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Can Saraki exploit split in “O to ge” movement to make a comeback in Kwara?

Can Saraki exploit split in “O to ge” movement to make a comeback in Kwara? %Post Title
















As voters in the North-central state of Kwara elect their next governor on Saturday, they will also be reviewing the performance of the “O to ge” movement that ended the long domination of the Saraki political family in their state.

Four years ago, the “O to ge” movement, drawn from the Yoruba phrase for “Enough is Enough”, displaced the Sarakites, a dynasty that had dominated the politics of Kwara State across a period of 40 years.

The dynasty began in 1979 when Olusola Saraki, who in that Second Republic became the Senate Leader, led the National Party of Nigeria to win the first governorship election in the state. He would install three more governors, including his son, Bukola, who later seized control of the state from him and installed his own successor in 2011.

The junior Saraki was the Senate President in the 8th Assembly when the family lost its fiefdom in Kwara to the “Oto ge” Movement in 2019.

By the end of the 2019 elections, Mr Saraki and his entire political structure capitulated to the coalition that had gathered in the All Progressives Congress (APC). The coalition later quickly showed themselves as strange bird fellows united only by their mutual disdain for the Saraki overlordship.

By 2021, the coalition was in name only, having been torn apart in a power struggle between Governor AbdulRazaq AbdulRahman and the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed. By all accounts, the governor appears to have won the fight, forcing several members in Mr Mohammed’s camp to seek refuge in the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Young Peoples Party (YPP) and the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP).

While the ruling party was engrossed in an internal struggle, the former Senate President and his allies came up with a counterpoise political slogan; “O su wa o”, a Yoruba phrase that can be loosely translated as “We are tired.” Within the PDP, “O su wa” has become the battle cry to retake the state.

The governorship election has pitted old friends against one another, while some old enemies have found reasons to work together.

Within the split “O to ge” movement you have Abdulraheem Oba, former vice-chancellor of the University of Ilorin of the NNPP; Lawal Akeem, son of former Governor Mohammed Lawal, of the SDP and Gobir Yakubu of the YPP and the incumbent governor. All of them are from the Kwara Central Senatorial District.

On the other hand, the PDP appears to have remained intact and unanimously behind its governorship candidate, Abdullahi Yahman. Ironically, Mr Yahman, who is from the Kwara-North, the only senatorial district that has not produced a governor since 1999, was a principal figure in the Oto ge movement and a major contestant in the APC primaries that produced Mr AbdulRahman as the governorship candidate in 2019.

Presidential election as a yardstick

If the presidential and National Assembly elections are to be used to assess the strength of the parties, one may say the ruling party has a firm grip on the state. The APC won the presidential election and all nine National Assembly seats in the state.

National Assembly

However, several factors may make the outcome of the 25 February elections misleading. One is the popularity of the president-elect, Bola Tinubu, in Kwara State, where he played a leading role in the “O to ge” movement.

Several factions of the “O to ge” movement that defected from the APC worked for Mr Tinubu in the presidential race. For instance, Saheed Popoola, the SDP House of Representatives candidate for the Ifelodun/Offa/Oyun constituency, openly declared his support for Mr Tinubu in the build-up to the presidential election.

“I owe Asiwaju Bola Tinubu my allegiance and loyalty irrespective of my interest because he came to my rescue when they were tormenting me in this state,” he told journalists in February.

The Tinubu wave in the state, coupled with the strengths of the APC National Assembly candidates, appear to have determined the outcome of the election. For the governorship race, local politics and alignment will play a major role.

“Our people seem to agree that, even though informally, the presidency should go to the south. That resonated well with almost everywhere across the various zones in the country, and Kwara State was not left out in that belief. It was that narrative that influenced the presidential and National Assembly elections,” Wahab Oba, the spokesperson of the PDP governorship candidate told PREMIUM TIMES.

Politics along the three senatorial districts
The southern senatorial district has seven local governments; Ekiti, Oke-Ero, Irepodun, Isin, Ifelodun, Oyun and Offa. In this republic, the zone has produced a governor, Abdulfatai Ahmed from 2011 to 2019. Mr Ahmad is from Share in the Ifelodun Local Government area.

The Kwara Central district has four local government areas; Ilorin East, Ilorin South, Ilorin West and Asa. The zone has produced three governors; Mohammed Lawal (1999-2003), Bukola Saraki (2003-2011) and the incumbent (2019 till date).

Meanwhile, Kwara North, consisting of Pategi, Moro, Kaiama, Edu and Baruten local government areas, has not produced a governor in this republic. Its only governor, Shaaba Lafiagi from Edu, governed for only 20 months between January 1991 and November 1992 in the aborted Third Republic.

