A Kingmaker Exits

15 Nov 2012

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Olusola Abubakar Saraki

Yemi Ajayi
He was an uncommon politician.  Dr. Olusola Abubakar Saraki, a medical doctor by training but politician by accident, was not your archetypal politician. Although he made his money in medicine, politics gave him fame. 

He was a politician who struck the right cord in people because over the years, he mastered the psychology of the masses, which he deftly deployed in building a political dynasty. He was rich, yet, his life revolved around the commoners of his home state of Kwara, who practically had uninhibited access to his Ilorin home. His problems were theirs; theirs, his. His politics of empathy resonated well with the ordinary folks of Kwara, and until a few years ago, the contiguous state of Kogi, which formed the epicentre of his sphere of influence.

Unlike most rich and influential politicians of his ilk, his wealth was just a means to strengthen his bond with the people. It was much easier to know whether ‘Oloye’, as he was fondly called by friends, associates and foes, was in Ilorin or would soon be around by just looking at the throng of people waiting for his attention.  Legend has it that he hardly ended the day without ensuring that he attended to his horde of visitors. Until he was hobbled by illness and old age that precipitated his death in Lagos yesterday at the age of 79, he was synonymous with the politics of Kwara.

While many of his contemporaries over the years lost their political influence, especially in their local environment and were speedily replaced by a new set of leaders, Saraki dominated the politics of his state for over three decades. Right from an early stage, he was lured into politics. As a medical student at the Saint George Medical College, University of London, he was an active member of the Nigerian Students Union. The union was in the thick of the campaign for Nigeria’s independence and that laid the foundation for his entry into politics. 

On his return from England in 1962, where he had studied medicine, all he had wanted was to practise. Saraki had thought that his future would revolve around the stethoscope and diagnosis, but he wormed his way into the hearts of his people who saw him as a man who could be entrusted with their destiny. He began his medical practice at the General Hospital, Lagos, in a protest against the refusal by the then Northern Regional Government to give him a scholarship to study medicine because they felt his parents were rich enough to pick his bills. He had reasoned that if the government could discriminate against him because of the status of his parents, he was not duty bound to serve the North, as would have been customarily expected.

Later, he joined Peak Hospital from where he was drafted into politics.  Notwithstanding the fact that he was not the choice of the then Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) ruling party, which had decided to give automatic return tickets to its members in the legislature, Saraki, egged on by the people, ran as an independent candidate to become a member of the Federal House of Representatives in 1964. He lost but did not lose his affinity for politics. His courage and popularity brought him to the attention of political leaders of the North who knew that here was a budding politician to watch in future.

With his defeat, he returned to his medical practice in Lagos but still kept touch with his people in Kwara. In 1977, when the military was preparing to hand over power to an elected civilian government, he was elected as a member of the Constituent Assembly that produced the 1979 Constitution that formed the grundnorm of the Second Republic. At the Constituent Assembly, he teamed up with other politicians from various parts of the country to form the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which eventually emerged the ruling party in 1979 when the Obasanjo junta handed over to Nigeria’s first elected president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Perhaps, he would have made history as the nation’s first executive president, but the odds were against him in the race for the party’s ticket, which he along with others, including former Minister of Finance, Dr. Adamu Ciroma, and Alhaji Maitama Sule, lost to Shagari. Saraki was to climb down to pick the party’s senatorial ticket. He won the election and later emerged the Senate Leader in the Second Republic.

However, inasmuch as his victory was significant to his political career, his contributions to being the moving power behind the NPN’s victory in his state, despite a good fight from the opposition Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), solidified his political standing. Among his peers, he was the only one that could have been said to have single-handedly installed a governor.

Saraki, nonetheless, was to face a major challenge in his political career in the twilight of the first term tenure of Governor Adamu Attah, whose emergence was at his behest. A few years earlier, the relationship between the ‘godfather’ and the ‘godson’ had become frosty. Efforts to paper the crack flopped. As the 1983 general election approached, both were determined to test their popularity among the people.

