People, Power and Participation


I spoke to Ayisha Osori about our political structures and the various ways it is unaccountable to the electorates. She is the current Executive Director of the non-profit Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). She also contested for a seat on the House of Representatives for Abuja in 2015 and has documented her experience in an eloquently written book. I enjoyed this conversation, and it was a pleasure to learn from Ayisha’s experience and knowledge.

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TL: Welcome to Ideas Untrapped and today I am speaking with Ayisha Osori. Ayisha is a lawyer and she is the former CEO of [the] Nigerian Women's Trust Fund. She has consulted for various international development organisations, and she is currently the Executive Director of Open Society Initiative for West Africa. You're welcome, Ayisha.

AO: Thank you, Tobi. It's a pleasure to be here.

TL: I read your book... very very fascinating. And one thing that jumped at me straight away is the tension or the balance between political agents and systemic governance in Nigeria. In your experience, and of course from your analytical perspective in observation, where do you think the true power lies in our system? Is it with individual actors or with the structure that they've built around them via the party or their various networks?

AO: That's a very fascinating question. And it will be hard to say that it's one or the other. It's both. It's the individuals and it is the structures and I can explain. When I say structures I would be referring to something including the culture of what politics means and what political parties are designed to do or have been doing in Nigeria, some might say, from the 60s. So that DNA, the hard wiring of what a political party should be, the understanding of how it should be structured, how it should work, how it should be manipulated, all those things are part of the structures. The structures are beyond the internal mechanisms of the party, whether it's the National Working Committee or the National Executive Council, it's beyond those structures. So, when I refer to structures, I will be referring to, as I said, the DNA, the history, the hard wiring in our consciousness (both the public and the politicians) of our political parties should behave, what's expected of political parties...all those things help determine how power is obtained and our power is used in Nigeria. And then the individuals come in in that they are the ones who know how to manipulate and manage (depending on how you want to look at it manipulate is one way, manage is another) these structures for their benefit largely, the benefit of their close associates and a handful of hangers-on. And then maybe, you would argue, their communities where there's a trickle-down effect. I'll explain why the individuals are important. We don't have to go too far, we can just start with 1999.

In a way you would actually even argue that our parties have deteriorated in terms of structure - AO

If you look at some of the most powerful individuals in any of the parties whether it was PDP, whether it was ANPP, whether it was AC or AD, you'll find a pattern in the names and faces and where they go, who they align with and how the party sort of evolves. So AD moved to ACN, ACN did a merger with CPC to become the ruling party now, APC. So you find the individuals who are powerful within these structures. They're the ones who understand this hardwiring of how political parties should be. They're the ones who have been in the system for a long time and understand it. That's why I'd say it's both of them. And when these individuals decide to leave parties, they typically go home with almost everyone and the party doesn't survive after they leave which shows how powerful they are. It's also a reason why you see the same actors in the different parties because the individuals who know how to, let's just say, be politicians have the same ethos. Regardless of what the name of the party is, they have the same outlook toward how political parties should be run, how power should be gained and how power should be used.

TL: One thing you talked about quite early in the book is the role of ideology in politics and how it is missing (it's almost non-existent). One good example is a case of Kogi State where you have two senators, running against each other, four years apart, in different parties. There's the case of Edo where the upcoming elections would actually have, basically, the same people on the ticket of the two main parties, but now they've more or less switched sides. Cross-carpeting is the colloquial word we use for it, would ideology really help bring some stability and, hopefully, sanity to our politics? Because it feels like our politicians do not stand for anything.

AO: They would argue with you that they do stand for something and I'm sure many of the politicians that are in APC today will tell you that they consider themselves progressives (maybe left-of-center). I don't think PDP as described itself as center or right-of-center. Right being more conservative, Left being more progressive, but I've heard APC politicians describe themselves as more progressives anyway. Some of them would argue with you that they do have ideologies, but of course we know that it doesn't seem that way because of how easy it is for them to move between parties which I mentioned earlier. So if, as you point out, once upon a time, Ize-Iyamu didn't have the characteristics and values of what an APC person should be, you would have to ask what has changed in four years that suddenly he's able to be the ideal candidate for the APC despite everything they had said about him four years ago. You would like to think that as they present Ize-Iyamu now as a brand for APC that there will be some sense of how he has been rehabilitated from his prior point of views, his prior values that make him now aligned to APC. But there's no pretence in doing that because they know that, in a way, nobody cares, so to speak. And it could be that, is it that nobody cares (that us the public)? Or are we apathetic? Do we no longer care, did we care once upon a time? Did we never care?

For me, those are the more interesting questions, because this idea that you have parties where you don't know who your members are, that's been something that's been going on for years and years. It wasn't this bad in the run-up to the 60s when we had the old parties that were led Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello and Nnamdi Azikiwe NCNC or [the] inheritors of those parties, the National People's Congress (NPC) that started as the Northern People's, in a way, you would actually even argue that our parties have deteriorated in terms of structure, but those parties had some modicum of membership, they had some modicum of order. But as time went on where the lines between public and private or the lines between, let's say, governance and the treasury (public officials and the treasury) became more blurred, the more being in government became a route to access to fantastic riches... the more important it was to be in politics, the more important it became to capture power because that was your route to fantastic riches.

