By Caleb Okereke
Meet the outsider presidential candidate targeting young voters with his boyish charm, student activist past and vow to challenge power.
Omoyele Sowore’s political journey first began nearly forty years ago. On Christmas Eve 1981, the then ten-year-old watched terrified as his home was ambushed by the military. Hundreds of soldiers descended on his village in Ondo state. They seized his mother and half-brother before raping his 17-year-old cousin. That night, the young boy decided he would dedicate his life to fighting injustice.
Fast-forward to 2019 and Sowore, now 47, is running to be Nigeria’s next president. He is among the scores of outsiders in what is currently a crowded 72-horse race. For any of these candidates, governing Africa’s most populous country will be a daunting task. But Sowore believes the responsibility goes even beyond the country’s borders.
“We’re doing it not just for Nigeria but for the continent of Africa,” he says. “If Nigeria gets it right, Africa will start to get it right.”
In the 16 February presidential election, it is widely accepted that the only two candidates with a realistic route to victory are President Muhammadu Buhari and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. Despite both being unpopular in different ways, the two men in their 70s have the political and financial backing of the ruling All Progress Congress (APC) and main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) respectively. In Nigeria’s big money elections, the chance of a third party causing an upset against these behemoths is negligible.
Nonetheless, Sowore, backed by the African Action Congress (AAC) party, is determined to “spice up” what he sees as a “tasteless” political environment. He argues that Nigeria desperately needs change, starting from the top.
“We haven’t had leaders who know what they’re doing and it’s because our leaders are a product of godfathers,” he says. “They are a product of a compromised political system that has destroyed any opportunity to have leaders who are patriotic, honest and selfless.”
Sowore insists that by contrast, his own vision and experience could solve many of the country’s challenges. These range from a faltering economy to weak infrastructure to multiple security threats.
“Nigeria needs a leader who can stand their ground against these ragtag terrorist groups,” he says referring to this latter issue, which includes the threat from Boko Haram, herder-farmer clashes and more. “There’s no big deal about them and, with the right leadership, you can crush these guys in a matter of weeks.”
This might seem like hubris, but Sowore maintains he is no newcomer to tackling security issues. He cut his teeth in student politics in the late-1980s and early-1990s, including as president of the student union at the University of Lagos. In this time, he was engaged in an intense battle with confraternities, secret student groups renowned for violence. He says that because of his leadership, “not a single student was killed by the gangs” during his term but that after he stepped down, members of the confraternities “shot people like flies”.
“They knew that there was principled resistance on campus not to try it while I was there,” he says. “It is the same thing Nigeria is in need of: principled leadership to tackle Nigeria’s multifarious problems.”
“I was being accused of trying to overthrow the government”
In a way, Sowore is used to resisting repression, both economic and political. He was the first of 19 siblings and remembers his father, a teacher, going for months without pay and the family going hungry. He also recalls fish going extinct along the area of the Niger Delta near his home due to pollution and the trauma of losing two siblings to curable diseases.
“All these combined together just made me want to change society since I was conscious enough to do so,” he says.
The first clear opportunity he had to do so was in 1989 when he joined a student protest against a $120 million IMF loan package that threatened to reduce the number of universities in Nigeria from twenty-eight to five. From that point on, Sowore became increasingly embedded in the student movement and, by 1992, was leading a group of 5,000 protesters against the military regime of Ibrahim Babaginda. The police fired on the rally, killing seven, and arrested about 120 others including Sowore.
“I was 21 years old and I was being accused of trying to overthrow the government, which carried the death penalty,” he says.
The activist was released, but expelled from Lagos university and banned from readmission to any other. Backed by fellow students, Sowore challenged the decision in court and won. He returned to the University of Lagos and, in 1993, was elected president of the student union. He continued his activism and led anti-military rallies against the nullified presidential elections of MKO Abiola.
But standing up to the government was risky and, on the eve of his final exams in 1994, the enemies he had made caught up with him. Scores of confraternity members allegedly colluded with law enforcement to attack Sowore. They beat him with a baseball bat, injected him with an unknown substance, and cut his head. He has the scar to prove it. Eventually, other students intervened and his attackers fled. Sowore was hospitalised.
