Former THISDAY Group Political Editor and a leading corporate and political communications expert in Nigeria, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu, is a notable opposition to the dominant political leadership of Senate President Bukola Saraki in Kwara State. He told Shola Oyeyipo that the political landscape in Kwara State could never be the same again
There is the widespread notion that without the approval of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, nobody can attain any political office in Kwara State. Do you share this view?
That is a wrong notion. There have been people who held political offices without paying any obeisance to Senator Bukola Saraki. The current Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhammed, is one of such persons. You could say it was difficult in the past. Saraki’s politics is set up to stifle competition. It is a brutal hegemony that abhors any attempt by anyone to independently rise into political relevance. It has been an extractive political system that seeks to be in complete control of the political space in Kwara State. It is a system that is being nurtured to deliver droplets to its followers in exchange for their personal integrity. It is a system that feeds on the sheepish submission of its members who expect to derive benefits by so doing. Such system naturally attracts people who are self-centred and greedy, who do not mean well for the generality of the people.
We can understand why many otherwise intelligent people find themselves ensconced in that system. But there are many people in the state who could not submit their conscience to such an anti-people political model. They have continued to maintain their own political course and owe their modest achievements to personal efforts and the grace of God. In any case, it is a system that doesn’t make anyone a leader. The system they run is such that ensures that each time you’re thrown up the ladder of leadership, you are returned to the base after your office. It keeps you in perpetual want, moving from the front of the patronage queue to the back of the queue. It is a cyclical political model.
What do you think has changed?
What you have under Senator Saraki is unlike the situation under his father, the late Dr. Olusola Saraki. Baba Saraki’s political structure was such a strong force that if you didn’t align then you are not likely to make it as a politician in Kwara State. But it was largely a voluntary thing and it was because the late ‘Oloye’ earned the right over the majority of Kwarans. He was such a kind and selfless political leader. He made huge contributions to the lives of a lot of Kwarans and even communities for nearly four decades. It was not about himself. Perhaps, that is why he didn’t die a billionaire. But what he lacked in monetary term, he had in his good name that is worth more than all the monies he could have made. So, it was a reciprocal thing, which was what was passed on to the Senate President in 2003. We expected him to even transform the dynasty to a modern and benevolent political machine. He did not do that. But Bukola Saraki has left those of us who agitated for a change during the times of his father to feel nostalgic about that era. The nearly 16 years that he has been in charge of governance in Kwara State are easily the worst era since Kwara State was created. Even his supporters cannot deny that.
Some would say that he has been able to manage the dynasty effectively because considering the fact that even after his father’s demise, nobody has been able to challenge his authority politically in the state.
People make serious mistake by what they call “Saraki dynasty.” The same Senate President decimated the Saraki dynasty in 2011. He took over in a very hostile manner and the first victim of that political coup was the late Oloye himself. What you have with Bukola today is not the same dynasty that Baba Saraki held so beautifully for nearly four decades. What he has with him now is essentially a Bukola Saraki thing. The real ‘Sarakites’, are not with Bukola. You can’t mention any real Sarakite who was with Baba who are still with Bukola today.
I think if we want to be fair in our assessment of the Kwara situation, we must separate the dynasty that Baba Saraki built, which to a large extent served the people, from the Senator Bukola Saraki’s extractive political system. Whatever has happened to our state in the last 16 years has nothing to do with the Late Senator Olusola Saraki. I would push this argument further that it would even be unfair to blame Senator Bukola Saraki alone for the misgovernance of the last 16 years. I have always disagreed with people who blame a family, the Saraki family at that, for our predicament in Kwara State. I am aware that only one member of the Saraki family has held a political office with control over our commonwealth and authority to make decisions that affect our lives during this period. If we are putting every person whose surname is Saraki in the dock over the misuse of our resources, what happened to those several Kwarans who were commissioners during this period? Are they not part of the infamy? Are all these people also from the Saraki family? Why are we not mentioning their fathers’ names in this roll call of politicians who have messed up our socio-economic and political lives? I do not think we should allow anyone hide under Saraki family. They should step forward for their own garlands for bad leadership, in which they played active roles.
