Three Men, One Paradox

Alao Akala, top, Ernest Shonekan, bottom left and Bashir Tofa, right

By Oladeinde Olawoyin
The one left behind the footprints of a ‘reactionary’—or at best a ‘conservative’—politician, had no pretension to lofty governance ideas, pranced around in ostentatious ornaments, but died and was canonized as a ‘progressive’ because of the death of ideology in our body politic. That’s the first paradox.
The other excelled as boardroom guru, made a success of his position as chair of a multinational, dazzled the military top brass with his mastery of economics and esoteric numbers, and shone like a bright star. But when he got drafted in for political leadership, he ended up a shadow of his old, glorious self. That’s the second paradox.
The last man had a radical make-up, played active roles in politics as party secretary and treasurer, founded and funded a number of civic groups, lent his voice to good governance advocacy like all democrats do, and stood for the protection of pristine cultural ethos. But at the height of his participation in politics, he blended with the ‘wrong’ crowd and lost a major presidential election in his home state, the result of which he pooh-poohed till he drew his last breath. That’s the third paradox.
The first man was Adebayo Alao-Akala, former Oyo governor who swaggered around Agodi government house in turquoise pendants and gaudy chains. The other man was Chief Ernest Shonekan, the boardroom czar who fell for Babangida’s dirty gambit and was handed a poisoned chalice. The last was Bashir Tofa, candidate of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC) who pronounced ‘June 12’ dead and held Nigeria’s most popular mandate in contempt.
The January whirlwind came and went away with a number of marquee names in Nigerian politics. But the death of these three men was rather significant, for me, because they embody the contradictions inherent in Nigeria’s socio-political journeys: Alao-Akala as a reflection of our flawed conception of democratic ideals; Shonekan as a manifestation of how institutional rot swallows individual brilliance; Tofa as a mirror of the fluidity of what we considered right and/or wrong.
French Renaissance writer, Michel de Montaigne, often celebrated as the father of modern skepticism, famously dismissed death and its dreadful aura. Rather than indulge the spectre of death, Montaigne advised us to demystify it with awareness and attention. “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence,” he wrote of the human fear of death, “is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” In a sense, death is both paradox and folly, a bumbling fool that knows not of its own impotence.
The paradox of death does not only give meaning to life, it’s essentially the defining attribute of life. And that’s why the lives of some men aren’t only defined by the circumstances of their death, but by their footprints as a representation of the paradoxes of life and its intriguing complexities. Men like Alao-Akala, Tofa, and Shonekan.
Alao-Akala came to national reckoning in 2006 after a band of brigands—supported by the garrison commander of Ibadan politics, Lamidi Adedibu—toppled Rashidi Ladoja’s government. Akala was Ladoja’s deputy who claimed his boss treated him as though he was a mere “deflated spare tyre” and then stabbed him in the back. Although Ladoja said in a recent report that Alao-Akala didn’t stab him, that was perhaps the triumph of old age wisdom over middle age exuberance. For, the revered Ibadan Chief knows that his brilliant 2011 campaign message, which demystified an otherwise formidable Alao-Akala, was premised on the theme of betrayal.
In any case, by the time Ladoja returned as governor after 11-month absence in 2006, Akala had entrenched himself in the murky waters of Oyo politics so well that, with the support of Adedibu, he won a fresh mandate in the governorship election held a few months afterwards in 2007. He would go ahead to govern Oyo for another four years.
In terms of governance philosophy, Alao-Akala never pretended to be a policy wonk, neither did he care that much about the niceties of constitutional frameworks for public procurement and policy execution. This opacity was perhaps the genesis of his battles with the anti-graft agency. He infamously stayed away from debates and other intellectual discourses in the media, too. Rather, he brought to governance a populist energy that resonated so well with the mechanic in Randa, the vulcaniser in Ayeye, the fruit seller in Oke-Eruwa, and the pepper seller in Isale-Oyo. At parties and other Owambe gatherings, he was the cynosure of all eyes, often dressed in gaudy regalia, strutting down the aisle like peacock.
