Popularity Test in Kwara
The April 26 governorship election in Kwara State will be a popularity test between Olusola Saraki and Bukola Saraki, his son and governor of the state
She alighted from the vehicle at 1.55 p.m, spotting a blue muffler atop a white outfit, to chants of praises from some of her supporters who were in the crowd that had queued up to vote at the Agbaji polling centre that April 16. “Sai Gbemi, sai Gbemi,” they hailed. The woman smiled, and then proceeded to engage one of the young boys in a discussion, after which she walked towards the polling unit to cast her vote. Shortly after, Gbemisola Saraki, who is the governorship candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN, was besieged by journalists who wanted to know who she had voted for, considering that her party did not field any presidential candidate. She refused to divulge his name. “Who I voted for is my open secret,” she replied.
Then came another question: How ready are you for the April 26 election? She smiled and said: “I’m ready to go.”
In the days before now, Gbemisola’s confident posture and words could have sent a chill down the spine of the opposition. But the result of the April 9, National Assembly Election in which her party failed to win any seat in the state, has come to be regarded by some political watchers as proof that Gbemisola’s party, which was formed by her father, does not command as much following as many people had initially thought. Daughter to the influential Olusola Saraki, the “godfather of Kwara politics,” Gbemisola’s ambition to become governor of the state has the strong backing of her father.
But it does not enjoy the support of Bukola, her elder brother, who is the governor of the state. Since it became clear that Gbemisola was being propped up by her father to succeed her brother as governor, the Saraki family had not been one united family politically. While the elder Saraki does not see anything wrong in his daughter succeeding Bukola in the Government House, his son is said to be concerned about the morality of the ambition. Instead, he chose to support Abdulfatah Ahmed, who had worked in his cabinet as commissioner. Ahmed, with the backing of Bukola, later emerged the PDP candidate in the state. But even before his emergence, Saraki decided to quit the PDP to form or resuscitate his old party, ACPN. The ambitions of father and daughter on one side and son on the other had allegedly caused a lot of misgivings in the family, leaving people to wonder how the whole scenario will play out in the end.
Will Saraki succeed in installing his daughter and by so doing preserve his decades old influence in the state? Or will Bukola trounce his father in the popularity contest by helping to deliver Ahmed as governor? Whatever the outcome of the governorship election on April 26, the NASS election of April 9, is already being considered by some analysts as a test of the popularity or strength of the Sarakis. And Bukola is seen to have so far had the upper hand because his party, the PDP, clinched three senatorial and five House of Representatives seats in the state, leaving ACPN with nothing.
Ironically, PDP’s victory at the NASS elections has stirred up a controversy, with rumours making the rounds that Gbemisola and her father voted for the PDP, rather than their own party’s candidates, at the poll. The interpretation is that father and daughter have dropped their own ambition and decided to support Bukola. But this was denied by Gbemisola on April 16, shortly after she had cast her vote. “Well, you know, this is always the problem with rumours. In a state or situation where people go by rumours, it’s a pity. We are bonafide members of the ACPN and we voted for our party members and I think it’s very unfortunate that people should say that. It’s just one of those rumours but it’s the price one pays but I’m glad that the good people of my state who know better, know exactly whom we voted for.”
Gbemisola’s explanation nothwithstanding, the rumours keep flying. For instance, some people also wonder who she actually voted for in the presidential election. Unlike her father who shunned the poll on that day, Gbemisola arrived the Agbaji polling centre for accreditation at 11.53 a.m. She later returned to vote but would not reveal the identity of the person or party she voted for beyond saying that its “my civic responsibility.” According to an Ilorin based journalist, “Gbemisola’s party had come out to say that they were not going to take the presidential election seriously since the party has no presidential candidate, so who did she vote for?” Beyond that, rumours persist as to the real reason Bukola is not in support of her candidature. “They are not of the same mother; that’s why,” said a source.
But their father has come out to disprove that claim. In a recent interview, Saraki said his two children were born of the same woman. “I have only one wife, Morenike. I married her in London in 1962. Bukola was our first child born in London in December 1962. We both returned to Nigeria and gave birth to Gbemi two years later. So they are of the same mother. People are only saying rubbish that his mother is from South Africa. I have only one wife and she has four children for me. I don’t have any wife elsewhere.”
