Late Olusola Saraki
By Femi Fani-Kayode
Like everyone else in the country I was informed about the death of the Waziri of Ilorin, Dr. Olusola Saraki on the morning that he passed on and the news saddened me immensely. This is because he was one of the greatest, kindest, most compassionate, most generous and most selfless leaders that we have ever had in this country. His power and influence stretched from the Second Republic when he was the Leader of the Senate on the platform of the NPN up until today. He made the dreams and aspirations of many come true and throughout his life he brought nothing but smiles to many faces. He was my late father’s close and loyal friend and he was like a father to me and so many others. This is not a good time for him to go because Nigeria needs him now more than ever and we shall all miss him dearly. My heart goes out to the Saraki family. I mourn with them and I stand shoulder to shoulder with them today. Like the biblical David said about the passing of King Saul, I am constrained to say about the passing of the great Oloye Olusola Saraki,’’how are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle. How are the mighty fallen and the weapons of war perished’’.
In Shakespeare’s famous play ‘’Julius Caesar’’, whilst trying to warn Caesar about the prospect of death, Calphurnia said ‘’when beggars die there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’’. Caesar responded promptly and appropriately by saying ‘’Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once’’. Dr. Saraki was not a beggar or a coward. He was a prince in every sense of the word and since his passing not only have many comets been seen, not only have the heavens been blazing forth his death but the whole of Nigeria has been mourning him. What a befitting honour this is and none is as deserving of such honour as the Oloye. Like Julius Caesar, he did not fear death even though he must have known, like Mark Anthony said in that very same play, that ‘’the evil that men do live after them, the good is often interred with their bones’’. With Saraki there was no evil but plenty of good. And those of us that he left behind must not allow that ‘’good’’ to be ‘’buried with his bones’’.
The Goodness in Saraki
It is just one example of that ‘’good’’ which I intend to share with you in this essay.
If the truth be told many wonderful things are often said and written about great and powerful leaders in Nigeria after their passing. Some of these things are true and some are not. Yet In Saraki’s case I assure you that these things are really true. The following story that I am about to share with you is not only an eloquent testimony to that but it also proves the fact that Dr. Saraki was not only a truly great, compassionate and kind man but that he was also selfless and sensitive to the suffering of others. In early 1998, during the turbulent yet dying days of General Sani Abacha, a promising and brilliant young journalist by the name of Mr. Tunde Oladepo, who at that time was the Abeokuta Bureau Chief of the Guardian Newspaper, was brutally murdered by agents of the Federal Military Government in his home in Abeokuta and in the prescence of his wife and two very infant children.
The murderers wore masks and committed the crime in a terrible way that is best left to the imagination of readers. I will not repeat those sordid details here. What I will say is that no-one deserves to die in that way. After butchering Tunde the three murderers went over to the wife and children, who had been in the same room whilst the killing was taking place and who witnessed the whole event, and removed their masks so that she could see their faces clearly. They seemed to relish in the pain that they were causing her and the fear that they were instilling in the children. The point that they were conveying to the young bereaved widow, like all predators and beasts often do after their kill, was one of total impugnity. They were saying that ‘’we have done this to you and your family, you have seen our faces and yet you are utterly powerless to do anything about it’’. This was the height of cruelty and after their horrendous display of callousnes and brazen power and control they left the house. Yet the torment for the Oladepo family had only just started.
A little background would be helpful here. Tunde had been murdered simply because of his stringent and uncomromising support for NADECO and the fight for the realisation of the mandate of Chief M.K.O Abiola who had won a free and fair Presidential election in 1993. Nigeria was in turmoil in those days and there was literally a war going on between those that supported NADECO and Abiola and those that supported Abacha and military rule.
Thousands of young men and women, mostly unsung and unkown, were murdered, tortured and driven into exile by the Government of that day simply because they stood on the side of righteousness, justice and truth. Tunde was one of such people. He was a great supporter of NADECO and he took great risks for his country, the cause of freedom and the cause of democracy. Sadly, in the end, he paid the supreme price for his stand. It was in that context, for that reason and with that background that Tunde Oladepo was murdered. Yet the torment of the Oladepo family did not end with his murder. As a matter of fact it had only just started.
