For three decades, Omoyele Sowore has consistently screamed at the ineptitude of government institutions and overly corrupt politicians in Nigeria. As a student activist while at the University of Lagos, Sowore — who was the students’ union president — led a series of protests and demonstrations against the then military government. His agitations for a better Nigeria and utter hatred for looters of Nigeria’s wealth have seen him arrested, detained, and in many cases, brutalised.
Upon relocating to the US, Sowore continued with his activism by starting Sahara Reporters, a citizen journalism platform that continues to expose corruption. Perhaps tired of the existing state of affairs. Well, the activist and journalist has made public his intention to throw his hat in the presidential ring come 2019.
In this interview with TheCable, Sowore talks about what he would do differently if elected president.
At what point did you make up your mind to run for presidency, and what exactly informed this decision?
Sowore: For the last three decades, my mission and those of a group of exceptional Nigerians who have aligned with mine have simply been to advance the conditions of the Nigerian people. I did this as a student union leader fighting to advance students welfare and security. I was a leader in the student and youth wing of the movement that fought against the annulment of the June 12, 1993, elections— a struggle that eventually led to the restoration of democratic rule in 1999.
Our efforts since 1999 have been focused on ensuring that Nigeria’s democracy thrives and that those who aspire to lead this nation are accountable to the Nigerian people. Sahara Reporters has been my major platform for shining light in the darkest recesses of Nigerian politics. As you are well aware, our efforts at Sahara Reporters helped ensure that Obasanjo’s third term bid failed; we helped to ensure that Goodluck Jonathan took his rightful constitutional role as Yaradua’s successor, and our pioneering efforts in real-time reporting of election results helped ensure that the 2015 elections were not rigged— which led to the defeat of an incumbent political party and a sitting president— the first in Nigeria’s history. What has become clear to me over the years is that we have been trying to steer Nigeria forward using borrowed hands, borrowed robes and borrowed voices. Mandela and Obama have redefined the role of activists in advancing democratic governance. They have shown that the path from the picket lines of activism to the corridors of governance is a natural continuum. After seeing a succession of catastrophic failures in the performance of leaders that I had hoped would work hard for the Nigerian people, it became clear to me that it was time to step into the ring and fight to see my own vision of a great Nigerian nation implemented.
Seeing President Muhammadu Buhari’s blundering performance on the economy, his unconscionable compromise on corruption and the worsening security situation in Nigeria was the final straw for me. We just can’t wait to be sentenced to another four years of misery propelled by mediocrity and cluelessness.
Some of your critics are saying you don’t have the experience, some are advising that you start from the national assembly or lesser positions, what do you say?
Sowore: I don’t view those who ask this question of experience to be critics. I believe it is a very important and germane question. Let me start by saying no one has the experience to be president until you become president. Even then – since 1999, we have been ruled by two former heads of state – Obasanjo and Buhari. What did Nigeria gain from their so-called experience? Our current president rode to power largely based on the premise that he would use his previous experience as a head of state and a military general to fight corruption and defeat Boko Haram. Corruption has grown worse. Now even snakes and monkeys have joined our peculiar political class as looters of public funds. Just a few weeks ago – Boko Haram captured over 100 girls from Dapchi in Yobe state, President Buhari’s government acted almost exactly.
What experience did Mandela have when he became South Africa’s President? He had just spent the previous 27 years in prison. What previous experience did Obama have in running a country before he became president? His critics laughed at his credentials as a community organizer. And as you might recall by the time he started running for the presidency, he had only been a senator for about a year.
To those who ask to know what my qualifications are – here is what I will say. For the past 30 years – my life has been dedicated and devoted to the cause of the Nigerian people. In 2006, I decided that the best way to advance that cause was to create a platform that would fearlessly and courageously expose bad governance and corruption. I wasn’t even a journalist. I had no experience in journalism and trust me, I was ridiculed and derided by “professionals” even though they fed fat on our brand of journalism. I had never built a website. I had no experience in media. But I had a clear vision and a dream. Fast forward 12 years later and Sahara Reporters has become a globally acclaimed media platform. We are the global pioneers of our unique brand of citizen journalism. Sahara Reporters is now a full-fledged media enterprise. We have helped sustain democracy not just in Nigeria but across the African continent in nations like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ghana and the Gambia.
