By Tatalo Alamu
By the time he breathed his last about a fortnight ago, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande had already passed into a legend as one of the superhuman avatars of visionary governance in post-independence Nigeria. It is not an expandable club, as it is reserved for only a few. Having grown up in straitened circumstances, Jakande knew what it means to excel against all odds.
For a person to be said to have passed into legend is not an ordinary achievement. But to become a legend in your own lifetime is something else altogether. It is akin to watching yourself transformed from a mere historical figure to a mythical personage .The outpouring of grief, the solemn regrets and the public adulation of the past fortnight are an eloquent testimony to the fact that Jakande continues to live in the heart of his people.
Long after time had mellowed the public misgiving over the June 12 imbroglio, long after what was widely perceived as an instance of grave political misjudgement on his part has receded to the background, it is the essential Jakande, the great man of the people; the politician of unusual valour and dogged perseverance that remains in the public purview. Public esteem is not determined by a solitary error of judgement but by the cumulative heft of exertion at the behest of the people.
Jakande earned his spurs and epaulettes. To be privileged as a ringside spectator as history and legend unfolded is not a common bestowment. Anybody who was at The Nigerian Tribune at the very turn of the seventies when Jakande held sway as Editor-in-Chief must consider himself that lucky.
As a teenage journalistic apprentice, yours sincerely watched in awe and star-struck wonderment as Jakande imposed his imprimatur on The Nigerian Tribune. It was an imprimatur of hard work, abstinence and order. A man of Spartan discipline and ferocious focus, Jakande’s capacity for hard work and grinding exertion was legendary indeed. He was not a fan of slackers and slobbers.
Even though it was generally known that Jakande lived and was domiciled in Lagos, he would always arrived at his desk in Ibadan before 8 am in the morning having journeyed through the old colonial road. How he did it remains a source of eternal mystery. The man of the people was not a man of many people; neither was he the one for dramatic flourishes. With steely self-assurance and supreme confidence, he would saunter to his office and the door would slam as if forever.
Whenever he was around, the atmosphere at The Nigerian Tribune was like a military drill held for wayward civilians. Order and orderliness prevailed as people went about their chores in hushed tones. Even the recuperating stalwarts of the Wetie crisis and ancient Action Group musclemen who abound in the place knew when not to press their luck.
As I have written somewhere else, it was not an unusual sight to find dangerous charms and amulets dangling precariously from rumpled pockets. These were hard men who had seen action on the old Western front. But even nature obeyed political necessity. A nearby stream named Agbadagbudu which hinted of commotion and fistic exertions so beloved of the local populace went eerily quiet whenever Jakande was around.
In addition to what was generally perceived as his unswerving loyalty and dogged devotion to his master and mentor, these were the qualities that brought Jakande to the portals of the Lagos State House on the resumption of political activities and the restoration of democracy in 1979. A meticulous learner and diligent understudy, Jakande imbibed and internalized the Awo persona and political philosophy as if he was studying for an examination.
It was said that had the UPN gubernatorial contest been left to direct primaries, the more socially astute and politically convivial Ganiyu Olawale Dawodu would have prevailed over Jakande. Famously rhapsodized by the unforgettable Ayinde Bakare in one of his songs, the ever capering and cantering old Gregorian was a wizard of grassroots mobilization and organization. It would have been a cakewalk for Dawodu but Chief Awolowo was known to have directly intervened on behalf of his faithful and trusted lieutenant.
In the event, Jakande turned out a brilliant and inspired choice. In four years and three months of frenzied work the monumental developments in Lagos state are only surpassed by Chief Awolowo’s frenetic transformation of the old Western region in five years. The landmarks are truly staggering. People still point at some land mass as designated stops for the aborted metro rail. Jakande’s memory had become permanently etched in the heart of his people.
The military putsch at the end of 1983 put paid to Jakande’s rising political profile. He was back in the political wilderness with his beloved leader. The trauma of the rigged national elections proved too much for Chief Awolowo’s lion heart. The Ikenne titan had publicly disavowed further participation in Nigeria’s democratic charade. In a parting shot, the old man insisted that if Nigerians still needed his services, they knew where to find him.
At that point in time, the political grapevine was agog with rumours that the northern power brokers, in a bid to nail the political coffin of Awolowo, were making overtures to his beloved disciple in a typical political gambit combining opportunism with coldblooded perfidy. Jakande never reacted to these rumours. However, a legitimate but politically quixotic attempt to trace his ancestral roots to Omu Aran backfired seriously.
As the usurping soldiers dug in and set about imposing a new military-dominated political culture on the nation, the old political class faced the spectre of growing irrelevance and diminished influence. New kids were emerging on the political aisle. They were products of the military incursion into politics and owed no allegiance to the old political class and its expiring panjandrums. If anything, they behaved in a manner that suggested that they were political subalterns of the new military aristocracy.
The death of Awolowo in 1987 put things in sharp perspective and alerted the larger world of the imminent possibility of another fracture in the old Afenifere fraternity. Massive chinks surfaced in Jakande’s hitherto formidable and seemingly impregnable armour. As mourners turned the home of the Ikenne sage into a Mecca of political pilgrimage, Jakande skilfully positioned himself as the chief mourner.
