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Saraki: The visionary on the sixth floor by Yusuph Olaniyonu

By Yusuph Olaniyonu

What is usually mentioned is his privileged background. Reporters of his sojourn so far hardly give an account of his checkered history of challenges and tribulations and how he has emerged from each of them stronger, smiling, and smoother.

Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki who turned 60 today is no doubt privileged from birth. As a secondary school student in Kings College, Lagos, his family owned a bank with international affiliation and his father was one the most influential lawmakers in the country. However, he has over the years proved to be a higher notch above others like him born with silver spoons in their mouths. He had sustained and surpassed the legacies bestowed on him at birth. He has over the years proved that while his family name helped in his development, he has produced personal brilliance, sheer guts, the courage of convictions, the ability to withstand tribulations, and the ingenious capacity to think outside the box as a way of tackling the challenges that have often been thrown at him.

Unlike children of other aristocrats, Saraki has proved over the years to those who deliberately go out to hurt him because of their disdain for the opportunities that nature had bestowed on him, that when you take him for granted you do so at your peril. When he emerged as one of the very few among his mates in Kings College that made it to medical college and became a medical doctor, it was because he was brilliant enough to earn good A-level credits at Cheltenham College, London and that he could survive the rigours at the London Hospital Medical College.

After practicing as a medical doctor at the Rush Green Hospital, Essex, he had planned to relocate to the United States and become a specialist doctor before family duty fell on him. The bank which had been the prime investment and pride of his family had been enmeshed in an ownership crisis. It was a case that jolted the implicit trust his late father, Dr. (Oloye) Abubakar Olusola Saraki usually had in friends. When he won the case, he was happy that Bukola agreed to abandon his career in medicine and returned home to take charge of the bank. One could see the glint of pride and satisfaction when the late Second Republic Senate leader narrated the story to this writer in an encounter some times in the year 2000.

He was happy about some of the innovations that Bukola had introduced into the bank. For example, the SGBN was the first bank to introduce the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) in Nigeria. The bank was doing well as it was the favourite of the well-to-do traders in Lagos, Maiduguri, Kano, and other commercial centres in the country. When SGBN had its challenges with participation in the consolidation policy of the Obasanjo/Soludo era, it was also the lot of the younger Saraki to struggle to ensure the legacy did not die.

With the intense battles in the courtrooms and the board rooms, the Sarakis got the bank license restored first as a regional bank, and later when they came back under the aegis of the Heritage Bank, it got the approval of the regulatory authority to operate nationwide. That was another instance that the younger Saraki is not the regular Daddy’s boy. He is a fighter, thinker, strategist, visionary, and natural leader.

It is for these qualities that he had been selected as one of the young tigers identified by those who envisioned the Vision 2020 project and was selected to be part of the think tank on developing a sustainable development agenda for the country. The experience of that assignment came in handy when he became Special Assistant to President Olusegun Obasanjo on budget matters in 2000. It was an assignment where he proved his mettle in policy formulation and sought to use the instrument of legislation to entrench such policy.

The younger Saraki again became the standard bearer and upholder when his father’s political group chose to punish treachery and remove the incumbent governor of Kwara State in 2003. It was an election in which the supporters of the incumbent administration deployed all weapons, tricks, and tactics in their arsenal. There was palpable fear that the young banker could be assassinated. Yet, many were surprised by his resilience, adaptability, and courage.

He was elected as Governor of Kwara which was then a backwater state. The challenge was daunting, discouraging, and depressing. Yet, he remains unfazed. He set his focus on attracting industries, people, investments, and more federal presence into the state. Thus, his administration invested heavily in infrastructure development projects like undertaking a complete overhaul of the disused airport in the state and partnering with Overland Aviation Company to sustain flights in and out of Ilorin even when the government had to subsidize the operation. The airport was also equipped with an Aviation Training College to train pilots and the road to the airport was reconstructed and dualised. These were deliberate efforts to attract people and businesses into the state capital. Soon, people going to Osun State also found Ilorin airport the place to fly into while continuing the journey by road.

Then, many housing estates named Mandate Housing Estate I to V were constructed to further improve urban renewal and development. A power station was constructed and rural electrification commenced on a large scale to light up the state. In the health sector, the Harmony Diagnostic Centre became the destination health check Centre serving people across the Southwest and North Central States. Only one or two private laboratories in Abuja had an array of modern equipment in the Centre. The government also introduced the Community Health Insurance Scheme which enabled the poor access to healthcare.