When NPN refused to succumb to Saraki’s pressure not to give Attah a second term ticket, Oloye knew that he was being challenged to a fight whose outcome could end his political career. Rather than back down, he threw his weight behind the UPN candidate, Mr. Cornelius Adebayo. With his support, Adebayo defeated Attah in the 1983 governorship election in Kwara State. Saraki on his part won his re-election on NPN ticket to the Senate.

But the military, once again, ended democracy in Nigeria through a coup on New Year’s Eve in 1983, which they said was necessary because of the violent reactions to the outcome of the 1983 general election.  Saraki returned to his medical practice and other business concerns that he had established by then.

With his participation in the Second Republic, Saraki continued to play prominent roles in subsequent political dispensations. In the politics of the aborted Third Republic when the military decreed into existence a two-party system, Saraki, as usual, was behind the emergence of Alhaji Sha'aba Lafiagi of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as the elected governor of Kwara State in January 1992. Lafiagi, along with other political office holders, were sacked in the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that set off a chain of reactions that led to the stillbirth of the Third Republic.

A few years later, Babangida’s military successor, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, began moves to revive the democratic project. He cobbled together a Constitutional Conference to produce a new constitution for the impending republic. The work of the conference, chaired by Saraki, and which held between 1994 and 1995, was stymied by Abacha’s perfidious underground moves to transmute into a civilian president.

Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 paved the way for the coming on stage of the General Abubakar Abdulsalami junta. Given the circumstances of Abacha’s death and the fact that the nation was in political turmoil, the new military regime saw the urgent need to put together a short transition programme that would facilitate the transfer of power to civilians.

In the new dispensation supervised by the military, Saraki, along with others, formed the All Peoples Party (APP) on whose platform he sought to be the party’s presidential candidate. Like in his venture in the NPN in 1978-79, he fell short of the target. However, his protégé, Alhaji Mohammed Lawal, a retired Naval Rear Admiral, was elected the governor in 1999. History was to repeat itself, as Saraki and his godson were to soon fall apart and were locked in a supremacy battle that heightened tension in Kwara State. He vowed never to allow Lawal to return to the Government House. 

The period put him in a great dilemma. Given his conflicts with his protégés in power, from Attah to Lawal, could he trust another ‘outsider’ with the task of governing Kwara State?  If no was the answer, who should take over from Lawal in 2003 when his first term would have expired? It was this scenario he was confronted with when, according to him, his associates came up with the idea of his first male child, Bukola, at the time the executive vice-chairman of the family-owned Societe General Bank of Nigeria (SGBN), as an option. Their arguments were so persuasive, that he reluctantly agreed.  However, Saraki and his associates were faced with another dilemma. On which platform would Bukola contest, as it was obvious that it would be difficult to snatch the APP ticket from Lawal, given the incumbency factor. The decision was for the Saraki political family to move to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Once again, Saraki proved his political mettle as the PDP swept the polls in the state. He not only got his son into the Government House, his daughter, Gbemisola Saraki-Fowora, won her re-election into the House of Representatives on the PDP ticket.

The filial relationship between father and son was to be tested in the race for Bukola’s successor, after the latter completed his two-term mandatory tenure of eight years in 2011. While the younger Saraki preferred an outsider as his successor, the elder Saraki rooted for his daughter who was then a senator. It was a bitter battle that the family laboured to keep away from the public domain, and which father and son were not happy to fight. Outfoxed by his son, as only a Saraki could have done, Oloye founded the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) to actualise his daughter’s gubernatorial ambition. But the ACPN was no match for the ruling PDP. Saraki-Fowora lost her bid to Abdulfatah Ahmed who had the backing of Bukola.

Although father and son were to later reconcile, the battle had redefined the locus of power and influence in Kwara State. With his death yesterday, Kwara needs not search for a successor to Saraki, for the younger Saraki (Bukola) has proven to be a worthy successor of his father.

Tags: News, Featured, Nigeria, Olusola Saraki, GNPP, NPP

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