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In search of the real Oshiomhole

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Azu Ishiekwene
Azu Ishiekwene

As I watched the video again on Sunday, it felt like a recording from another age, yet it was taped only five years ago. Comrade Adams Oshiomhole was wearing a smart deep-blue suit and red tie over a white shirt. He has shed his trademark brown khaki top and trousers. But looking at this video, not much else appears to have changed, outwardly.

His interviewer on a Channels TV programme had asked him what he thought his legacy was as two-term governor of Edo State. Oshiomhole took a deep breath. “It sounds like a simple question,” he said, “but it’s very complicated and difficult to answer.”

That reply was not only a summary of his long-winded response; in retrospect, it was also the summary of his political odyssey: complicated and difficult.

He answered the question, of course. Oshiomhole told the story of how his most important legacy in Edo is not necessarily infrastructure – the kilometres of roads constructed or the skyscrapers built. It’s about the change in the democratic space, the return of power to the people and the restoration of their capacity to decide for themselves those they want to lead them.

In the past, Oshiomhole said, the godfathers castrated the people. But now, even citizens near political menopause were feeling a sudden flush of reversal. Time was when the godfathers not only determined if there was a vacancy, they also decided who would fill the vacancy. They had finally been dealt a big blow and even though they were still on life-support from Abuja, they had been practically vanquished.

That was five years ago, when Oshiomhole was nearing the end of his second-term. He wasn’t just sounding off. For years, Tony Anenih, a tin-god and one of the most influential members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), had the state in his deadly grip. Anenih’s influence was spooky and pervasive. His fear was the beginning of wisdom.

The Oshiomhole who stepped forward against Anenih in 2007, daring the lion not just on the national stage but right in his Edo State den, was a miserable mismatch in size and reach. He didn’t have the money, the clout or the byzantine connection in high places that it takes to become a local government councilor in Nigeria, much less a state governor.

But Oshiomhole – well, that Oshiomhole – had a heart and a record that made up for what he lacked in size. He was forged in the furnace of labour struggle and was later widely perceived as a thorn in the side of capricious governments in many battles over workers’ rights and minimum wage.

One favourite picture hanging from the wall of one of his Abuja houses frames him being tossed in the air by a multitude of rapturous supporters and members of the Nigeria Labour Congress during a wage review lap of victory. Lech Walesa would have been jealous.

In his early political life, Oshiomhole the unionist retained his charm, his glow further brightened by a legend that in spite of the sacrifices and dangers he faced as a labour leader for decades, he refused to collect his entitlement in the end. His popularity grew and even though he did not berth with the Labour Party, the stardust from his trademark khaki still retained its potency.

But it took more than one sling shot of popularity for Oshiomhole, well that Oshiomhole, to become governor of Edo. The tin-gods of Edo politics still defied the people and wrote the result of the election in 2007. The courts weighed in to right the wrong.

Yet, the point had been made: the days of godfathers in Edo politics were over for good and the sanctity of suffrage would become a mantra in Edo nearly two centuries after British trade unionist, George Howell, canvassed “one man, one vote.”

The Oshiomhole that ruled Edo for eight years espoused the same virtues that endeared him to many when he was labour leader. Wherever he went, he preached the triumph of democracy and the virtue of one-man-one-vote over godfatherism and patronage. He was a champion for justice and made it clear that his mission was to serve the people as best as he could, even if it meant stepping on toes to get the job done.

Of course, he was not perfect. He was accused of impetuousness and opportunism, of pulling down the temple of Mammon only to install in its place a graven image of hypocrisy, greed and megalomania. These accusations were muted at first. Later, however, they became louder and louder after his appointment as Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), and then during the party’s controversial primaries.

Regardless, I think the glow of the real Oshiomhole remained somewhat intact. The APC under its former chairman, John Odigie-Oyegun, was fast becoming a wayward party, a playground hijacked by rogue cells to serve their own narrow interests. The Oshiomhole who routed Anenih was the medicine APC needed before the last general elections.

But has the party overdosed on Oshiomycin? Has the Oshiomhole we thought we knew – the national champion of workers’ rights, guardian of the underdog and vanquisher of godfather politics in Edo – become a victim of his own success or was he a charlatan, faking all along?

The smoke from unusual quarters last week may provide a clue. Charles Idohosa, an APC stalwart in Edo and former political adviser to Oshiomhole, sounded the alarm. Days later Premium Times published a story that the rift between Governor Godwin Obaseki and Oshiomhole was now public. Things have fallen apart.

In yet another cyclical episode of successor-predecessor conflict, Obaseki and Oshiomhole have fallen out and Idahosa’s point was that Oshiomhole was becoming exactly what he spent his entire political life fighting against – the new godfather of Edo politics. Idahosa allegations of primitive cronyism and nepotism against Oshiomhole in contemporary Edo politics made RochasOkorocha’sImo look like counterfeit.

All of which is painfully amusing. Idahosa might feel comfortable with the g-word but I’m not sure that his current paymaster,Obaseki, would be able to say the word, godfather, publicly. When Oshiomhole imposed Obaseki on the party after muscling out his former deputy, Pius Odubu, and any other remote opposition from a fair and transparent contest for the party’s governorship flag, that was godfather tactics – straight from Anenih’s playbook.

But Obaseki neither recognised it nor permitted himself to think about it at the time because he was the beneficiary. Now, the gods from whose shrine he took a roasted yam are asking for atonement in blood instead of palm oil.Just what godfathers do.

If it were left to Oshiomhole and Obaseki alone, I would rather post a blank page this week than write one word. When push comes to shove, they will make up – like all politicians do – in the closet where they first met and bury the hatchet in the back of the press.

But there’s something deeper; something much deeper than the tantrums of angry politicians here: it’s the identity, or more accurately, the essence of Oshiomhole the man we once thought we knew as slayer of the godfather. That essence now appears diminished, completely at odds with the effigy of a hypocritical, power-drunk, self-obsessed buffoon trolling the media space.

I’m thinking of the Oshiomhole hoisted by ecstatic labour supporters in that framed picture; the one taped in that Channels TV interview five years ago, versus the one now buffeted by controversies at the party secretariat in Abuja. Something is not adding up and if this obnoxious effigy is the handiwork of his detractors, then they have been most unfair indeed.

But where’s the real Oshiomhole? Where’s the Oshiomhole who fought godfathers at every turn and insisted on the right of the people to make their choices? Where’s the Oshiomhole who railed against patronage and canvassed meritocracy? Where’s the Oshiomhole who disdained cronyism and extolled competence? Where’s the Oshiomhole who criticised pomp and extravagance and capped his love of frugality by wearing simple khaki top and trousers?

The Oshiomhole interviewed on Channels TV five years ago, was already in transformation, barely recognisable, except for his constant message of justice and fair play. And now, even that message appears lost in translation. It’s increasingly difficult to recognise Oshiomhole as the same Oshiomhole. What happened, Comrade?

Ishiekwene is the managing director/editor-in-chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network.

 

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