Akala threw money at almost every problem his government found worthy of attention. Not for him the futuristic thinking that comes with developmental plans, or the due diligence that comes with contract award, or the longevity and durability that ought to be the basis of project execution. He had his enduring legacies in the ubiquitous micra cabs scattered all over Ibadan, and the road projects awarded to old friends and fly-by-night contractors, dubbed “Titi Akala”. All of these made him quite popular, and the people, too often carried away by the facade of immediate abundance, hailed him to the heavens. He was Oya’to Governor, the one during whose tenure money flowed into the peoples’ pockets. Literally.
So in essence, Alao-Akala brought immediate merriment and flamboyance to the seat of power in Ibadan, but such ostentation came with little developmental substance that could help engender growth or deepen good governance in the medium to long terms. His was glossy vanity as governance philosophy, crass mundanity as benchmark of societal aspiration.
His most enduring attribute remains his generous spirit, a point Vice President Yemi Osinbajo made a tangential reference to in his tributes. He loved his Ogbomosho community to bits, and his most visible legacies endure in that town till today. Frankly, that he remained open-handed both in and out of government speaks to the genuineness of his generosity. But it still doesn’t make it less of a flaw that he barely separated personal purse from the public till, as shown in numerous (apocryphal?) tales of how he whimsically made old friends overnight contractors. This inadequacy notwithstanding, Alao-Akala was a good-hearted human being through and through. But he was a deeply flawed administrator.
Yet because he died a chieftain of the APC, he’s been canonized, like a true ‘progressive’—his ‘reactionary’ sins now washed away in the rivers of glowing tributes. That’s the paradox of a nation bereft of ideology.
Shonekan’s place in Nigeria’s history remains brief, just like his short, inconsequential stint as Nigeria’s tele-guided numero uno. He was a man of big, consequential ideas, but his presence in our national memory is now a blur.
As chairman of the United Africa Company of Nigeria (UACN), a component of the British multinational Unilever, he was a shining star in Nigeria’s corporate environment. But when the scheming IBB took his chicanery to Shonekan, and handed him a poisoned chalice in form of the chair of the Transition Council (TC), he couldn’t resist. Yet IBB’s was a transition vehicle cobbled together with no intent around transit. The TC was so impotent that the chair and other members learnt about many important decisions of government from the pages of the newspapers like all other Nigerians.
By the time the military cobbled together the Interim National Government (ING) and Shonekan could not keep his excitement in check as its ‘head’, declaring that Nigerians should ‘bury’ the June 12 mandate, he had lost it all. He became a quisling, and was avoided like a plague, especially in Yorubaland. His humiliating end was all too predictable.
Many would argue that he didn’t commit the major sin, but by his own complicity, Shonekan turned out as the sin bearer. So a glorious corporate career, with all its promise and prospects, was punctuated by a disastrous political denouement. His astonishing sense of naivety (or is it greed?) aside, Shonekan’s ordeal speaks in part to a paradox: the failures of otherwise brilliant men of ideas, lost in the wilderness of Nigeria’s structural decay.
Bashir Tofa, author, politician, philanthropist and brilliant patriot, espoused democratic ideals. But he did not believe in perhaps Nigeria’s most popular mandate: June 12. He played the ostrich with the military. A few commentators have said that he was a sour loser. Tofa wasn’t the only one who believed not in June 12, to be sure. Some have argued that the crass mendacity of the Babangida government, with its dubious handling of the transition programme, nullifies the sanctity of the June 12 mandate. In its early days, leading voices like Gani Fawehinmi and Anthony Enahoro even dismissed the whole exercise as a sham. But Tofa participated in that election, and was roundly defeated even in Kano, his home state. Would he have objected to the result if he had won? Quite unlikely. His was a proof that even acclaimed democrats could embrace selective morality on issues of democratic ideals and the will of the people.
Their flaws aside, all three men have played their parts in our democratic journey. They weren’t perfect, like the rest of us, but many wished they acted differently. “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away,” wrote English humorist Terry Pratchett. The ripples they caused still live with us, reflecting in the paradox of our journey towards redemption.
Oladeinde tweets via @Ola_deinde