By Akin Osuntokun
History, it is said, repeats itself first as tragedy and thereafter as farce. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was without doubt an exemplary leader, a trail blazer and an archetype. I feel obliged to clarify the third characterisation. As a law student in the United Kingdom in the mid-1940s, he accompanied the late Chief Toye Coker to a night club in London. He was visiting a night club for the first time and was not familiar with its impervious morally lax culture. He began greeting the clubbers and one after another he met with stone cold rebuff and silence. He then determined that wherever you go and meet people who habitually and pointedly ignore expressions of goodwill, cannot be a good place. He left for good-never to patronise a night club again. His life was strewn with such exhibition of ascetic and puritanical streak and marked him out as a cut apart. But I am not enamoured of his personality type. People like him were never far from self-righteous misperception and condemnation. They are overly sensitive and predisposed to other worldly self-assuredness that breeds highly consequential errors of judgment.
More than any earthly political aspiration, Chief Awolowo wanted to be the president of Nigeria and yet he picked Chief Phillip Umeadi from the South-east as his running mate to contest the presidency of Nigeria in 1979. He had every reason to feel offended by his successor as premier of the Western Region, Chief Ladoke Akintola, in 1962. Indeed Akintola himself accepted he did wrong and proceeded to humble himself before Awolowo and a full house of an expanded Action Group (AG) caucus by flatly prostrating to seek forgiveness-as he had been counselled by party elders like Dr. Akinola Maja, Chief Akanni Doherty and others. In his later years, Awolowo was said to have harboured regrets for his intransigence against Akintola’s show of remorse-wondering what else a man his age mate could have done to deserve pardon. It was at this political juncture in 1962 that demonology became a growth industry in the politics of Western Region. “Demo” was coined from the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), the party formed by the Akintola faction of the AG and were subsequently demonised as ‘Demo’. They were cited as traitors and enemies of Awolowo-the Yoruba hero, and targeted for political and social destruction. From this beginning has emerged a sustained tradition of defining Yoruba politics as a contest between Awolowo claimants versus the enemy camp of the Yoruba anti-hero. The tradition has endured and wax and wane as a potent weapon of political mobilisation in the South-west.
The annulment of the 1993 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola rightly provoked a pan-Yoruba rally and thereafter provided the platform for the resurgence of a Yoruba irredentist political party, the Alliance for Democracy (AD). There ensued a supremacist struggle which pitted Chief Bola Ige against his colleagues in the leadership of the party and resulted in muted efforts to cast Ige as another Akintola. This particular logic was a stretch and was no more plausible than the absurdity of casting the otherwise respected Senator Abraham Adesanya as the Awolowo of that era. Needless to repeat here that the odyssey ended in unrelieved tragedy for both protagonists. Chief Ige was murdered in yet unresolved controversial circumstances and the Afenifere had been battered beyond recognition. The lone surviving governor of the AD, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, successfully retained the link albeit tenuous and recreated a perception of the AD in what we now know as Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). Tinubu has paid his dues and emerged as a formidable political war machine in the South-west and so far as I know he has a solid pedigree in the forefront role he played in the struggle against the 1993 annulment. I admire his uncanny ability to attract, cultivate and retain quality personalities as associates and followers. In Governor Babatunde Fashola, for instance, he has the best and most successful succession strategy of the fourth republic but ACN is not AD, neither is it UPN nor AG or its historical continuance. The latter three are culminations of political movements and pressure groups and are anchored on a consistent and familiar personality thread dating back to 1951-that of Awolowo and his proxies.
The divergence of ACN from this historical thread is illustrated, first, in the absence of the notable proxies like Ayo Adebanjo, Olanihun Ajayi, Reuben Fashonranti and Olu Falae in the formation of the party. Second is that the growth of the party has resulted less from a groundswell of popular support than the ability to manoeuvre within the status quo it rhetorically condemns and take advantage of the political implosion of its opponents. Third is the increasing tendency of localised and personality-driven politics as against regional and political party trend. This was the backdrop to the drama of the governorship election of Ondo State that took place in October. There was absolutely nothing wrong in ACN seeking to win Ondo State but the play up of intemperate, corrosive and sham self-righteous rhetoric in the run-up to the election by the ACN leadership leaves much to be desired. It is time for all Yoruba politicians to begin to cultivate authenticity and originality and unlearn the ill digested culture of provocative mimicry of Awolowo’s political distemper.
In his unique political adventure dating back to 2006, the victorious Governor of Ondo State, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko enjoyed the active goodwill and patronage of many people mostly from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and I really do not know at what stage Tinubu and the ACN became part of the equation. In the most direct statement on the nature of the support he gave to the Ondo State governor, Tinubu made reference to ‘millions of pounds’ he expended in providing forensic legal expert to bolster the prosecution of Mimiko’s case at the election petition tribunal. Yet it does not smack of political correctness of any Nigerian politician to begin to publicly bandy the expenditure of millions of pounds on any election talk less of spending such humongous amount on just an aspect of legal prosecution! Further, it is to public knowledge that the facility that incurred this bank breaking amount was shared to other similar cases across the South-west and beyond. Let us also remember that the ACN contested in the Ondo State governorship election in the 2007 general election but made no impact whatsoever-which presumably led to the presumption of ACN subsequently becoming coterminous with Labour Party (LP) in Ondo State.
Did Mimiko at any time affirm this presumption in the spirit of which heavy financial commitments were made to his contestations at the election tribunal? If this was the case, why would he then back away from it? I ask this question because, in seeking re-election, joining forces with ACN would have been the most convenient and less hazardous path for him to take. Yet he did not and in doing so, Ondo State, the South-west zone and Nigeria are the better for it. The late Dr. Tai Solarin of illustrious memory made the argument, in concurrence with Chinese oriental philosophy, that a difficult path to whatever we seek to achieve is ultimately more productive and rewarding than a quiescent route. “May your road be rough” was his encapsulation of this logic and his wish for his audience. I do not know whether Governor Mimiko is aware of this recommendation but his choice to take on the ACN as well as the PDP, struck a chord in this philosophy. It was a choice that put him under the pressure and imperative of governing to the best of his ability for him to elicit and secure the unshakable goodwill of the people of Ondo State. And here is a testimony to that effort -‘Mimiko’s projects, recognised by the World Bank, the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour - cannot be mere window dressing. Neither can we call paying the highest minimum wage in the country, building 54 mega schools without a parallel anywhere in Africa; building state-of-the-art neighbourhood markets at zero cost to the users, establishing three agricultural estates with the best of digital facilities; building a commercial transport terminal with arrival/departure lounge, etc, at zero cost to the users; running the most peaceful state in the country; building a solar-powered mechanic village at zero cost to the users; taking children to school in luxury buses etc be called cosmetic’
I understand there is a governorship election coming up sequentially and in short order in neighbouring Ekiti and Osun States. So now in the South-west we have at least two other states which are individually in the spotlight in the same manner in which they joined forces to put Ondo State on the spot and are thus constrained to double down and acquit themselves. Politically Tinubu and his forces could have approached and conducted themselves better in the circumstances of the Ondo State election. They could have resisted the incontinence of hubris and act with calm, restraint and forbearance which the lessons of Yoruba intra mural struggles eloquently taught us but they did not and went for a zero sum, winner takes all game. What they have lost as a result is more than the Ondo State election and what Mimiko has won is greater than the Ondo State election.