Despite their bitter parting of ways, Second Republic Senate Leader, Dr. Olusola Saraki and his arch rival, former governor of Kwara State, Alhaji Muhammad Lawal, shared an uncommon bond even at death, writes Tunde Sanni
The story of Kwara politics is never complete either now or in future without the mention of Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki, who bestrode the political landscape like a colossus he was. In death, just as he was when alive, he remained a prophet that was accepted in his home and enjoyed good followership.
Interestingly, the godfather of Kwara politics shared the same death date with his estranged former godson, Alhaji Muhammad Lawal, the man he made governor of Kwara in 1999. Baba Olooye as Saraki was fondly called by his admirers, died on Wednesday, November 14, 2012, having battked with cancer for five years, just as Lawal who was hailed- Up Lawal, Up Kwara- died on Wednesday, but November 15, 2006 at a London hospital after a brief illness.
The duo, until the death of Lawal, had parted ways over a seemingly political apostasy committed by Lawal as governor which was thought to have been intended to demystify the kingmaker and reduce his political influence and weight in the state
Olooye first ventured into politics in 1964. At that time, he contested for the parliamentary election in Ilorin as an independent candidate, but lost the election. From there, he retreated to Lagos and resumed his medical practice. He returned to Ilorin for another shot in elective position in 1977 when he was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly that produced the 1979 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His emergence at that time marked the beginning of what is today known as the Saraki dynasty.
His highpoint in politics came when he contested for the Senate in 1979 and won. He subsequently became Senate Leader. Saraki was re-elected in 1983 on the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
That experience availed Saraki the opportunity to build contacts as well as bridges across the length and breadth of the state and by extension the country. By building such bridges, he became the toast of the common people, especially women who always trooped out to his country home in Iloffa each time he was in Ilorin. Saraki was said to have shares in the defunct Nigerian Textile Mills which supplied him with a surfeit of Ankara material which he always distributed to all- both the common and the elite who come to him for political support.
As a result, he became a bride between the political elite and the commoners. It was his uncommon affinity with the grassroots that made him the dominant force in Kwara politics and toast of the indigent. Saraki had leveraged this to install Alhaji Adamu Atta who came from a minority ethnic Ebira group to become the first civilian governor in Kwara state in 1979. Few months to the end of Attah’s first term, he had issues with the kingmaker and the crisis could not be resolved till the 1983 election. Though, Atta dared the Saraki political machine by seeking re-election, he however lost to another anointed candidate of Saraki, Chief Cornelius Adebayo of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).
Saraki later confirmed that he had offered a helping hand to Adebayo over Attah to prove a point that he was not a lowly rated and having seen that Attah was no more popular among the people, more so that he did not want to support failure, he had to switch support to strengthen his relevance.
Following the collapse of the Second Republic as a result of military takeover, Saraki kept oiling his political machinery. He was not deterred by the blanket ban of old politicians by the Babangida regime, which came up with the concept of new breed politicians after discrediting the old brigades. In its endless search for national politics, he aligned with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and installed Shaaba Lafiagi in 1992 as Kwara governor. Also, on the same platform, he took a shot at the presidency with other army of politicians. They were later banned by the Babangida administration.
This had compelled him to back the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola for the presidential polls in June 1993 and ensured that he delivered his Kwara base to the Abiola presidential project. On the annulment of the Abiola mandate by the Babangida administration, Saraki joined other forces to demand for its revalidation but backed out later when he perceived that the military government was not ready to accede to popular demand on the restoration of the Abiola mandate.
On the advent of the Sani Abacha regime, Saraki joined other political forces to form the defunct Congress for National Conscience (CNC).
And as the nation returned to civil rule in 1999, he joined other forces to float the defunct All Peoples Party (APP) which later became All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). He was made chairman of the Board of Trustees of the party. This is where his path with Lawal crossed. Lawal, former military governor of Ogun State became a regular face in ‘Ile Loke’, acronym for Saraki’s political empire. Lawal was said to be doing such menial jobs like carrying Saraki’s briefcase and turning water for him during ablution; all in the bid to secure Baba Oloye’s blessing for his governorship ambition which he later secured and won massively.
