Former Senate President Bukola Saraki breezed into Ilorin, the capital city of Kwara State, on Saturday November 14. The day coincided with the eight-year anniversary of the death of his father, Senator Olusola Saraki. Senator Bukola Saraki’s arrival came a day after his sister, Senator Gbemisola Saraki, arrived the state. She was in town apparently for two things: to hold a town hall meeting, as recently directed by the President, and of course for the eight-year memorials for her father.
That family was once synonymous with political power in the north central state. Everything and anything revolved around them. That changed in 2019 when they lost hold of the state’s political structure in what may be called an electoral shellacking. Not a single candidate supported by the scion of the family, Bukola, won any seat. His PDP lost the election 100%! He himself lost his re-election bid. Since then, Bukola Saraki had been away from the state. He secretly proceeded on a political exile.
On Saturday, he returned to the state apparently to join the prayers for his late father. But close watchers of the political environment would know that it was more than that. Saraki apparently came to test the water and send a signal to political players, especially those outside Kwara State. The level of mobilisation by his foot soldiers, the style he adopted in entering the town (mounting a long motorcade with him waving from the rooftop of his vehicle), and the media promotion of the visit showed he was driving a narrative: I am still a force to reckon with.
If a crowd determines anything, then it is safe to say Bukola Saraki remains a great force to reckon with. But crowd means a little in politics for those who know the game very well. Anyone can pull the crowd in politics. All that is required is enough money to go round and the vehicles to convey the crowd. For Bukola Saraki, or indeed any politician, a crowd at a campaign ground is no evidence of acceptance or political influence. To drive this point home, a video of Senator Bukola Saraki’s tumultuous crowd before the 2019 ballot surfaced. In it, he boasted about teaching the opposition a bitter lesson on the Election Day. The rest is history.
But there are issues in his coming, still. One, it does not show that much has changed about him. He feels too entitled to the idea of his godfather status. The manner of his entry showed that side to the public all over again. It was all about him. He has not seen anything wrong about this messianic approach and his helicopter politics. Rather, he still believes that propaganda unseated him as the sole kingmaker of Kwara politics. This means he does not appreciate the nature of human being. Man, by nature, cannot remain subservient forever. For too long, Bukola Saraki called the shot in Kwara. His stranglehold became suffocating. At a point, he started playing God. He determined who got what in Kwara. His most glaring failure, but certainly not the first or the last, came when the Jonathan presidency shunned him and made Prof Abdulraheem Oba the chairman of the Federal Character Commission (FCC). He tried to block senate confirmation of Oba but it never worked. He humiliated the Professor by sharing a video of persons begging him to let the professor have the seat. That incident revved up public sentiments against him. But he did not stop. He became even more ruthless in his ways, thinking he cannot be challenged. The rest, again, is history.
The 2019 election and the pattern of developments since then show that Kwara has moved on. Nobody wants another godfather. If he had studied the situation, he would note that the schisms within the ruling All Progressives Congress partly revolved around a vehement rejection of anything that may look like a Kwara under Bukola Saraki. People want to determine their own destiny without the say-so of any godfather.
Today, no single politician in Kwara can lay outright claim to all the federal appointments to the state. Yet the state has got far more than it ever got under Bukola Saraki. There are two ministers from Kwara today. The Chief of Staff to the President Prof Ibrahim Gambari is from Kwara. The Chief Economic Adviser to the President Dr Sarah Alade is from Kwara. Chairman of the Federal Character Commission Dr Fareedah Dankaka is from Kwara. Several chairmen and members of federal boards and parastatals are from Kwara. All of these happened without the say-so of any particular godfather. The political atmosphere is without the fear of ‘the leader must not hear or the leader must approve of my saying or doing so.’ Traditional institutions no longer live in fear of being summoned to Government House, handed instructions, and be given a choice between carrying them out and losing their stools or be demoted. This is the situation in Kwara today. That freedom even reflects in the tone of engagement between the incumbent Governor and the citizens.
Of course, the ruling APC needs to get its act right. The internal schisms should be managed in a more mature way. However, it is a gross miscalculation if Saraki or his handlers think the schisms in the APC offer him a re-entry into the emerging political environment. To clear this doubt, a leading gladiator in Kwara politics Akogun Iyiola Oyedepo captured the political mood of the state in these few words following Saraki’s arrival: “The true meaning of enough is enough (Otoge) in Kwara politics is for yesterday and today. Let nobody tell us that yesterday is better than today.” It was a message directed at everyone, but most pungently at Saraki, his followers, and anyone interested in the state’s politics. The message seems to say that whatever the current challenges at the moment, they are no excuse for Saraki returning as a godfather. That era seems gone forever!
That is only a side to the story. Outside of political disagreements in the APC, Saraki also has a Herculean task to convince Kwarans he is needed ever again. For seven years under his tight grip, the state was under UBEC blacklist while basic amenities had all collapsed. Today, the state is out of the blacklist and has accessed matching grants of seven years to reposition the basic education sector. All the basic schools collapsed under his political leadership of the state.
It was same for the basic health sector. Until 2020, Kwara had no isolation centre, much less modern facilities to manage infectious diseases like the COVID-19. Children were no longer being vaccinated against diseases because Kwara was not playing its role. No single public water work was functioning anywhere in the state, with the capital city surviving on water tanker. Workers were owed months in arrears of salaries/allowances. In 2016 when he confessed building his retirement home from the pension packages he awarded to himself, retired civil servants were dying of frustration and cheap diseases as they were not getting paid. Until 2016 when there was a public outcry, he was getting paid jumbo pension as a former Governor and he was also receiving humongous salaries from the Nigerian senate. Yet, civil servants were not getting paid their salaries in Kwara State especially at the local government level. As of May 29, 2019 when the new administration took charge, workers across colleges of education were owed 30 months of salary. Whatever mess the state is battling with today was created under his vice grip on the state.
Back to politics: Saraki has himself declared the (2023) game open when he told reporters that his homecoming is akin to the commencement of the Premier League. The question many would ask is, what role does Bukola Saraki want to play in 2023 in the state’s politics? A godfather? He wants to return to the Senate? He wants to contest for president? No option looks good for him. Who wants another godfather to design their future? Not in today’s Kwara. People have moved on. If he wants to return to the Senate, it is his legitimate right. But he would be asked if there are no one else outside his family that is qualified for the office. It is said that the purported reconciliation between him and his sister, Gbemi, is premised on him going to the Senate and his sister becoming the deputy Governor. Again, anyone may ask, are they the only family in Kwara? The optics is bad for him whether on the moral plain or on the political chessboard. For these reasons and much more, it is pretty hard to see a brighter future for Bukola Saraki’s triumphant re-entry into Kwara politics, not minding the photo-ops that his homecoming offered him. Perhaps nothing makes his re-entry scarier than the god-like traits he again displayed when he came calling. Whether south or north of the country, people are simply tired of godfathers.