2019: Kwara braces for landmark general elections as Saraki fights for political life
Kola Shittu did not match the picture the reporter expected to see. It was the second day of the new year and the Kwara State chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was calm and all smiles as he ushered party officials into and out of his office in his expansive home in the old GRA, Ilorin.
Could Mr Shittu be unaware of the higher-than-usual excitement in the state over the coming general elections, driven by the resurgence of the opposition in the state? At street junctions and on almost every wall in Ilorin, even around Mr Shittu's house, bright billboards and posters screamed the message: Oto Ge! meaning "Enough is Enough" in Yoruba.
It is the battle cry of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and it is echoing even in the most unexpected places in Ilorin and other parts of Kwara. It refers to the long dominance of the politics of the 51-year-old state by the Saraki family.
"Place a table by the roadside anywhere in Ilorin, shout Oto Ge! and see the reaction of people," Iyiola Oyedepo told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Oyedepo was the state chairman of the PDP until last July when he fled to the APC to avoid sharing the same camp with Bukola Saraki, the Senate president.
Mr Saraki, the current "leader" of the Saraki political family, had that month made a grand return to the PDP from the APC, followed by the state governor, Abdulfatah Ahmed, and all the elected office holders from the state.
When Mr Saraki moved from the PDP in a similar fashion in 2014, he flipped the state to the APC, which went on to win every election there in 2015. But Mr Oyedepo said the tide has turned.
"The people are resolute that enough is enough and you can feel it in the air everywhere in Kwara,” he said.
Ilorin on knife's edge
Two recent events in the state give an indication of a changing political canvass.
Usually on Christmas Day, the predominantly Muslim indigenes gathered under their umbrella, Ilorin Emirate Descendants Progressive Union at the palace of their revered emir. At the gathering, they would raise fund for the development of the emirate and review public issues that affect the people within and outside Kwara. It was a key event in the socio-political calendar of the people and everyone turned up gaily dressed. In 2017, the Senate President as the chief donor announced a donation of N10 million.
At the event, however, last December, the unusual happened. As Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq, the APC governorship candidate, was called to the podium, a band of rednecks sprang to their feet chanting "Sai Bukky," the slogan of supporters of the Senate President in the state. They were immediately countered with chants of "Oto Ge!"
The ensuing commotion overwhelmed the organisers who called an end to the event after the emir, Sulu-Gambari, hurried out of the scene in embarrassment. The next day, the president of the IEDPU announced his resignation.
The PDP supporters accused the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, of orchestrating the tumult at the event, alleging it was the reason he had the NTA broadcast the event live.
Mr Mohammed, an indigene of Oro about 100 kilometres away in the southern senatorial district of the state, denied the allegation. He said he had no foreknowledge of the event and could not have arranged its coverage by national television. Still, it was significant that a group would stand toe to toe against Mr Saraki’s supporters at such a grand event in the very heart of Ilorin, his hometown.
The Sarakis control the politics of Kwara from their political fortress in Ilorin and buttress their hold by using it for negotiation at the federal level. This means that they not only control the resources of the state, but also those accruing from Abuja, including political and public service appointments.
The emirate, covering the entirety of Kwara Central Senatorial District and a small part of Kwara North, has about 55 per cent of the voting population of the state.
Because the Sarakis have always enjoyed solid support in Ilorin, other parts of the state consider it politically suicidal to stand against them in the Nigerian winner takes all politics where 50.01 percent is equal to 100 percent. Thus, any support the Sarakis draw from outside their home fortress has been based on the pragmatism of the giver. A substantial erosion of the support in Ilorin is thus nunc dimitis to the hegemony.
But in the last eight years, Mr Saraki has faced a rising opposition in Ilorin, indicated especially by the desertion of key allies. Some of these include Gani Cook-Olododo, Yinka Aluko and Moshood Mustapha who served him either as chief of staff, commissioner or special adviser when he was governor and were commanders of the foot soldiers at elections.
Abdulraheem Oba, a professor and former vice chancellor of the University of Ilorin, is also an influential indigene of Ilorin who has deserted the Saraki camp. Other young Turks never beholden to the Sarakis are also emerging and marking out turfs across the emirate. The fact is that Mr Saraki has not managed to win the adulation his father enjoyed among the Ilorin people.