Virtually every blessed morning in the weeks preceding the funeral, the former Action governor of Lagos State could be found sitting alone in lonely royal splendour in front of Awo’s residence with his famous fly whisk acknowledging cheers from the crowd even as he directed and coordinated events with a chilling resolve.
His former colleagues and rivals in the Awolowo clan did not take kindly to this attempt at self-coronation which they viewed as evidence of inordinate ambition, political greed and sheer lack of collegiality. If this drew only muted recriminations and loud sighs of distaste from most of them, it was left to Bisi Onabanjo, former governor of Ogun State, Awo’s favourite political spymaster and famous Aiyekooto columnist, to break ranks.
In a sharp public rebuff, the urbane and witty master journalist let it be known that all those who were angling to be Awo’s successors or parading themselves to be such would soon discover to their chagrin and peril that there was no crown to be won and no throne to accede to at the end of the day. It turned out to be a prophetic and clairvoyant peep into the political horoscope.
Four years after as General Ibrahim Babangida opened a window of partial restoration of political activities in his unpredictable transition programme, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande was to find himself embroiled in a bitter fight for his political life with emergent power brokers in Lagos state who were bent on wresting his crown from him. A year after in 1992, this nasty political melee ended in a political stalemate which allowed the opposition NRC to take over the state.
Battered and badly bruised, the Action Governor soldiered on. He was not the one to be summarily retired from politics by political wannabes who had no history of heroic exertion at the behest of the people, or by Young Turks aided and abetted by the new military powerbrokers. Lagos was still his political territory and he was going to show the usurpers at the earliest opportunity.
The following year the progressive grandees closed ranks and came together again as one monolithic unit with MKO Abiola’s presidential prospects as the rallying point. Until that point in time, Abiola was never their idea of a honourable man or a man imbued with a progressive and egalitarian vision of society. He came across more as a carpetbagger.
But with nobody sure of the Army’s intention and with their old northern nemesis on the prowl, an Abiola presidency might be preferable to sure political suicide. Thereafter, events proceeded at a confounding pace leading to the annulment of the presidential election, an interim government, Abacha’s emergence from the shadows and nomination of Jakande as one of the minister, Abiola’s famous Epetedo Declaration and his prompt imprisonment.
The progressive rank did not survive the crisis. As Abacha dug in and bared his despotic fangs and with the prospects of de-annulment of the election receding into the shadows a sense of siege descended on the entire Yoruba nation. Like all people who feel under siege particularly in a fragile multi-ethnic nation, they resorted to extreme measures.
A hurriedly convened and rather disconsolate Yoruba Assembly that held at the Premier Hotel in Ibadan ordered all Yoruba sons and daughters serving in Abacha’s cabinet to resign and come home not later than a given date. But Jakande in particular was having none of that nonsense. To start with, he was very suspicious of the motives of his political rivals and former colleagues in the intrigue-soaked Action Group, Unity Party of Nigeria and the recent Social Democratic Party.
Second, he appeared extremely contemptuous of the credentials of some of his rivals who rose to political stardom on the back of Awo without anything tangible to show for it. They were not the kind of people who should be ordering him about at an advanced age. Finally Jakande felt that to have obeyed the order would have gravely imperilled the Yoruba nation.
The gambit played directly into the hands of Jakande’s affronted peers. They promptly defrocked him as an archpriest of progressive politics and banished him from their fold. As a purported friend of a Yoruba tormentor who had imprisoned their beloved son for the crime of winning a presidential election, Jakande had knocked himself out of contention in the struggle for Awo’s mantle.
If the Action Governor felt that this was such a passing storm, he was wrong. He was shunned, ignored and ridiculed. His political stock fell and his followership evaporated. Having put him in a political hamstring, his adversaries were not ready to let go. In 1999, the AD, a political alliance spearheaded by Awo’s surviving political lieutenants, romped through the entire South West , including Lagos, without any input from Jakande. It was akin to watching one’s own political funeral.
This development has very interesting implications for the current conjuncture and it says a lot about Yoruba post-empire politics in a fractured and fractious multi-ethnic nation. Whenever the Yoruba nation feels itself under siege, a mob psychology prevails which does not brook dissent or contrary manoeuvre even from its acknowledged leaders or leading lights. Any attempt to step out of line is visited with swift and severe retribution. The Yoruba mob has taken over.
Having seen the indulgent, adulating and worshipping side of his people, Jakande was now compelled to taste the less appetizing side. He was to endure the ordeal and humiliation for the last two decades of his life. It was a very heavy price to pay. Proud, stubborn with his head bowed by sheer physical attrition but his spirit unbowed, the Action Governor remained defiant till the end.
When he breathed his last two weeks ago, it was the heroic and valiant first civilian Executive Governor of Lagos State that the people recalled and remembered for good reasons. Full restitution having been paid, it was time for redemption. May the illustrious man of the people rest in perfect peace.