My personal experience, my reading of history teaches me that what matters most is to have a vision and the will to execute on a clear plan. That is what I promise the Nigerian people I will bring to the office.
As for the question of starting at the national assembly or a lesser position – it’s not clear to me what that even means. At what age is one qualified to speak on national matters? I was barely out of my teenage years when I became a leader in the Nigerian students’ movement and one of the leading voices in the struggle that led to Babangida’s permanent retirement. I have addressed Sahara Reporters to purely national issues. My focus has always been national and international.
I am not interested in being just one more voice that can be silenced or suspended from a national assembly that is full of rogues and thieves; I am not looking to be paid allowances that rip Nigeria off. The presidency is the only true platform through which I believe we can quickly advance Nigeria’s forward movement. We have a few voices that have been screaming in the wilderness that is Nigeria’s national assembly. We all know what has happened to them.
Are you trying to make a generational statement?
Sowore: I am 47 years old. Gowon was 32 when he became Nigeria’s head of state. This movement is not about making statements. It is about taking Nigeria’s destiny away from the marauders that have destroyed our nation – and to set Nigeria on the path to growth, prosperity and greatness.
How do you intend to fund your campaign?
Sowore: My campaign is a movement. It is a campaign for all Nigerians and I am merely the arrowhead and the implementor of that great vision. It will be financed by the Nigerian people. I have asked for 10,000 Nigerians to join me in raising $2 million for this initial phase of the campaign. If you have been following our activities, Nigerians from all over the world have been responding positively to that clarion call. We have no godfathers or godmothers, for every godfather, we promise thousands of godsons and for every godmother, we will respond with goddaughters and godprincesses. A campaign that is funded by the masses will owe its allegiance only to the masses.
Do you have a roadmap to run with (What will you do on education, electricity and health sectors, being the most ignored)?
Sowore: I have a clear plan and my policy team is now in the process, tweaking detailed implementation plans for every sector of the Nigerian economy that we will soon be shared with Nigerians. Unlike President Buhari who did not elect a cabinet until after six months of taking office, I have begun to bring together a shadow cabinet of experts that are understudying what is going on right now in each sector of the Nigerian nation so that when we are voted in by the Nigerian people, we can truly hit the ground running from day one. Nigeria is truly blessed with a solid professional class at home and abroad. We can’t wait to unleash them on a Nigeria that we know is destined for prosperity and prominence.
I’ll provide you with some outlines of my vision for the country.
Unemployment: Nigeria’s current unemployment numbers are staggering. When university graduates cannot even find jobs as security guards what hope is there for those who do not have a formal education? From day one – I will turn Nigeria into a construction site using fiscal responsibility and public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure projects. How will we do this? Nigeria’s roads, bridges, railways, seaports, sewage plants, drinking water plants, inland waterways and other critical infrastructure are sorely inadequate. For the last four decades, we have been in maintenance mode – patching up what was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. One major issue is that Nigeria’s unimaginative governments claim we have no money. Well, let’s get rid of corruption first and use the funds we have to build infrastructure and next, we will use private-public partnerships (PPP) to supplement any shortfall. I have to say that with proper accounting of our revenues, we might just have enough to make Nigeria work for Nigerians.
Countries from China to Brazil and Morocco are using PPP arrangements to fund growth. Nigeria is not currently attractive to PPP because the enabling policies are not in place, but equally as important, investors are wary of taking their funds into corruption ridden nations. I will fix all that.
Energy: It is mind-boggling that for the last 30 years Nigeria has struggled to do what neighbouring countries like South Africa, Ghana, and Rwanda have long figured out. Our power generation infrastructure is comatose. We have put all our eggs in one basket with an oil-based power strategy that leaves us vulnerable to pipeline sabotage and terrorist attacks. Our transmission infrastructure is inadequate to even support the meagre generation capacity we have. Distribution is in shambles. I will immediately set three initiatives in motion to address the power issue. Firstly, I will expand the energy mix. We will develop a virtual LNG network using trucks and rail to ensure that we are no longer vulnerable to our gas-only strategy. I will order an immediate diversification of our energy mix – so that renewables like solar, wind and biogas play a bigger role. I would certainly explore nuclear energy as well.