His governorship was to later provide a challenge to Saraki’s godfatherism as Lawal started a revolt against Oloye and by extension, the dynasty. Ilorin itself was sharply divided between Olooye and Up Lawal. It also divided the ulamas of the city that were torn between offering spiritual support for either Saraki or Lawal.
Lawal soon turned a cheerful giver in order to pull the rug off Saraki’s feet. It was generally believed in political circles that the Societe General Bank of Nigeria owed its death to the Saraki/Lawal face-off. Saraki himself confirmed in one of its numerous media chats to local correspondents that “omo buruku ni Lawal yen, o gba iso six mo mi lori, ori mi’nseje, awon eeyan nikan niwon maje ki eje yi da nigba ibo. This translates: Lawal is not a good child. He hammered a six feet nail in my head and I could not cease to bleed until my people stopped the bleeding at the polls.
In an interview granted one of the soft sell magazines in Nigeria at the time, Saraki had explained that he parted ways with his estranged godson because of irreconcilable differences. “We met in London and when I tried to greet him (Lawal) on the corridors of the venue, he snubbed me. Your Excellency, Your Excellency, he just looked back and moved ahead without acknowledging the compliments. It was that bad and since then, I resolved that I will not mind to contest as governor of Kwara State to see Lawal out,” Saraki was quoted as saying in the interview.
Equally, in one of his interviews published by the same soft-sell magazine after he lost the governorship seat to Senator Bukola Saraki, Lawal said he was a fulfilled man after all. “He (Saraki) is the first person I will talk to after I wake up and the last person I will speak with before I go to bed. I became uncomfortable, so to say,” Lawal was quoted as saying.
As the 2003 polls drew nearer, search for a gubernatorial candidate that would be loyal to the dynasty became the talk of the political empire. After several permutations, members of the inner caucus in the political empire settled for Bukola, the biological son of the godfather who went on to rout Lawal at the polls.
The crossing over of Saraki to PDP was not without its challenge from the founding members of PDP led by Gbenga Olawepo who faulted the emergence of Bukola as the party’s gubernatorial candidate. Olawepo was then eyeing the governorship on the platform of the party and he had invested heavily in the project. Frustrated, Olawepo left the PDP for the Sarakis and was on hand again in 2007 to challenge Bukola’s re-election bid.
Before Bukola’s election in 2003, he had been a presidential adviser in the first term of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Saraki's other daughter, Gbemisola, was at the time a member of the Federal House of Representative. In 2003, when Bukola became governor of the state, Gbemisola became the Senator representing Kwara Central while Laolu, the last son of the family was made Special Adviser to the Governor on Students’ Affairs.
In 2007, Bukola Saraki was re-elected Governor, Gbemi remained in the Senate, Laolu became a Presidential Adviser in the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua government and another member of the Saraki’s extended family, Ope, replaced Laolu as Special Adviser to the Governor on Student Affairs.
However, in the 2011 election, Bukola challenged his father’s hegemony and became the Senator representing Kwara Central Senatorial District, effectively taking over the “leadership” of Kawara politics from his father in a successful coup.
This was after Saraki and his daughter had left the PDP for a new platform ACPN with no structure to contest for the governorship position and at every campaign; he was telling Kwarans to give him the last honour by voting his daughter as the governor. But the people did not want a female governor. That singular effort positioned Bukola as the new godfather in the state as all appointees in the state went through his screening. Ope went on to become Special Adviser to the incumbent Governor, Alhaji Abdul-Fatah Ahmed on MDGs while Gbemisola fell on the side with her father, after her botched ambition to succeed her brother.
At present, the Saraki dynasty is comfortably sitting on the political control of the state, but it is no indication that the family cannot be routed by this generation. With the exit of godfather, the family might be susceptible to more vitriolic political attacks, for which the late godfather would have been shock absorber. Although, Bukola has grown his political stature over time, he still does not possess the magic wands of his late father and this might open up the dynasty to attacks.
While it is believed that virtually all the perceived ‘enemies’ of the dynasty had come into the fold with many of Lawal’s supporters seen to have realigned with the political dynasty, the future of the dynasty is still fluid.
For now, Bukola may be dictating the political pace of who gets what as it is evident in the present equation; ability to sustain this against the backdrop of the clamour for a new order is what is yet to be seen.