So, the point I'm trying to make in a roundabout way is that the parties right now have no incentive to change their DNA or to change the way they've always done things. The formula has worked for them so far they would say. They win power, they might be out of it for one or two election cycles. PDP had said they would rule for 60 years, thankfully, they were out in 16. Now, APC probably has the same feeling that they will rule for 60 years but it's quite likely that they will not. The faces don't change, and even when the faces change, the behaviour and the values don't change. The culture of what politics is doesn't change. So would it not be up to Nigerians to say why do we keep voting for these parties that have no ideology? My point is, the parties will not change until we, the people, say they should change, and how many Nigerians care whether the parties have ideologies or not? So the truth is there's a disconnect - one, the people in the parties have been winning elections this way, nobody has challenged them, they're doing fine, they have no reason to change the formula. And two, Nigerians are not demanding that they should have ideologies or that they should speak on those ideologies.

I remember when in the run-up to the 2015 elections and even 2019 elections, there was this conversation about a debate (presidential debate) and Buhari, of course, wouldn't want to debate. He didn't want to debate in 2019, in fact, he had zero incentive to because he was the incumbent. He had nothing to prove, so to speak. But Nigerians still voted for him knowing that. Lately, people are saying things like: this is a man who has never written a book. This is a man that doesn't have even a pamphlet to show what his ideas are, what his thoughts are, what he even thinks about anything. Literally, people have just spent decades projecting their own feelings onto this man. He's never said anything. He's never put anything on paper, which is why it was also easy for him to deny some of the election campaign promises that supposedly he now says his party has made on his behalf [which] he didn't make himself in 2015. But Nigerians still voted for him in 2019. So, if I was a Buhari, why would I care about having an ideology if I can win elections without having any? if I can get millions of votes without having any?

TL: Let's unpack the history here a bit. Do you think that the stunting of our political evolution, particularly, by the number of coups we've had and military intervention played a role in this particular problem? Because we know that order than the rule by force and fear which is the method of the military, they also spent quite a lot of time and money buying allegiances from civilian elites which gave them some form of legitimacy, and which I think is now being replicated in civilian rule. What do you think of that?

AO: I would think it's valid, in a way - half and half. There definitely was a truncation of our political evolution and political growth and development. And not even only a truncation, a poisoning - there was a poisoning of our sense of what it means to be a citizen, a poisoning of our sense of responsibility and accountability. Some people would argue that we are all even suffering from PTSD because there was a lot of violence as well and it's hard for ideology to thrive where there is high poverty and where there is violence as well. So I would agree that, yes, to a certain extent the coups, the military rule definitely, in my mind, as impacted on our political development.

But we cannot blame them entirely because you know that we did have intellectuals. We had the radical ABU academics, we had [them] thriving even in Ibadan, Ife... there was a culture of resistance even during the military rule. But oddly enough, somehow this radicalism, this pushback on authority, it doesn't seem to have survived going back to a democracy in 1999. And some would argue that we are not even in a democracy right now, we're just practising civil rule but we're not quite democratic in the sense of our structures and the accountability between government and citizens. So I'll say, again, like, a lot of my answers will be that 'it's half and half.' I don't like us to shirk responsibility completely. Has there not been enough time between 1999 and today, that's 20 years, we celebrated 20 years of democracy last year of uninterrupted democracy which is the longest we've ever had Democracy in Nigeria uninterrupted. We celebrated 20 years. Is 20 years is not long enough to have developed this culture - if there was a deliberate sense not only from the politicians but also from the academics and the think tanks and civil society that it was important to develop our political culture and political theory? What you find though is that everybody seems extremely comfortable with the way our parties have evolved since 1999, built on some of the interference of the Babangida transition program which took a long time. So that's what I talk about in the poisoning of the well.

The years of military rule had helped us to compromise our academics, compromise our sense of values almost entirely and that's still lingering. The damage that was done to our unions, the damage that was done to student associations which could have also helped develop this thriving political culture, all those things were decimated during the military era and nobody has deliberately rebuilt it. You go to our universities today, you find that many student unions are not actually even democratic either. You find that in many cases the vice-chancellor or the ruling council of the university, if there's going to be [an] election, they want to want to be able to determine who wins those elections. That culture of manipulating who gets into a position has poisoned everything - the Nigerian Bar Association, I'm sure it's the same with the Nigerian Medical Association, I'm sure it's the same with either on the women's side. So, it's poisoned everything but as I said, where is the deliberate effort? You know, we're having a conversation where would you say over the last twenty years you have seen deliberate effort from politicians, one; two, academics; three, civil societies; four, even just concerned citizens to build an alternative model for what a political party should be?

TL: Why do you think that is? I'm curious. Is it ignorance, is it education, is it apathy? Why? Why has there not been that, at least on a scale that is enough to push the boundaries a little bit from the status quo, why has there been stasis in that regard?

AO: Ah... that one, eh. To be honest, I would say that [it's] beyond my pay grade or my understanding grade, to be honest. Because I am as baffled as anyone else about why this hasn't happened and the truth [is] I'm not a student of politics or political science, it's just interest that has made me do a bit of reading over the last couple of years. But, as you pointed out, I studied Law in school, maybe did political science for one or two electives before I entered year two in UNILAG. So I don't know but I would say, picking up from just observing, that it is a mix of apathy, which is odd. We didn't think that being under military rule was inevitable, but somehow we think that how things are done now are inevitable.