Are you saying that the APC can undo Saraki in Kwara?
In fact, Saraki is not even our focus. He had the opportunity to be the leader we all want. He chose not to be. Our concern now is how to ensure we do not disappoint the majority of Kwarans who have faced the unfortunate consequences of the bad leadership. The people of Kwara State have desired a change long before now. To be fair to them, they have demonstrated this in a very clear term. The challenge has been with the opposition politicians whose personal interests have continued to becloud their involvement in this struggle. Our hope is that we will all rise this time by subsuming individual ambitions under the collective interests of the people of Kwara State. The only hurdle we have in this effort to free the state from the painful and dehumanising political grip of Senator Saraki is the manner the opposition has been conducting itself. Our focus is how to get Kwara out of the doldrum. We know Saraki is not an issue. He knows himself. It is left for us in the APC to do the right thing. We know that the people are ready.
Some people have said the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed is not on ground. Others say he is a paperweight politician. How would you react to that?
You will hear that from those who are following the Senate President. You know quite well, when you talk of political leadership, then you are talking of the people that surround such a leadership. You need to look at all of the people working with Alhaji Lai Muhammed in Kwara State. If you isolate the Senate President from the politicians following him, you would call him a paperweight politician. Alhaji Lai is the leader of APC in Kwara State and you would have to be completely ignorant about Kwara politics to underrate the APC that the Minister is leading in Kwara State.
By your own estimation, do you think the APC leadership at the national level is still good for Nigeria?
By far, this is the government Nigeria requires for this period and President Buhari is the person that can lead Nigeria from the dark past to the promising future. We will not be doing ourselves any good by going back to the year of the locust when impunity was the order of the day. The last three and half years have seen tremendous progress in infrastructure. A solid foundation is finally being laid for the emergence of a robust 21st century economy riding on the concrete steps being taken through diversification of our productive economy.
Your party has been debating either to opt for direct or indirect primary in electing political office seekers. Which side of the divide do you belong?
I will tell you that whether direct, indirect or consensus, they are all part of democratic steps you could take to present candidates for an election. What is important is the process. If the process is transparent, free and fair, we are good to go. This is what the current APC leadership is all about.
You were one of the leading contestants for the post of National Publicity Secretary of the APC, which you lost. What do you think happened in that contest?
It was not about Lanre Issa-Onilu. It was about the collective desire of those who believe Kwara deserves a better deal. The only reason we came up to vie for that position was to challenge a system that is not serving the interest of our state! To stop imposition, to ensure that every Kwaran is inspired, to rise and take position on any issue and vie for any office they desire.
Our plan was that no matter what position was zoned to Kwara at that convention, we would have looked for a competent person to contest it to square up against whomever the Senate President was bringing. He doesn’t own us. Not everybody is ready to go through whatever they go through to work with him. What they do doesn’t represent the best for us in the state.
The issues are not personal. They are about governance. It is about service delivery and we think he has been dealing with us with the short end of the stick. And the only way we can stop that is to take our own destinies into our hands.
It was just a coincidence that what was zoned to Kwara was Publicity Secretary. The opposition group pushed me forward and I stood up. We showed courage and we are happy that many people in Kwara were inspired by that.
Do you think your group is prepared to work under the leadership of the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed?
The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed is the political leader in the state and we do not have any problem working with him. We have been around for some time putting in a shift where we could. We understand clearly that we can only achieve success by creating a political space that accommodates everyone. We all must pull our strengths together as we look forward to a decisive 2019 general election.
There is no perfect situation anywhere. We will continue to make inputs into what we are doing in the state to ensure that we continue to improve on our activities under the leadership of Alhaji Lai.
For instance, the last APC National Publicity Secretary election, every notable leader of APC pulled together under the Minister of Information. He was actually the first person that gave his word to lead the challenge. He gave his support, he mobilised all the leaders of APC as at then, he went everywhere, we worked together, he did everything you would expect a leader to do and we were all proud of what we achieved together at the end of the day. This is the spirit we will take into the 2019 elections.