Emboldened by the performance of their party in the June 21st governorship election in Ekiti State, members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have been eager to draw, and even force, parallels between Ekiti and Osun States. The PDP folks, understandably, have since been ecstatic about the possibility of unseating — through the ballot box — another incumbent governor of the All Progressives Congress (APC), about redrawing the political map of the South-west once again, and about changing the permutations for the 2015 election significantly in their party’s favour.
They can smell blood already and, like hyenas, they are feverishly going for the kill. However, their Osun war strategy (yes, that is what it is) is flawed because it pivots around the assumed similarities between Ekiti and Osun States or on using the Ekiti template for Osun. And it is a flawed assumption not just because no two states are exactly alike, but more so because the dynamics in the two states are remarkably different. My considered conclusion is: Osun is not Ekiti.
Before expatiating, I want to dispense with two issues. The first is personal disclosure. I am from Osun State and I am a Muslim from a proudly multi-religious family (my mum, my wife and one of my siblings are practising Christians). I have never met or even discussed on the phone with any of the three leading candidates in the August 9 election, including the candidate of the Labour Party (LP), who is actually from my neck of the wood. I am mightily proud of my regional/religious identities, but they do not define me as I passionately believe that the interests of all will be better served in a prosperous and just Nigeria. I make these disclosures because we live in a desperate and dangerous time when some people’s sole survival strategy is impugning motives for positions that do not square with theirs.
The second issue is that there has been a very disturbing attempt to insert religion into the politics of Osun State as part of the 2015 game. Fore-shadowed two years ago by a tendentious and clearly Islamophobic ‘security report’, a major marker on this low-road was the attempt to hang a religious tag on the policy on re-classifying public schools in Osun State. The high-point of this was the orchestrated drama of students of Baptist High School, Iwo coming to school in hijab, choir gowns and masquerade outfits. (Incidentally I did my A’ Levels in the same school between 1984 and 1986). I am sure there are many serious grounds to savage the school re-classification policy. But that would require a lot of rigour and would not be as sexy as flashing the religious card. And it is not surprising that attempts have been made to turn this into a hot-button issue in this election. But it is not flying.
This lazy but dangerous attempt to politicise religion doesn’t take adequate cognizance of the place of religion in Yorubaland. While it is important to be sensitive, religion is not politically mobilisable in Osun State and among the Yorubas in general. Let me start with Iwo, the site of that high school drama. I am from Iwo, one of the towns with the highest concentrations of Muslims in Yorubaland. Iwo used to have a sharia court, presently has a sharia college, still has a whole compound named after sharia judges (Ile Alkali) and is the birthplace of an ultra-conservative Islamic sect called Islaudeen. But this same town has a huge population of Christians and traditionalists.
In my own immediate family, we have a generous mixture of all. Though my side of the family is mostly Muslim, I went to Sunday school as a kid and did Christian Religious Studies till A’ Levels. My Christian cousins feel comfortable in the mosque the same way I feel in a church. We even had an uncle who was a babalawo, had an imposing shrine of Esu in front of his house, and had his own masquerade. In Iwo, the same way people travel home for Ileya and Christmas is how they troop home for Egungun festival (Odun Eegun). And there is this common knowledge that if you unmask a masquerade, most likely the man behind the mask will be a Suraju or a Sunday. That’s Iwo and most of Yorubaland for you!
By nature, Yorubas are polytheists and any attempt to manufacture religious tension among these religiously liberal people does not show a deep understanding of and enough respect for the people. Pre-Abrahamic religion, a Yoruba man who was a farmer during the day, a hunter at night and a diviner in his spare time would worship Orisa Oko, Ogun, and Orunmila without any conflict, while his wife could be a worshipper of Osun and husband and wife would eagerly support each other during the festivities for their various gods. Centuries after the introduction of Islam and Christianity (in that order) to Yorubaland, not much has changed.
It is very convenient for the religious entrepreneurs to forget, but the immediate past administration in Osun State had Christians as governor and deputy governor in a state that has at least equal number of Muslims and Christians (if not more Muslims), and not once was it an issue. For those desperate for something to mobilise especially for 2015, my free advice: don’t impose your atomized and competitive view of religion on a different context.
Now to the main issue. I think Osun is different from Ekiti for five reasons. One, PDP is going into the Osun election fractured. Senator Isiaka Adeleke, former governor of the state is now with APC. (This is the man who the Minister of Police Affairs, Mr. Jelili Adesiyan, has threatened to beat up when he leaves office.) Chief Olagunsoye Oyinlola, former governor of the state and displaced National-Secretary of PDP, is definitely not actively campaigning for PDP. Alhaji Fatai Akinbade, former secretary to the state government and once a major pillar of PDP in the state, is now the candidate of LP. All these will chip away at the traditional base of PDP, and politics is a game of addition not subtraction.
Two, the APC candidate (as pointed out by Simon Kolawole on this page yesterday) has had enough time to address his vulnerabilities. The Osun government is thrashing about to pay pension and salary arrears and compensations and trying hard to pacify the disaffected. The PDP campaign is legitimately interrogating where the money came from and the possibility of future default. But it is doubtful if the PDP is getting traction on this. More effort seems to be invested on the ill-advised religious tag (which, if anything, will work more in favour of the incumbent). Attempts have also been made to explore the lukewarm relationship between the governor/his god-father and traditional rulers. But while the Yorubas respect their Obas, they don’t generally wait for them to tell them who to vote for.
Three, the demographics favour the incumbent, unlike the situation in Ekiti. Majority of the voters are young people who have benefited from a phalanx of job-creation initiatives of the incumbent. You can argue about the quality of jobs and level of compensation, but for most of this class of voters it will be a question of the bird in hand versus the one in the bush. Apart from the school kids, the major beneficiaries of the O’Meals scheme of the incumbent are women and women are known to be loyal voters.
Four, the major deciding factor in Ekiti was that PDP featured a very popular candidate. Despite having been a deputy governor and a senator and having gained some bounce from the Ekiti effect and from federal support, Senator Iyiola Omisore is yet to command massive following beyond a few of the 30 local government areas of the state. His recent corn stunt and his party’s huge war chest have not transformed him overnight into a man of the people. Then there is the not-so-small matter of the dark shadows that the gruesome murder of Chief Bola Ige casts around him, even when he and his associates have not been found culpable by the courts. In Osun, Ige is still a factor.
Five, and most important, the PDP machine is ranged against a genuinely popular candidate. Definitely cut from a different cloth from our current crop of staid politicians, Mr. Rauf Aregbesola effortlessly combines a bit of the rhetorical flourish of Chief Ladoke Akintola with the street smarts of Alhaji Busari Adelakun and the common touch of Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu (Penkelemesi). Beyond his achievements (Opon Imo, for one, is simply sui generis), he is a real politician: persuasive and tactical, simple and tough, intellectual and populist. This doesn’t necessarily mean the election will be a cakewalk for him. But if PDP, armed with federal muscle and money, thinks it has found another easy target, it needs a serious rethink.