The 8 November 2022 US midterm elections saw a good number of Nigerian Americans elected into different positions across the US. Oyewale ‘Oye’ Owolewa made the list of about eight Nigerian-Americans who got elected.
Mr Owolewa, 33, was elected to represent the District of Columbia (DC) whose seat in congress lacks voting power. DC have over a period of time clamoured for statehood, the likes of Mr Owolewa argue that it is the only capital in a democracy that does not enjoy democratic privileges such as deciding what their taxes are used for.
Born to Nigerian parents, Mr Owolewa popularly known as ‘Oye,’ grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. His father is from Kwara State and his mum was raised in Oyo State, both in Nigeria.
In this interview with Chiamaka Okafor, he talks about his journey to becoming a representative and how to better US-Nigeria relations.
How did the journey to becoming a rep in DC start?
My journey to becoming a representative – it started with my parents and their example of how to be a leader and how to be selfless and how to give to the community.
My mum is a civil engineer by training, my dad is a medical technologist, they did not leave their work at the workplace. They definitely took care of the community with my dad being a leader of the Yoruba community in Massachusetts, my mum being a senior advocate and someone who provided for children not only to allow them to get into the best universities possible but to also have the resources to go there and have things paid for.
When I became a pharmacist, I followed that same example, so I started volunteering at medical school, getting kids that look like me to become professionals and at that point, I was asked to do more in the community.
I ran for a local election, won by one vote and then got involved in the fight for DC statehood, where we are trying to bring our residents to congressional vote and voice.
So I decided to run and with the community support, and a lot of people pouring into me, into our campaign, we won the seat and became the first Nigerian at the federal capacity.
What role did your parents play, seeing that you mentioned them? What leadership role did you grow up seeing them in and how did that become an inspiration for you?
My parents were a huge inspiration to me. My father was the president of the Yoruba community in Massachusetts, and my mother was just everywhere.
She created tutoring programmes for her children and our friends. She created a programme with a principal view to help us with S.A.T. courses, which was a test that people used to get into college. What she basically did was pour that energy into her own children and replicated that among the diaspora.
So folks from Nigeria, folks who are from West Africa, even people from Asia, you know, she made sure that her courses were not only available but also really affordable. So these courses were about half the price, even less compared to what people can get on their own. So she really made sure that people were able to have the best opportunities and the best outcomes.
That taught me to replicate that effect among other people. My parents taught me from a young age that your wealth is not in how much money you have in the bank, but in the impact you have on other people.
The midterm elections, I would say, opened a new page for Nigerian Americans. We saw about eight of you. Is there a network where Nigerian American politicians like yourself commune or is this some solo trip everyone is going on?
Well, first of all, I am really proud of all the Nigerian Americans that were elected. You know, when I was running two years ago, it was unheard of to expect someone with a name like ours (Oye Owolewa) to not only run for office but to also win as well. And that was a testament to a few organisations; one most notably being the Nigerian American Public Affairs Committee (NAPAC) and their national organisation that not only supports Nigerians but also others like us.
They make sure that we are not only able to network with each other but keep that relationship strong so that is one organisation I can really point to saying that they keep us together, they keep us motivated. They remind us who we represent.
You know, we all have different districts but at the end of the day, the more of us in office, the better it is for outcomes, for not only us as Nigerian Americans but also for America in general.
Given the point you made about names like ours. The fact that they are not viable, not sellable in the US and so you do not expect to see yourself in top positions because of the kinds of names you bear. The trajectory is changing, where do you see Nigerian Americans in the nearest future?
Yeah, that is a great question. I think our opportunities are limitless, and I think that reflects on our culture.
Twenty to thirty years ago when it came to music, only Nigerians and people from our diaspora understood Afrobeats and Nollywood. Nowadays, you can find Wizkid, Burna Boy, Tems on American radio stations and I think that is a testament to who we are.
We used to celebrate our athletes getting into the National Basketball Association (NBA) but now we have Giannis Antetokoumpo winning back-to-back MVPs. Kids are wearing African, Nigerian names on their shirts, so I think that our political system is reflecting on where our culture is. In America, we are having a lot of areas get mail-in ballots and younger people voting like they never have before and I believe those generational divides of who is American and who is not is starting to dissipate.
