OLUSOLA SARAKI 1933-2012: BLAST FROM THE PAST
By FEMI ADEOTI
Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki, elder statesman and strongman of Kwara State politics, died yesterday at his Ikoyi, Lagos, residence at the age of 79. He was 76, when he had this no-holds-barred interview in July, 2009, with a selected group of journalists in his Abuja home. He opened up on everything Nigerians probably never knew about him. Excerpts:
Who is Abubakar Olusola Saraki?
I am Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki. I am a medical practitioner but by accident, I found myself in politics. I do not 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.
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 Nigerian Students Union and that was before Nigeria’s independence during the colonial days. I used to attend Nigerian students’ meetings and I used to write a lot of articles such as those “Letters to the Editor” in the West African News 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 and, so I too refused to go and work for the northern government. I worked in Lagos at the General Hospital instead. Later on I joined the Peak Hospital from where I resigned my appointment to contest election into the Federal House of Representatives in 1964 as an independent candidate, of course, 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 must contest if even as an independent candidate because I was very popular with the people at that time. 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 and that was how I lost the election. 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.
One is at a loss about your real identity because some people would call you a Fulani while others would describe you as a Yoruba. Some said your mother was from Iseyin and your wife is from Owo in Ondo State. There are even people saying you are half Christian while others argue that you are a devoted Moslem. Who really are you?
My mother was from Iseyin in Oyo State while my father was from Ilorin in Kwara State. My great-great grandfather originated from Mali and I am talking about some 150 to 200 years ago. And they are Fulani and that is where we got our Fulani connection from. My great grandfather settled in Ilorin preaching the religion of Islam. A section of Ilorin came from Gwandu, they were all refreshing and they were religious but my people came there as practicing Muslims from Mali with their “own Quran”.
In fact, the Emir and I used to joke that we had our own Quran and that nobody gave us Quran. My great-grandfather brought our own Quran to Ilorin from Mali to Agbaji where we settled. The Agbaji quarters is about 200 to 300 years old. Over the years, religious piety and devotion have led the prohibition of drumming (in whatever circumstance) in the area. But because of our connection with the Southern people, a lot of the Yoruba are always in Ilorin and so we speak the same language.
But if you look at the Ilorin people, 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. 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 but I know where I am from. Even, not long ago, I had an invitation to join a Malian-Fulani organisation and that I should be its chairman.
We are particular about your ancestral lineage because people always accuse you of bearing Alhaji Abubakar Saraki when you needed votes from the North; bear Dr. Olusola Saraki when you needed votes from the South-West and Dr. Sola Saraki for the South-East and South-South. Your reaction.
People are just reading political meanings to my actions. My Islamic name is Abubakar. When we were growing up in Lagos in those days, unless you were a Christian or bore a native indigenous name, you could not 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 organizations. 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 and politics then and now?
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 and what you can grab as everything is now about money which was not so during our own time.
Let me give 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.
Look at the political parties of today, look at the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), for example, which everybody seems to be joining. The governors have turned leaders of the party at state level. Just as the President, in the recent past was supposed to be the leader of the party at the national level. Then, the party was supreme and whatever the party decreed was final. But now, everyone is a big man and a leader. That is the difference between politics of those days and what obtains today.
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. 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.
Today, see what is happening in the National Assembly. A member of the PDP getting up to insult or abuse the President. In those days, you would 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. Today, there is no discipline. Everybody does as he likes and there is nobody to check them.
Maybe it has something to do with 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. I remember that in 1979, Shagari spent about three or four days in Kwara State campaigning for all of us who were running for elections. But now, it is not like that as they use aeroplanes to fly from Abuja to Enugu and from Lagos to Kano to campaign.
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?
You said you came into politics by accident. Was it because your medical practice was not booming then? How did you lose the 1979 NPN presidential ticket to Shagari?
I had a thriving medical practice then and I still have even up till today. My income was about £500,000 per annum at that time. I had a very successful medical practice. I was looking after companies and private clients. I did not have any hospital where I admitted patients but 99 percent of my jobs then were on retainership. I was retained by companies to look after their staff and family members. If I was making as much as £500,000 per annum as at 1962 then, definitely, it was quite a lot of money.
