The Oto’ge gladiators came to the arena to scheme for power, but it was as though they came for burial. They came with daggers, shovels, caskets and cremation urns. It was electoral shellacking as burial rites. When the dust finally settled, the son of Oloye emerged from the rubbles half-naked, panting. He was like a king without the crown, a peacock without its tail feathers.
That night at the INEC office in Adewole, I remember now the theatrics of a man—a Saraki loyalist—who staged a protest. He claimed the voting figures were too humiliating to be true, that the great Oloye’s son couldn’t have been left in the lurch by his beloved Ilorin people. His jeremiad was greeted with sardonic laughter, and he wobbled away from the scene humiliated. Ilorin was at the time on the cusp of history, and his was comic relief served at a most dramatic moment.
When the news finally filtered into town that Saraki lost at the polls, parts of Ilorin dissolved into tears of joy. In contrast, many who thronged to Ile Loke wept, especially those in whose heart Saraki’s love burnt like wildfire. But across Agbooles within the emirate, folks could not keep their excitement in check, and little kids gyrated in unison. At Surulere, young men swept through the major roads with brooms, and along Agbo-Oba roads, some women danced across the streets, chanting songs of redemption. From Centre Igboro to Oja-Oba, there were carnivals of gongs, trumpets, Fura da nono and Dadakuada. It was a most emotional spectacle.
Yet the Saraki drubbing was quite predictable, at least in the months leading to the 2019 general elections.
Whether one considered the grand humiliation at Lafiaji, or the justifiable anger of the Kwara North voting bloc in Ilesha-Baruba, or the annual ritual of stoning at the Eid praying ground in Ilorin, or the Offa robbery incident and its chaos of narratives, or the wicked tales opposition figures peddled about Kwara finances—a mixture of facts and fiction, to be sure—the telltale signs were potent enough.
But in the midst of the melee, many a court jester at Ile Loke created this air of invincibility around Oloye’s crown prince. And since it’s a line between invincibility and megalomania, Saraki didn’t care much to jump out of the lines. So he soldiered on with the battle for influence and power in Abuja, while the roof back home in Agbaji leaked. By the time he realized the leakage, what appeared a mere storm in a teacup had become a flood, with attendant thunderstorm and lightning. And like it is the case with flooding anyway, the Oto’ge revolt didn’t only sweep away the son of Oloye, it did bury all of his disciples, from Kaiama through Omu-Aran. It was a disaster in the most unlikely of places, a tsunami in a desert.
And so the man who trounced his own father in a wrestling bout to emerge kingmaker and assume control of Kwara’s oldest political dynasty was dramatically toppled and chased out of the palace, mostly by those who made names in politics as disciples within the same dynasty. Cook Olododo. Muhammed Mustapha a.k.a MM. Prof. Oba Abdulraheem. Yinka Aluko. Yahaya Seriki. Etc. It was conspiracy as revolt, a replay of events reminiscent of the “dynastic curse”, à la American political discourse.
In the United States, there is the myth of cursed dynasties. The Kennedy family, one of America’s most recognized, appears often prominently in this narrative. The “Kennedy curse” gained traction in U.S media after the late US senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick Island in 1969. He did survive, but his passenger in the car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. He would later allude to some “curse” hanging over the Kennedys’ neck. The claim didn’t come without an alibi, a precedent.
Earlier, John F Kennedy, widely ranked alongside Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, was shot dead by Harvey Lee Oswald on November 22, 1963, as his motorcade drove through Dallas, Texas. Later in 2012, Mary Kennedy, the estranged wife of Robert F Kennedy Jr, was found dead at her New York home. Her death again brought to the fore the myth of cursed dynasties.
The Sarakis aren’t the Kennedys. Yet between both families, there is similarity in dynastic power, and then there is the myth of a “curse”—which became a footnote in Kwara political discourse sometime in 2011.
In the days leading to the end of Bukola Saraki’s eight-year reign as governor, Saraki père, the late Waziri of Ilorin, threw his weight behind Gbemi Saraki, Bukola’s sister, who wanted to be governor. Saraki fils, Bukola, kicked against Oloye’s choice and threw his weight behind AbdulFatah Ahmed, a long-time friend and ally. Since it was Ilorin, the hub of Islamic renaissance, that dictated where the power pendulum swung, the idea of a female governor did not quite resonate with many. But Saraki père and allies would not relent, and the name “Ruqoyat” took prominence over “Gbemi” in campaign rhetoric. From Agbaji through Isale-Koto, muslim clerics invoked the legend of Bilikisu, the Queen of Sheba, wielding it as a justification for Gbemi’s suitability for the guber throne. Saraki fils, bent on preventing his sister’s entry into the Ahmadu Bello Way government house, became a revolutionary. He would not have any such dynastic obscenity as legacy. But Bukky was only being a revolutionary without the conscience of revolt, a Mandela as caricature. In any case he had his way, AbdulFatah Ahmed won, and Saraki pere got some shellacking from Saraki fils at the ballot by proxy.
