes count.
We need to expand the voting population by ensuring people in Diaspora can vote. We have at the minimum, about 10million very educated voters, who can’t easily be bought; your N500 or N5,000 cannot sway them. If we can have that population added to our voter population, they will challenge the complacency and corruption at home. The moment their vote is transparently shown to the world, it will help to educate people at home that these people outside expect the same thing from us, but again, you can’t have everything you want without having credible people managing the process. Without a transparent process that can be monitored technologically, we will be back here in the next four years saying the same thing.
As a human rights activist who fought alongside others for this democratic process, some of the people you fought alongside with have crossed to the other side, what is your position on that?
I have no control over where people cross to. What I know is that the pro-democracy era, especially in the 90s, brought all kinds of characters to the game and there was not enough vetting to ensure that everyone that was shouting democracy was actually interested in democracy. Some people were doing it to increase their visibility and some to build their CV. There was a lot of opportunism during that period; now people are showing their true colours. I also think there is a lot of pressure – economic, social and physical strains; not many people can stand in the same position for 30 years. They have to choose between disappearing from the surface of the earth or compromise. A lot of them chose to compromise but the question is; are they better for it? In my view, No! I have zero respect for people who have crossed to the other side. Regardless of what they have to show for it materially, it’s a loss in my view, to them that they engaged in such disgraceful crossover.
Do you regret having got involved given that the whole community has acquired a negative reputation based on some people’s actions?
No, I have no regrets because the reason I got involved was not to impress anybody. Some people got involved to impress others or make others understand that they are also powerful or to increase their level of attractiveness so it becomes cosmetic activism, but when you peel through the surface, you find out that so many of them are not better than the people we were fighting.
This is a society of contradictions but I have no regrets because if there is anything I wanted to prove, I wanted to get over this whole question of ‘why don’t you get in there and make a difference, show how things can be done differently.’ I did it differently, I campaigned the way nobody had ever campaigned, with a lot of energy, stamina, ideas and still this is how it ended. It is now clear to a lot of people; they now understand why we say we will not be able to get to the Promised Land without a fight.
As a member of the opposition now, what is the state of the opposition?
I don’t belong to conventional opposition. With due respect, I see a lot of people who are opposed to government but they have different reasons for being opposed to government. A lot of people are opposed to the government because they are not at this time, part of the ‘eating crew,’ as we say. They have been denied access to the national cake so you have this ephemeral opposition to bad governance but the moment they are invited or they get something, they quickly forget about being in the opposition. So those kind of artificial opposition figures are not attractive to me. Whatever is going to oppose a system must have an ideological ground. The opposition must be driven by not just personality but by ideas. So we keep building social movements as opposed to the job of opposing the status quo. This is a little different and deeper, it can be an alternative.
More people killed in the North
Conventional opposition can actually encourage superficiality in governance. Issues that are being discussed now are so superficial. We are discussing insecurity and some people superficially reduced it to Fulani herdsmen; it’s just a generic name or metaphor for insecurity; it’s not insecurity. There was a time the Niger-Delta militants went to Kaduna and abducted the Secretary to the State Government, SSG, took him to Warri or somewhere. Imagine the Fulani herdsmen going to Delta, abducting the SSG and taking him to Kaduna! What do you think would be the discussion? “Ah, they are here to take over our land.” But at the bottom of it is that crime is raging because government has not been able to solve the problem. In fact, the proportion of people being killed or maimed or destroyed by insecurity is proportionally higher in terms of casualty in the northern part than in the south. We are lucky in the south that we have outlets and decibel of noise from the south is higher but more people are getting killed in Zamfara unofficially than anywhere else; add that to Borno, Adamawa, Benue, Katsina, southern Kaduna, even Abuja, more people are getting killed there.
Critics of the Young Turks in the last presidential election of which you were a part, have asked why start from the presidential level and not from the beginning?
The answer is simple. There is a general agreement that those of us who are young and entered the race at the last elections, were intellectually more sound than the older generation leaders; that we were more agile. Around the world, they are using the younger generation leaders to take care of their problems. My question is; why send your best to be councillors and senators while you send your worst to be president? Nobody has been able to answer that. Who would you rather choose to be president today between myself, a Kingsley Moghalu, Oby Ezekwesili (who can connect with your issues and be responsive) and a Buhari?
If your excuse is that we don’t have experience, my question is; are you looking for experienced thieves? Experienced herdsmen? People who are experienced at being divisive? Experienced extremists? I can mention all of them who are experienced in different areas of negativity but you can’t accuse me of not having experience in marshalling my views; you can’t accuse me of not having experience of 30 years as a student activist who had been part of every struggle that brought about the stability of our democracy today.
