THE passing of Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki, last week, triggered an outpouring of tributes from all over the country. The normal attitude to death in our society, where worldview is largely conditioned by the teachings of religion, is never to speak evil of the dead. We generally photoshop the lives of the dead and see only the good.
That was one platform of tributes to Dr. Saraki. On the other hand, was also a sincere appreciation of the man’s lived experience and on balance, the impact that he made on existence; as one columnist argued, and I agree with him, greatness in an individual cannot be reduced only to his or her political acts.
We might not share their political ideas but that difference will not reduce the greatness of the individual. Where Dr. Saraki was concerned, that was the truth.
That he was an outstanding Nigerian was not in doubt; this has nothing to do with whether you agreed with his politics or his style of playing it. It was his greatness that eventually came to the fore; and it could not have been otherwise for a colossus who dominated his political environment so totally for decades!
I first met Dr. Saraki in 2002. The political crisis with the late Governor Lawal was reaching a head and I had resumed at DAILY TRUST as Editor a few months earlier, after resigning my job as GM KWTV. It was very funny really, because it was a political associate of Saraki’s from Kebbi State who arranged that first meeting. KabiruTanimu would not understand why I had never met the political leader of my state.
I explained that certain peculiarities of Ilorin made it almost impossible for us to have met. But we had a tangential tiff at the commencement of the Lawal administration in 1999. When we reached Saraki’s Maitama residence that night, we discussed the political crisis in the state and several aspects of the history Ilorin.
I told the venerable politician that I felt that he had been responsible for the choice which boomeranged in all our faces; but I also underlined that the coming battle had become everybody’s not just his own.
In the end, Saraki fought the battle of his life to oust Governor Lawal and for the first time, we had the political leader supremely triumphant, with his son, Bukola as governor; daughter, Gbemisola a senator and another son, Olaolu, eventually a Special Assistant in the presidency.
It was the finest moment for the old man, and those years from Bukola’s accession in 2003, represented the finest hours for the Saraki dynasty. If one individual dominated a political space so totally, this was its greatest expression;things came full circle for Dr.Saraki, because he effectively cashed the IOU from the people of Kwara State in general and the Ilorin Emirate in particular.
After decades of serving the people; liberally giving of his resources to enthrone governors (and also dethroning them!); the nominations of several individuals to various elective positions; assisting the needy; providing succour to various communities, etc.; the people selflessly allowed the old man to take so much just for his own family!
It was a remarkable “synergy”, between the political leader and his children on the one hand and the people of the state on the other; it is unlikely ever to be replicated in the annals of politics, at least in Kwara State!
In all, I met Dr. Saraki three times in his residence and each time it was tied up to issues of the politics of the state.
What struck me about the man each time we met was his warmth. Each meeting was in the setting of his study and because he was not in the more politically charged environment of his Ilorin home, which I never visited, I got the opportunity to size up the enigmatic personality a bit more closely.
I had no doubts in my mind, that he took his place as political leader very seriously and over the years, had developed that remarkable ability to keep the followers on a tight leash which allowed his dominance of the political space to become part of the political consent which has entered the psyche of the vast majority of the people.
It was a peculiar form of personality cult that sharply administers opprobrium to whoever falls out of line but had an underlining paternalism which had been oiled with the generous disposition of the old man.
In a society where consent and loyalty have a near-divine source, the mass of the people were drawn to the “magical realism” of the Saraki persona and the mythology of the political acumen and legendary generosity blended to create an overwhelming feeling of awe. People whisper it amongst themselves that it was not a wise man that will oppose whatever Saraki wanted in politics and they have a long list of political casualties as credible deterrence.
Whoever felt that it was only the hoi-polloi which fell for Saraki’s charm, has not completely understood the far-reaching essence of the late “strongman”. There are intellectuals I know, who would adduce grand metaphysical narratives to explain Saraki’s domination of the Kwara political space for decades.
But I think one of the most enduring reasons for Saraki’s control was his superb understanding of the psyche of the people, which in turn, provided the access for their control.
