The Proxy Battles in the Osun Poll

The Proxy Battles in the Osun Poll

By Waziri Adio

The Osun State gubernatorial election holding next Saturday will clearly attract outsized attention. This will happen for many reasons. An obvious one is that off-cycle elections, naturally, generate heightened interest, given the quantum of resources poured into them and the absence of distraction from other elections, local and national.

The fact that the Osun election is the last poll before 2023 will also make it an important election to watch. The election will serve as a major opportunity to gauge many things: the preparedness of the electoral management body, the potential credibility of next year’s polls, and the likely weight of certain issues and tendencies.

Another reason the Osun election will be watched closely is the promise of keen competition based on the memory of the last governorship election in the state. In 2018, the state’s governorship election was coloured by controversies. The election was declared inconclusive by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) because the winning margin was lower than the total number of cancelled votes. A re-run was ordered, and it produced a switch, which increased the controversies. The election was eventually decided by 482 votes.

The two combatants of four years ago, Governor Gboyega Oyetola and Senator Ademola Adeleke, are back on the ballot, and are expected to throw everything they have into the rematch.

But it is a more crowded field this time around. The presence of at least two other high-heeled candidates promises an even keener competition: Honourable Yusuf Lasun, former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and the candidate of the Labour Party; and Dr. Akin Ogunbiyi of Accord, who had lost the primaries of the Peoples Democratic Party with just seven votes.

But the significance of the election goes beyond who governs the state for the next four years. There are deeper meanings and higher stakes. At play in the Osun election will be many factors and players within and beyond the arena of contest. As a result, those whose names are not on the ballot and who don’t have a single vote to cast are highly interested parties in this election. At many levels then, the Osun election will feature many contests within a contest, and will be a ground of varied proxy battles.

In this piece, I will highlight three issues that will give the Osun election a special significance.

A Litmus Test for Tinubu

Elections are usually referendums on incumbents. In 2018, Oyetola was largely unknown. He was Chief of Staff to Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, the departing governor under whose shadows he sidled to office. The 2018 election was therefore more of a referendum on Aregbesola’s eight years on the saddle. It is a different equation this time around, as Oyetola has been in office for almost a term now, and has not left anyone in doubt that he is the one in charge. The key question on the minds of Osun voters will be whether Governor Oyetola, as the incumbent, has done enough to deserve a second term in office.

He and his camp think so, and they have been pointing to his record in office in the last three and a half years. His opponents think otherwise, and they have been interrogating his achievements and offering a different vision for the 31-year-old state. On 16th July, Osun voters will decide whether they want the incumbent to continue or want to go with one of his contenders.

However, the outcome of the election will decide more than Oyetola’s standing. Even when this may not play high or even play at all on the minds of the Osun voters, the outcome of the election will be seen as a proxy of the regional weight of someone whose name is not even on the ballot: Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

One of Tinubu’s major claims to prominence is that he has dominant control of the politics of the South West, a zone that is his base and that he is expected to win easily and well in February 2023. But the claim, though earned, has had an undulating profile. It will be put to further test in Osun, even when due allowance can and should be made for the fact that this is a local election with strong local candidates competing among themselves and with an array of local dynamics at play.

Tinubu began his ascent to prominence in Yoruba politics when he became the lone survivor of the cloak-and-dagger quest to give President Olusegun Obasanjo of PDP a foothold in the South West in the 2003 presidential poll. The expedition was designed to achieve two things: reverse the lingering insult of a president with no home support and checkmate the surging popularity of General Muhammadu Buhari in the north.

Beyond surviving that electoral blitzkrieg and the illegal seizure of allocations to Lagos’ local government areas, Tinubu moved away from the tottering Alliance for Democracy (AD) and formed a new party, the Action Congress (AC, later Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN). Through the ballots and the courts, ACN, at some point, had five out of the six South West states in its fold, with a foothold in Edo State and some reasonable presence in a few other states. It is this stature that positioned ACN to be one of the building blocks in the formation of APC in 2013, and the lever for Tinubu’s eventual emergence as APC’s presidential candidate.

But Tinubu’s dominance over South West politics has not gone unchallenged. His preferred candidates do not always win the primaries of his party in the zone, and his party suffers from occasional reversal of fortune. The challenge to his supremacy has come not just from outside but also from his closest allies. For example, there was a bitter falling-out between him and Aregbesola over the conduct of the Osun State primaries earlier in the year. The outcome of the Osun election will show whether Aregbesola and The Osun Progressives (TOP) group can make common cause with the leading opposition party in the state or whether they have been pacified or routed.

The Ekiti election of June 18 was won handily by APC, which is good for Tinubu’s profile in the South West ahead of the 2023 polls. But he has more stake in Osun than in Ekiti. For one, he is more deeply involved in the politics of Osun, as the emergence of Oyetola in 2018 and the tussle with Aregbesola in 2022 indicate. So, he is not likely to approach the Osun election lightly, same with those eager to cut him to size or shake his confidence ahead of 2023.

