By Olusegun Adeniyi
During the crisis that followed late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s medical trip to Saudi Arabia in 2009, a number of prominent Nigerians advocated that the proper thing was for him to resign from office. Those who canvassed this ‘principled’ position at the time enjoyed not only media limelight but also public adulation. One was a certain Rotimi Akeredolu, the current Governor of Ondo State. What made Akeredolu’s strident calls for Yar’Adua’s resignation somewhat controversial at the time was his position as Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) president. Since the body never sat to take a definite position on Yar’Adua’s health, not a few lawyers felt uncomfortable with Akeredolu’s public stance. But he was unrelenting.
On 4th December 2009, a valedictory session held in honour of the then retiring President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umar Abdullahi. Although Akeredolu did not personally attend the session as he was said to be indisposed on that day, his speech was read by the then NBA Public Relations Officer, Mr Ikeheazor Akaraiwe and it dwelt on YarA’dua’s ill health. “This country is nearer to a state of collapse, and we cannot afford to be left in the grip of the rumour industry which is the most thriving sector at present,” Akeredolu told the audience. “Nigerians deserve to know the true state of things. If our President is not capable of performing his duties anymore, it will be better for him to resign as it will not be difficult to find a successor for him as provided by the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria.”
Then Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Micheal Aondoakaa, SAN, was also at the venue. But having spoken before Akeredolu’s speech, he waited for the session to end before addressing the media. “I am not bothered by the speech ascribed to the NBA; it is nothing but the personal view of Mr Akeredolu. The NEC of the organization, of which I am an executive member, never met to discuss such thing,” Aondoakaa said. “Akeredolu can enjoy the freedom of expression granted to him by the constitution, but he should not also forget that the constitution never made provision for a super-human president who does not fall ill at all.”
Unfortunately, in a twist of fate, Akeredolu is now in the same position in which the late Yar’Adua found himself. On Tuesday, it was announced that the governor would be proceeding on medical leave to “prioritise his health and ensure a full recovery” before resuming his official duties. “A formal letter regarding the medical leave and a notice formally transferring power in line with the Nigerian Constitution will be transmitted to the House of Assembly,” the statement added. “In the absence of Governor Akeredolu, the Deputy Governor, Hon. Lucky Orimisan Aiyedatiwa, will assume the responsibilities of the Governor in acting capacity.”
Before I make my point, it is important to highlight how this saga began and what has transpired along the way. For many months beginning from mid last year (2022), there were speculations in Ondo State about the health of the governor. But nobody knew what to believe until January this year when his wife, Mrs Betty Akeredolu released a viral audio where she made damaging allegations against her husband’s Special Adviser on Public and Inter-Governmental Relations, Ms Bunmi Odumosu. “I have a message for Ademosu. I don’t have her number, and I don’t think she is worthy of me having her number,” Mrs Akeredolu started her message. “I want this woman to stay away from my husband. Stop sneaking in concoction. According to her, they are from her pastors, her fake pastors, to give my husband to drink. We rely on western style of medical care and Aketi (Akeredolu’s nickname) will get well.”
After accusing Ms Ademosu of scheming to be Ondo State deputy governor by stealth, Mrs Akeredolu revealed that her husband was indeed battling a serious health challenge, inadvertently suggesting the possibility of replacement. “Look at you, what have you got upstairs to be the Deputy Governor of Ondo State? Yeah, peradventure anything happens to Aketi, Lucky (Aiyedatiwa, the deputy governor) takes over, it is a constitutional thing. But for you to be scheming is evil.” Then she went on a tirade: “I told Aketi from the onset that this woman is evil, this woman is no good and it is happening. But I am warning her for the very last time to stay away from my husband. In this kind of situation, I will deal with you mercilessly. For the very last time, Ademosu or whatever you call yourself, stay away from Aketi. Stay away from sneaking in those concoctions. You won’t find it funny with me oh. You are a very terrible human being. Go away.”
Whatever may have been Mrs Akeredolu’s intention, her message only helped to draw attention to the failing health of her husband. From that moment, Nigerians were able to ‘confirm’ social media reports about Akeredolu being in coma, on life support, gasping for breath, losing consciousness, etc. The situation continued until 13th June this year when Akeredolu officially transferred power to his deputy, Lucky Aiyedatiwa. In a notification sent to the Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Olamide Oladiji, the governor said he would be proceeding on a 21-day medical leave abroad from 7th June to 6th July 2023. When the letter expired, he issued another, this time extending his leave indefinitely.
After spending 117 days in a German hospital, Akeredolu eventually returned to Nigeria on 6th September. However, rather than go to Akure, the state capital and seat of power, Akeredolu stayed back in his family house in Ibadan, Oyo State. What followed was predictable. First, Akeredolu fired all the media aides of his deputy, accusing them of insubordination. One of the sacked aides had reportedly posted disparaging remarks on his WhatsApp status and the screenshot was forwarded to the governor in Germany. Then the State House of Assembly began an impeachment process against Aiyedatiwa. In one of the allegations, the deputy (acting) governor reportedly approved N300 million to purchase a bulletproof SUV for personal use with the money sourced from the ‘Palliative Fund’ provided by the federal government to cushion effects of the removal of fuel subsidy in the states. The man has apparently started to ‘eat alone’!