Niger, our neighbour to the north has some of the world’s largest nuclear reserves. The bottom line is that our energy mix must be diversified. The next pillar of my energy plan is decentralization.
Are you floating a new political party or you will run on existing ones?
Sowore: I don’t believe in forming something new just for the sake of it. There are progressive parties as movements that currently exist, and right now we are discussing matters that should lead to the formation of a coalition of truly progressive political parties and movements, not the sham re-branding that was done by the APC in 2014/2015, but an authentic and organic integration of Nigeria’s grassroots and progressive parties and movements.
If we collectively decide that a new entity is required to serve as a platform for actualising our vision for a new Nigeria, then we will do so. Here is what I can assure you of; this movement will have nothing to do with the failed parties of the past like APC and PDP.
Sahara Reporters is, unarguably, one of the strongest platforms that continue to expose corrupt politicians in Nigeria. What happens to Sahara Reporters as you become a politician?
Sowore: Sahara Reporters is greater than one individual. It represents an ideal. The idea that ordinary citizens can acquire the power to hold their leaders accountable and speak truth to power. I can assure you that when I am in the office, Sahara Reporters will be holding my feet to the fire and shining the light on the actions of my government.
When I win the presidency I will be turning the editorial function in Sahara Reporters as well as my financial holdings in a blind trust respectively. As an activist social media platform, Sahara Reporters already functions in a way that allows the work of speaking truth to power to continue even when I am not present. So, whether my absence is due to arrest by corrupt governments or due to service as Nigeria’s president, the task and the mission will continue.
If elected, how soon are you going to appoint cabinet members, and how do you ensure your team members have the same ethos with you?
Sowore: I alluded to this earlier, but the point bears repeating. I am already putting together a shadow cabinet that is not only working on developing the details of how our plans will be implemented and paid for; but they are also tracking the activities of the Buhari government, so that we know exactly how much work needs to be done to get Nigeria back on track on day zero. Certainly, within a one week of being in office, my entire cabinet would have been named.
Unlike others who might have just entered the Nigerian political system, I have been an activist participant in Nigerian politics. As an activist, civil rights crusader and most recently as a conscientious citizen activist for the past three decades. Along the way, I have met and worked with many like-minded people. Some of the members of my team have been with me on this revolutionary journey for almost 30 years. Some have been friends and collaborators from the last 12 years, since the formation of Sahara Reporters. There are also some fantastic Nigerians that I am just meeting in this remarkable journey to the leadership of our great nation.
What has brought all of us together and kept us together is a shared vision that Nigeria is, should and must be a great nation. And that an essential part of realising that vision is the provision of visionary and transformative leadership. That is our shared ethos.
Beyond social media conversations, town hall meetings in the US, what is your strategy to getting people walk the talk with you, especially those who have not heard the name Sowore before?
Sowore: My roots come from grassroots activism. Engaging with people from the bottom – up, knocking on doors, engaging in marketplaces, be they real or virtual, speaking in the streets, talking to farmers and herdsmen in the fields and on farms, this is what I know how to do best.
Those who haven’t heard the name Sowore before will soon hear it. We will be coming to their homes, to their airwaves, to their mosques, their churches, their schools and to a marketplace near them. The reception so far to my candidacy has simply been outstanding. It is clear that Nigerians believe the time has finally come for the nation to get on a fast track to progress
You are known as an activist, so, what do you tell people who think governance is beyond activism?
Sowore: I would tell them it’s a natural continuum, and I will point them to two activists, who just in the last 25 years have demonstrated this fact for all the world to see; Mandela in South Africa and Obama in America. Compare their track records to their so-called non-activist peers in Nigeria. Can you compare Mandela or Obama to Obasanjo, Goodluck Jonathan or Buhari? Of course not!Activism is merely a commitment to good governance and a fearless dedication to holding leadership accountable. A committed activist will bring to governance the same commitment and dedication with which they drove governments to be more responsible.This is my life’s work. And in seeking the presidency, I am simply seeking a bigger and more effective platform to implement my vision for Nigeria.