In other parts of Kwara too, many old allies have jumped ship. Many of these are in Kwara South, but there are prominent cases like Ibrahim Bio, a former member of the House of Representatives, speaker of the State House of Assembly and minister; and Ahmed Ahmed, a former senator from Kwara North.
One reason that he Sarakis have survived all seasons is because they are adept at forecasting the political weather of Nigeria. In 2003, their timely movement into the PDP helped them in kicking out Governor Lawal of the then ANPP, an indigene of Ilorin who had a strong base there. They enjoyed that advantage of federal might until 2015 when they took a ride on the Buhari train.
But now that he is shorn of federal might and has no big sentiment to cling to, Mr Saraki for the first time has to run solely on his own steam. Mr Oyedepo said that steam will not take him far.
"We long realized that you no longer need the Sarakis to win an election in Kwara. But each time I said this to our leaders in our former party (the PDP) in Abuja, they looked at me as if I were some clown," he said.
The opposition are scenting blood especially after their victory at last year's by-election in Kwara South senatorial district.
Funke Adedoyin, a member of the House of Representatives, died shortly after following Mr Saraki from APC to PDP. In the by-election at the Irepodun/Isin/Ekiti/Oke-Ero Federal Constituency in Kwara South to fill her seat, the candidate of the APC was returned as the winner. It was the first time that Mr Saraki would lead a party to defeat in Kwara. His political family had made a clean sweep of every general election in the state since 1999, under three different parties. And the winning streak extended much further back.
Of the six governors the state has elected since 1979, only one was not handpicked by a Saraki. Even in that odd case in 1983, Cornelius Adebayo of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria got a helping hand from Olusola Saraki to breast the tape.
That time, the father of the current Senate President was the Senate Leader. He had fallen out with Adamu Attah, the first elected governor of the state who he installed in 1979. When their ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) sided with the governor and renominated him, Mr Saraki vowed to unhorse him anyway.
He asked a protégé to run on the ticket of the Nigerian People’s Party but soon realised that it would take the combined force of the opposition in the state to stop the federal might of the NPN from returning Mr Attah. He then asked his supporters to vote Mr Adebayo.
The Second Republic quickly ended with the military coup of December 1983. But the 13 years military interregnum that followed did not weaken the hold of Mr Saraki on Kwara politics. In the short-lived Third Republic, he installed Shaaba Lafiagi, now a senator, as governor. When the Fourth Republic arrived in 1999, he again handpicked Mohammed Lawal, a former Navy admiral, as governor on the platform of the now defunct All Peoples Party.
After his incubus of falling out with his anointed king made a reappearance, Mr Saraki decided to put himself up for governor but was advised by his new suitors in the PDP to instead field his then 40-year-old son, Bukola, a medical doctor who had run the family’s now defunct Societe Generale Bank.
The younger Saraki would become the first governor to be reelected in the state. But by the end of his second term in 2011, he too was at odds with his father. This time, it was over the father's insistence on his daughter, Gbemisola, succeeding his son as governor.
The face-off with his son ended the political career of the patriarch with a comprehensive defeat in the 2011 elections. He had taken Gbemisola to the fringe National Congress Party of Nigeria. She not only returned a distant third in the governorship election, none of the candidates Mr Saraki put up for other seats across the state fared better.
Unlike his father, Bukola has managed to retain the loyalty of the governor he installed, Abdulfatah Ahmed, through two terms. However, the new kingmaker has developed a dangerous passion of his own – fighting his friends at the federal level where he became a star player.
After leading a rebellion in the then ruling PDP in 2014 as a first time senator, he defected to the newly formed APC. Last July, he returned to the PDP as Senate President after three years of cat and mouse game in the party he helped push to power. Again, the governor, all federal lawmakers from Kwara and all but one of the 24 members of the State House of Assembly were in his tow.
However, the current buzz even in Ilorin and the result of the by-election in Kwara South suggest Mr Saraki has on his hands a tougher battle than in 2015 to keep Kwara under the umbrella of the party he has returned to.