I commend Akeredolu for taking the path of law and public decency by yielding power to his deputy so that he can attend to his health. But he must also have learnt a few lessons in recent months. One, in public engagement, empathy is important when we make a point on issues that touch on the health of another person. Two, we always know the right thing for others to do until we are confronted with a similar challenge. Three, when we are in a position of power and are vulnerable due to ill health, we become pawns for political merchants, including those we imagine are on our side. I will expand on some of these issues another day, but it is important to state that while Akeredolu may have ‘stepped aside’, the political crisis in Ondo State has only just begun. The next gubernatorial election comes up on 16th November 2024 and the nomination process for candidates will soon begin. That is the real meaning of the current power struggle in the state.
In an ill-motivated letter last week, the state commissioner for Energy and Mineral Resources, Razaq Obe, alleged that many documents bearing Akeredolu’s signature had been forged. The so-called letter was already in the media before reaching the deputy governor to whom it was addressed. But both must be in the game. “I write to bring to your attention a critical matter that requires immediate action. It has been confirmed that the signature of Mr. Governor on a certain document has been forged,” Obe wrote. “The irregularities in the signature were first observed when a file from my ministry was returned through the office of the Secretary to the State Government (SSG). This is the only file that has been returned so far out of the five files that were sent for Mr. Governor’s approval about two months ago. Upon closer inspection, I noticed significant differences between the suspicious signature and handwriting and Mr. Governor’s known signatures and handwriting in the file.” And this is where the letter gets more interesting: “Concerned about the gravity of the situation, I decided to seek a forensic review before disclosing my discovery. I sent the suspicious signature, handwriting samples, and copies of the old regular signatures to forensic experts, who have now confirmed that the suspicious signature and handwriting were indeed forged.”
Mischief that comes with the ill-health of a leader has since become part of the culture of Nigeria’s murky politics. Beside the case of the late President Yar’Adua documented in my book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’, there was a similar drama with a former Governor of Taraba State, the late Danbaba Suntai, who was involved in a plane crash (which he was piloting) in October 2012. Although he survived the crash with serious injuries and spent months in the United States, ethno-religious considerations about succession put Taraba on edge throughout the period his deputy, Garba Umar, was acting governor. There was also a great deal of drama around former President Muhammadu Buhari’s numerous medical sojourns in the United Kingdom. The most telling moments of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s tenure were those he spent battling the dark knights of Aso Rock (the ubiquitous ‘cabal’) in the absence of his principal.
Given the nature of our politics, the most delicate job in Nigeria is that of vice president or deputy governor, particularly in periods when the health of their principal is suspect. So, Aiyedatiwa has my sympathy at a time like this. To borrow Babatunde Fashola’s prayer, may the loyalty of Aiyedatiwa (what a prophetic name!) not be tested. In their much-acclaimed book, ‘When Illness Strikes the Leader: The Dilemma of the Captive King’ which combine medicine, politics and psychology with interesting anecdotes drawn from leaders across the world, Robert Robins and Jerrold Post provide insights into what happens behind the scenes when political leaders confront health issues. That explains why the best way out of the uncertainties created by situations like this is to follow the Constitution.
Meanwhile, for a proper understanding on the crisis of governance in Ondo State, one may have to revisit what transpired before the 2020 gubernatorial election when Akeredolu contested against his then deputy, Agboola Ajayi, who ran on the ticket of the Zenith Labour Party (ZLP). Accusing Ajayi of inordinate ambition, Akeredolu made self-indicting disclosures: “No deputy governor has collected what he (Ajayi) was collecting in the history of the state. I gave him N13 million monthly. His predecessors did not collect as much as that. No deputy governor collects as much as that in Nigeria. I gave him enough room to operate, yet he betrayed me. Ajayi is just a greedy man that lacks contentment. I gave him a free hand to perform as a deputy governor. I gave him two ministries to run. He constructed roads. He built a number of schools. His wife also built a number of schools.”
In response, Ajayi counter-attacked that “Akeredolu and members of his family skim off the purse of our state with reckless abandon.” And he gave a breakdown: “The governor gets a security vote of N750 million every month. He, Akeredolu, also gets an imprest of about N150 million. His wife, though occupies no constitutionally recognised position, takes an imprest of N15 million per month. Apart from this, she collects an additional sum of N11 million from the Ministry of Women Affairs, which she runs like a potentate. Babajide, Akeredolu’s son, is also not left out in the pillage that Akeredolu and his family is visiting on Ondo State. He too takes a whopping N5 million monthly and rips off the state by taking unbelievable commissions as a consultant to the State on almost every imaginable area. All these are apart from millions and millions they get from inflated contracts awarded to family members and lackeys.”
Those revelations, of course, had no impact at the election which Akeredolu won. But all of that is in the past. While Akeredolu may have fulfilled the letter of the law by formally yielding power to Aiyedatiwa before proceeding on medical leave, the real drama will come with the All Progressives Congress (APC) gubernatorial primaries that may just be weeks away. Sadly, the desperation and cold calculations on both sides of this ‘struggle’ are not about the welfare of the people of Ondo State. It is about who controls the ‘structure’ that enables access to state resources!
May God grant Akeredolu full and speedy recovery.
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