“History is about these iconoclasts and deviants”
Sowore believes his leadership and bravery during these tumultuous times demonstrate his aptitude for the presidency.
“To lead students, you have to know what you’re doing, to convince them to go risk their lives,” he says. “That is why leaders don’t like educated people; it’s easy to lead people who are ignorant.”
Adeeko Ibukun, an official on Sowore’s campaign, agrees. Like many of the other young activists that make up the majority of Sowore’s team, he was inspired by the events of the early-1990s as well as by the candidate’s charisma.
“I was invited for his first town hall meeting,” says Ibukun. “I remember overhearing someone saying ‘I can die for Sowore’.”
For him, what distinguishes Sowore from other candidates is his audacity to “tackle the corrupt estate of the established politicians” and his quest to “redistribute national wealth in a manner that is beneficial to more Nigerians”.
In 2018, Sowore dramatically vowed to increase Nigeria’s minimum wage to N100,000 ($276) if elected. This was a huge upgrade on even the trade unions’ own demands for the current N18,000 ($50) wage to be more than tripled to N56,000 ($154). Sowore’s promise was derided for being unfeasible, but Ibukun sees it differently.
“We need to start having some faith that there are people who stand in the light no matter how difficult; history is about these iconoclasts and deviants,” he says. “Some people insist on lighting the candles. Sowore is one of them.”
Not everyone shares such a favourable view, however. Sola Kuti, who attended the University of Lagos at the same time as Sowore, remembers the student leader being biased and impulsive. He recalls an incident in which he says the student union president detained students based on hearsay that they were members of confraternities but without proof.
“I think he is someone that is flippant, reckless and totally unprepared for leadership at any level,” says Kuti. “Sowore running for president just shows that he is either not sincere or just lacks basic reasoning skills.”
Kuti, a PDP supporter, also criticises Sahara Reporters, the New York-based media company Sowore founded in 2006. He accuses the widely-read investigative news site of “peddling unfounded rumours with an intention to damage people”.
All presidential nominees have their fierce supporters and passionate detractors. But for Sowore’s campaign, and those of the other outsider candidates, the main uphill battle in the 2019 elections is simply to be seen and heard.
Nigeria’s televised presidential debates provide an enormous opportunity for candidates to reach millions of voters in one go, but Sowore was not one of the five contenders invited to participate. He responded by launching a legal petition and described his omission as “a malicious attempt to stifle robust political engagement in Nigeria”.
More broadly though, Sowore has learnt not to rely on coverage from the mainstream media. He has taken more readily to social media channels. This is particularly effective given the group he is targeting most heavily: young people.
The AAC slogan “Take It Back” connotes a restoration of power to a long marginalised but increasingly politicised demographic. Meanwhile, Sowore’s boyish charm, student activist past, and record of challenging power appeal to many youth voters. His progressive policies in championing solar energy, increasing teaching of coding, and legalising cannabis also resonate with this group.
It is a smart political strategy to target this demographic in a country where 60% of the 190 million population is aged below 25. But Sowore is not the only one tapping into their widespread concerns. Other outsiders such as Kingsley Moghalu, Fela Durotoye and Oby Ezekwesili are also presenting themselves similarly.
In 2018, these three runners and others, including Sowore, formed a coalition to select a single joint candidate. The alliance gradually disintegrated, but as the February election draws closer, calls to unite in order to enhance the chances of the “third option” beyond the APC and PDP have grown louder. Ezekwesili recently pulled out of the race citing a willingness to reform a coalition, while Durotoye has expressed an interest too.
It remains to be seen how Sowore will respond and whether he will be prepared to defer to another candidate. He insists that “extraordinary situations demand extraordinary leaders”, and it is unclear whether he believes such a figure exists elsewhere within the 72-strong field.
Either way, Sowore has charted a remarkable journey from the ten-year-old boy who witnessed an ambush on his village to presidential candidate. And regardless of the number of votes he picks up on 16 February, he has already seasoned the 2019 presidential race with something a little different.
Referring to “SPICER-HEAT”, an acronym for his party’s ten-point agenda – spanning from security and power to tourism – Sowore breaks into a smile as he says: “If we have a chance, we’d spice up this place and heat it up at the same time.”