Many call her hot-headed. Some say she is naive for making that audacious move from the All Progressives Congress to Action Democratic Party. But Rinsola Abiola, a former Special Assistant on New Media to the Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, is only a young woman who is fighting for the right of the people just like her father, the late Chief MKO Abiola did in his lifetime. In this interview, Vanessa Obioha explores her stance on grassroots advocacy, roadmap for her potential constituency, diplomacy, fake news and of course, her love for thrillers
Rinsola Abiola has a faint memory of her father, the acknowledged martyr of the current democratic dispensation, Chief Moshood Abiola. She was very young when he passed. However, she looked forward to the anniversary of his passage those early years. For her, it offered an opportunity to view lengthy documentaries on his life. Every July 7, she will anxiously wait to catch glimpses of the man everyone around her adored. At first, she could never really fathom the greatness of her father. But the more stories she heard of him, the more she fell in love with his personality. Sitting in front of that TV, watching his life retold was a moment Rinsola relished.
‘I always looked forward to watching the documentary even if I knew I will end up crying,” she told this reporter as her eyes glistened with tears, though she made an effort to keep her voice controlled. We were at the Action Democratic Party (ADP) Secretariat in Ogun state, where she is running for the House of Representatives seat in Abeokuta North/Obafemi Owode/Odeda Federal Constituency.
Pulling herself together, she continued, “You are looking at a father you didn’t know so well, but just listening to stories about him always got me emotional. There are times I go on YouTube to listen to his speeches. It is very heart-warming to realise that we have a lot in common.”
Indeed, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Rinsola, a graduate of Statistics is as outspoken and valiant as her father in standing for what she believes in. Her recent move from the All Progressives Congress (APC) where she made some impressive landmarks to the ADP was perceived by many as daring and to others impertinent.
Rinsola, however, is quick to point out to her critics that her decision was solely based on the values she believes in, particularly those who felt she was ungrateful after President Muhammadu Buhari conferred a post-humous national honour on her late father, as well as, making June 12, (date of the landmark presidential election in 1993 that Abiola presumably won) the new Democracy Day.
“I didn’t join APC because I thought Buhari would do something for my father. I joined them because I thought we needed to make a clear departure from where we were headed as a country and have a new crop of leaders. I joined APC out of conviction because I wanted to see a new Nigeria. I gave my all not because I wanted personal benefit but because I believed in the party and that I was playing my role as a good citizen of the country. Those were the values that brought me into politics.”
She further stated that her problem was mainly with the state party members who threatened her when she insisted on contesting in the upcoming elections.
“My problem is not with APC at the national level. All politics is local. Buhari is not in charge of Ogun state and he is not the one who makes decisions about APC in Ogun state. He is not the one who said that he is going to turn democracy upside down in Ogun State. What happened as far as I am concerned contravenes any known democratic principle. If I have remained in that position and just taken it, it would have amounted to me belittling the values that my father fought and died for. A lot of things were said to me. I was told to wait for my turn, but that was not even the point. It was being told that if you go ahead, there would be dire consequences.
“Then I began to wonder, my father faced soldiers when he was fighting for democracy. He went against the military. If he could stand up for what he believed in during a military dispensation then what excuse do I have to say that in a democratic system I’m so afraid I can’t go for what I believe in. It didn’t make sense to me. I don’t have any issue with anyone in the party outside Ogun State. Everything they did was undemocratic.”
She’s been termed a lot of things since she made the drastic move but those opinions don’t deter her.
“Some say it’s naivety, some say I’m hot-headed. I don’t think I’m hot-headed. If I believe in something and I know it’s right and I haven’t broken any law, what I believe is right for the majority of the people at that time, I’m going to stand up and speak about it. Our democracy came at a very high cost. My father died and a lot of other people who we don’t even know also died trying to bring this democracy.
“So why should people then decide to take democratic structures and use it to further dictatorship or tyranny. That’s not what democracy should be about. The people who fought for our democracy didn’t do so so that someone somewhere will stand up and arrogate absolute power to himself, that’s not how it works. If we continue to look the other way and accept these things, a whole lot of things will go wrong. We are seeking for youth and women inclusion but if we accept this tyranny as a norm, then I believe that by the time we are in charge of these structures we will do the same to the people after us.
“We need to begin to make it clearer that we are not going to accept it. I’m young enough to make a mistake at this stage in my life. And at the same time stand for what I believe in. My father stood for what he believed in, that’s why democracy came when it did. So it’s not enough to sing, ‘the labour of our heroes past,’ we must honour them by continuing to stand for the values they stood for. That’s why I left. I didn’t want to but I had to.”
Her father’s strong believe in values that will benefit the people was behind her choice to pitch her tent in ADP, though there were offers by other parties. However, she disclosed the party’s manifesto really aligned with her vision which centres on governance for the people, youth and gender inclusion.