But Mr Shittu urged against attaching too much significance to the outcome of the by-election.
"One, that election was not democratic enough because the true result of the election was not allowed to come out,” he said. "There was rigging in that election where APC used the force of incumbency to change electoral figures and to thumbprint at collation centres. … PDP actually won that election."
But to APC supporters in the state, the by-election result is credible and is a harbinger of what will come at the general elections.
"People have realised that development cannot come to the state until it is freed from dynastic rule," Mr Oyedepo said. "Kwarans now want to elect their leaders based on merit, not by attachment to a godfather."
According to the opposition and other critics, the development of the state has been arrested under the Sarakis’ suzerainty, especially in the last 16 years when the Senate President served two terms as governor and handed over to his protégé, Mr Ahmed, who is completing his own second term next May. They cite alleged rampant corruption and privatization of state resources, the poor network of roads in the state, collapse of public water works, poor and irregular salaries of teachers as well as state and local government workers, neglect of pensioners and the poor states of the health and education sectors in the state.
But Mr Saraki's supporters say the critics are unfair, citing to his credit the reform of the revenue system of the state and projects such as the Shonga Commercial Farm under which Mr Saraki in 2004 brought in 13 White Zimbabwean farmers to establish large farms in the state, Kwara State University, Kwara College of Aviation, Kwara Diagnostic Centre, Kwara Vocational Centre (established in Ajasse-Ipo by the succeeding administration of Governor Ahmed), and the attraction into the state of big businesses such as Shoprite and the Dangote Flour Mill.
According to the unflappable Mr Shittu, the PDP is so proud of the record of the Saraki leadership of Kwara that it built its message to the voters on it.
"Our central message is continuity - we want the development of the state to continue uninterrupted, in line with the continuity we have run since the Bukola Saraki governorship," he said.
Flying that flag of continuity as the PDP governorship candidate is Razak Atunwa, a Britain-trained lawyer who since returning to Kwara in 2005 has held several cabinet positions under Mr Saraki, served as Speaker of the State House of Assembly from 2011 to 2015 and is currently a member of the House of Representatives.
"Our chances are very bright; in fact, we intend to win all the elections in the state - the presidential, governorship, all the National Assembly and State House of Assembly seats. Everything," Mr Shittu said.
Game of Subterfuge
Mr Shittu, understandably, would not disclose how his party plans to neutralise the "federal might" and the "Oto Ge!" storm behind the sail of the APC in the state. But it is clear from other things playing out that both protagonists and antagonists consider all, including subterfuge, to be fair in war.
The APC was firmly under the control of Mr Saraki until he moved out of the party last year. He had installed a long time follower from Ilorin, Ishola Balogun-Fulani, as the state chairman and picked all the members of the state executive committee. In July, Mr Balogun-Fulani told journalists at a press conference in Ilorin that the leaders and members of the APC in the state wanted Mr Saraki to take them into another party, in protest over his alleged maltreatment by the President Buhari administration and the national leadership of the APC.
Ostensibly heeding his followers’ call, Mr Saraki a few days later moved back into the PDP. However, Mr Balogun-Fulani and members of his exco curiously decided to stay put in the APC and retain their positions. The national secretariat of the party swiftly expelled Mr Balogun-Fulani and replaced the state exco with a caretaker committee before announcing a new exco headed by Bashir Bolarinwa. Mr Balogun-Fulani reacted by heading to court.
On December 19, Justice T.S Umar of the Kwara State High Court in Ilorin delivered judgment on Mr Balogun-Fulani's application and granted all the reliefs sought by the claimants.
One of the 13 reliefs Mr Umar granted states: "A declaration be and it is hereby made that the claimants as the duly elected and duly constituted members of the Kwara State Committee of the 3rd defendant (The APC) in Kwara State are entitled to exercise all the powers and functions specified for members of the State Executive Committee of the 3rd defendant in the Constitution, Guidelines and Regulations of the 3rddefendant pertaining to the conduct of primary elections or other processes for the nomination of candidates to occupy party posts or contest elections for the posts of Local Government Council Chairman and Councillors, State House of Assembly, House of Representatives, Senate, Governors and President on the platform of the 3rd defendant from Kwara State during the four (4) years tenure of the claimants as a members (sic) of the Kwara State Executive Committee commencing from 6th day of June, 2018."