People said you made your money during the Nigerian Civil War by attending to wounded federal soldiers and getting commensurate remuneration from the General Yakubu Gowon government. How true?
Civil war? That is not true. I had nothing to do with the Army at that time. I was on retainership with many virile companies like NEPA (ECN at that time), NPA, NICON and so on. NPA and ECN were the big ones. As an NPA staff, you could get treated along with your family members and my monthly bill then could come to about £70,000 or so. Some of them had up to 10 children and they all came to me and I attended to them. Like I said earlier, I found myself in politics by accident.
As a doctor at that time, you had some respect and some dignity but not now. Our earning as doctors was good for us at that time than to leave that and say you wanted to go into politics unless you were committed and interested in the welfare of your people, your family or your neighbours.
Why I plunged into politics
It is not that I was actually cut out initially for politics. The immediate stimulus occurred during a weekend visit in Ilorin, I listened to a programme on radio about the tragic death of a nine-year-old boy. The story had it that the boy returned home from school hungry but found that there was no food to eat. The mother lamented her inability to provide food for the family because she could not find water to do the cooking with. The boy volunteered to go and fetch water from a well. Too young for the task, the boy slipped, fell into the well and was drowned. He died! And I said to myself, how many children would this woman have. I was troubled by the plight of so many of such families, unkown to the government, forgotten, abandoned.
Determined to use my resources to help the people, I began voluntary provision of water, free of charge (as pipe-borne water was hitherto scarce and being sold) through construction of water tanks strategically located all over Ilorin and its environs. I commenced the distribution of water which I was buying from the Ilorin water works. My detractors read politics into my actions and were determined to frustrate my humanitarian gesture by using their influence to prevail on the Ilorin water works authorities to stop selling water to me. In desperation, I had to look towards Ogbomoso (distance of about 60km) to supply all the water tanks I built. That fired my determination to go into politics and to help my people.
Why I lost NPN presidential ticket to Shagari
It was because I was not well known in politics then, that made me lose the NPN presidential ticket to Shagari. But not only that, prior to the party primaries, about five people who are about my age including (Alhaji) Lawal Kaita and (Prof.) Iya Abubakar had encouraged me, during the constitutional conference in Abuja between 1978 and 1979, to join the presidential race. I told them that I was not ready to contest the Presidency then as I had just set up a bank and I was about setting up flour mill as well as the soap industries. Those were the things I was setting up then but they pleaded. Their argument, when they came to my office at Investment House in Lagos was that such a move would unite the country as it would be tactless to take a candidate for the Presidency from the far North.
Eventually, I agreed with them, even though we had not yet formed the party (NPN) but only about to go into writing its constitution. When eventually we formed the party, the elder members of the party said that Shagari would supply the link with the Sardauna’s legacy and that they knew him more than anybody else. The emirs also volunteered that they would back him. At the NPN convention, Shagari came first, Maitama Bello came second, Adamu Ciroma was third while I was fourth. All the runners-up decided to give it (the presidential ticket) to Shagari and that was what happened.
How were you able to manage the Senate then as the Senate Leader such that it was crisis-free?
It was simply because of accessibility. Immediately after we won the elections, the 36 of us, who were the founding fathers of the NPN met in a house in Ikoyi, Lagos, and decided to zone the positions among ourselves. It was agreed that Joseph Wayas should be the President of the Senate, I should be the Leader of the Senate, while Joseph Takar was made the Chairman of the Finance Committee. That was how we arranged the positions and we later told the party what we had done.
When we got to the Senate, the UPN caucus argued that even though NPN had 36 senators, (or had the highest number of seats won by any single party), Saraki could not be called the Majority Leader as the NPN was not in the majority (UPN had 28 senators, NPP had 17, PRP had seven and GNPP had seven). They then argued that although each party could have its own leader in the Senate, orderliness and national interest would require a concensus, popular Senate Leader.
I was labelled “small Awolowo”
By the structure of our own party, I was the leader of the NPN in the Senate. I was nominated by a member of the NPN and my nomination was seconded by Senator Jonathan Odebiyi, the UPN Leader in the Senate. They all voted me in without any further nomination, unopposed. That was why when there was problem in NPN, the party could not remove me as the Leader of the Senate because I was entrenched in the politics of the Senate such that I was referred to as small Awolowo.