Like her father, Rinsola is very compassionate about the people. She strongly abhors politics that favours only the elites. “Politics is not solely for people from wealthy background. My father wasn’t from a wealthy background, he came from nothing and he became very wealthy. My campaign has been very centered around the people. Ultimately it’s the people that decide, it’s the people that vote, it’s the people that we are elected to protect. Some people don’t care to do that much because they believe it’s one godfather that got them into office so they don’t really care much.
“They will do empowerment programmes and give cars to governor or godfather’s families and they call it empowerment. These are people who are already comfortable at the expense of the actual people who need help. Some people need as low as N5,000 or N10,000 to start or grow their businesses and yet they are giving to people who already have. I think that is a travesty against our people and our people deserve much better,” she said bitterly.
As the elections draws near, Rinsola has mapped out certain areas she would quickly tackle. They include road infrastructure and power.
“There is a road in Odeda local government that is a federal road but there are lots of people in that area and that road is so small. That part of town is our own Lagos. There is always traffic there so we need that road to be expanded not only rehabilitated so that it works for our people. The road links Oyo state so we have a lot of travellers plying that road, and also farmers who are transporting their goods to their villages. These are issues we can take care of, just raising a motion regarding that area. There is another road that goes to Ogun-west and the state of that road is particularly horrible during the rainy season so we also need the federal presence on that road, to get it fixed.
“There are other areas where our people have been without power for up to two years such as in Owode LGA, These are things I will be seeking redress for through the power of my motions. I have been to the wards in my constituency and there are some infrastructural deficits that federal government cannot interfere because they will not fall under the purview of the FG. I have realised that one major reason our local areas are not developing is because local governments are not empowered to embark on any project. And all of these can be traced to the fact they do not have autonomy.
“This is why I’m an advocate of local government autonomy. It’s going to require constitutional amendment so it’s not something that we can do in six months or a year but I will sponsor that bill and in the event that someone sponsors it before I do, I will give maximum support to that bill.”
The only young woman vying for that post in her state, Rinsola who has now joined the league of her siblings like Mrs Abiola-Edewor and Hafsat Abiola-Costello interested in governance and public services, said she is not under any pressure to either fill in her father’s shoes or meet up to his standard. As far as she is concerned, both past and present representatives in that federal constituency have not done anything significant for their constituency.
“I don’t feel any pressure to live up to standard. There are no standards set by those who have been representing my constituency to aspire to and if we are talking about standard again, it goes back to the reason I’m running because the bar is very low. They have no meaningful contribution in terms of bills, motions, and attracting federal presence to the constituency and their track record is there for everyone to see. If they feel slighted or maybe that I’m not being truthful, they should come out and tell us what their contributions were while at the House of Representatives.
“Most of the areas are rural and they have little government presence. These are some of the things I want to correct. Legislators have three main duties: law making oversight, attracting federal presence which is about ensuring that federal infrastructure is rehabilitated or new things are done by the federal government to make life easier for our constituency. I believe in participatory representation. It’s going to be a collective effort, I’m not going to sit down and decide this is what I will give them because you know whatever you have to do has to be in tandem with the actual need of the people and of course I have consistently advocated for good governance. There is nothing I do that I don’t channel my strength and passion into. I’m going to give it all it takes to ensure that their voices are heard, their needs are prioritised and the government works for them.”
Her Father’s Daughter
Rinsola hardly made any sentence without reference to her father. This in a way betrayed her strong adoration for him. Throughout the interview, she lovingly referred to him as ‘Daddy’ as if he was still alive. Her most cherished tribute of him was mostly those shared by strangers who benefitted from her father’s magnanimity. She recalled an incident on Twitter.
“There was a random incident that happened. I was on Twitter and there was this lady, I think she is from Ondo, she sent a picture to me on my DM (Direct Message), and when I opened it, it was a letter that said Zaakat from Chief MKO Abiola. In Islam, we have this printed principle on Zaakat, it’s like tax on your income for the less-priveileged. Daddy was so organised about it and he took it so seriously that he had a lot of religious teachers he sent it to. So that envelope apparently contained his contribution to that community through their Imam.She showed me others to prove that there were many others. There was this person that also told me about visiting his village and seeing Qurans that were donated by MKO Abiola. I meet people who say he was a very kind man, they never had hopes of getting education, let alone being sponsored to school abroad. Daddy did that for a lot of people. In the late eighties or thereabouts, he donated funds to Nigerian universities.
“My father was such a kind of man that when you talk about people being detribalised, I don’t think there is anyone who was as detribalised as my father. Even going outside the shores of the country, his philanthropy extended there. He was a Pan-African in every sense of the word. He was passionate about African people. I have met ambassadors from other African nations who said so much about him. He identified with the struggles of people from across the world. He was a great man. There are some kind of people that you just wonder what was going through God’s mind when he created this man. It’s just so much.