As time went on where the lines between public and private or the lines between, let's say, governance and the treasury (of public officials and the treasury) became more blurred, the more being in government became a route to access to fantastic riches - AO

I don't know what has happened to our sense of struggle and maybe that's it. Maybe there was no collective 'our.' I'm saying 'our' but the truth is it was a handful of people who pushed out the military. It was a handful of people who won independence from the British, and of course, that winning of independence from the British was not unrelated to what was happening across the rest of the world. The world war had ended about 15 years before, the idea of colonialism was sort of dying, so the time was right. Some people would argue that in the way that South Africans struggled to end apartheid, we as a nation, Nigeria... we've actually never struggled collectively for anything. Maybe the biggest struggle we've had was to get rid of the military but as I said even then, you'll be hard-pressed to feel that it was a collective effort as opposed to civil liberties organisations and a handful of people, the Beko Ransome-kutis and co. and co., when you hear those stories. And maybe the stories are not complete. So, framing an answer, why is it this way? It's a mix of ignorance, it's a mix of not being taught our history, the danger of the single-story that Chimamanda has warned us about. But we've only seen one side of our history, we're not sort of prepped to be citizens who are active, and I think this speaks to some element of decolonizing our education. Because when you're learning in school, whether it's primary school, secondary school, university... I did social studies, I did history for SSCE and I took some courses in university, you find that your history just raises you to be accepting of what there is as opposed to questioning. And I think a lot of the colonial countries, whether it's francophone West Africa or anglophone West Africa suffer from this educational system that was designed to just breed civil servants who would just do what they're told and protect the status quo. So, that's one. Two, I think we like quick fixes. And I am understanding of this. I have empathy for this feeling of wanting a quick fix, but,0 we need to invest long-term. Part of the reasons why we're not thinking about the investments that need to be made in changing political culture is because we want a quick fix.

Over the last couple of, maybe, like the year-and-a-half, the last year-and-a-half, I would say, there's been this romanticization of the NURTW. I've seen people on Twitter say 'oh, we should go and copy their model,' and I laughed, I smiled. And I'm like, 'what is their model designed to do?' I'm not saying it's an unworthy exercise to study them, you study every model if you want to dismantle it. In fact, you should know even more than the people who follow the model what the model is based on if you want to replace it with something better. But the idea that "well-meaning people"... because these days when people say they are 'well-meaning,' when people say they want to change things, we've learnt from the APC that we should be suspicious and ask questions 'what does change mean?' Because it might mean that you just want to capture power. You don't necessarily want anything to change. So back to NURTW, you want to use NURTW's model to do what? Because their model is designed to be exploitative, is that a model that you want to copy and use? For what? I mean, you have to think about these processes and ideologies and structures almost like a factory, a sausage making factory. Anything you put in will come out looking like a sausage. But we don't want to take the long-term view, we are always looking for the quick fixes.

TL: I mean, it's baffling. Maybe I should take a peek at your Twitter feed that anybody would even suggest NURTW as a viable model for political organisation.

AO: Whoa! Are you saying you've not seen that?

TL: No, I haven't, actually.

AO: Ah. No o. In fact, if not that I'm bad with names, so I don't want to, sort of, pick names, but I'm quite sure people like maybe, Alabi, the guy who, I think, is like a business entrepreneur who's gone to the House of Reps in 2019, is that his name? Alabi?

TL: Oh, Akin Alabi.

AO: Alabi. As I said please, maybe not him, but I just feel somebody with that type of name or maybe it might be...umm, I'm trying to open my Twitter feed now as we're talking, so this is an interactive conversation.

TL: Yeah.

AO: So, I've seen that from more than one person (say 'oh, you know'... ) maybe even Rinsola Abiola. I think she might be a fan of that school of thought and to be honest it's framed in a way to say 'oh, you elite people, you're sneering at the NURTW because they don't speak English,' it's not that. At least it's not that for me. It is, what is the structure designed to do?

TL: Exactly. If I may ask, sorry I'm interrupting. Do they have specifics, I mean, what about that model are we supposed to learn from?

AO: It's funny you said that because I remember that some other people pushed back now sharing stories of the kind of havoc that NURTW members have wrecked on their communities, or in [the] markets, and things like that. So, people were like, 'look, stop romanticizing these people.' But you're right, you know. There's this whole thing of 'oh, but they have spread, they're all over the place.' Yeah, they didn't wake up in the morning and suddenly had spread. So you now want to adopt a model but you don't want to interrogate what the model was designed for? In fact, I talked about decolonizing education, we should actually even decolonise our government.

Because the truth is our government was inherited from the British who were here to strictly exploit us for their benefit. It's not far-fetched to say that that's what our politicians are still doing today. And they're not alone. We keep pointing fingers at the politicians but the civil servants are also exploiting us on the structures that the British had left for us which we inherited and we haven't really changed since then. You see all sorts of things in our civil service like leave allowance - this was for the British who had to go home for the summer. We still have those things in our system. So when we even talk about decolonizing education, we even need to decolonise our governance and what governance is supposed to do.