He made choices people could easily relate with and rallied to symbols, especially in Ilorin, such as Islam; the emirate structure and belonging to Northern Nigeria, which ensured that people almost instinctively trusted his judgment about wherever he made them go politically, with the belief that he was not likely to betray their core political loyalties. These are very central to the political dominance that he enjoyed for decades.
In all that I have written here, I have not talked about core political ideas that the late Dr. Saraki subscribed to, because I don’t know what those grand ideas really were! All through the years, I cannot recall ever hearing or reading the ideas that formed the basis of his political consciousness or praxis.
Nevertheless, he moved thousands of followers in directions, which, in the long run, served his political ends. This peculiar politics of the African “Big Man” or of the eternal “godfather” found its best expression with Dr.Abubakar Olusola Saraki.
He belonged to hegemonic ruling class political tendencies all through his active political years, especially the NPN, SDP and PDP. But he also joined groups such as CNC and APP at certain points; and the last party he led was the non-starter called ACPN.
It was on ACPN’s platform, that he was ruthlessly routed by Bukola in a gubernatorial contest, which became a spectacular finale of struggle for supremacy; Bukola forcibly snatched the mantle of leadership from his ailing father! But Dr. Saraki was a consistent voice for democratic politics and he regularly lamented the erosion of the political party and party discipline in the current dispensation in the country.
He was a tireless campaigner during electioneering, and even in his last days, already ravaged by the cancer which claimed his life, Dr. Saraki maintained a punishing schedule of campaigning all over Kwara State.
Even younger people found his schedule absolutely breathless in its pace! Many of those who have paid tribute to him, remember his ability to forge consensus during the Second Republic, 1979-1983, as Senate Leader, whose NPN did not have the majority to pass legislation.
Saraki’s leadership helped to forge consensus that assisted in winning the consent of the UPN, NPP, PRP and GNPP in the Senate for major legislations of the Shagari administration.
Remarkable philanthropic legacy
In the week since he died, a lot of people in Ilorin have told me stories of the remarkable philanthropic legacy of Dr. Saraki. His ability to give of his immense wealth was truly legendary. Nevertheless, there were circles in the state that vehemently rejected his politics or whatever he stood for. These included politicians that he consistently defeated over the decades.
Many younger, middle class professionals often complained about his political domination and style but because they stayed aloof from the political process, the community lost the opportunity to get qualitative representation, especially at the national level.
So for a long time, Dr. Saraki sent to the centre, people that represented the lowest common denominator and were therefore unable to meaningfully contribute to serious debates. The demographic reality has swung decisively in the direction of the younger, more educated and less patient segments of the population and it is part of the story, that Dr. Saraki’s political hegemony was beginning to be eclipsed at this stage of demographic shift in our society.
But there is no gainsaying the fact, that Dr.Saraki will be sorely missed at so many levels: by the mass of his followers, especially the women, who trusted him implicitly and regularly voted for his candidates; the traditional institution that he served as Wazirin Ilorin, and members of the Nigerian political elite who envied and admired the man for his remarkable ability to nurture, hold and maintain his power base for so long.
It is in fact a tribute to his ability in that respect, that placing his family at the heart of political power, was pooh-poohed by many in the past, but as we have seen in people like Obasanjo and Bola Tinubu, Saraki’s style has now become the favourite template of political control!
The TafidanKaiama, Nurudeen Muhammed, who was Saraki’s political foe for years, led a delegation of his community to pay a condolence visit to BukolaSaraki, a few days ago. He said the late Dr. Saraki was a man of very open mind; generous heart and open doors. That effectively summed up the man.
He was a politician of outstanding ability to cultivate friendship, support and loyalties and those who knew the man very well, said he stayed loyal to his friendships. One thing that I can say about him, is that if you ever called the late Dr. Saraki and he was not available, no matter how long, he returned your call!
That spoke volumes about his basic decency and respect for other people. Those laying claims to being “leaders” today, need to shed their arrogance and learn from the real leader: Dr. Abubakar OlusolaSaraki, Wazirin Ilorin. Allah yajikansa.