By Dare Babarinsa
There is something truly amazing about Chief Bisi Akande, the son of a palm-wine tapper who became a qualified accountant at 22. At 60 in 1999, he was sworn in as the second elected Governor of Osun State, taking the baton from the last military administrator, Brigadier Theophilous Bamigboye. Four days into his tenure, Osun State workers embarked on a general strike, paralyzing the city of Osogbo and subjecting the new Secretary to the State Government, SSG, to serious harassment. Four years later, Akande’s tenure ended in controversial circumstances when Brigadier Olagunsoye Oyinlola, former Military Governor of Lagos State, defeated him in the 2003 general elections.
Next week Thursday in Lagos, Akande’s comprehensive memoir, My Participations, would be presented to the reading public in a ceremony in which President Muhammadu Buhari would be a special guest. The trajectory of Akande’s life is a compelling study in determination and single-minded pursuit of noble objectives. He had been a primary school teacher and headmaster, an accountant, an executive of British Petroleum, a councilor in Ila-Orangun, his hometown in Osun State where he has held the traditional title of Asiwaju since 1980, the Secretary to the State Government in old Oyo State and later Deputy Governor under Chief Bola Ige. He was a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 1979 presidential Constitution that has survived in different mutations till today.
But he was a reluctant Governor. After his prison experience during the draconian regime of General Muhammadu Buhari, Akande vowed never to hold public office again. Chief Ige, who valued Akande’s industry and integrity, insisted that he must serve and Akande got the job by the consensus of his party, the Alliance for Democracy, AD. His deputy was the rumbustious Iyiola Omisore, a rookie politician and businessman who cut his teeth during the regime of the objectionable General Sani Abacha.
We need to evaluate the tenure of Akande in Osun to understand the power and impact of the governors. Akande has shown that a governor who is focused and has the love of his people at heart can actually do a lot to change their lots. Akande inherited a state in turmoil where the workers preferred a festival of strikes to the serious business of negotiations. The workers were inflexible and they were ready to cause maximum havoc. The state was poor, had no secretariat and the government and its ministries and departments were living in rented apartments. It was a depressing scenario.
One day the Governor was told there was a solution that had worked like magic in the past. He needed to buy peace, they told him. They showed him payment vouchers in the past where union leaders had collected bribes from the state government. Akande refused. He would not buy peace. He called for negotiations. The workers threw down the gauntlet. The Governor picked it. Till the end of his tenure it was a difficult peace that Akande maintained with the unions.
Few months after he got into office, he wanted to buy tyres for his official car. He was given a bill of N40,000.00 per tyre. He wanted to know whether there were special tyres for a governor’s car. He was told it was the same kind of tyres used by other automobiles on the road. Akande contacted his old customer and got the state to buy the tyre for N6000.00. From one single transaction, the state had saved more than 600 percent!
That episode was the foundation of Akande’s enduring legacy. He discovered that he could save money from expenditures approved in the yearly budget by the State Assembly. He kept the money in a special account. He followed the old system of balancing the budget. He did not borrow money. He did not incur debts. He did not embark on any project that was not funded. He paid his contractors. He lived prudently. When his daughter, Temitope, got married in the year 2000, he refused to get the state involved. When civil servants claimed they incurred expenses on his behalf for the wedding, Akande thanked them and refunded the N300,240.00 allegedly spent back to the state treasury. He collected his receipt.
Akande was a veteran of the old game. As a local lad in Ila-Orangun, he had confronted the entrenched power oligarchy who denied his brilliant kid brother scholarship because Akande refused to bribe them. He learnt politics and principle of loyalty from our beloved Uncle Bola Ige. During his first meeting with Chief Awolowo in 1977, he had engaged the titan in more than one hour of conversation. By the time he got the job of governor in 1999, he had become set in his ways; a man of immense courage, sagacity, prudence, integrity and wisdom. He refused to change. By remaining his old stubborn self, he changed our world.
Every week, he saved money from the recurrent expenditure. Within three years, he had accumulated more billions of naira; money that could have been frittered away through frivolous spending and dubious expenditure. In one typical episode, he clashed with Omisore, his deputy, over the supply of chemicals to the Osun State Water Corporation and was able to save the state more than N143 million through that single incident. It was from all these savings that Akande gifted Osun State with the sprawling Secretariat and the magnificent Bola Ige House which is the Governor’s Office.
It is not surprising that Bola Ige dominated My Participations. Akande had served Ige as SSG and later as Deputy Governor in the old Oyo State. Between the two men, there was perfect chemistry, absolute trust and total loyalty. They don’t always agree. But neither of them could ever imagine that one day one of them would be gone so suddenly as Uncle Bola did on December 23, 2001. It was a shattering experience whose seismic impact is still with us till this day.
Professor Wole Soyinka, who writes the Foreword of this great book of 557 pages, says: “It is a bonus that this life narrative of a frontline politician has emerged from the hands of a man whose moral integrity in governance, as in all spheres of responsibility, has remained undented.”
There are too many things to learn from Akande’s story; too many revelations and too many twists and turns of the Nigerian story. For the 2011 presidential election, Akande and his bosom friend, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the lionized former Governor of Lagos State had led the ACN to enter into an alliance talk with Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change, CPC. The alliance failed and the trio tried again and won the historic election of 2015 that brought Buhari to power. For eleven tumultuous years, Akande had been the chairman of four national political parties culminating in the triumph of the APC.
One thing stands out. A governor can make a lot of difference in the life of his people. Despite all the legitimate complaints about the concentration of power at the Nigerian centre, the real instrument of development is the governor. He controls all the land in his state. He is the change agent. Akande changed Osun State for the better and since then, every single governor of the state has been measured by the Akande standard. No wonder the current governor, Mr. Adegboyega Oyetola, a stately patrician of the old school, is never too far from Ila-Orangun. He knows that Akande is a national asset.
If Nigeria must fulfil its dream, we have to find a way to recruit courageous leaders who would be able to confront the beasts that are tormenting our republic. Such leaders must first and foremost learn to read for treasures are hidden in good books like My Participations.