So it comes back to the thinking that needs to be done but to be honest there's this sense of 'no, no, no, no, we'll enter government and then we'll change it from there.' And my theory, from the little that I experienced, again, I admit that I only experienced a little because all I did was primaries. But even the primaries showed me that what it takes to win an election in Nigeria, I doubt if when you finish you'll still... even if when you were entering you had lofty ideas of what you wanted to do, what you wanted to achieve, I can bet that by the time you win, at least fifty percent of those ideals would have been sheltered. You will no longer be the person you were when you started that process for you to succeed. And in the first place, for you to succeed, there are some traits that the party owners would have seen in you that will make you a good candidate. So I guess that's part of the dilemma that we’re in [which] is that we romanticize things, we're not thorough, we're not detailed... it could be a whole national malaise. We don't have high standards, we don't want to be held to high standards so that we don't have to hold anybody else to high standards. So, yeah, largely, we're just a collective of people who just want quick wins, easy way, we don't seem to see that the suffering that we are going through doesn't have to be that way, that there could be a better way of living. Now, everybody's gaze is on Canada. It's like a joke now but within the jokes and the banter, it's just the sense that nobody wants to build Nigeria, you now want to move to Canada where they have struggled to build their own country and they're still struggling. I've had the privilege of being in Germany for the last year and I've been saying to people 'I'm like Germany, they have light, they have water.' In the one year that I've been here I have not had cause, even once, to even wonder that if I touch the switch, it's just... it's not even in me. Whereas in Nigeria, every single day, it's as dominating as breathing or as air for you to wonder whether there is light.

TL: Yeah.

AO: So but here where they have light and they have water, they are on the streets every day. I'm not saying the whole city is on the streets but pockets of people who care about one thing or the other are marching and complaining and lobbying... because Berlin is the capital for Germany, sometimes farmers would come from across the country in their trucks, you know how big tractors are?

TL: Yeah.

AO: You'll find tractors all over the city, blocking roads, constituting a nuisance, they are protesting something to do with agricultural policy. So these are people whose lives you would say are fairly okay, but they're not resting on their laurels. They are not saying 'ah, everything is good,' they're still fighting, demanding, pushing, lobbying. Whereas we that have so much that's wrong, we're not even doing anything. So, it comes back to the ideology question - the people in power, they're looking at us and they're like, it's hard to tell that we want more. If you're Buhari would you think that the nation wants more? I don't know the governor of your state but if you're in Lagos State, does Sanwoolu feel like Lagosians want more?

We romanticize things, we're not thorough, we're not detailed... it could be a whole national malaise - AO

TL: It's interesting you talk about this demand for good governance which we don't have. I'm just wondering if you are a civil society Czar which you are, in a way...

AO: I am.

TL: And you want to take a stab at this problem, where do you start? Is it bottom-up, is it top-down? if you want to triage resources, where should we focus on first?

AO: I would say it's the middle. My argument is very simple, I say the middle because my knowledge of history, the limited knowledge I have of history and of struggles, is that it's the people in the middle. And I know that there is this argument that we don't have a middle class in Nigeria but I guess, for me, I will just say the middle is: me and you, who have enough to eat every day. We might not eat everything we want to eat every day but we have enough to eat every day. We have a steady income, whether it's every month or whether it's from a business that comes quarterly. We aspire, maybe some of us travel a couple of times a year [or] every couple of years; that class, that middle, the people who can afford data, the people that can afford the luxury of being on Twitter for a few hours every day, on Facebook every day, that's the middle. For me, most movements come from the middle. They would obviously trigger something with the lower class, the working-class people, the people who live on daily wages, at a point the struggle will tip over to them and they too will adopt it. But as you said the triage, my energy will go on the middle, my energy will go on the middle who are young if I'm also going to prioritize within that middle. Because those are the people who should have the luxury of thinking. Me and you, who are not bogged down by hunger... and poverty is real. Poverty is really real in Nigeria.

Are we expecting the people who are struggling for a daily meal to be the ones who are going to do the thinking, the planning and heavy lifting? I don't think so. So I would focus on the middle and what would I be focusing on the middle for? I'll be saying to the middle, 'how do we organise?' And you see, when I say "organise", I'm using that word in a technical sense. When we heard that Barack Obama was a community organiser I don't know how many Nigerians understand what that means? There are schools of thought around organising - there is the snowflake model, there is [the] Alinsky model, there's the LCN (Leading Change Network) model. These are models that I know are used in America and I ask myself what are the models for organising that we use Nigeria? What are the models of organising that we use in West Africa? So far I have come up with very little. For me in civil society, the new opportunity that I see is teaching organising in a structured manner. Creating a model for organising. And the truth is we have things in our history that we could build that model of organising around. We've had the Aba women's movement, I will put that as a classic case of organising. How did those women do it? What triggered it? What happened? It's not a footnote in history 'oh, there was the Aba women's...' which was how we learnt about it...the Aba women's movement, they did this, this, this. They put a tax on their salt and they were not happy. No. It is to go beyond that to see how they did it. How did they organise? How did the women get other women to buy into this?

