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Nigeria: Can political outsider Sowore break through the elite fortress?

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Friday, 29 October 2021 18:49

Nigerian human rights activist Omoyele Sowore walks near the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The government of Nigeria, as in many countries, is restricted to a political elite that has held on to power for decades, and insists on passing on the torch to its allies, in what is commonly referred to as ‘godfather politics’. But what happens when one tries to go against the grain, as is the case of Nigerian human rights activist and founder of 'Sahara Reporters' Omoyele ‘Yele’ Sowore?

These godfathers, often not actively involved in government, are essential for any political hopeful looking to make a significant move. However, some are determined to try even without this backing. Such is the story of  Omoyele ‘Yele’ Sowore.

“I’ve been an activist since I was about nine or 10 years old. I grew up in a village in Ondo state, in the southern tip where the Niger-Delta region started. This was invaded in 1980, and a lot of atrocities were committed against the villagers. As I was sitting there, scared of dying, I knew that if I grew up I would become an activist, and take my revenge against the police and the state,” he tells The Africa Report.

In May 2021, he was shot by a tear gas canister in the Federal Capital Territory during an anti-government protest. Being a regular at protests, often calling for the removal of the Buhari administration, his presence at yet another demonstration was not surprising.

Since October 2020’s massacre of protestors at the #EndSARS demonstrations, state security violence against unarmed citizens is on the rise, and so Sowore being hit by a tear gas canister was not surprising.

Political outsider

In a country with a clear political elite, it is hard to come in from the outside without a patron or ‘godfather’. Sowore ran for president in 2019, as the candidate for the African Action Congress (AAC), which he founded in 2018.

In an election with 73 candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari won 15,191,847 of the total votes, while his closest opponent, Atiku Abubakar had 11,262,978 votes. Sowore received a mere 33,953 votes.  

But Buhari, who served as military head of state from 1983-5 following a coup, had run three times without any significant progress before his win in 2015.

Sowore was not successful the first time round, but this is not to say he has no hope. While Sowore and Buhari are polar opposites, they both tried to garner support by focussing on particular negative points of the government that citizens find pressing. Buhari managed to convince the youth with his anti-corruption stance, while Sowore is using pro-democracy to target this same significant demographic in the country.

Going by the sort of clowns that Nigeria has had as past presidents, surely, Sowore, has the right to aspire for the office of president of Nigeria, a country that places a premium on mediocrity at the expense of meritocracy.

He knows that he cannot simply come in as a ‘revolutionary’. It is unheard of for an unknown in Nigerian political circles to enter the presidency, but before Buhari’s victory in 2015, it was unheard of for an incumbent to be displaced democratically.

Thus Sowore believes there is hope if one “speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of the people for a better future. Nigeria is very ripe for political upheaval; a complete greyhound can become Nigeria’s president if they work as hard as I did and are able to break through the barriers.”

The longtime activist has set up his own power structures against the existing system. He chose to speak directly to the people rather than targeting churches and mosques, and although he did visit a traditional leader (the Ooni of Ife), he was teargassed for refusing to prostrate .

Sahara Reporters

Sowore is the founder of Sahara Reporters – an online news agency based in New York City that covers politics in Africa, with a special focus on human rights abuses and corruption, particularly in Nigeria.

We became popular because we use evidence to do journalism. Yes, we got in a lot of trouble for things we published, but no one can accuse me of getting paid.

“I personally don’t go searching to read Sahara Reporters. But once in a while, the sensational headlines flash through several WhatsApp groups that I belong to,” says a Nigerian politician who requested anonymity.

However, many Nigerians do not read the local press. They believe the international media to be more credible.

The Nigerian press, like a lot of things in the country, has lost credibility to mercantilism – what has become known as “brown envelope” driven inducement of journalists to write reports for or against vested interests,” says the politician.

Because Nigerian journalists are severely underpaid, many turn to politicians who offer them money to write specific pieces. Although Sahara Reporters is based in New York, it is regarded as a Nigerian publication given it is Nigerian-owned. But Sowore disagrees that people would look at Sahara Reporters in the same negative light as they do other publications.

“I set this up as an online platform out of the US. It started simply as citizen journalism – collating documents, asking questions, and challenging journalists on the ground to do their work. We became popular because we use evidence to do journalism. Yes, we got in a lot of trouble for things we published, but no one can accuse me of getting paid.”

He continues: “It is natural that Nigerian politicians or the elite to lie about these things, especially if published articles were not favourable for them. I have been sued several times, but I have won all cases bar one that is under negotiation for an out of court settlement.”

Generational divide

“Most discerning Nigerians, who have seen several of his type in the past, won’t take him seriously,” says the politician, who is from an older generation than Sowore.

“Going by the sort of clowns that Nigeria has had as past presidents, surely Sowore has the right to aspire for the office of president of Nigeria, a country that places a premium on mediocrity at the expense of meritocracy,” he adds.

For the youth, Sowore speaks directly at them. When speaking of bettering the country, he often hones in the point that he wants to build a future Nigeria for the youth. He is trying to give power to the youth, the largest age demographic in the country, and as such has many young supporters.

Popular support

Although wholly unsuccessful in 2019, he had the support of students and activists, particularly from the southeast. Sowore was one of a group of presidential aspirants at the time, including Moghalu, Durotoye and Garba, who had planned to form an alliance against the APC and PDP, but unfortunately were unable to agree on who would lead it.

Sowore believes that back in 2019, his “chances were bright, but as bright as the transparency of the political process, and that was not so bright or transparent.”

He felt that he was ganged up on by both the political elite and the media. He was also not allowed to participate in political debate.

Although he visited 34 states and was well received, he was shunned by media. Arise TV, who became the go-to for hearing the presidential candidates speak, only interviewed him a couple of times. Sowore believes this is because media ownership is skewed in favour of certain politicians. Arise TV could not comment on this.

Bottom line

When asked if he plans to run again in 2023, Sowore’s not-so-straightforward answer is: “I never stopped running.” Asked to clarify, he says he aims to “shut down the old system, the godfathers; to clean up the entire system and declare for revolution.”

He doesn’t want to join the number of people that run just for the sake of it. He would prefer to be involved in protests and raise awareness.

Sowore believes that if elections were fair and free, he would have a chance. If he is convinced that 2023 polls will be fair and free, he will announce his candidacy.

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