In Ondo, Here We Go Again

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Guest Columnist: By Akin Osuntokun

“Beyond the partisan hopes, aspirations and fears of these three political parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and the Labour party, LP; the status quo of ACN (3 states), PDP (2 states), LP (1 state) is a near perfect model of multi-party pluralism. That is – regardless of the aspirations of Opeyemi Bamidele of AC, the hopes of Debo Ologunagba of LP and the fears of Akin Osuntokun of PDP, the  frequency distribution of 3:2:1 conduces more to multi-party stability and functionality than the status quo ante of 5:1 in favour of PDP or a reversal of same in favour of AC.”

I recalled the above paragraph from an article I wrote for The Guardian newspaper in the last week of February 2011. I have done so to illustrate the consistency of my views in respect of the issue I’m going to address. Perhaps I should similarly press to service another paragraph from the same precedent: “As a member, and perhaps a prominent one of the PDP, I do not feel happy that my party has lost three states to the other parties in the last three years. In tangible and intangible ways I have enjoyed the perks that the PDP incumbency in those states could offer. I live in Abuja and travel down to the South-west once a month on the average. When I do, I feel very much at home and enjoy traversing the states where usually I’m a guest of the governors. To add insult to injury, the three states that we have lost namely Ekiti, Ondo and Osun are actually the ones that cut closest to home – if you know what I mean. Consequently I have suffered a withdrawal syndrome but it could have been worse. The saving grace that has mitigated my personal distress is that the three incumbent governors of those states actually regard and relate to me as a brother.”

The salient points that can be distilled and restated from the above are as follows: First is my belief in multi-party pluralism as a political ideal, especially for an inherently pluralistic country like Nigeria as it grapples with democratic stability; Second is that I prioritise this ideal over and beyond partisan affiliation; Third is that partisan differences should not undermine amity and cordial relations across party lines – what the illustrious President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, calls “to disagree without being disagreeable”. Fourth is the specific application of this train of thought to the South-western states of Nigeria.

In what subsequently and inadvertently proved to be an albatross, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo championed the foundation of the Action Group of Nigeria as the alter ego of Egbe Omo Oduduwa – that is as a Yoruba-denominated party. This decision was, however, not a voluntary choice. It was necessitated by realpolitik and the exigency of the explicit regionalism of pre-independence politics of Nigeria. In 1951 when the AG was founded, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, under the leadership of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, was the party to beat in the Western region. The only viable mobilisation base to effectively challenge the NCNC was the recourse to ethnicity and a consequent designation of AG as the Yoruba party. This recourse was no less than the game being played in the other regions of the North where the dominant party was blatantly named the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, and the East where the Ibo State Union morphed into the NCNC. In spite of the AG appeal to ethnic solidarity, the NCNC still prevailed in the parliamentary elections of 1951 in the Western region. Under the parliamentary system (of government) in operation, the leader of the majority party, in this instance, Azikiwe, who contested and won a seat from Lagos, was set to become the first Premier of the Western region. The balance was shifted against him and in favour of the AG when six parliamentarians-elect who contested as independent candidates were prevailed upon to join the AG. This was the platform on which Chief Awolowo became the first Premier of the Western region and on which Prince Adeleke Adedoyin of the NCNC, attained to the Speakership of the Parliament.

Four or five years down the line the AG narrowly won the regional elections but again lost the elections to the Federal House of Representatives to the NCNC. In 1959, Chief Awolowo stepped down as Premier and won election to the federal house in Lagos to seek to become the first Prime Minister of independent Nigeria. There are two points I wish to make from this bit of history. First is that up until 1966 there was no one party monopoly dominance of the Western region. The NCNC, at all material time, was a viable opposition party in the West and used to trump the AG in the urban metropolis like Ibadan, Ilesha et al while the rural areas constituted the redoubt of the AG. Second is that the primary ambition of Awolowo was to become the Prime Minister of Nigeria rather than the diminution of monopoly dominance of the Western region. More than any other political aspiration, Chief Awolowo, first and foremost, wanted to become the Prime Minister and latterly the President of Nigeria. One conspicuous manner in which this desire was made manifest was the fact that in the 1959 elections, the AG expended more energy and resources in the other regions outside the West. The then Attorney General of the West and a ranking member of the party, the late Chief Rotimi Williams, had a lot to say on this before he passed on. Awolowo himself would later repudiate the equation of the AG with Yoruba and actually condemned people who made such equations as “traitors”. I stand to be corrected but I cannot point to any member of AG as closer to Awolowo than Sam Ikoku and Anthony Enahoro.