In today's day and age where when to organise they're saying 'ah, how many people from Kogi State? How many people from Nasarawa?' Which is not, for me, the key thing. The key thing is, how many people who feel this pain? How many people who have this value? It's not about the geography. But even in terms of putting together movements in Nigeria you find that we're still looking at federal character. I'm not saying that that's a bad thing but I'm saying it cannot be the predominant thing because that's our politicians organise. We cannot keep using their models. There's a reason why they use their model. We cannot use their model when we want to organise to push them out. So that's where I would start - teasing out a framework for organising for us in Nigeria based on our own stories. What did them Beko do? How did they do it? What did they learn? What were the mistakes? What drove them [in] pushing out the military? Where did they go wrong, where did they go right? And then using our own 21st-century experiences from Sudan, from Egypt, from Algeria, Tunisia, from Black Lives Matter.

People are looking like at Black Lives Matter as if... I don't know how to explain it, as if somebody just shoots a gun and out came Black Lives Matter. They've been doing Black Lives Matter for years. This is where preparation meets opportunity. The longest movement or, at least, advocacy campaign we've had is Bring Back Our Girls. Maybe also in terms of thinking about a model for organising we'd look at some of the things they did right, learn from some of the things they didn't do well. But, for me, that would be the start. So you'd have that organising model and then you'll now democratise that organising model so that everybody can use it if they want. Whether it's the hairdressers on a street or in a community [or] local government who are tired of being taxed, how do they use that model to organise? But on a larger scale, then it would be how do me, you and other people that think like me and you who want to use that model to build the power that is needed to demand for the structural changes we need. It will take time. It will take research, it will take knowledge, it will take mobilizing, it will take organising to get to that point. But what should sustain us is that in the last decade, decade and a half, most of the real fundamental changes that have happened around the world have happened not through elections and have also not happened because of coups, and have also not happened because people that were oppressing suddenly woke up and said we're tired of oppressing. They've happened because of nonviolent movement, which requires between 3.5 percent or 5 percent of your population to want that change bad enough. I think we can do that in Nigeria but nobody is doing it.

TL: Listening to you, I tried to look at some of the potholes, so to speak, in this model. You talked about Bring Back Our Girls, I was at the Abuja sit-in in 2014 and I think... was it the second day or the third day and Dino Melaye came for whatever reason and said (I don't know how true that is) that 'oh, I hear that 150 million naira has been released by the NNPC to start a rival movement.' Now, that seems outrageous but by the very next day there was a rival gathering at Unity Fountain chanting 'Release Our Girls.'

AO: [Laughs out loud]

TL: Yeah. And by the next day of that rival organisation, it descended into violence. I believe so much in the middle class and changing the demand for good governance, but I keep looking at the threats, especially around poverty and how quickly the political class (the ruling class) can easily use money and influence to mobilize for violence. And I think that may drive apathy on its own. On the path of people that are willing and even able.

The key thing is, how many people who feel this pain? How many people who have these values? It's not about the geography but even in terms of putting together movements in Nigeria you find that we're still looking at federal character - AO

AO: I hear you completely. And to be honest, yes. In fact, it's now become a fad. As a member of civil society will know, for example, that Amnesty International is constantly picketed every time they come up with a report or a press statement that indicts the government and the military and soldiers for extrajudicial killings or overstepping their bounds especially in terms of loss of civilian lives, we find paid protesters coming out with their posters. To be honest we've seen this across board. We've seen people protesting for Diezani. The funny one was the 'leave Diezani' where it was spelt L I V E, "live our Diezani alone" which is like 'live'. It's now an industry, so we can expect it. But should that deter us? I don't think so. To me, it doesn't deter. And this is another mistake that we make. This is another mistake that "the people that want to change" always make that mistake because they want to keep following the models of the politicians.

Now, the average politician thinks 'okay, he can outspend you.' He probably can. But you know these protesters, we find that at the end of the day, they'll be fighting in one corner, maybe they were promised 1000 [naira] but he can only give them 500 [naira], it's not sustainable on their part. Yes, they can bring out their 'release our girls' people, day one, day two, if we were still going for day hundred, who's going to be bringing that money? Who's the politician will keep saying 'let's keep giving these fake protesters money to come out?' They will now have to change track, that's maybe is where they will now try to use violence or the tactic of Abuja now is to seal off the area where the bring back our girls used to sit in the name of construction or they might try and start infiltrating the movement to pay people off to be disruptive. We can expect these things because these are tactics that we know will be used. How do we prepare against it? That's all part of what the organising and the struggle is about.

I'm not going to tell you that it's not going to happen, but because we know it's going to happen, then we can mitigate against it. We can expect it and we can work around it. But the truth is, of course, anybody that benefits from the status quo is not going to let go of that status quo easily. We can, again, link this conversation to Black Lives Matter. What is so hard about saying 'stop killing innocent people?' Why is there such pushback? Why are we seeing such pushback from the police, about not arresting people indiscriminately, not shooting and killing people indiscriminately, not using indiscriminate force on people? Because, as I mentioned, the DNA of our political party, it's in the DNA of the United States police force. Because the United States police force is also tied to the legacy of slavery and dehumanizing black people. But does that mean we shouldn't struggle?

TL: Absolutely not.

