Late Dr. Olusola Saraki
Femi Fani-Kayode pays tribute to Dr. Olusola Saraki, Second Republic Senate Leader and strongman of Kwara State politics who died two weeks ago
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 he died two weeks ago. 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.
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 name 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 presence of his wife and two 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 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 impunity. They said: ''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 callousness, brazen use of power and control, they left the house. But 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 unknown, 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. But 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 ''commiserations'' 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. Did 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.
She, however, had the presence of mind, courage and discipline to hold her peace knowing that if she didn't she might 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, 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 assassins 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 that homicidal butchery and therefore it 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 pastures and safety elsewhere until the evil had passed.
For this, she needed resources and support and there was none forthcoming anywhere. She was literally in despair and every day was a nightmare for her. She was deserted by all and 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 settled 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 madness that had gripped Nigeria at the time. She made all the necessary arrangements and perfected her plan within a matter of days. Mrs. Oladepo was smuggled through the NADECO routes and arrived in Accra in early 1998. That was where I had the privilege of meeting her and knew of her 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 journalist in Accra who at that time was 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. 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.
During her stay in Accra, Bunmie, Mrs. Oladepo and her two beautiful children joined 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. 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 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. She asked if 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 she had never met before and that had never known her husband, that she and her children would never have been able to escape from Nigeria. She asked me to please thank him for her whenever I saw him 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. 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 occasions after my return to Nigeria from self-imposed exile in 2001 and especially after I joined the President Olusegun Obasanjo 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. 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 appropriate 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. Saraki's generosity and kindness. He did not know the widow or her children and yet 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. 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. Saraki's ''good'' will speak for him forever. Not just for him but also for his dear widow and the Matriarch 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 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.