By Owei Lakemfa
WHEN Rauf Aregbesola the new governor of Osun State decided to contest the 2007 gubernatorial elections, it was like a man embarking on political suicide. The political situation seemed so bleak, and the possibility of him defeating the incumbent, Olagunsoye Oyinlola appeared so remote that some powerful groups in the state were not even ready to hear what he had to say.
He asked me to speak to one of such groups with whom I have some affinity. All he wanted was for them to hear him out and eventually decide to either back him or stick with Oyinlola and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I had a meeting with the leadership of this group and initially, they would not budge. I told them that they did injustice to themselves and their members if they are afraid to even hear a man out.
They agreed, but feared that if they gave him audience, it could leak to Oyinlola; so can they see him individually rather than as a team, and if possible outside the state? I told them that they are not an arm of any political party and should liberate themselves.
I argued that while Oyinlola might appear to favour them, policies can change or he might decide he no longer needs them and change his attitude. But that if they stick to principles, they can always withstand storms; in any case, Aregbesola in contrast to Oyinlola is a principled, ideologically clear and pro-poor politician who will never betray the mass of the people. They finally agreed to listen to him, but I thought this was in order to get me off their backs.
The initial hostility to Aregbesola was partly as a result of the Oyinlola campaign of calumny, but it was mainly a transferred aggression. The former was running on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) which later merged with other groups to found the Action Congress. The AD had won the 1999 gubernatorial elections but lost it to Oyinlola in 2003 despite the fact that many could attest to the comparatively honest leadership of then Governor Bisi Akande.
The reason for the loss, and why Akande as governor had virtually become a persona non grata in Oshogbo, the state capital, was due to his unyielding and unbending stance once he took a position. There is a general philosophy that any good idea must give way to a better one; but that did not register in Akande’s consciousness. He even refused pleas to pay the minimum wage in a state where the major industry is the public service.
This led to massive street protests and the workers succeeded so well in mobilising the populace against the governor that a demonstration was likely to occur any time Governor Akande appeared on the streets of the capital. Oyinlola rode to power on the crest of this popular resentment against Akande.
So when Aregbesola decided to contest the 2003 elections on the platform of the AD/AC, he inherited a lot of local political deficit. But he is a fighter; like most principled people, he does not back down from a struggle. This was a basic principle inculcated in me when I joined the Student Movement in Ife. In those days, people like Aregbesola, Femi Taiwo, Idowu Obasa, Yahaya Hashim, Jibo Ibrahim and Rauf Mustapha were our national leaders.
Oyinlola had been a military governor in Lagos where he was by general consensus, adjudged a disaster. His excuse for leaving the Lagos roads in a terribly bad shape was that there was “no bitumen”. But where Oyinlola was incapable of making basic road repairs, Governor Bola Tinubu whom Aregbesola served as Works Commissioner fixed lots of roads, expanded a number, and built some new ones.
To me, if achievements in office, performance, programmes and ability to win over the populace were to be criteria for winning elections, Aregbesola was sure to trash Oyinlola. But it was a period of “do-or-die” politics when might, not the vote, was the determinant factor.
The contest in Osun State turned out to be the bloodiest gubernatorial election in recent times. Security agents were deployed against the opposition. A city like Ilesha was invaded and put under siege by armed policemen and thugs, many parts of the state, including the capital, were militarised with people being murdered, while many Aregbesola supporters were captured and treated like prisoners of war in Second World War Japanese camps.
It was an open secret that Aregbesola won the elections but Oyinlola with the connivance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) thugs and security forces stole the mandate. Aregbesola and progressive forces in the country turned to the Elections Tribunal which flirted with the electoral robbers.
They proceeded to the Appeal Court which ordered the case back to the lower court where a new tribunal handled the case before it wound its way again to the Appeal Court. The case at the two Electoral Tribunals were a complex web of electoral robbers with unrestricted access to the public treasury, lawyers who abandoned ethics, judges who conveniently forgot their oath and security agents who were ready to kill for their masters.
In the entire process that took 42 months, Aregbesola was constantly harassed; at a point, he was hounded like a common criminal, seized and brandished like a hard won trophy by the police. Security men hurled him to Abuja with a criminal charge of forgery hung around him like a necklace. Opposition parliamentarians in the state were also constantly under siege.
Aregbesola’s ultimate victory is like the icing on the cake after Edo, Ondo and Ekiti states had been prised out of the hands of impostors. Oyinlola ruled illegally for three and half years, and on being exposed, simply walked away a free man; why shouldn’t people like him be brought to justice at least for being in possession of a stolen electoral mandate?
The basic lesson in Aregbesola’s victory is that no matter the odds, Nigerians must never give up the struggle.