In the end, the child became the father of the man.
But some near-apocryphal accounts of electioneering events in alcohol joints and newspaper stands in Ilorin claimed that in the heat of the moment, pere “cursed” fils, and when his ordeals began as senate president in 2018, many made allusion to the “curse”. In any case, before Saraki pere died in 2012, father and son reconciled. So theirs was a relationship buried in complexity, ala George W. Bush and his presidential father, George H. W. Bush. And like author Doug Wead said of the relationship between those two products of an American dynasty, the Sarakis’ relationship wasn’t just quite as complex, “It was both love and a bit of a rivalry.”
It’s a testament to the complexity of their relationship that as Saraki fils now stages a comeback in Ilorin, he seems to be re-inventing himself as pere: outgoing, humble, genuinely compassionate, and open to all. If this is another theatrical gymnastic, time would tell.
At the height of his glory, one potent weapon with which Bukola Saraki’s traducers attacked him was his widely reported “arrogance”. For many who never met him, including this essayist, it was one narrative that found legitimacy in viral pictures of aides and politicians kneeling before him in embarrassingly obsequious manners. Add that to reports of obscene malfeances and alleged corruption and you have perhaps the most potent driver of the Oto’ge revolt. Since he got his comeuppance at the polls in 2019, there has been a conscious attempt to redefine these things. Of course when critics invoke the spirit of Societe Generale (SGB), his admirers would point in the direction of Ilorin Airport, KWASU, Post-office overhead bridge, Shonga farms etc. What many, critics and admirers alike, would however agree with is that the man with boyish mien is quite brilliant. And although it’s debatable if he does allow such talents to fly without being tele-guided, his followers are often quick to point out that he is also a “builder of talents”, and in that context, they rightly point in the direction of people like the brilliant and charismatic Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi.
Weeks ago, Saraki was quoted to have claimed that the Oto’ge revolt was fuelled only by propaganda. He was right and wrong. Politics is largely about propaganda and subterfuge, and the Oto’ge revolt was no exception. What he failed to realize, however, was that he and his disciples gave life to the propaganda with their actions and inactions. People would believe anything in a society where fiscal obscenity lies side-by-side with mass poverty. It’s the number one lesson he ought to have learnt, if he indeed learnt any from the nightmare of 2019.
Since Saraki was humbled, the Oto’ge crowd itself has crumbled. It’s the curse of revolution that it’s often an all-comer affair. Revolutions, including those so-called, attract the opportunists and the principled, the conscienceless and the altruistic, the parasites and the hypocrites. But time is the most potent of filters.
The Oto’ge revolt, flawed as it is, isn’t without its merit though, the most plausible being the democratization of power and transfer of same to the people. Today in Kwara, the power dynamics is relatively complex, quite unlike in the past when it was unidirectional, domiciled only in Ile Loke.
In the power mix, there is Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq and those solidly behind him, for his modest efforts in fixing roads and rebuilding schools and equipping hospitals and providing jobs for the hoi polloi, warts and all. There are those who claim the governor is a Machiavelli, bent only on consolidating powers. They are the Lai Mohammeds of this world, and since politics is about power and influence, they aren’t also without their justification. Then there are pacifists and emerging power brokers whose community development efforts now endear to many people, like the Yakubu Gobirs and Yahaya Serikis and the Saliu Mustaphas.
As Saraki fils resurrects in Ilorin, his supporters would miss those days his words were decrees, and his whims laws. But he isn’t coming back to dictate and pick things on a platter. The political space has been democratized, and everyone has to toil to earn the peoples’ trust. Power isn’t served ala carte, and that’s the beauty of democracy.
This democratization of power, for this essayist, is the biggest take-away from the Oto’ge revolt. If properly owned by the people, and nurtured quite well, it should mark the final transition of power to the most important office in a democracy: the office of the citizen. And Kwarans would be the better for it, if only they realize and consolidate on the power they now (seem to) own.