I say this because what happened next beggars belief. During Tunde’s burial ceremony many came to honour him and of course they were most welcome. However to the utter shock and chagrin of his young widow and two young children, the three butchers that had killed her husband and that had also shown their faces to her after the murder turned up at the burial as well. Not only did they turn up but they also went over to the young widow and, with a wicked smile, whispered their ‘’commisserations’’ into her ears. This was not only frightening, bizarre and macabre but it also had the intended effect. Mrs. Oladepo was completely terrified and was frozen into silence by fear and trepidation. Had they come back to kill her and her children too? Did they have unfinished business with them? Was the pain and torment that they had inflicted on her family not enough? These were the questions that shot through her mind. Yet she had the prescence of mind, courage and discipline to hold her peace knowing that if she didn’t she may invite instant death upon herself there and then and upon her children. What a strong lady she was. Once again she got the message from her tormentors loud and clear. And the message was the following- ‘’we kill, we bury, we destroy, we are above the law, we are untouchable, we control everything, we can get away with anything and there is NOTHING that you can do about it’’. Such was the nature of those that killed for Abacha and such was the clime of those dark, evil and dangerous days.
After the burial and after all the mourners left Mrs. Oladepo soon found out that she and her two young children were all alone in the world. Not only did she fear for her life but she also feared for the future of her children. She had no means to live, she had no business and she was finding it difficult to get all the dues that were owed her husband. Worst still all those ‘’big men’’ (and I have their names) that her husband had supported and fought for in NADECO and most of his old friends turned their back on her and offered her nothing in terms of encouragement, substance, protection or support. She had no money and no way of surviving in a country that was exceptionally dangerous and that was in deep conflict and turmoil. Worst of all she knew that it was only a matter of time before the assasins came back for her and her children because she had been forced to see their faces, not once but twice. She and her two children were the only living witnesses to their homicidal butchery and therefore they presented a real threat to them. The ‘’system’’, like the mafia, does not leave witnesses alive for long and they always tie up loose ends. It was only a matter of time and she knew it. Her only recourse was to secretly flee from Nigeria, just as many other NADECO widows and fighters had done, and seek greener patures and safety elsewhere until the evil had passed. Yet for this she needed resources and support and there was none forthcoming from anywhere. She was literally in despair and every day was a nightmare for her. She was deserted by all and she literally had to fend for herself and her two little children on a daily basis. These were indeed difficult days for the young widow because she had no money and all hope seemed lost. All she could do was cry, hope against hope and pray to God. Then things suddenly changed.
She was sitting in her house one afternoon and there was a knock on her door. She welcomed the strangers in with some trepidation, not knowing who they were or who sent them. There were two men. They told her that they worked for Dr. Olusola Saraki and that they had been sent to her by him. They said that he did not know her husband and had never met him before but that he had read about the murder and terrible tragedy in the newspapers. They said that he felt moved by the fact that Oladepo had left a young widow behind and two infant children and that consequently he had sent a token of sum of money to them to help them at that difficult time. They handed over 250,000 naira cash to her (which was a lot of money in those days) and then promptly left. Mrs. Oladepo was overwhelmed and she knew that this was an answered prayer. Now she had the resources to leave Nigeria and, with the support of the NADECO network, she could move to the relative safety of Ghana and from there, with the support of NADECO and the Canadian Embassy in Accra, get a visa to Canada and settle there permanently with her family.
This was her dream and it was the only way in which she felt that she could survive and protect herself from the madnes that had gripped Nigeria at the time. She made all the necessary arrangements and effected her plan within a matter of days. Mrs. Oladepo was smuggled through the NADECO routes and arrived in Accra in early 1998. That is where I had the privilage of meeting her and hearing her remarkable story. She was taken care of in Ghana by a tightly-knit, dedicated and committed group of NADECO operatives there led by Mr. Bunmi Aborisade and Chief Tunde Edu. Bunmi is a good friend of mine and he was a brilliant and fearless jounalist in Accra who at that time the editor of the Ghanian Independent Newspaper. Sadly and ironically Bunmi’s own dear mother was also murdered in brutal circumstances not too long after this as well. Many have paid a heavy price for the democracy that we enjoy in Nigeria today and most of them are not appreciated. Yet patriots like Aborisade were rare and utterly fearless and selfless. Without them the struggle against Abacha could not have been kept alive and they, more than anyone else, with their strong links with the Ghanaian government, the Americans and the Canadians ensured that Accra remained a safe-haven for NADECO sympathisers and operatives and a tough and very dangerous place for the supporters of Abacha.
