Nigeria 2023: Can Bukola Saraki bounce back?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 12:36

Nigeria's Senate President Bukola Saraki arrives to deliver a news conference at the white house lobby of the National Assembly in Abuja
Nigeria's Senate President Bukola Saraki arrives to deliver a news conference at the white house lobby of the National Assembly in Abuja, Nigeria August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Former Senate President Bukola Saraki has all but joined the 2023 Presidential race in Nigeria barely three years after suffering a crushing political defeat. Can the once all-powerful godfather of Kwara State redeem himself?

Described as a political neophyte when he joined partisan politics in 2002, Bukola Saraki quickly rose through the ranks, defeating Governor Mohammed Lawal at the 2003 Kwara State governorship election thanks to the influence of his late father, Oloye Olusola Saraki, who was a former Senate majority leader in the early 1980s.

By helping his inexperienced son to defeat a serving governor, Oloye consolidated his authority as the undisputed godfather of Kwara State politics.

As governor, the younger Saraki continued to live in his father’s shadow until 2011 when the unthinkable happened. The older Saraki had planned that his daughter, Gbemisola Saraki, who was a serving senator, would succeed her brother as governor but Governor Saraki had other plans and felt it was time to step out of his father’s shadow.

Governor Saraki outwitted his father, technically pushing him out of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) along with his sister, Gbemisola. He handpicked one of his commissioners, Abdulfatah Ahmed, as his successor and ensured that he won. In the same year, Saraki declared his interest in the Presidency but stepped down for Atiku Abubakar shortly before the primaries which Goodluck Jonathan won. He eventually settled for the Senate, succeeding his sister. In the process, he effectively established himself as the new sheriff in town, taking over the structure of politics in the state.

The new godfather

As the new godfather, Saraki not only handpicked his successor but all political office holders in the state. Using his father’s strategy, Saraki presented himself as a philanthropist of sorts, handing out food items and petty cash to the thousands of poor supporters that usually gathered outside his home in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital.

Like Bola Tinubu – the godfather of Lagos – Saraki was ruthless with traitors but rewarded loyal supporters with juicy government appointments. But he soon fell out with Jonathan and became the subject of a government corruption probe.

As things continued to escalate, Saraki dumped the PDP and defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC). To prove his firm hold over the state, all elected officials in Kwara State similarly defected to the APC. And in the 2015 elections, the APC won all the elective positions in Kwara State with Saraki taking all the glory and returning to the Senate.

The Senate crisis

Saraki fell out with Tinubu during the run-up to the Presidential election when he asked the APC candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, not to pick Tinubu as his running mate because it would be wrong to have two persons of the same faith running on a joint ticket. He argued that a Muslim/Muslim ticket would not sell and it would be immoral.

So when it was time for the internal elections of the Senate to take place, Tinubu also instructed his supporters to ensure that Saraki did not emerge as the Senate President. He convinced Buhari to support Senator Ahmad Lawan but Buhari seemed indifferent.

Boxed into a corner, Saraki made a ‘deal with the devil’. He got a few renegades in the APC to support him while gaining the full support of the PDP. On the eve of the internal elections at the Senate, a message was sent to APC senators that they should meet with President Buhari at the same time that was slated for the Senate elections.

While the few APC senators that were loyal to Saraki, arrived early enough at the Senate chambers, the others had gathered at the International Conference Centre to meet with President Buhari only to discover that it was a red herring. By the time they all made their way back to the Senate, Saraki had already been elected as the Senate President while a PDP senator was picked as the Deputy Senate President.

The party would never forgive Saraki for this.

The opposition Senate President

Saraki’s tenure as Senate President was dramatic from the beginning to the end. Shortly after becoming Senate President, he was arraigned in court for alleged corruption, a move many believed was a baseless witch-hunt. And anytime he was to appear in court, he would be accompanied by many senators who would abandon their work just to show solidarity with Saraki. This usually stalled governance.

In Saraki’s absence also, Ekweremadu, who was a member of the opposition, would preside over the Senate. The mere optics of an opposition minority presiding over the Senate was an anathema to the APC.

Saraki, who had become a pariah in the APC, also fought back by frustrating Buhari’s programmes. As Senate President, Saraki refused to confirm some nominees forwarded to the Senate by the President while some executive bills sent to the Senate by Buhari were also frustrated. Even after Saraki won his case in court, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) initiated a new investigation into the Senate President, arresting several of his aides.

He also launched an investigation into the Presidency and ensured that the President’s Secretary, Babachir Lawal, was indicted with fraud, exposed and sacked. Saraki also refused to confirm the EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Magu, on two separate occasions. He became the unofficial opposition to the Buhari administration. Ahead of the 2019 elections, Saraki returned to the PDP where he publicly declared his ambition to succeed President Buhari. He, however, later settled for the Senate after consultations.

