Politicians have failed the country - Olusola Saraki
Elder statesman and father of Kwara State governor, Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki, in this interview with a select group of journalists, speaks on a number of issues about himself and the Nigerian politics. Yemisi Aofolaju and Bankole Makinde were there and bring excerpts.
SIR, you are a very
as only few Nigerians could accurately talk about your person without raising the flak of others. For the benefit of Nigerians, who really is Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki and what attracted you to politics which is now synonymous with your name even though you trained as a medical doctor?
I am a medical practitioner but by accident, I found myself in politics and I don’t regret it in the sense that I am satisfied that I am doing what I like and I am happy with it even though the road has been very rugged and rough. But if you are honest and sincere, and this is what has happened to me, you will feel fulfilled.
I have been very honest in politics and in life. I have been very sincere and very considerate and so, I feel fulfilled and very satisfied and, as I said, I found myself in politics by sheer accident. I am essentially a medical practitioner and I trained in one of the best medical schools. I was at the Saint George Medical College, University of London. When I was a student in London, I was a very active member of the Nigerian Students Union and that was before Nigeria’s independence. I used to attend Nigerian students’ meetings and I used to write articles such as those letters to the editors in the West Africa magazine which was popular at that time.
When I qualified as a medical doctor in 1962, I came back to Nigeria. I would have gone to Kaduna to practice medicine but I never did because I was angered by the refusal of the then Northern Regional government to grant me scholarship to study medicine. The refusal was on the grounds that my parents could afford to train me. I worked in Lagos at the general hospital instead. Later on I joined the Creek Hospital from where I resigned my appointment in order to contest election into the Federal House of Representatives in 1964 as an independent candidate. I lost the election.
The reason was that the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) was a very strong party which would not accept me as the official candidate. The leader of the party and Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, announced that all the old members should be returned at the polls because the NPC believed that it was being threatened by the Action Group (AG). They believed that the devil they knew was better than the one they never met. That decision was taken barely two weeks before the elections. My people insisted that I contested even if as an independent candidate.
But we forgot the strength of the government and the party officials at that time and so two weeks before the elections, it was announced that nobody should vote for an independent candidate and that the Sardauna had a big mirror in his Kaduna office with which he could monitor anyone flouting the order. They voted for the official candidate. But I was never daunted because I believed in what I was doing. I went back to my practice in Lagos and I was doing well in my medical practice until the return to party-politics in 1978/79.
Sir, some people would call you a Fulani while others would describe you as a Yoruba. Who really are you?
My mother is from Iseyin in Oyo State while my father is from Ilorin in Kwara State. My ancestors originated from Mali about 150 to 200 years ago. They are Fulanis and that is where we got our Fulani connection from. My ancestors settled in Ilorin, preaching Islam. A section of Ilorin came from Gwandu, they were all religious but my people came there as practicing Muslims from Mali with their own Quran. If you look at the real Ilorin people, like Saraki, for example; the culture and their ways share affinity to those of the far Northern Nigeria. That accounts for the difference you observe between us and, particularly, people of the South-West, despite the existence, now, of Yoruba as a common language. So, I leave people to say whatever they like about me. Some people even say I am from Ogun State and some even say I am from Togo.
We were particular about your ancestral lineage because people always accuse you of bearing Dr. Abubakar Saraki when you needed votes from the North and Dr. Olusola Saraki when you needed votes from the South-West and in the South-East and in the South-South, you answer only Dr. Saraki. How do you reconcile these?
People are just reading political meanings in to my actions. My Islamic name is Abubakar and when we were growing up in Lagos in those days, unless you were a Christian or bore a native indigenous name, you couldn’t get a school. If I wanted to be admitted to a school, I had to drop Abubakar in favour of Sola as virtually all the schools belonged to Christian organisations. So, it is not correct that I was changing names to garner votes. Politicians invent those kinds of stories against their opponents.
What was growing up like in those days because many virtues are lacking in today’s society, especially in the area of politics and politicking?
Oh yes. Commitment, for example, is not there now but it was in abundance in those days. Now, the greed for money has taken over the whole place and I won’t blame our members of the National Assembly alone for that. Look at what is happening at the House of Commons in England where members of parliament are fighting for very lousy money as small as £3,000 allowances for housing and gardening and all sorts of things. In those days when I was in the Senate, such things never occurred to us. We never got ourselves involved in anything except the idea to serve the public. But today, it is different. It is now what you can get as everything is now about money. Let me give you an example.
The salary as a Senator in those days was about N1,000 per month; and by the time you pay tax and all those things, it came to about N750. But with that, we were fairly satisfied. But today, when you get to the National Assembly, they talk about millions and billions and it is very unfortunate that people, who are supposed to look after the welfare of the country, are not doing the right things. So, in those days, there was commitment. Look at the political parties of today, look at the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for example which everybody seems to be joining, you will find that the governors have turned leaders of the party at state level, just as the president, in the recent past, was the leader of the party at the national level.