I was born and raised in the United States. So I am proud to be an American, and I am also proud to be of Nigerian heritage. I have been able to combine both of those to not only get elected but also bring valuable resources to my community.
Do you identify as Nigerian or American?
I am 100 percent both. I am 100 per cent Nigerian, I am 100 per cent American. I am very proud of where I am from and I am also proud of where I am at.
When was the last time you visited Nigeria?
I travelled to Nigeria in 1999, then 2013 and then 2017.
DC statehood, a big conversation up there for the longest of times. How do you plan to advance this vision? You have been a part of this movement for a while but how does your new position advance this movement?
As you know, we were reelected in this seat. I have been the US representative since 2021 and since then, my whole sole focus has been to amplify our work to become the next state.
So whether it is being in DC having supercar rallies, giving engagement events to get DC residents activated about statehood or even talking to people like you, bringing our mission to an international presence. So folks who are in the United States, folks who are in DC, folks who are outside the United States, understand why it is important for DC to become the next state.
In the past, you know, we have been focusing on why DC residents deserve statehood whether it is how we pay our taxes or how we deserve our time to live our lives. But in this office, we have been able to go to other states, find out what they care about, and discuss how DC voting and representation helps get them closer to the country and city that they want to live in.
So in this office, we have been able to raise the potential of the voice for DC statehood. It really embodies what it means to be a collective. You know, the African mindset of a village, of having a voice, having the opportunity to care for one another.
I am not sure if you are conversant with the desire for statehood as well, if I may use that term, by ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. If you were to explain this to a layman, how would you explain what statehood means to DC? Is it the same as the Biafran struggle in Nigeria?
When it comes to what DC is looking for in becoming a state, we have to recognise that right now, Washingtonians, people living in DC, are the only people in the world who live in the capital city of a democracy without democratic privileges.
So we are not trying to leave the United States, we are trying to become first-class citizens of the United States. We have neighbours in Maryland, neighbours in Virginia, people all over and across this country who are able to pay taxes now to say where that money goes but in the District of Columbia, we do not have control over where our money goes.
We want control over our budget; we want control of our resources. So we just want the same thing everybody else has. So a fight for equality.
So how does it feel to pay tax and not have a say on what your tax is used for?
Oh, it is terrible. We have fought wars over this… we are trying to get what everybody else has. You know, like I said before, I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I love DC but I did not expect to lose my rights moving to DC. At the end of the day, I think that resonates with people because those little things that folks take for granted, like voting for a governor, have a National Guard under their purview, we do not have over here.
So it is all about raising consciousness, explaining specifically what we lose by not being a state and finding our partners and finding a path to full citizenship.
And on a personal note, how does it feel to sit in sessions, and get to chip into conversations, but you do not get to vote?
You know, right now in this office, we do lack that voting right. We do lack that congressional seat. But we do not focus on what we do not have, we really rely on what we do. So we rely on community partnerships, we rely on the Nigerian people, we rely on the press to really amplify our quest for statehood.
We are working with a lot of young people to really galvanise who we are, not only online, but really make those partnerships to bring services to people.
We collaborated with the Nigerian Center to bring low to no-cost immigration services and homeownership opportunities. We are working with an organisation called Alliance of Concerned Men, they deal with public health and safety. So we are doing whatever it takes to benefit our people with or without a vote.
The US has one of the largest Nigerian diaspora populations in the world. What are the existing partnerships or new ones you are looking to develop by virtue of your office to better relations between the US and Nigeria?
As I always tell people, I have 700,000 DC residents I represent. Perhaps even more Nigerian Americans and people from the West African diaspora who I also represent as well.
So a couple of organisations that collaborate with Yiaga Africa; this is a group of folks in Nigeria and beyond. I always talk about getting young people involved politically, to help reduce the age of people voting, as well as people running for office in Nigeria and that is something that I really want to bring back to America. Like folks who are young being really involved.
In the United States, people talk on social media, they do marches, and we are making sure they are also bringing that energy to the polling booth. This year, we have been able to have the highest percentage of voting amongst Gen Zs and millennials and we did not expect that in a midterm election.
So we are going to take that energy and keep it going. I also mentioned the Nigerian centre, which I am a board member of. We are trying to make sure we are not only bringing value to Nigerian Americans in the diaspora but also sharing those resources with other communities.