AO: Exactly. So we see the pothole, we acknowledge the potholes and just as we do with our cars, we swerve and avoid the potholes. But the key thing that would help us avoid these potholes, Tobi, is the values that we used to organise. So as soon as me and you think that for our movement to a powerful, we need Dino Melaye, we need Adams Oshiomole we need Ghali Na'abba, that's our downfall.

TL: Let's move away a bit from that. We'll come back to some of that issue. Let's talk about gender-based violence which is something I noticed you've written about recently. If Twitter is a reflection of reality, there's been an incredible surge in such violent incidents over the last couple of months and like everybody else, I wonder what's going on? Has it always been like this or there is an underlying psychological reason behind the current wave we are seeing?

AO: Now, that's a fantastic question and I have the answer. One, this violence is worldwide. The violence against women and children that we're experiencing right now during covid is worldwide. It's been given a name - The Shadow Pandemic. As the covid pandemic is ravaging the world, there's a shadow pandemic that is also ravaging the world and the pandemic is waging war on women and children mostly. So is this a new thing? No, it's not a new thing. What covid has done more than anything is put a magnifying glass to problems we already had and two, it has sped up the rot. So, we already had rotten structures, rotten cultures, rotten response to social issues, deep injustices and inequalities in our system, what covid has done is exacerbate these things. They've made them worse overnight. Why? Because with covid we've also seen restrictions on movement, we've seen people's livelihoods being affected negatively, we know that more people are going through hardship. And when there's stress, and there's oppression, it's not to justify it but this is just the reality, when people are under pressure, they lash out.

When I'm under pressure, I'm more likely to snap at my children than when I'm not for the same thing. So, if I'm just chilling, I'm not particularly stressed out at work or nobody has bashed my car or I'm not frustrated at the diesel bill or they've not just come to cut our line, and my child breaks something... my reaction at that moment depends on just how stressed I am. So, likewise, with people's livelihoods being affected, a sense of oppression, a sense of uncertainty, all these things are boiling over as a war against the most vulnerable which is women and children. People feel like they need to take out their stress on somebody else whether it's beating them or raping them, and this is how some of it's manifesting. I'm quite sure that also domestic violence is high, but we're not seeing the stories in the news same way we're seeing the stories of sexual gender-based violence. But in Sierra Leone, a five-year-old was just raped to death. We've seen stories in Nigeria of three-year-olds, four-year-olds. It's across the continent, it's across West Africa, it's across the world. Then come back to Nigeria on sexual gender-based violence, we ordinarily... we've had a really horrible culture of sexual gender-based violence against women. There was the report, I think 2012, called women in Nigeria report that was a joint research done by the British Council and I think the Ministry of Women Affairs and Ministry of Finance because I think we had Okonjo-Iweala then. Yeah, this is around 2012, yes.

That was a time when we were making a lot of strides in terms of saying let's do gender budgeting and things like that. Anyway, the report showed that I think 1 is 6 or 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual gender-based violence, separate from domestic violence and just violence in general. So when you now look at the numbers in terms of prosecution, you'll see that very few people are prosecuted for it. We have patriarchy that sort of places men above women and children, then you have an ageist society where we believe older people over younger people, then you have a society where you have no law and order, where your police is ([for] lack of a better way of describing it) largely exploitative and designed to protect the regime as opposed to protecting the people, you have a judiciary that is weakened and not independent and likely doesn't care. Oh, let's not forget sex for saw the documentary that came out last year that the BBC did on UNILAG and in [the] other school in Ghana?


TL: I did.

AO: So it's in our culture. I hear that [the] National Assembly, when they do their budgeting for conferences and meetings, if you look at the items there is "conference materials." They say conference materials apparently include women. That conference material is a cover for women. I've heard stories of men in meetings (government meetings) where a good part of the government meeting is spent on whether they are going to travel with blankets, blankets being a code for women, so this is our culture. You have stories of people who are abused and then the whole family will be on the neck of the mother or the child who wants justice. The family. So, we have a real, real, deep societal issue. I agree that a state of emergency should be declared but the truth is a state of emergency was declared around sexual gender-based violence in Sierra Leone last year. Despite that, poor Khadijah was raped to death. A five-year-old. By her Uncle. With the knowledge of the Uncle's mother and the girl's Aunty.

So, declaring a state of emergency for me is rhetoric. What is going to be done? What needs to be done? How do you have somebody who alleges that she was raped (we've seen it not once, we've seen it not twice) harassed by the police? The truth is, again, like demanding good governance, do we want to see an end to sexual gender-based violence in Nigeria? It's almost, in a way, also, up to us. Do we want to have zero tolerance? Because if as a society we excuse it, if even on a family level we can find it in our hearts to excuse the people we know who are molesting young girls, when we refuse to believe young girls, when we refuse to believe adults who come forward, then as a society we're saying this is not important to us and the government will take their cue from there.

TL: I have a two-part question. And please indulge, maybe, some of my own ignorance here. Now, I look at history and there is some form of correlation, maybe not necessarily causal, that as societies get richer, they also improve in gender equality. So do you think some of these problems are economic? Is it so knotty as a problem right now because we are still largely a poor society?

AO: Is that the two-part question [or] should I wait for the other one?

TL: Yeah. Wait for the other one.