During the troubled period in NPN, I was accused of hobnobbing with members of the other political parties. But I told them that as Leader of the Senate, I just must hobnob with all senators but the NPN said my hobnobbing was too much. They wanted to remove me but the other political parties rose against the move and said an emphatic NO. They told NPN that it could go and appoint its own party leader but as far as they were concerned, I was the Senate Leader.
Why are you always on the side of the conservatives and not the progressives despite your liberal approach to politics?
I always side with conservative politicians because their attitude is always very rational. But the progressives are always irrational and they tend to always want to do their things by force and not by persuasion or by discussion and I don’t believe in that. That is why people say I belong to the conservatives.
You never served any military regime but people say such your attitude is a smokescreen and that you were always consulted after every successful change of government and that you always offer military regimes advice in the dead of the night but pretend as if you are a committed democrat during the day.
It is true that I was always consulted. Take for example, when General Sani Abacha took over the government, he called me and wanted to make me a minister but I declined the offer. I told him I could not be his minister. When he demanded to know why, I told him I would be more useful to him outside his government. He tried to persuade me but I stood my ground and he asked me to nominate a minister for him and I nominated Aremu Yahaya.
When Abacha later set up the Constitutional Conference, I was nominated and I was made the Chairman of the Business Committee. Anyone holding such a position doubles as the Chairman of the whole House. I was giving him advice. Abacha’s idea initially was to spend only three years and leave. Some of his colleagues convinced him that he should not handover but convert himself into a civilian president by contesting election so that all the parties at that time, nominated him. You know them?
The five fingers of a leprous hand?
Oh yes, and I told them and warned them in Makurdi, Benue State, that they were going to regret what they were doing. I knew that what they were doing was wrong and I warned them. I never served in any military government because I knew they have a way of using you and then disgracing you out of office one day. I know that if you are a democrat, you are elected by the people, nobody can sack you except your people.
Why did you dump your party candidate to support Senator Cornelius Adebayo as Kwara State governor in 1983?
I installed Adamu Attah as governor. He was here to solicit for my support and I obliged him. As governor, he would, during the beginning of his administration, seek my advice when he had any notty problem. But after some time, towards the end of the first tenure of his administration, he started preparing to take over the leadership of the party in the state, by inciting people against me.
He stopped all personal contacts with me. He then formed another faction of the party, and that was why people called them “Shalaake.” They said they were no longer members of our party but that of another political party, which he formed against me. Of course, I kept my people and told them what to do when the time came.
At a point, the NPN leadership called us to Lagos, but after each round of talk, he would start another round of problem when we got back to Ilorin. He never changed but was always creating problems. When the time for election came, he thought that he had the government machinery in his hands and forgot that I have God and I had the people behind me. He was boasting he did not need Saraki’s votes. The man who had no political base but whom I brought up was saying he could win election without my support. That was when the battle line was drawn and I told my people to vote for Cornelius Adebayo.
Was there no party discipline then such that you flouted the directive of your party and voted for a rival party?
There was. The party tried to discipline me and they set up a committee but before it could conclude its sittings, there was the General Buhari Mohammed coup and everything just collapsed like that.
But there was the rumour that you were doling out N50,000 monthly to Attah. But if that were to be true, why then must he again go back and be fighting you?
I was giving him N50,000 monthly allowance even when he was governor, contrary to the allegations that the quarrel was because I was demanding large sums of money as “royalty.” Attah is still alive and so you can go to verify from him. I told him not to touch government money at all but to work, construct roads, provide water, electricity, health and so on.
Apart from Attah, why did the other governors too rebel against you after you installed them, like the late Mohammed Lawal and Shaba Lafiagi before the latter returned to your fold?
I do not know why they did that but it is as if it was my political stature that was haunting them. I do not know what went wrong with them because there were usually no real problems. I did not interfere in the running of government affairs. After the election of Lafiagi and even that of Attah, I told each governor-elect, I had to return to Lagos. But for the formation of the cabinet, one just must be involved because of the people who worked for us to win the elections. They might not be the direct beneficiaries but we always asked the local governments to submit nominations for commissionersip.