“Each time people talk about him, It’s like a new thing every time. I like the fact that he was generous. As a Muslim, it is encouraged but of course not everyone takes that to heart. Even though he is no longer alive, he remains a very strong influence. Nobody can be like MKO Abiola. It’s impossible. There are people God created and at most what we can do is derive inspiration from them.”
There are other similarities Rinsola shares with her dad, one of them is her proficiency in proverbial sayings. In the course of this interview, she used a proverb to project her thoughts more than twice. For instance, when she wanted to talk about how power can change people, she used the popular proverbial saying that “You test people with small things to know how they can handle the big ones,” to buttress her point.
She put in another adage “You know how it is difficult to find a needle by itself but when there is a thread attached to it, it is easier to find,” to emphasise the influence of people.
As much as she is aware of her privileges, Rinsola is very cautious not to go against the values laid down by her late father and maternal grandfather, Chief Imam S.B. Biobaku, the Secretary General of the League of Imams Southwest, Edo-West and Delta. These two men are gentle reminders of the need to remain on the right track.
Rinsola also wears her Egba heritage proudly like a badge of honour. She is excited to come from a lineage of strong women, notably Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of the Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
While her father occupies a huge space in her heart, Rinsola cannot forget the loveliness of her mother, Folashade whom she said has been supportive of her political ambition and even helps her to do a door-to-door campaign. She is the one that introduced her to legal thriller novels such as the ‘Bourne Identity’ by Robert Ludlum. ‘I read that book when I was five years old. I remember mum had the hard cover then. John Grisham was another favourite, as well as Tom Clancy,” she enthused.
Love for Thrillers
Romantic novels are a no-go area for her unless the romance is somehow intertwined in a thriller. You need not go too far to find out which TV series she binges on. A trip to her Twitter timeline reveals that she is a die-hard fan of HBO’s award-winning series, ‘Game of Thrones.’ Her best character in that play is Khaleesi, played by British actress, Emilia Clarke. Rinsola sees a lot of herself in the fictional character.
“I think she has been able to do very well, building a cult following, something her husband never attained. She is forceful when she needs to be but at the same time she gives a message of hope which is why her people will die for her. It explains why they believe so much in her. I prefer her style of leadership. It reflects the kind of person I am to an extent. As much as possible, I try to be diplomatic. It’s about service to the people. There should be a message that resonates with the people if you are aspiring to be a leader. When people decide to undermine you or disregard you because you are female, then you can now be emphatic and say this is what I want and what I want to do. And if you are being a problem, I will find a way to deal with you. So you have to be firm and at the same time you have to be people oriented.”
Clarion Call to the Youths
Her youthful exuberance is still very intact. She is very active on social media where she shares not only her political views but as well latest fashion tips. And her driver also confirmed that she loves listening to rapper, Olamide’s songs as well as Sir Shina Peters. The young politician who is in her late twenties sees her lifestyle as exemplary to young persons who feel they have to give up their social lifestyle or dreams in order to pursue their political interests.
“It is important to send the message across to young people that they can be politically aware and active in their communities without giving up on other interests. A lot of people say politics is not meant for young people but it is not true. Politics is what determines everything in the economy. It determines the quality of life we have, healthcare, education, what we get as governmental projects in our various states. Politics determines the price of food in the market so we cannot afford not being involved or interested. I just want young people to be aware of these things. You can love the make-up, the highlights and the contours, you can love food, you can have interests in music, IT, and do your job, and still be interested in politics.”
As a former special assistant (New Media) to the Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, Rinsola is very much aware of the dangers fake news pose in today’s society.
“Social media has always been a rallying point for young people for social causes. I’m just hopeful that we will be able to translate the high level of social media engagement to actual votes. Another issue is that we have a high level of voter apathy. We need to emphasise as much as possible that it is not enough to tweet or share their promotional materials, you also need to vote for that person. Talk to people within your community to do same. Of course, there is a problem of fake news. Propaganda is not necessarily a negative thing, it is information that you put out with the aim of getting the audience to act a certain way. It doesn’t have to be false but people seem to have blurred the lines between propaganda and outright falsehood so there’s a lot of fake news and news sites that no one can actually trace ownership being used to propagate hateful divisive rhetoric and we need to be very careful how we consume news. Also political parties have to be on top of their games when it comes to tackling fake news and rumours.”
As we rounded up the interview, I tried to find out from her if the myth about her father opening an account with millions of Naira in the name of every child of his, automatically turning them to millionaires the day they were born was true. She laughed as she offered an answer.
“I have heard this many times. Daddy was a very good father. His children never lacked anything. They were well taken care of. For who daddy was, if he was going to do that kind of thing, it would be well over a million. But to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing like that, unless there is a fixed deposit somewhere that I’m not aware of. That’s just stories. Not real.”