We are working on getting lawyers and people who are focused on immigration not only care and pertain to West African issues but also members of other communities.
I am also affiliated to the Nigerian American lawyers association, making sure that we bring our resources to the community.
And last but not least, as I said before, NAPAC, folks who are really making sure that we have our stories told in our own voices.
Education is the bedrock of every society. How can we partner to make education in Nigeria better in a way that rubs off on both Nigeria and the US?
That is a very important question. We talk about education, equality, we talk about opportunities.
In the United States, in this office, we are not only focused on the money that goes into our education purse whether it is young people who have it in mind to go to school or how much resources in our public schools whilst identifying that there is so much learning to do outside of the textbook. As I mentioned before, as a pharmacist, the very first thing I started doing was volunteering in these schools.
You know, having two parents who are professional STEM workers is not very common. You know, and when I moved to southeast Washington DC, I started meeting kids that look like me that did not have two parents in these professions…During that volunteering, I started being a board member of an organisation called RESET which brought science professionals into classrooms.
And since becoming representative, we have increased the amount of programmes we have all throughout the District of Columbia.
Now, when it comes to Nigeria, we need those opportunities. We also need job opportunities for young people graduating from university – real solid occupations. You know, a lot of folks become drivers based on a lack of jobs.
We also improve the visa programme. I have a fellow on my team who is a doctoral student in the United States taking a five-year course, but he has a visa that lasts for two years. So he has to continuously go back to Nigeria to get the visa renewed and come back where as he said that his Indian counterparts have five-year visas. So these are opportunities that not only limit folks having opportunities in Nigeria but coming over here to the United States.
Furthermore, there are some visa programmes that do not allow students to work; this worked in the 1970s when the tuition may have been $5,000, $10,000, but now that tuition is now $30,000, it limits the number of people who can come here and afford to do that.
I believe the United States can be a better friend to Nigerians seeking education opportunities. And also, I believe that we can make a better infrastructure to have folks be able to stay in Nigeria and be successful. You do not always have to come to the US to make something of yourself.
This brings me to the brain drain situation in Nigeria and how most Nigerian talents are leaving the country to mostly US, UK, and Canada. Do you have any thoughts on how we can nip that in the bud?
Well, I do believe there is an interest in investing back in Africa, specifically Nigeria. It is not just a diasporan task, I feel like there are a lot of African Americans that are going home for several events like Afrochella in Ghana. There is no reason why Nigeria should not have similar opportunities for not only bringing folks back to Nigeria but also bringing economic opportunities back.
We are working in this office and exploring ways to not only strengthen, through the laws, our relationship with Africa but also push real investments of money into Africa.
With those opportunities I do feel like there will be people who will be willing to stay in Nigeria because there are economic opportunities there; people will want to move back to Nigeria because there are economic opportunities back there.
There would be more business than how they typically see us as a humanitarian crisis… When it comes to our immigration system in America, typically when people look at me and look at you, they think of refugees and asylum seekers. But we look at the numbers and the statistics, a lot of us come from education; my parents came from education.
So it is one of those things; we have to revamp how they see us but it does not happen so we start occupying those seats, we have to start telling our own stories in our own voice.
Nigeria goes to elections next year, do you have any hopes and expectations for the upcoming Nigerian general elections? Do you have any preference?
So my expectation is that we have a free and fair election. And recently President Buhari actually signed a law guaranteeing that. I am also hoping that young people are mobilised to vote, that they are not intimidated, manipulated and are able to really have their voices heard. I am also expecting a lot of young people to see themselves elected.
We have to consider all our new options that young people have a very strong role in the future of Nigeria. In terms of the candidates, I am still looking at them, I have not really made an endorsement nor that I expect to.
I think that it is important for folks who are able to vote who are their next leaders, to be able to do so with a clear mind. I understand that there was an opportunity to give Diasporans a vote for office but that did not pass. So with that said, I believe that the best thing is that people have faith in the electoral process and we at the very least see a higher turnout in terms of the overall vote and also with young people really being involved in voting and running as well.
What do you wish to see done differently in Nigeria? (Security, social, political)
I want young people to be more involved in the political process. I want more young people elected and less unemployment.