It was these same NADECO operatives that helped Mrs. Oladepo to stay in a safe house in Accra, protected her, encouraged her, supported her and, most important of all, liased with the Canadian Embassy over there to ensure that she got the necessary permits and visa to be able to relocate to Canada as a political refugee with her two children permanently. During her stay in Accra Bunmie, Mrs. Oladepo and her two beautiful children did me the honour of joining me and my family in our home for dinner. As she told her story tears ran down her face, just as they did that of my darling wife Regina’s. We were all moved and as she spoke there was pin-drop silence at the dinner table. She kept saying that she did not want anyone’s pity because she knew that God would see her and her children through.
This was a woman of tremendous beauty, dignity and remarkable faith. Furthermore this was a powerful and moving testimony of God’s power and grace. It was clear that given the circumstances that she was in and all that she had been subjected to, the fact that she managed to even get out of Nigeria safely with her children was in itself a miracle. We all gave thanks to God and then she said the following. She asked me whether I knew Dr. Olusola Saraki and I told her that my family had been associated with the Saraki family for many years and that he was a good friend of my late fathers. I also told her that my younger sister Mrs. Tolu Fanning (nee Fani-Kayode) was the best of friends with Mrs. Gbemi Saraki-Fowora who was Dr. Saraki’s first daughter. She was very happy when she heard that and then she told me that had it not been for the kindness and generosity of this man that she had never met before and that had never known her husband, that she and her children would never have been able to escape Nigeria with their lives. She asked me to please thank him for her whenever I saw him again and to convey their deep gratitude to him. After that she prayed for him for almost twenty minutes and we all thanked God for Dr. Saraki’s compassion and kindness. God had used him to touch their lives and deliver them from evil. It was a wonderful evening and we had a great dinner.
A few weeks after that Mrs. Oladepo and her children were granted all the necessary permits and flew to Canada where they live safely and happily till this day. I had not heard from her in almost 10 years and then all of a sudden she sent me an email almost two years ago and told me that she and the children were very happy and that they were doing very well in Canada. Once again she thanked God for the kindness shown to her by the NADECO operatives in Ghana but most of all she thanked God for Dr. Olusola Saraki. She also asked me if I had conveyed her message to him and to my eternal shame, even though I actually saw Dr. Saraki on many occassions after my return to Nigeria from self-imposed exile in 2001 and especially after I joined President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Government in 2003, I had failed to do so. I told everyone and anyone that cared to listen this story whenever Dr. Saraki’s name came up anywhere over the last 12 years and some time back I told the beautiful Senator Gbemi Saraki-Fowora the story over dinner and I conveyed the message to her. Yet sadly I must confess that, till the day Oloye passed on, I never told him the story or expressed the young widow’s deep gratitude to him directly. This was a failing on my part and that is one of the two reasons that I feel that it is appropiate to share it with the whole of Nigeria today by writing this article in his honour and relating the facts. It is now a matter of historical record.
The other reason that I have shared this story with members of the public is because it is a resounding and eloquent testimony to and proof of Dr. Olusola Saraki’s generosity and kindness. He did not know the widow or her children and yet he helped. He did not know that in helping he was literally saving their lives. He did not know that I or anyone else would ever find out. He did not know that this would be a subject of discourse or an essay after he passed on. He did it out of his love for God and humanity and it was done quietly without any fanfare. I have little doubt that Oloye did the same and perhaps much more for many others whilst he lived and I wonder how many of our leaders have the same kind of charitable and compassionate spirit as he did. That was Dr. Olusola Saraki for you and it is that kindness, that selflessness and that warmth of heart that spoke before God on his behalf all the days of his life. That was the secret of his success. He gave his substance that others may live their lives. He brought smiles and hope to many faces and families. He helped both the high and the low. Of him Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony could never say that his ‘’good are buried with his bones’’. Nay, Dr. Olusola Saraki’s ‘’good’’ will speak for him forever. Not just for him but also for his dear widow and the matriach of the Saraki family, Mama Morenike Florence Saraki, and each and everyone of his distinguished and illustrious children and grandchildren. May the Lord reward him for his good works, may the Lord forgive him for his sins, may the Lord honour him with Heaven and may the beautiful soul of this kind, generous and charming son of Nigeria rest in eternal peace.
• Chief Fani-Kayode is former Aviation Minister.