By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I was distraught with shock and grief when I read of the death of Dr. Olusola Saraki who was known to the nation as the unquestionable patriarch of Kwara State’s politics, as the quintessential bridge builder whose distinctive multicultural identity bestowed him with the symbolic capital to bring northern and southern Nigeria into a productive cultural conversation.
For those of us from Kwara State, the late Saraki was all that—and more. He was also this ever-present, larger-than-life fixture not just in our politics but also in our everyday lives. Not everybody agreed with his politics, but not many would dispute that he was a genuinely compassionate and freehearted individual who uplifted the people he came in contact with.
I first met the late Saraki in the early 1980s when he came to my hometown to campaign for Chief Cornelius Olatunji Adebayo who ran for governor of Kwara State as a candidate of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria. He visited my family house during his campaign tour; my late uncle, Mr. J.B. Kperogi, was his close political associate and point man in what was then Borgu Local Government Area of Kwara State.
So, as a youngster in primary school, I had the distinct honor of seeing the legendary, staggeringly magnanimous “Oloye” at close quarters. Even as a child, he struck me as humble, jovial, kindhearted, and down-to-earth.
My last encounter with him was in early 2002 when I was news editor of the Weekly Trust. My editor, Alhaji Garba Deen Muhammad, had arranged for us to interview him in Abuja. We wanted to know, among other things, if it was true that his troubles with the late Mohammed Lawal, Kwara State’s governor between 1999 and 2003, was because he had designs to make his first son the next governor of the state. That was the reigning rumor in Kwara State then. I will come back to this point shortly.
|Me, Garba and the late Saraki during the interview. Saraki was Nigeria's Senate Majority Leader in the Second Republic|
Garba and I sent our business cards to his personal assistant and requested that he inform the “Oloye” that we were waiting for him in his living room. I was pleasantly surprised when he remembered my late uncle after he saw the last name on my business card. “Are you by any chance related to someone called J.B. Kperogi from Borgu?” he asked me. I answered in the affirmative and told him the man was, in fact, my dad’s immediate younger brother. “Where is he now? I’ve been looking for him for years!”
When I told Saraki that my uncle had died on November 17, 2001, he was noticeably shaken. His face fell and he became infectiously downcast and crestfallen. He asked for the contact details of my uncle’s wife and children, which I gave him. When he returned to Ilorin the following week, he looked for them and gave them a large sum of money. I was touched.
This personal encounter exposed me to the other side of Saraki that tended to get concealed by the divisiveness and rancor of partisan politics. I saw a man who had a deep reverence for old friendships and alliances; a man who had an admirably tenacious memory; a man who was thoroughly charitable, compassionate, and empathetic; a man who had a genuinely deep passion to elevate people who were less fortunate than he was; in short, a man with a deeper, richer, more ennobling humanity than many people could be persuaded to believe.
During our interview, Garba asked him to respond to the rumors circulating in Ilorin at the time that his intense political battle with the late Governor Lawal was inspired in part by his desire to make his son the governor of the state. He passionately and persuasively denied the rumors. He said it was intentional propaganda by Governor Lawal and his spin doctors to make him seem like a nepotistic despot.
Two weeks after the encounter, he called to ask if the interview had been published. I said it was slated for publication the following week. “My son,” he said in his soothingly paternal voice, “I’m glad it hasn’t been published yet. Please step it down.” He told me in confidence that forces beyond his control had decided against his wishes that his son, Dr. Bukola Saraki, be not fielded as PDP’s candidate for the governorship election, not because his son was unqualified but because he didn’t want to play into the propaganda of political enemies who had alleged that his whole project all along had been to make his son governor.
He said he cried like a baby when party officials and Ilorin elders overruled him and insisted on fielding Bukola Saraki as governorship candidate. I have no reason to doubt his story. He was genuine and earnest.
So Bukola Saraki became governor of Kwara State not because of his father, but in spite of his father. But as the late Saraki himself told me, few people would believe that, especially because the Lawal camp had preemptively orchestrated the rumors that he had always wanted to make his son governor from day one. But that is now history.
The late Saraki told me his desire was to have my part of Kwara State produce the next governor after Mohammed Lawal. It is the only part of Kwara State that has never produced a governor. He said part of the reasons my uncle’s death depressed him so much was that he thought my uncle was an incredibly brilliant, farsighted, and dedicated politician who “would make a great governor.”
I lost touch with Saraki after I left active journalism in September 2002, but I still cherished fond memories of my last encounter with him. Saraki had his foibles—like all of us do—but he was certainly far and away one of the most tenderhearted and public-spirited human beings to ever walk the surface of this earth. May his soul rest in peace.