Solomon Elusoji writes that Chief Olusegun Osoba, a veteran of Nigerian journalism and politics, recently turned 80. His life, as described by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, is an insider’s view of the sociopolitical history of post-independence Nigeria
Politics is about power, who has it, who wants it and why? But it is also about the process, the how of gaining power. And this is why Nigerian politics is central to any discussion of the country’s development agenda, because without power nothing can move or remain or even exist. To comprehend the Nigerian condition is to be an avid student of its political dynamics.
There are very few people alive today who can lay claim to superior understanding of Nigeria’s political realities than Chief Olusegun Osoba, the erstwhile Governor of Ogun State. Osoba didn’t start as a politician. He was a journalist, in the 1960s, part and parcel of the then legendary Daily Times Newspaper. But he wasn’t just a reporter, he was a radically engaged newsman. In 1966, after the first coup, Osoba discovered the slain bodies of the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and his Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh in a bush along the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway. He covered the civil war, delivering several scoops. When Yakubu Gowon was overthrown, Osoba was the first journalist to provide Nigerians – and indeed the rest of the world – with the comprehensive details of what had actually transpired. He had ears everywhere, and he was driven, always seeking the next shattering headline like an addict gunning for cocaine.
Osoba’s reportorial prowess had a lot to do with his social skills. As a young journalist, he was in the same social circle with the budding military officers – Ibrahim Babangida – who eventually rose to govern the country. But he also had technical foresight: he was perhaps the only reporter of his time – decades before the internet went mainstream – who had a telephone at his private residence.
His reporting took him everywhere and got him access to the most eminent figures in Nigerian history, from Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and it wasn’t a surprise that he eventually ended up at the corridors of power, seeking the people’s mandate rather than telling its stories. Like Alhaji Lateef Jakande before him, he sought to transmute the power of the pen into democratic legitimacy.
Osoba’s foray into politics was marked by the sound of guns wielded by the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s goons. He was first elected Ogun state Governor in 1992, then he became a marked man after the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election. He was jailed, harassed; he went into hiding; his family was terrorised by security operatives; his health failed him; he was accused of being a spy and avoided, like vermin; his spirit was clobbered, to the point of exhaustion. But, like many of his contemporaries during the dark days of military rule in the 1990s, he held on. When the despot, Abacha, evaporated in 1998 and the country marched towards democratic rule, once again, Osoba re-emerged as Ogun state Governor. He had triumphed.
This July, at Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos, Osoba presented his memoir, ‘Battlelines: Adventures in Journalism and Politics’, to the public. The hall was packed with flowing agbadas and tall, splindy caps. Just before proceedings kicked off, Osoba went round, shaking hands and welcoming guests.
The Chairman of the occasion was former military Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, and in attendance were Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, Senate President, Ahmed Lawan and the All Progressives Congress (APC) Chieftain, Senator Bola Tinubu, among other eminent Nigerians.
“Last year, he told me about his book,” Abubakar said. “He asked me to be the Chairman. Last month, he wrote me again on June 12. I consider it a big honour. He had a remarkable career in journalism and public office. Chief Osoba and I come a long way. Our relationship started in the 1960s. He was a journalism general.
“We still think of Nigeria. We both want the best for Nigeria. We have a deep interest in the affairs of the country. We want Nigeria to remain a great place in Africa. We want Nigerians to walk tall all over the world. We want Nigerians to believe in their country.
Vice-President Osinbajo described Osoba as an embodiment of pan-Nigerianism, a man who has the rare skill of building bridges, the gift of connecting with people and earning their trust and confidence. “His life story is an insider’s view of the sociopolitical history of post-independence Nigeria,” Mr Osinbajo said. Tinubu said of Osoba: “The story you don’t want other people to know, don’t tell him.”
Osoba’s memoir drew praise from its official reviewer, Premium Times publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi, who said it was a salient contribution to the debate on the purpose and place of journalism in Nigeria, the meaning of democracy and the possibility of good governance in a country ruled by selfish, unimaginative elites.
There were speeches, too, from Lawan and Tinubu and other dignitaries present at the occasion, including Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi and Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu. Everyone had kind, sweet words about Osoba. It was a merry day.
Osoba is an Awoist, a believer in Obafemi Awolowo’s political idea that man is the sole dynamic in nature, and that sound education is his birthright. During his second term as Ogun State Governor, he renovated several dilapidated primary and secondary schools and introduced payment of West African Examination Council fees to “guarantee that no student was denied the joy of sitting for WAEC because of poverty.”
But his progressive politics didn’t survive the corrupt manipulation of the 2003 general elections. This, the struggle for power, is an arena which Osoba, like many of his contemporaries, has struggled in. Even for a man of his bridge-building calibre, Nigeria’s complex fault lines is too dangerous to scale through. After the Alliance for Democracy (AD) disintegrated, Osoba was involved in the founding of several coalitions. Most of them failed, but the one which did succeed, the All Progressive Congress (APC), was instrumental in seizing federal power from the almighty Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
“Our dream for the merger included one in which we would be able to influence policies at the centre and start the process of restructuring the federation through devolution of functions and authorities as well as legislation to the states,” Osoba wrote in his memoir. But, he also noted, “the APC that we planned and worked for is yet to find its political feet because of some avoidable factors.”
One of those factors, according to Osoba, is the inability of the party to implement some of the major provisions of its constitution, including the installation of the Board of Trustees/Council of Elders.
“The body would have acted as the voice of reason and stability to the teething problems devilling the party which are not unexpected and are associated with the process of evolution,” Osoba wrote. “Cohesion of the tendencies is yet to be achieved, while political suspicions need containment.”
Osoba’s observation is apt. The APC has recently been rocked with a multitude of infighting especially at the state level. In the leadup to the 2019 general election, its National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole was at loggerheads with a number of state governors over the conduct of primaries. Even after the elections, such problems have not gone away. In Zamfara, APC lost its executive and legislative mandate at the Supreme Court after it was established there were irregularities with its internal democracy.
“Unfortunately, non-implementation of checks and balances that we built into our draft is haunting us to date,” Osoba noted in ‘Battlelines’. “We knew that there would be loads of obstacles for a new party like APC. For this reason, we provided for the Board of Trustees to among other functions act as the wise body with state caucuses at state level. The party is yet to inaugurate this crucial and important apex body . . . A major error was handing over the affairs of the party to sitting governors in some states.”
Meanwhile, Osoba believes that while APC strives to get its house in order, it must also pay attention to the issue of restructuring, a responsibility contained in the party’s manifesto.
“It has been a source of irritation to me when those of us from the South-west are turned into punching bags by fellow Awoists who continuously lambast us as abandoning Awo’s philosophy of true federalism,” Osoba writes. “Restructuring, in line with the vision espoused in our manifesto, is an idea whose time has come.”