Dwelling on the differences between Bukola and Gbemisola— which one source described as “mutual dislike for each other,” Saraki said: “I have asked him what his sister has done to him, and he said she doesn’t respect him, never took part in his government. When I asked Gbemisola, she said her brother never invited her to participate in his government.”
Billy Adedamola, special assistant on media to Bukola, said, in reply to Newswatch’s inquiry, that whatever the political differences that exist between his boss and his sister, they both enjoy a great relationship as members of the same family. He said that there was nothing personal about the decision of the governor to back another candidate and that it was all in the larger interest of the Saraki family.
Although no one can predict the outcome of the April 26 governorship election, sources say that Gbemisola’s chances of winning are slim. One of the reasons is because, in the weeks before and after the NASS election, some of her supporters decamped to the PDP. And with the failure of her party to win any seat in both the Senate and House of Representatives, her chances of emerging victorious is diminishing by the day. A source also added that “some people do not think that Gbemisola has achieved much since she became a lawmaker, starting from when she was in the House of Representatives, with regards to constituency project.”
Another factor that might work against her is her gender. Ilorin Central, her constituency (which make up the majority population) and Kwara in particular is a largely muslim state and there are people who are not comfortably disposed to the idea of having a female as governor. Although Aisha, a young woman, told Newswatch in Ilorin, that she would like to see a woman emerge as governor of the state, some men are said not to be favourably disposed to it. Beyond that, there are those who are yet to come to terms with the desire of Saraki to have his daughter replace his son, in a state where other senatorial districts have for long been clamouring to have one of their own become governor.
In the past 11 years, people of the Central Senatorial district have produced the governor of the state. At the moment, apart from the crisis rocking the Saraki political dynasty, there is also another gubernatorial candidate from the Central senatorial District, Dele Belgore of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN. This means that, unlike in the past where the Saraki family was known to agree or settle for a particular candidate, with the accruable vote gain, the votes from the area will be split among the three leading candidates, one of who is Ahmed, the PDP candidate and a Nupe, who hails from the Kwara South zone. Added to the support Ahmed is likely to receive from his own senatorial district, Gbemisola walks a tight rope.
Yet, there are rumours again of a planned merger between the ACPN and ACN in the state, with the intention of checkmating the PDP. Taju Kareem, the media aide to Gbemisola, confirmed this in an interview with Newswatch. He said that both parties have been talking with the hope of reaching a compromise, although “we don’t know the outcome yet because the elders are still talking.” But he said five parties – National Transformation Party, National Conscience Party, African Renaissance Party, the Republican Party of Nigeria and the Democratic Alternative Party, have agreed to step down and work with Gbemisola.
Kareem added that the chances of Gbemisola emerging victorious are very bright. He hinged his hope on the fact that people are likely to vote on individual rather than party basis. Although the PDP won majority votes in the NASS election in the state, followed by the ACN, with the CPC also trailing the PDP in the presidential election, Kareem believes that the situation will be different during the governorship election. “Our analysis is that voters will be wise this time and because we found out that a lot of people didn’t vote in the National Assembly and presidential elections, we are trying to appeal to those people to come out and vote.”
He dismissed the view that Gbemisola had not lived up to expectation as a senator. As far as he is concerned, there’s no senator in Nigeria who has recorded bigger achievement than her, in terms of constituency projects—from schools to hospitals and water projects and scholarship.
Kareem also addressed the issue of Gbemisola succeeding her brother. “Well, the brother is also going to succeed the sister in the senate (Bukola contested and won one of the senatorial seats in the state).” He compared the Saraki family to the Bush family of the United States of America. “You know the history of the Bush family? When Bush was president, two of his sons were governors and one of the governors later became president of America. So, there’s nothing to it. In a democracy, it’s the choice of the people that matters. Leadership is about vision and being accepted by your people.”
He added that Gbemisola was poised for victory, and that her gender was merely being propped up by her opponents to distract the people. “This is somebody who has been in the National Assembly for 12 years. We’ve had women in very high positions in their country. The president of Liberia is a woman. We have women leaders in Pakistan. India is also a bigger population and bigger democracy and has a larger percentage of muslims than Nigeria and India has had a woman prime minister. So the facts of history do not support that line of argument,” he said.