In the case of Lafiagi, he pleaded that I should leave the Lafiagi (LGA) commissionership slot for him as he had already promised somebody special, and I did. But the rest we sat down and distributed equitably and I went back to Lagos. I did not see them again. In the case of Lawal, he wanted to have a second term and we had already given it to him. More than three times, we had danced to celebrate it but he never believed I was serious. Even his Mallam or Alfa told him not to believe me and that I would give the slot to Bukola. I told Lawal that Bukola was never a politician.
He (Bukola) became governor by accident because he was not a politician at all. When people came to me in Ilorin to plead that they wanted my son as governor, I told them that Bukola was never a politician. I never knew that they were going behind me to talk to him.
After he had agreed with them, they now came to me saying Baba, please, beg your son to come and be the governor and it was very difficult for me to let him go. And if I may tell you, I cried that day and it was because all my belongings, my businesses and everything were in his possession. I lamented that if they took this boy away from me now, who would look after me? That was why I cried that day.
Why do you want to install your daughter, Senator Gbemisola Saraki-Fowora, as Kwara State governor in 2011 after the tenure of her brother, Bukola, as being rumoured?
Who was saying those things? I am praying to God and I intend to go for the Umrah to seek the guidance of God. When I wanted to put Lawal there, I went for Umrah for the same purpose since the previous three governors did not perform to my expectation. I went to Umrah and sought forgiveness and true guidance. I prayed to God that I wanted somebody who would take care of Kwara State for me. I went to Umrah and I called Mallams to join me and together, we prayed to God. Lawal was amongst us, praying and he was saying (as I later gathered) God, “make me the one to give this Saraki man what he wanted for Kwara State.”
When it became obvious that he would get the ticket, I complained to my faithful that I did not want any person with military background to be the Governor of Kwara State. I set-up a seven-man screening committee. They screened all the aspirants. I was worried that Lawal had gotten the highest mark. But I said, perhaps God wanted to use this man for the development of Kwara State. I could have changed the result if I had wanted so to do, but I told them to release the result and Lawal became the governorship candidate. After only one year in office, he began to agitate for a second term, convincing himself that I was going to make my son, Bukola, the governor. But I told him that Bukola was never a politician and that he never for once interfered in the political situation of Kwara State. But Lawal never believed me.
As God answered your prayer by giving you Lawal, now if that same God answers your prayer after the Umrah over Gbemisola, would you install her as the next Kwara State Governor?
I have not yet decided on who I will pick as candidate. I heard people saying that I would be giving the ticket to Gbemisola after Bukola but those are rumours, because I have not yet decided. If you ask me this question after Christmas this year, then I would be definite in letting you know my next candidate for the governorship of Kwara State. But as of today, I do not know who will be the next governor and I leave that to God. I want to go to Umrah and pray to God after fasting to help me.
The other time former President Olusegun Obasanjo was appointing people from the Middle-Belt where Kwara State incidentally belongs to sensitive national positions, the so-called core North cried out that you were never part of them. With that stance, do you think that they would allow any of you who are not “core” northerners to be President on the slot of the North?
You find out that people saying that are really not from the North. How can anyone say that? Of course, they regretted saying such and we really lampooned those who said that.
There was this report that General Ibrahim Babangida tricked you by promising to make you president just as he allegedly did to others. Could you clarify this issue?
When we were preparing for that, 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, 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 election in 1992
When, after the formation of political party, I approached him for support to my presidential bid in 1999, he never promised that he would give me financial and 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 destabilize my party All Peoples Party (APP), by paving the way for Chief Olu Falae to leave the Alliance for Democracy (AD) to pick the presidential ticket of the APP. The plot was to secure the zoning of the Presidency to the South. They (the IBB group) manipulated the APP presidential primaries in favour of Ogbonanya Onu who even failed to secure gubernatorial ticket of the APP in his own state. The contrived merger of small (AD) party of Falae and the APP swallowed up Onu, and throwing up Falae as the APP presidential flag bearer.
When last did you practice medicine, your first calling?
I would say between 1974 and 1975
Which area did you specialize?
No. I did not specialise. I am a general practitioner. I was going to specialize. When I qualified in 1962, I wanted to stay for one extra year to specialize but my wife (our marriage was only five months old) preferred that we returned to Nigeria. She did not know my people then and I never met her people because we only met in London and got married.