AO: Well, it's a good question and the truth is I don't have the research to say yay or nay. I do know though that in a few countries (I know Brazil is definitely one) where this sense that 'let's empower women economically' (I said I want to stop using that word: empower)... where women have been given or are supported to be more economically independent, we've actually seen violence rise in their homes. As the men find it extremely uncomfortable that the women are earning. Maybe not even earning more than they are, but just that the women are earning. They don't like the confidence it gives them and you see an increase in violence. That has been documented. When I think of women, let's just say like me, who are abused at home or who are abused in the workplace, we're not poor and the people abusing us are not poor either, so I would wonder where that comes in. Unless it is the entire society, even when you have pockets of wealth, there's some sort of mental impoverishment. I mean, that could be the only explanation. That's one explanation anyway, that you'll say that 'okay, so how do you account for sexual gender-based violence and domestic violence within rich or middle-class communities?' And this is not special to Nigeria either, it's something that happens everywhere.

So I still bring it back to patriarchy and culture. I still think that it's not enough to say it's because we're poor. Because then the argument will be, but your state is not poor. Why does my police not care? How much is the police budget? I'm sorry I wish I had that number at my fingertips. When a mother comes in with a child and says that child has been raped, why is our police too poor to be able to treat them humanely, question them humanely, capture their stories humanely, instead of reporting the mother or brutalising the girl by asking stupid questions about how she caused what happened to her even if she's under five years old? So where does poverty fit in where our judges who get a huge chunk of money... You can even excuse the judges maybe you'd say because if cases are not prosecuted by the state, this is a crime. So ideally, in these types of cases, it's not supposed to be the mother of a child or me who is a rape victim who is prosecuting the case, the state should be prosecuting the case. Is the state too poor to prosecute these cases?

When we vote for these people, what are we voting for? What do they do for us? What do they do for us that makes us have every four years go out and vote for these same people? - AO

Is the state too poor to hire public defenders for people who are too poor to hire lawyers for themselves? Is that what we're saying? The state is the one that's going to determine what kind of society that we want to live in. I'm afraid I don't really buy the poverty one, I think that it is a cultural one. Our problem is cultural, it's not poverty. It's not economic. Because even rich people exploit women and girls. Even educated people do, so it's now a culture, this is our culture. Pastors do it, Imams do it, governors do it, ministers do it, people in civil society do it, bankers do it, teachers do it, policemen do it, everybody is doing it. It's not about poverty, it's about culture, it's about what we accept.

TL: I love that answer, I wish we had hours to unpack all the various details and nuances. So the second part is, again, to be honest, I never tweet or speak publicly about this stuff because some of these platforms are not really optimized for a nuanced conversation and...

AO: Yeah.

TL: So I noticed that there is a pattern. I mean, when people pushback or advocate or complain or protest sexual violence against women and children, particularly against women now, there’s a pattern which is 'oh, stop raping women.' And, yeah, I have no problem with that message. But then, you have a certain group of people who say 'oh well, not all men are rapists' and then the conversation devolves into a lot of anger, name-calling. What are the nuances? I mean, in sexual violence there's biology, mental health and other things other than being a male or a female, do those other things not count or explain some of the cases?

AO: Hmm. I’m not sure I understand this last part, you might have to unpack that part. I understood up to when you said 'does biology not play a role?' Until that point I was understanding where you're coming from and where you’re trying to go. But this last part...

TL: Okay, for example, we know that, and when I say 'we know' I’m talking about, maybe, consensus in the psychological science that paedophiles, for example, have a certain psychological profile. They might not have a normal brain like an average person. And there is also some evidence that people who rape (there are serial rapists, of course, just like serial killers) they are also of a certain psychological profile. I take the cultural arguments. Absolutely. True. There's an ingrained problem with our culture with how we see women, how we treat women, how we talk about women and it reflects. But specifically about the violence which is quite troubling, which bothers me a great deal, which I would like to see a lot more movement in terms of change and not argument, and not controversy and all the things that poison that conversation. So should we start looking into mental illness and not just the gender of the accused or the perpetrator?

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AO: Okay, now I understand and it’s perfect. Wow! This is very loaded and I’m really not sure I can do justice to it. Maybe after our interview, you'll have another session with people who are psychologists but I’ll try and unpack them one by one and in the different issues that I’ve seen in this last question or comment or reflection. The ‘not all men are rapists,' of course, it’s understood where that is coming from. But if we compare it as someone has done recently to... when we say 'Black Lives Matter,' and then people say 'All Lives Matter, there's also a reaction because in saying Black Lives Matter, we're not saying All Lives don't matter. We're saying black lives are in danger because the numbers tell us that more Black people are being killed by the police. So nobody’s saying white people don’t get killed by the police but what is saying is that there's a systemic structural racism in the US police force that targets Black people. Some people would argue that there's, I know that's hard to think of, but they there are fate worse than death, what the African-Americans go through in terms of being used as a feeder for America's prison complex you could argue that, for some people, that fate is worse than death. It’s like a living death and it’s not unconnected to the fact that the thirteenth amendment they abolished slavery somehow left an exception for prisoners still be treated as slaves, creating an incentive to have slaves and to be able to capture a good part of your population as slaves.