Happily, President Umaru Yar’Adua has refused the offer and said that the party should elect its leaders. Anything contrary to that would certainly undermine good governance and party discipline which, in a democracy, should be supreme. Indeed, they have not gotten the political experience to run the party and as a result, the party is not enjoying the kind of supremacy in this their own time. Then, the party was supreme and whatever the party decreed was final. But now, everyone is a big man and a leader. So, that is the difference between politics of those days and what obtains today. Let me give you another example.
I was in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The party, during the 1979 elections had only 36 seats in the Senate out of 95 and so could not command the majority. In the House of Representatives, NPN had only 127 out of 450 members and so fell short of majority and yet because of party discipline, we were able to run the National Assembly without any quarrel whatsoever and all the bills and all the budgets scaled through without any problem. But today see what is happening in the National Assembly. Here, you see a member of the PDP getting up to insult or abuse the president. In those days, you can never see a member of Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) getting up on the floor to abuse Chief Obafemi Awolowo or an NPN member abusing Alhaji Shehu Shagari. It never happened. But today, there is no discipline. Everybody does as he likes and there is nobody to check them.
Maybe they could do so because of the way they were voted in?
I think you are right in that aspect, because some of them are saying that they themselves fought for their elections and that the party never assisted them. In our own time, the party would come and campaign for you right from the wards and constituencies and even up to the state level. But today it is not like that. So, I think you are right. The members, once nominated, are left alone to go and source for the money. They are left alone to do the campaigning to win the elections and of course, where the party is not doing its work and where the candidate is not getting the support of the party, how can the party expect the elected member to obey its orders?
Why are you always the arrowhead in championing the cause of the North when people see you as a nationalist and a detribalised Nigerian?
I think I have a mission in the Northern Union (NU) but people have suggested that we should change the name to Nigerian Union.
But here is the reason behind the formation of Northern Union: I was the chairman of the constitutional conference of 1994 to 1995 convened by General Sani Abacha. At that conference, all our deliberations and decisions were through consensus. But when we came to election of the president, someone from Osun State insisted that after Abacha, the next president must come from the South-West. So, we had to adjourn the debate till the following day. Then Abacha invited me and said he heard that there was going to be trouble at the conference the following day.
I told him that I heard the rumour too but that I was not sure. He said he heard that some people in the South-West wanted to be president after his own dispensation and that the following day, they would start the agitation against the North and I laughed. He now asked to know why I was laughing and I said: “C-I-C, you don’t know how the parliament works.” I promised him that we would meet the agitators force for force. The next day at plenary, the South-West delegates again started their agitation.
They said I should put the question to vote. I reminded them that since the beginning of the conference, all our deliberations had been by consensus and that the contentious issue too would not be voted on as voting on it would divide the country. We agreed to set up a committee to deliberate on it and report back to the conference. The same people who had been shouting and clamouring for voting on the issue started hailing me as the good leader. Of course, I was chairman of that committee which comprised of traditional rulers and such men as Dr. Alex Ekwueme among many others. It was the Emir of Ningi, who was sitting by my right hand, who brought the suggestion that the North should produce the next president for eight years, followed by the South for another eight years, and so on. We all agreed.
The following morning, after prayers and announcements, the committee announced the details of their agreement. We all agreed and it was duly recorded in the minutes of the conference. My involvement in the forming and leading the NU was, therefore, to let people know how we arrived at this point in our political journey. At the end of eight years now, nobody in the North would get up to say that he wants to be president because nobody would listen to him. This idea of rotation may not be the best in a true democracy, but we just have to patch up our country.
When you contested the presidency during the tenure of General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB), it was rumoured that he tricked you by promising to make you the president just as he allegedly did to others. Could you clarify this issue?
I was advised by the then Chief of Army Staff, General Ibrahim Salihu to see IBB. He arranged a meeting to give me the opportunity to find out his boss’s thinking. It was the first time. During the second meeting with him, in Minna, Niger State, he told me that it was people like me, with education, good background and love for the people of Nigeria and well-known, that he preferred. But he didn’t give me any commitment. He just wished me success if I won the impending 1992 election. You know what happened thereafter.
After the formation of our political party, the All Peoples Party (APP); I approached him to support my presidential bid in 1999, he never promised that he would give me financial or moral support because, unfortunately, he was supporting Obasanjo. He told me that he was going to give Obasanjo support because he knew him very well. But he not only refused to give me support, he went out to destabilise the APP by paving the way for Chief Olu Falae to leave the Alliance for Democracy (AD) in order to pick the presidential ticket of the APP.
The plot was to secure the zoning of the presidency to the South (contrary to the position adopted at the Constitutional Conference). The IBB group manipulated the APP presidential primaries in favour of one Ogbonanya Onu, who even failed to secure the governorship ticket of the party in his own state. Of course, he was an easy target to compromise as the contrived merger of small the AD of Falae and the APP swallowed up Onu, and threw up Falae as the APP presidential flag bearer.
Maybe the forces then were acting on the report of your constitutional conference that it should be eight years for the South and eight years for the North?
On the contrary, it was eight years for the North and eight years for the South and so it ought to have started from the North. It could have started with me.
Even when Abacha spent five years there and was replaced by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who spent about eight months, and they were all Northerners?
But they were all military men.
But Abacha and Abdulsalami are Nigerians of Northern extraction.
You are right.