Marriage? Without the consent of your parents?
Yes, marriage. But, it was not without the consent of our parents. It was only that both families had not met formally. Returning to Lagos where both our families resided was very reassuring to my wife. So we stayed on and I began to practice
How do you manage your home with you a staunch Moslem and your wife a devout Christian?
I manage my home excellently and we do not have any religious problem because we never discussed it. Even though I come from a most devout Muslim background, my wife’s Christian upbringing has not posed any problem to our marriage.
During the early days of our marriage, my father called and reassured me that Islam does not prescribe that a man (Muslim) should compel his (Christian) wife to change her religion. He said: “You showed her that you loved her and you married her. If there is any need for her to change her religion, it must be by her own volition. You cannot force her to go and change her religion.” Luckily for me, half of members of her family are Muslims.
Even today, the head of their family (an Alhaja and my wife’s cousin), is a Moslem. That has helped me a lot such that there is no religious acrimony in my home. She is well accepted in Agbaji and we never discussed religion in my house. It does not worry us in the house at all. Whenever she was fasting, she prayed for me and if I was fasting, she prepared food for me and left me to do my fasting. We never discussed religion at all.
But don’t you think that could bring a sort of religious confusion for the children who may not know where to belong?
No. I don’t believe so because religion is a matter of personal belief and so I don’t agree that such could affect the children.
How many wives do you have? People are insinuating that different mothers gave birth to Bukola and Gbemisola, even at that, another of your supposed daughters allegedly born for you by another woman in London is begging you to accept the paternity.
My wife is the only one I have and I can tell you quite frankly and honestly that my wife is the only one. Anyone claiming otherwise is not saying the truth because my wife is the only one I have and I have four children, two boys, two girls. The last one is Laolu and the third Bola and I have Gbemi and Bukola.
What would you really say that you learnt from your parents while you were growing up that remained indelible in your heart?
I would like to say much about what I learnt from my father. I began to live with my father since when I was only 17 months old and I did not get to know my mother until I was 12 years. I never really knew my real mother because my stepmother was the person I knew as my mother because she was the one that was always carrying me about. My father used to go to Accra (in Ghana) and Abidjan (in Ivory Coast) and so would take me along. I learnt from my father that one must always be near to his God because my father was very versed in the Quran. Every Thursday night, I still remember, so many Fulani people would come and pray for us.
But we gathered that you never thought of becoming a doctor in the first instance?
No. I never wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be an Engineer
Because, they made the roads better and that was my thoughts then. But this my stepmother had no child of her own and I told my father that it would be better if I became a doctor, so that I could come back and take care of this woman who nurtured me from nearly the cradle. I said so in her presence.
As a young boy then, what were the pranks you used to play?
Really, I loved to go and watch football in those days and then used to swim a lot and that is why I swim everyday today.
What are the highpoints and the low-points in your life?
If you ask me about the low-points, I would tell you that it was when I was detained by the Buhari and Idiagbon junta. We were about 2,000 people constantly moved between Kirikiri, Ikoyi, and Enugu prisons over a period of more than one year of fear and uncertainty. For the first four days, I was angry and sad and I was wondering whether I was ever a contractor. I never took any contract and I never gave any and even up till now, no government in this country has ever given me any contract, neither in Kwara State nor at the federal level. If I wanted it, I would get it but I never got any contract from anybody.
But people know you to be stupendously rich, how did you make your money?
My medical practice gave me all my money and I come from a very rich family. You can go to Agbaji and ask and they will tell you that Saraki is “a ya won lowo toke toke” (he who lends people money with the carrier bag). When I left government, I contested election and lost. When I went to my father, he gave me £10,000 to set up my private practice after I refused to hearken to the voice of some people who were persuading me to go back to government. My father was a very rich trader. I went to him and told him I needed money to set up about five clinics in Lagos.
The misfortune of the Societe Generale Bank
Yes. They plotted that we should fail to meet the re-capitalization deadline. On a Friday, they told us to go and pay N1.5billion to increase our share capital by 12noon the following Monday. That if we did not meet up, they would have our operating license revoked. Where could I have got N1.5billion at a weekend? We went to court