So going back to not all men, it angers women and men when some men say that because in saying men are rapists, we’re talking about the data. Nobody is saying women don't rape and it’s actually quite useful that many men are also now sharing very troubling stories of how their first sexual encounter was rape, literally. Which brings us now down to this mental issue - there’s evidence, non of it Nigerian based, but there's evidence to show that people who are abused go on to abuse. So if you were raped as a child, if you were molested as a child, some people would become molesters. If you were raised in a violent household where you were hit as a child, you watch your mother being hit (or let's just say, to be fair, your father being hit), you will most likely grow up into an adult will hit their child, who hit their spouse. This is documented. So you’re right. Sometimes when I hear these stories, I do think 'oh my god, we're a nation of [the] abused' and we're all going on to transfer our abuse to other people. You hear horrifying stories, [see] videos of women abusing househelp in very degrading, sadistic ways. And you’re like 'ah-ah.'

So this comes to the trauma that, it will be fair to say, maybe a good section of Nigerians are going through but we don’t invest in mental health. We don’t recognize it. And literally mental health is tied to health where, as a country, we've not put health as a priority - that’s also one of the things that have become glaring from the pandemic. We’ve known that our healthcare is inadequate, I mean, constantly we're Go-Gunding people who need to travel abroad, it seems that there’s no serious illness that we can treat in Nigeria. We just don’t have the capacity. Where we have the capacity, it is very limited. So, if we can’t even do basic public health right and basic public health is literally maternal mortality, infant mortality, just making sure pregnant women don’t die, making sure babies don't die, toddlers below the age of five don’t die. If we can’t treat accidents, gunshot wounds, basic things, how will we get to mental health? Where will the investment come from but the truth is we need investment in public health. To be honest, we can actually tie sexual gender-based violence going on against young boys and young girls and women, we can make it an economic issue because we can say 'what is the impact of all these people who are emotionally stunted in one way or the other (I’m not saying everybody who is raped or who has been abused has mental issues)... but in one way or the other, how are these things affecting our productivity as a society? How many man-hours are lost in dealing with these issues? How many man-hours, women-hours are lost in terms of productivity for women who are running, hiding, trying to dodge abusive husband, abusive uncles who feel entitled to the bodies of your daughters? How many man-hours and women-hours are spent on avoiding all these?

What will it take for 3.5 percent of Nigerians to say enough is enough? - AO

If we were really to treat all these cases the way we would, then you'd now be asking, what is the financial burden on our healthcare system? If we had a serious government, then the government will be saying 'this is a pandemic that we must stop because it is draining our people and draining our resources.' So I agree with you that the conversation could be expanded, I am hopeful that it will be because I think we’re getting there. I know that the conversations are quite painful, they can get quite heated, I personally welcome them as painful as they are. Because I think we're sort of undergoing the psychological therapy that we need to first to discuss these things. And you know they say there are stages to grief? I can't remember all the stages but anger is one of them. Maybe we're going through the anger stage. We will get through the anger stage and get to the solution part. Maybe the solutions will be home driven because we would now have had these conversations, had these revelations, had these stories told and told and retold. So people will get to where me and you are now, say, 'okay, how do we move forward?' Which is why in my first answer I said 'it's the lack of seriousness that the states treat this issue of sexual gender-based violence. It's in part a reflection of your society where women have been so objectified as sexual objects. There's a strong sense, in Nigeria, that any woman who has anything is because she's sleeping with somebody. So sex has been seen as a commodity which in a way is almost as if the women are the sellers and the buyers, which is madness. We cannot be the sellers and the buyers.

TL: Men are the buyers, obviously.

AO: Well, some of them are selling too, so I'm just saying this accusation that 'oh, sex, sex. Women use sex to get what they want. Women use sex to manipulate.' In fact, that narrative is now spilling down to small girls, innocent children. What are they trying to get? What do they want to get? So all these angry conversations should lead to us saying 'enough is enough.' I spend an in ordinate amount of time on WhatsApp platforms and groups where we’re constantly asking 'who can shelter one three-year-old? Who can shelter a four-year-old? There's a 16-year-old who is being by her stepfather, where can she go? And you're saying 'where is the state?' In the 21st-century, how is it impossible...I think only Lagos that I know of, forgive me if there are other states, Lagos is the only state I know that has a shelter for women as per it is a state shelter. And I'm quite sure that even what they can afford and what they can do and who they can cover is limited. But [in] most states, you do not have a place where a woman and her children who are being abused and being a terrorized can go to. Which makes it even harder for you to get the support that you need. So if, for example, your family is not with you in terms of trying to avoid the abuse of your daughter or your son in the hands of a relation, which is often the case. Where do you go? Do you now go under a bridge with these same children who are traumatized? Your state doesn't even provide for this, so again, it comes back to governance and politics.

When we vote for these people, what are we voting for? What do they do for us? What do they do for us that makes us every four years go out and vote for these same people? Which one thing? Which one thing are Nigerians passionate about? Which one thing, Tobi, are you passionate about that you're saying this issue is so important to me that if it is not addressed, I want some serious reform? I'm sure every single Nigerian has one of those such issues, yet we do not make it campaign issues, yet we allowed these people to just tell us lies. We cannot hold them accountable. Then the next four years comes again and we all troop out? Are we all mad?

TL: Pertinent questions. Thank you very much.

AO: Thank you so much. It's been really interesting.