Public education had a radical reform that ensured not only the quantity content was taken care of but that quality services were provided. Enrollment increased more and better-trained teachers were engaged, international assistance was sought in reviewing the curriculum, the continuous training and performance monitoring systems were put in place. The administration established the Kwara State University, Malete-Ilorin, Kwara Football Academy, and the new School of Nursing to produce world-class professionals for the national and international markets.

There are genuine efforts to attract more industries, revive moribund state-owned enterprises, rebuild infrastructure, tackle security challenges, and ensure regular power supply for industrial and domestic use. The administration’s Programme aimed at encouraging commercial farming has been acknowledged as an idea that came too early with the invitation and engagement of the displaced Zimbabwean farmers to establish the Shonga Farms.

Saraki’s job as governor of Kwara State was that of a pathfinder. The one who went to lay the concrete foundation. During his second term as Governor, he became the chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), another indication that he was his own man and a political leader in his own right. In his usual way of always bringing improvement to any office he occupied and leaving a legacy of achievement in any place he finds himself, Saraki turned around the NGF from a mere expensive talk-shop Centre to a real power bloc, an idea Centre, and a development-oriented peer group. The NGF under him became a think tank through which governors tackle issues like polio eradication, facilitating the establishment of the Sovereign Wealth Fund, initiating state peer review mechanisms, and resolving key national crises like the one following the vacuum created by the failure of ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua to transfer power to his deputy, the Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

As Senate President, though Saraki was hounded, oppressed, and repressed by the establishment throughout his four-year tenure, history will record that he changed the laid-back, routine, and sedate ways of functioning in the Nigerian Senate. The Eighth Senate became an incubator of ideas. Saraki demonstrated that it all bogs down to leadership why Nigeria remains prostrate despite the huge resources and potentials that God has endowed this country with. Without encroaching into the executive territory, the Senate between 2015 and 2019 took the colour of a vigorous, vibrant, forward-looking, creative, responsive, accountable, responsible and engaging institution. The Senate under Saraki focused on three broad areas as enunciated in its Legislative Agenda: Improving Livelihood, Improving Governance, and Improving Business.

From time to time, the public temperature was gauged. Also, ideas and measures that will adequately respond to the measurements were put in motion. The 8th Senate took the concept of representation, oversight, and law-making to new heights. From mediating in national crises to creating interventions aimed at solving problems, suggesting solutions on national issues, giving voice to the voiceless, providing arbitration services to people wrongly sacked, treated, or injured by government agencies, and applying creativity to untangle webs that have grounded long-standing legislations and winning more friends for the country among foreign legislative institutions, the 8th Senate set a high standard that subsequent ones must struggle to outdo. Yet, the Saraki-led National Assembly fought to protect the independence of the legislature and ensure that the concept of separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in a presidential system was respected by all arms of government. No wonder, he was called ‘the defender of democracy, an ‘apostle of independence of the legislature’ and ‘protector of the principle of separation of powers.

Some of the occurrences like the attack on the Senate during an ongoing session by thugs believed to have been sponsored by a certain ultra-conservative member who was pro-executive, the invasion of the National Assembly by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS), the simultaneous barricade of the homes of the Senate President and Deputy Senate President by policemen one early morning, filing of frivolous cases at the courts all of whom he won and many other oppressive measures taken to intimidate, overwhelm, undermine and sabotage the 8th Senate led by Saraki remains unprecedented in Nigeria’s history. He remains the winner of the Most Investigated, Most Prosecuted, and Most Vilified and Maligned Politician in the country. Yet, his traduces continue to secretly and publicly admire his fighting spirit, strategic ability, and staying power.

Still, Saraki remains strong, standing firm and tall. The fallout of the establishment war against him led to the loss of Kwara State by his party in 2019. Still, the government in Kwara State today has continued to make the Saraki period appear like the golden era. The outright, unmitigated and colossal failure of the current Government in Kwara State is a further advertisement of the achievements recorded by the Saraki administration in the state. Even those who sponsored the current government to spite Saraki have realised their action has ended up sabotaging the interest of the people

His post-2019 election attitude in which he quietly wished the winners good luck and decided not to challenge the APC candidates’ victory in court was well noted across the country and by the international community. He even decided to give the government a breathing space by staying away from Ilorin for the first two years. He has demonstrated his ability to stand up after any fall or to draw victory from the jaw of defeat.

In his party, the PDP, where he had sought the presidential ticket twice unsuccessfully, the leadership sees him as a force that cannot be ignored in rebuilding and refocusing the party for the electoral victory. He is the master strategist, mediator-in-chief, towering, battle-tested General, special envoy, and respected networker within the circle of friends of Nigeria abroad. With these unique angles to his sixty years of existence, Saraki remains the man who continues to win and is unbowed by adversity or setbacks.

Olaniyonu writes from Abuja.

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