‘O to ge’

Saraki’s defection was accompanied by all elected officials in Kwara State also changing sides. As was the case in previous elections, it was expected that he would be able to deliver his state for the PDP and its Presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, but a revolution took place.

A movement known as ‘O to ge’ (Enough is Enough) spread in Kwara State like wildfire. The narrative was that the Saraki family had been ruling Kwara State for too long and it was time for Kwara to “break free” from the chains of slavery.

The minister of information, Lai Mohammed, Saraki’s aggrieved sister, Gbemisola; and a business tycoon, Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq joined forces in the APC to fight the Saraki-led PDP.

They also had help from the Federal Government which blocked the PDP’s source of financing and allowed the APC to mobilise funds freely. The strategy worked as Saraki was defeated while his party lost every elective office in the state. The Saraki dynasty had effectively come to an end.

APC civil war

The end of the Saraki dynasty was seen as a major accomplishment.

The APC Chairman at the time, Adams Oshiomhole, even counted the toppling of Saraki’s reign as his biggest accomplishment. And all those who masterminded Saraki’s downfall were given appointments. While Abdulrazaq became governor, Lai Mohammed retained his ministerial portfolio and Gbemisola was also appointed as a minister.

Abdulrazaq also began probing the finances of the state and reported Saraki to the authorities. He accused the Saraki family of diverting state owned buildings to personal use and began demolishing them. This now put Abdulrazaq and Gbemisola on a collision course. The governor was free to insult her brother but definitely not to tarnish her father, who was her hero. “Revenge cannot be a policy thrust of governance,” she said.

The governor also got into a fight with Lai Mohammed as he was accused of marginalising the minister’s supporters.

The APC in Kwara State now has two factional executives, which has undermined its strength. Besides, critics say Abdulrazaq has not delivered on his electoral promises in the state.

Can Saraki bounce back?

Taking advantage of the APC civil war, Saraki is now hopeful that he can return as Kwara’s godfather. He now spends more time in Kwara State, mobilising supporters. A recent video showing him being received by thousands of jubilant supporters on the streets of Ilorin has now thrown panic in the camp of the opposition.

“The PDP can definitely return in Kwara next year. The ideology behind our defeat had more or less been betrayed by what we see and hear every day and the most important evidence is the chaos within the ruling party in the state,” says Bolaji Abdullahi, a former minister and protégé of Saraki.

Saraki now hopes he can rise from the ashes and also win the Presidential race next year.  While replying to one of his followers on Twitter recently, he said; “As we prepare for the journey ahead, I hope we can all join hands to get the ticket of our great party, PDP, and build a nation that works for all of us.

“Join me to make our communities safer and provide real opportunities for you and your families. I have a strong record of delivering and experience in making tough decisions.”

The reconciliation with his father will have helped mend fences in the state.

But what are Saraki’s chances?

He has a wide network of friends which include African richest man, Aliko Dangote; and former Central Bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, who attended Kings’ College, Lagos alongside Saraki. So close are Dangote and Saraki that the billionaire was the chairman at Saraki’s daughter’s wedding in 2018.

Also, Saraki is married to Toyin, a princess from the wealthy and influential Ojora family in Lagos State. She has strong ties with multilateral organisations including the United Nations due to her philanthropy and accomplishments in reducing maternal and child mortality.

However, Saraki’s corruption cases have continued to tarnish his image which his detractors constantly use against him including his alleged mismanagement of the defunct Societe Generale Bank of Nigeria run by the Saraki family of which he was a director.

“There is no chance for Saraki. He was part of the despoilers of the nation’s heritage, living off the commonwealth with his family. When did he turn saint? Last night? What development did Kwara witness during his eight-year misrule and another eight years by his lackey, Ahmed? He should come out and list his achievements for the world to see,” Tunde Odesola, a columnist with The Punch newspaper says.

The politics of zoning may also not work in his favour because he is from the North-Central. There is an unofficial agreement in Nigeria that power should rotate between the north and the south in order to promote fairness. With Buhari, a northerner, completing his second term soon, many believe that power should return to the south.

Besides, Saraki belongs to the Yoruba ethnic group, a tiny minority in the North which ironically is arguably the largest tribe in the south.

This anomaly has made it difficult for Yoruba northerners to get key federal positions because they are too northern to be considered Yoruba but too Yoruba to be considered as core northerners. This could be a challenge for Saraki even if the PDP zones its Presidential ticket to the North.

The Convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, Ariyo-Dare Atoye, described Saraki as the most improved politician and believes he stands a chance at the polls.

“Saraki is the only aspirant that is acceptable to every part of the country regardless of zoning. It was under his watch that the not too young to run bill was drafted and signed which now ensures that young Nigerians can run for office.

“He has been reaching out to young Nigerians and is the most visible campaigner for electoral reforms. The corruption allegations are political and have been there since 2011 but he has not been found guilty by any court,” says Atoye.

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