Permutations ahead of the election.

Kwara Central

Kwara Central is the battleground in this election as four major candidates are from the zone. Messrs AbdulRahman, Oba, Lawal and Gobir consider the zone as their home turf. Also, Mr Saraki is from the zone.

Mr AbdulRahman is seeking a second term. He will get the opportunity to test his strength as the de facto leader of the APC in the state. Aside from the incumbency factor, the governor will be counting on the voting strength of Kwara Central, the largest voting bloc in the state.

Ilorin, like most dominant voting blocs in the country, has retained power for 16 years and in governorship elections, a candidate from Ilorin often has the edge, except in 2011 when Mr Ahmed beat Gbemisola Saraki to succeed Bukola Saraki in the office. The current governor seems to be a safe option here considering the incumbency factor.

Unlike him, Messrs Oba and Gobir are contesting under political parties that lack wide acceptance.

On the other hand, Mr Lawal of the SDP is expected to ride on the affection many have for his late father, former governor Lawal, particularly from Idi-Ape and other places in Ilorin. However, the affection may not be sufficient for him to win the election. Also, he seems not to enjoy the support of the entirety of his party.

A member of the SDP, Iyiola Akogun, who is a former chairman of the PDP and a former leader of the “Oto ge” movement, told PREMIUM TIMES that none of the candidates has a message to rally voters. Rather, he said money will decide the election.

“Money is playing a huge role, it will determine who wins, not message. Politics in this era is about cash and carry. And that is because none of the parties can be said to have a good message that can motivate the people to vote.

“In 2019, we had a good message, a quality message, and we won. We defeated the incumbent governor and the then-Senate President. But when there is no message, people go for whatever is around,” he said over the phone.

The expected threat will be from the former Senate President, Mr Saraki. The battle will be convincing the people of Kwara Central to drop “their son” for someone else. Also, there is the feeling that voters are not yet ready to welcome the Sarakis back to power.

There is the argument that Mr Saraki accomplished this before when he backed Mr Ahmed in 2011 against his sister, Gbemisola, of ACPN and Dele Belgore of ACN, both from Ilorin. However, he was able to achieve the power shift as an incumbent governor. In 2011, many also backed him for standing up to his father, Olusola Saraki, who wanted Gbemisola to succeed her brother.

A controversial hijab policy may play a significant role in this senatorial district. In 2021, the decision of the state government to allow the use of Muslim women’s head cover in some grant-aided schools founded by Christian missions generated a controversy that almost snowballed into a violent sectarian conflict.

The ten schools in the centre of the controversial policies were shut down for weeks due to their resistance to the policy. It is impossible to rule out protest votes from the Christian community against the governor over that development.

Kwara South

The southern zone could be called the battleground of the deputies as the major candidates picked their running mates from the area.

The incumbent deputy governor, Alabi Kayode, and the running mate for the SDP, Olakunle Olayinka, are from the Ifelodun Local government area while the PDP picked Gbenga Makanjuola from Irepodun.

Also, SDP is perhaps the fastest-growing party in Kwara South because several followers of Lai Mohammed defected to the party after they lost the power tussle in the APC.

Although the outcome of the presidential and National Assembly elections did not favour them, SDP could still pull some weight in Offa and Irepodun because of Mr Popoola and Wale Suleiman, who contested House of Representatives and senatorial seats respectively on 25 February. However, the governorship candidate is not a household name in the south.

APC and PDP will count on the strength of their running mates in the zone. In the case of the incumbent deputy governor, there is the incumbency factor, while PDP will count on the influence of Mr Makonjuola, a former member of the House of Representatives from Omu-Aran.

Kwara North

The last time Kwara North produced a governor was in 1992 when Mr Lafiagi was the governor. However, since the return of democratic civil rule in 1999, the zone is yet to produce a governor.

The PDP strategically zoned its governorship ticket to the district with a view to appealing to the sentiments of the people for power shift to their area. The candidate of the PDP is the only one from the zone. However, unlike the south and central districts, the North is not homogeneous—it is made up of several ethnic groups.

Winning block votes in this zone will depend on whether Mr Yahman can appeal across ethnic divides in the entire zone. Some residents may argue that their interest would be better served by supporting Mr AbdulRahman now in exchange for his support for power shift in 2027.

The poser is, will it be “O to ge” or “O su wa” on Saturday? Or can any of the smaller parties play the Labour Party in Kwara by springing a surprise that changes the electoral map of the state?

(Premium Times)
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