By this declaration of the court, the nominees of the Balogun-Fulani exco, will be on the ballot as candidates of the APC for the general elections, including Abdulwahab Omotose, a former Majority Leader of the State House of Assembly, as the governorship candidate.
Mr Omotose was one of the representatives from Kwara at the formal introduction in Abuja of the Buba Galadima-led Reformed APC (R-APC) formed by those who would the following month in July leave the APC for the PDP. He was, in fact, announced at that event as the interim National Treasurer of the R-APC.
Did Mr Balogun-Fulani have a Damascus road conversion that led to his abrupt decision to stay put in the APC after encouraging those who took him there to leave?
"It is true that I called on him to go to another party. But specifically, I did not mention which party. When they defected to PDP, it did not go down well with me and my executives. So, I decided to stay with APC. And I wish to refer you to other people who had done same thing like myself, including Senator Shehu Sani," Mr Balogun-Fulani explained the curious development.
The APC described Mr Balogun-Fulani"s action and the court's judgment he obtained as "the hand of Esau but the voice of Jacob.
According to Mr Oyedepo, "Ishola Balogun-Fulani is a tool in the hand of Saraki to disrupt the process of APC in Kwara State. He is a lackey always at Saraki’s becks and calls. It is clear to everyone that he was left behind to disturb us and cause confusion.
"Saraki wants to have the two major parties in the state in his pocket in Kwara. But fortunately, the National Working Committee of the APC was smarter by dissolving the Balogun-Fulani Exco on July 39, 2018. He was also expelled from the party.
"A lot has taken place after his expulsion. Another registration of members was done and it was the new register that was used for the congresses. People like us who moved in from the PDP were not in the register with Balogun-Fulani.
"We did a direct primary to elect our candidates. The electoral officers came from Abuja to conduct the primaries. It was not a delegates-based election where the party leaders would have elected the candidates, party members across the state elected the candidates."
Mr Oyedepo, who is a lawyer, said the APC has appealed and also asked the Court of Appeal to arrest the court judgment. "By and large, we are confident that Balogun-Fulani and those who sent him on errand are wasting their time."
But Mr Shittu of the PDP saw nothing strange in Mr Balogun-Fulani's flip-flop.
"In politics, 24 hours is a long time. Somebody can take a decision today and change it tomorrow. It is not strange. May be as a Fulani man, he wants to stay with his fellow Fulani, Buhari (President Muhammadu, who is the APC presidential candidate)."
However, he agreed that the development and the court judgment are playing out in favour of his party.
"As of today, you are aware that the faction of Lai Mohammed APC led by Bolarinwa has no candidates to field for the elections from the court judgment," he said to underscore his optimism over his party's chances in the general elections. "It is the faction of Balogun-Fulani that has candidates to field, and that is another thing. They are already in disarray now. They will end up like Rivers and Zamfara states ended up. They will have no candidates to field. All these things are working in our favour."
Mr Saraki is a political strategist and dogged fighter. He demonstrated this on the national stage when he outwitted the APC leadership to seize the Senate presidency, the source of his woes in the party. Since the defeat at the Kwara South by-election, he has taken steps to improve his fortunes in the area. The governor, Mr Ahmed, sacrificed his senatorial ticket so that the incumbent, Rafiu Ibrahim, can seek reelection. Mr Ibrahim is from Ojoku in Oyun Local Government and can draw votes away from Lola Ashiru, an indigene of Offa who is running on the ticket of the APC.
Due to a series of developments climaxed by the bank robbery last year, Offa is virtually a no-go for Mr Saraki and his party. But with votes from Oyun and if Mr Ahmed can help draw votes from his Ifelodun Local Government Area, the PDP may not need to write off its chances in Kwara South.
The state government has also upgraded many chiefs in the area, apparently to historically temper hostility in the area.
What is clear is that the next two months will be very interesting in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious state of about 3 million people that has always punched above its weight in the politics of Nigeria.