Even if you were looking for entrepreneurs, I can count myself as one. I ran a media company for 12 years. A media company that is competing globally is not exactly a thing that an inexperienced person can create and sustain. I am speaking for myself but tell me the experience of the old guards. I obtained my master’s from one of the best universities in the world so shouldn’t that count?
Mortar and pestle
I understand where all this is coming from. I describe Nigeria as a mortar and pestle where the minds of people are pounded constantly. When one leader is tired, he brings another leader to continue. Our minds have become so messed up that we are starting to internalise oppression; people are starting to get used to describing themselves the way their oppressors describe them. They tell you ‘you are not good, you don’t have experience, you are lazy and that’s why you are unemployed and unemployable.’ So people keep on destroying you and you start accepting it. When you are oppressed for too long, you can have a syndrome known as the Stockholm syndrome which means you fall in love with your oppressor because you have never known anything else but oppression. So anything the person does that is a little kind to you, you see it as an act of benevolence for which you should be thankful even though it’s your entitlement. That is where some of those fears come from, otherwise, I can tell you categorically that if I had won the last election, by now, we will not be having this interview, you will probably be writing about all these new guys that are turning things around.
My ideas brazenly stolen
Guess what? So many of the ideas I propounded during the campaigns were stolen brazenly. A governor went to Malaysia to learn how to process cannabis but when I said it, they were shouting, ‘oh how can you mention cannabis?’
I propounded the idea that June 12 should be public holiday, they gathered Abiola’s family and took them to Abuja, gave the man a posthumous award and declared June 12 Democracy Day. Was Buhari not around when Abacha was holding onto Abiola? What did he do? He accepted the best job in Abacha’s regime as chairman of Petroleum Trust Fund. He didn’t ask for Abiola, he didn’t ask to visit Abiola in prison. So why are people pretending that suddenly, he loves Abiola?
Even on the issue of minimum wage, we propounded it; we said we would pay better minimum wage and made it an election issue. Now they say they will pay N30,000 which they have not even started paying.
It seems the war against insecurity is far from being won, where do we go from here?
Everything that counts for the disintegration of a country are all present today. I went to Lagos Island recently and I saw something in one particular neighbourhood; something that happens only in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
Police and Area Boys were operating side by side, next to the Transport union thugs and then there was a local vigilante group, different checkpoints but only the police had an official uniform and guns. I even saw some guys carrying double-barrel pump action guns right there in front of the police. The moment you have all that mix in one pot, the country is finished in terms of security. I said during the election that if I become president, I would fire all the army generals. Any general that has ever been part of the war against Boko Haram is going. You shouldn’t be called a general if you cannot win a war especially if it is against a rag-tag militant group.
Every internal insurrection like Boko Haram has a 10-year gestation period. It shouldn’t last more than 10 years, it mutates after 10 years and it will take another 30 years to finish them. The reason it mutated is this: It used to be an insurrection, but it has mutated and became a business. I watched an interview on Channels Tv and the guy was describing how the Nigerian Army in Baga had a boundary between them and Boko Haram, they don’t touch each other, they have territories. He said several of his family members are in Boko Haram and he talks with them on phone; they are still in Boko Haram. They go and come back to Maiduguri and they are respected; so it’s not as if Boko Haram is not known, they have become officially known. Not only do we officially know them, we send money to them now and then in the name of paying ransom. $5 million was paid to release the few Chibok school girls they released, about $6 million was paid to them for the Dapchi girls and they brought the girls back in broad daylight; they even did a rally in Dapchi and then left. A serious government that has equipment would have tracked them to where they came from and use that as an opportunity to finish them off.
Most of our aerial vehicles don’t have the ability to carry equipment to bomb Boko Haram because some generals are making billions. Did you not read of an Army general walking around with N400m and the soldiers accompanying him took the money? Who do you think the money is meant for? If it is official money, why should it be in the hand of one general? So all these criminal organisations have taken over territories.
I have covered Boko Haram insurgency since it started when they killed their leader, Yusuf. So I know the story and I know the Nigerian Government is lying when it said it’s in control or that they have defeated Boko Haram. Boko Haram controls more territories now than it did under Jonathan’s regime but they won’t tell us the truth because they have ceded territory to them.
I was told (but I can’t verify this) that during the civil war, no single colonel was killed but Boko Haram is downing senior officers like chickens. There is also some dimensions to it; who are they sending to the war front? How are you sure that when you hear a colonel is killed, it’s not that he was set up to be killed? A popular soldier was killed in the fight against Boko Haram and there was a lot of noise about his death because of the way he died. He was one of their best. They said the night before he was killed, they tried to transfer him and he refused, then they withdrew some people around him, and shortly after, he was killed. They said this guy was the best. In fact, he led the troops to retrieve a territory from Boko Haram. He was a tank expert; if he was in the tank, they wouldn’t have been able to kill him. They said he even thought it was a friendly fire so it took them a while to respond and before they could get their guns, Boko Haram had overwhelmed them. Interestingly, he was the only one killed in that operation.
