By Sam Omatseye
The story is told of an act of benevolence that went awry. It was Lateef Jakande’s example of looking a gift horse in the mouth. He was no longer governor, and somebody thought the man, with his mammoth legacy, ought not to ride in a crawling contraption.
The man sent him the choicest of cars: a Mercedes. But the former governor was not impressed with the German invention. He did not want to appear ungrateful, and so he called his benefactor to say thank you. As an aside, he enquired in what dealership the car lay quiet before money sent it out to his home. He just wanted to know.
The unsuspecting benefactor told him the truth. Jakande quickly returned the car to the shop and asked for the refund. The dealership obliged. After all, it was Jakande, and he probably bargained a profit for the sellers.
That was Lateef Jakande, known as LKJ, the first civilian governor of Lagos State. That anecdote was an emblem of the austere politician. But it showed that he was simple but cunning. Yet he would rather be cunning than showy or false.
The man had always been an enigma for me. Anytime I saw him in public I tried to unmask the sage, to rip open his soul. He was now hoary. Age had subdued his flesh. He walked into a venue without fanfare and often outlasted the event with wordless presence. He looked slow but not geriatric.
I always wondered why he did not remain at home. But he insisted on being around, often he arrived early. You thought a certain brio bubbled inside, his ears alert, his eyes without a glitter of surprise, curiosity or even joy. His pose, with a little stoop, gave him an unflappable appearance of unbroken age. A fighter against time, a warrior in silence, his soul a battlefield. He engaged without oratory. Often, the only reference to him was an emcee’s acknowledgement. Even then, he did not seem to crave it or even want it. He sat still. But everyone knew this was the man of Lagos, the man who was the first to inspire the word “action” as a prefix to governor.
In spite of all I saw of the man in public places, I always wondered why I thought that the man finished his life story many decades ago, when he completed his tenure as the chief helmsman of Lagos. His song grew dark after that. He seemed to have spent the rest of his life trying to recreate that grandeur, that moment in the people’s graces when some called him Baba kekere, when he became a synonym for political stewardship, when many saw him as heir to the greatest Nigerian ever, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
So, I thought LKJ did not die a few days ago. I thought the man had gone decades ago, and that was his days as ripe apple. The days of his visionary audacity, when he challenged governance and proved at once to be the litmus test and success, to be the visionary and implementer, the talker and doer. He embodied the dream fulfillment. It was the time when he collapsed day and morning schools, when he turned his mockers into a hallelujah chorus. When they said he built poultry sheds as schools and the same products are more brilliant than their children.
When the people choked under landlords or under the sun, he built them sprawling shelter. When they thirsted for knowledge, he gave schools. For more knowledge, he erected a university. He opened roads and sub-divisions. He started the inlets into what is Lekki today. He saw tomorrow but he wanted to be there. Not like the children of Israel who did not see the Promised Land. Or like Martin Luther King, who knew he would not get there with his fellow blacks. Or the dream prose of Obama’s memoirs called The Promised Land, but it must have, at times, tortured him to write it. Jakande planted and reaped.
He was called Baba kekere because, somehow he wanted to be Baba. Buhari and his military men saw to it that he didn’t become baba. His Metroline project has become a metaphor of his abbreviated dream. Just as Buhari stopped the train, he ensured Jakande’s personal train could not puff ahead. Jakande never stepped up, again. He wanted to be baba when he ran for president. But even his party and kinsmen could not mobilise for his local triumph. He could work for Lagos, but he could not craft a successful political platform in Lagos. When his group settled for a compromise, they gave us a governor, the late Otedola, who was an antithesis of Jakande. Yar’adua became a grand puppet master of southwest politics, especially Lagos, with his formidable party. His acolytes like Dapo Sarunmi, Yomi Edu, et al, made mincemeat of the great LKJ.
If he rose to be Lagos governor on Awo’s back, he could not be baba after baba soared into the sunset. So, 1983, when the coup swept him out of office, was the beginning of the offence against him, and his work horse of a life.
But what aches this essayist was an episode in the aftermath of LKJ’s turn as minister under the Abacha junta. It was an Afenifere event, and the door was locked against him. He, the man who was the governor of his generation, and arguably one of the best ever to bear that title in the country. He, who made the sick well and blind see. He who was an ambassador for the race. He the model in integrity, a contempt for extravagance. He who did not steal. He was let out of the inner sanctum. He was not welcome in a meeting of his own folks.
It was because he did not leave the junta when everyone said he should. The story had it that he had warned Abiola and the June 12 caucus that no one should trust the soldiers when Abacha teased them with offices and promised to leave the office in six months. Jakande joined as works minister. He worked well, but his performance did not invest him with the spectral dignity of his time as governor. But that was beside the point. When the time came, he remained with the junta when the rest of his homeland burned with rage against the goggled brute. Others in the cocoon that Yorubas labeled as traitors were Ebenezer Babatope and Olu Onagoruwa. The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi rang loud his objection to his bosom friend Onagoruwa’s cohabitation with the despot.
That chapter casts a shadow on our Jakande, and history will have to script whether all he did in material terms could overshadow his act of looking the other way when his people groaned under oppression. They would ask why he did not become Moses and leave the palace when his people’s back bent under the tyrant’s whip.
Hence I said, our Jakande died long ago. The person I saw in events was probably the Jakande, the disembodied hero trying to resurrect that old fire, that man of action we loved and applauded. But time and flesh have overtaken him.
Recently when Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila addressed the media after a session with the president, he made it clear that the nation was in a security crisis, and we all should work together as a people to solve it. At another time, he noted that the Nigerian leadership had failed in that area. That was a moment in elite humility. He did not utter his words in syrupy lines.
He belongs to the legislature. He has cried as well as his House colleagues over the herder problem. Such an act of eating the humble pie should send a lesson to the president. It is the president who should have said what the speaker said. After that, he would act. The house does not have guns, cannot command the army or order the police, or even appoint them. It is the executive’s assignment.
The point is, we have not seen even that level of contrition up there in the presidency. As Wordsworth said: “Wisdom is oftentimes nearer when we stoop than when we soar.” Shasha Market in Ibadan is the latest of such a breakdown of law and order.
But we are not even seeing any hint of humility upstairs. When a man cannot unite his family, or even his party, how can he unite our country?