The spectre of political monism – one-party dominance of the South West – was a post civil war phenomenon and resulted from the martyrdom that Awolowo suffered from 1962 to 1966. This was given reality in the dominant ascendance of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, in the Second Republic when the party won the four comprising states of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Ondo. Again more than this regional prize, the preferred political objective of Awolowo, as we fully well know from this recent history, was to become the President of Nigeria. The latter day attribution of Awoism as amounting to Yoruba unification or insularity is a reduction and not an authentication of Awolowo’s position. As a matter of fact, this perception is precisely what his opponents wanted to project as the reason for finding him unworthy of the presidency of Nigeria. Given the option to become the president of Nigeria and lose Ondo and Oyo states would Awolowo have harboured any reservation or reluctance in making a choice?

After the death of Awolowo, the first significant political configuration in the West was such that those who became governors in at least two states, Oyo and Osun, were people who belonged to the Shehu Yar’adua faction of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, while Lagos was lost to the “conservative” party of that era. The national leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria, Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu, himself, emerged as senator from the same faction. To the extent that there was an Awolowo heritage, the standard bearer of that heritage was the Peoples Solidarity Party, PSP, faction of the SDP. What qualified Tinubu for regional political prominence was not so much the correctness of his political pedigree as it is the noble role he played in the political struggle that gave birth to the Fourth Republic. If the contrary was the case, Kofo Akerele-Bucknor would have been the candidate for the Alliance for Democracy in Lagos in 1999. The personification of that struggle Chief Moshood Abiola was himself a major foe of Awolowo when the two were alive and yet it was him that was presented the mantle of the progressives by historical forces beyond his control. And it was a mantle he bore with aplomb and distinction.

Contrary to the ideology of political monism, the ACN is (tellingly) the product of a schism in the AD and Afenifere. Senior Afenifere members including Chief Olu Falae, who arguably merits the title of Awolowo’s crown prince more than any other Yoruba politician, are not members of ACN. Along with the old guard comprising veterans like Chief Reuben Fasoranti, Chief Ayo Adebanjo and Sir Olanihun Ajayi, he belongs to a party called the Democratic Party Alliance, DPA. It is the reason why we now have Afenifere renewal group as distinct from de facto Afenifere. If the ACN is desirous of Yoruba political unification, reconciliation with these grandees should be the natural place to begin. I salute Senator Bola Tinubu, Chief Segun Osoba, Chief Bisi Akande, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola and some other meritorious leaders and I have valid and objective reasons for paying them respect but I do not accept the proposition that anybody or political party has proprietary claim to the South-west. No matter how people choose to demonise the PDP, the reality is that Oyo and Ogun states were lost more by the default of its intramural fissure than any real majority preference for ACN. It is true that the party has a potential to become what it professes to be but the control of the five states owes substantially to its being a formidable election-winning machine and not any messianic appeal.

Now let me restate it and for the reasons I have canvassed that I do not wish the ACN to add Ondo State to the five states it controls. There is sufficient challenge in what it presently controls and ideally its performance record in those states should be the basis for staking a claim to the remaining Ondo State. Of course, regardless of my predilection, no party can be precluded from seeking to contest election in any state but how we go about realising this is equally important. I fail to see how the strategy of escalation of animosity against the incumbent governor of Ondo State, Dr Olusegun Mimiko, will serve any lasting political benefit. Whichever way it goes, the full-blown ambition to menace and unseat the incumbent is certain to deepen political division and acrimony in the South-west – for the manner in which the campaign is being prosecuted. Failure or success in this venture has an enormous collateral damage value. Were the ACN adversaries to fail in their self-important mission they would have made a formidable foe of an associate and a friend.

The mistake any protagonist can make here is to think that Mimiko is a sitting duck. Nobody can seriously contest the fact that he has done well in rendering services to the people of Ondo State and earned their goodwill in result. Threats from outside the state are not likely to sit well with this kind of electorate. The second line of engagement derives from the fact that the ACN has formulated the electoral contest as a larger Yoruba issue thus inviting non Ondo State Yoruba to take sides and I really do not know how many Yoruba will share the anger and umbrage of ACN at the Labour Party government. Third is that the Labour Party and its sole government do not constitute a threat to any significant political party or actor in the manner that ACN is adjudged to be. Those who are comfortable with this status quo may want to secure their vested interest.  Fourth and of great significance is the advantage of being perceived as the persecuted psychological underdog and the universal sympathy that this perception elicits.

In itself the proposal of a South-west regional economic integration is a worthy idea and I cannot see how a forward-looking governor in any of the states would discountenance this. Predicating this on political unification when we are not in position to guarantee a permanent electoral supremacy for any particular political orientation appears unrealistic and premature. The ACN had just come to office in four of the five states it controls, why don’t we wait and see how they fare in governance as a basis for presuming its political durability and appeal? How would the ACN have responded at the invitation by the erstwhile PDP governors for Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos state to join their party on the basis of regional economic integration and become implacably angry if he refuses to do so? If we would learn from Yoruba political history, the singular lesson should be the avoidance of hubris and totalitarian distemper – the winner takes all and loser loses all mentality, in our political conduct – that is the road to mutually assured destruction.

In : Politics

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