Look at the Shi’ite protest recently where a senior police officer was killed. It was one of the police officers that shot him. He was shot from the back. It’s possible that they have some issues among themselves.
Nigeria is more divided now than ever before, is there hope?
There’s one last hope, if Nigerians are wise enough, we all come together and do a revolution. That is our last hope. It will bring about a new order in which everybody has a voice and they can make demands of what they expect and what they want. The number of casualty of violence on a daily basis in Nigeria as of today is higher than that of Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria combined. And it’s getting worse. Those are countries that are officially at war. We are not supposed to be at war but we are losing people; we are not adding those we are losing to poverty, bad hospitals, bad roads, people are dying of depression.
More people committing suicide now
For the first time in the history of this nation, more people are committing suicide than ever before. People used to joke that Nigerians can never commit suicide. You see people with nice vehicles ask their drivers to stop on the Third Mainland Bridge and jump into the lagoon, students slashing themselves, people drinking sniper, etc. The media do not have enough hands to cover all these. We have reached a point that can be regarded as a war time situation.
Do you think we need another sovereign national conference, SNC?
No! We are due for a revolution and I am serious. Another SNC would be controlled by government. They would select, appoint or even elect people that would take part. They go to Abuja, get paid, they bring their recommendation and they put it on the shelf.
When ex-President Jonathan did it the last time, it was an old people’s home. By the time they finished, about four people had died.
So the only conference that can work is one conference after a revolution that is organised by the people and in those circumstances, we will have a deterrence not to mess up. Any conference that will require a rubber stamp National Assembly to approve is not going to work. We need a complete overhaul of the country, overhaul of our constitution, we need a brand new country. It is time for us to shed our old skin because it is making us look ugly; it is making it impossible for us to make progress.
What do you think about the Ruga issue being pursued by the Federal Government?
President Buhari is totally in control of the Senate and the House of Representatives now and I don’t imagine there will be any opposition to any law he wants to implement whether it meets the expected standard or not.
The media has a responsibility in all these. When I was a student, there was this organic relationship with the Press. When we write that we want to do a mass action, it will be the headline the following day. “Mass Action Looms in Nigeria.” But today, students cannot fight for anything. They have been silenced.
When students demonstrated against poor infrastructure in the University of Lagos, some were rusticated and nothing happened. They have not been recalled. I even took extraordinary action to go to their convocation to protest.
In our own time, you rusticate us, you are wasting your time; the day you reopen the school, we are back.
But like I mentioned, we didn’t have any skeleton in our cupboard as student leaders. We did not collect money from government, we had our student union government and we had ways of collecting fees from students. We had a transportation system that brought in some extra cash and we ran a clean leadership. We could call for lecture boycott; we could participate in events outside the country. When the school was closed, we operated from Dr. Beko’s house.
Students leaders no longer committed
But today, you can’t find such student leaders. I went to the University of Nigeria Nsukka, to give a talk. They were excited but there was no student union leader in the room. They said they had gone to visit the governor and that is a weekly affair. They said you cannot become NANS president without support from governors. In fact, there was a time a NANS president was discovered to have graduated from the university seven years before he became NANS president. One of them had become a traditional ruler in Igala land before he became NANS president. He used to wear the regalia to NANS meetings.
Someone must bell the cat
There is nothing we have not seen but someone has to bell the cat. That is the next thing we are going to do and it will take a lot of sacrifices, and risk but we will do it. At least, we will kick-start it, a new wave of consciousness can push the country in the right direction. We can’t continue like this. I can imagine how everybody is living in this country. You see, some of us have escapes; we go on vacation outside the country; we can figure out how to borrow money from our workplaces until salary is paid but there are people who are trapped; they have nowhere to go.
You can’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘oh this is the business I have to go and do or this is where I will find food or medicine or education for my children.’
Those who are riding motorcycle to make ends meet are forced to pay different taxes and at the end of the day, you pay police, area boys, unions, etc. Let’s say you make N5,000 daily as a tricycle rider. On this street, there is a tricycle strip, there is a tax collector on every street, just a one-kilometre stretch and then there is a police unit there who always go to the tricycle operators to get money. So, what the operators do is to contribute a certain amount of money every day and give to the police so that they will leave them alone.
Now, in Lagos State, small businesses are supposed to be paying N70,000 per location. There is no house in Lagos without a small business in the front yard, even if it’s sachet water you are selling, you are to pay N70,000.