There are two other prominent politicians who are not on the ballot who have some stake in the Osun election. The first and to a lesser extent is Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, PDP’s presidential candidate. His first wife, Mrs. Titi Abubakar, is from Osun State. This is not a big deal, as his party’s performance cannot be hung on his wife’s state of origin. However, there is a sense in which the election can be seen as a proxy battle between Atiku and Tinubu ahead of 2023. (The performance of the Labour Party (LP) candidate in the Osun election can also give some fillip to LP’s presidential candidate, Mr. Peter Obi.)

The second politician is Senator Iyiola Omisore, the National Secretary of APC. When he couldn’t secure the ticket of PDP in 2018, Omisore moved to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and came third in the gubernatorial election with 128, 049 votes. APC had an understanding with him in the rerun because some of the areas fell within his stronghold. That made the eventual difference.

Omisore, a former deputy governor of the state, is the strongman of Ife politics. In terms of the number of local government areas, his area of influence covers almost 50% of his senatorial district and about 20% of the state. One of the things that will be watched closely is if he can deliver his stronghold and in bloc to his new party, the APC, in Saturday’s election.

The Unfinished Contest for Yorubaland

Based on recent run of events, many people can be forgiven when they think or say the Yoruba vote as a bloc. This impression might have been entrenched by the outcome of the 1979 and 1999 elections in which the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and AD respectively won overwhelmingly in the South West. Both UPN and AD can be said to be the Yoruba party—the first formed and led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the other by his disciples, mostly Yoruba.

But a closer look at the results of the elections and the politics of the zone shows a more nuanced picture. In reality, Yorubaland has been more politically diverse than it appears on the surface. In most of the 13 elections that have been held since 1952, there have always been some contest between two forces battling for supremacy.

The Action Group (AG), the precursor of UPN and AD, was given a good run by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in the pre-independence era and in the First Republic and later by Chief S.L. Akintola’s Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). For example, of the 59 seats available to the Western Region in the Federal House of Representatives in the 1959 elections, NCNC won 18, which is 30% of the seats.

And the seats won by NCNC in the Western region included two of the three seats in Lagos (Lagos North and Lagos South). NCNC also won in other places like Egba North, Okitipupa North, Ikeja, Ilesha Urban, Iwo East, Oshogbo South, and Oyo Central. Also, of the eight seats available in the Ibadan division, independents won seven. This meant that NCNC and independents snapped 42% of the seats available in the Western Region in that election, and a considerable number from the Yoruba heartland.

Awolowo and his political family did not gain full control of Yoruba politics until 1979 when the UPN won overwhemingly in the gubernatorial and presidential elections in the four states that later become six. (Remarkably, Awolowo polled 94% of the votes in Ondo State, the highest percentage scored by any of the five candidates in any of the 19 states at that time.) Even then, the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) had prominent Yoruba politicians like Chief Adisa Akinloye and Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN. Also, others like Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya remained Azikiwe’s followers till the end.

The dominance by the Awolowo strain was transferred to 1999 but was disrupted in 2003 when PDP snatched five of the six AD states. Backed by federal might for 16 years, PDP till today remains a prominent force in Yoruba politics even after its control has been squeezed from five states to one state by ACN, now APC. The fact is that the contestation for dominance in Yorubaland is ongoing: PDP will want to expand from one to two states with the Osun election; APC will want to keep its five states and even make a go for the sixth next February. This unfinished contestation will be a major subtext that will draw in forces external to the state and even the zone.

The Case of Osun West

One issue that may not be visible to outsiders but which may shape the outcome of the election is the marginalisation of Osun West senatorial district. Osun State has produced four governors since 1999: Chief Bisi Akande, Chief Olagunsoye Oyinlola, Ogbeni Aregbesola and Mr. Oyetola. None of them is from Osun West, which by the way is not a minority zone in the state. Akande (four years), Oyinlola (seven years) and Oyetola (four years) are from Osun Central and Aregbesola (eight years) is from Osun East.

While Osun West has got zero year at the helm of the state in the current republic, Osun Central and Osun East have cumulatively ruled the state for 23 years. The only time someone from Osun West was elected governor of the State was in 1992, and that was the late Senator Isiaka Adeleke who governed for less than two years and who was the elder brother of PDP’s governorship flagbearer.

One of the factors that boosted the popularity of the younger Senator Adeleke in 2018 was the widespread sentiment that the marginalisation of Osun West should be redressed. That sentiment also cost the APC the 49, 745 votes that went to Alhaji Moshood Adeoti who is from Osun West and had to leave APC to contest on the platform of the Action Democratic Party (ADP). That sentiment has not disappeared.

In the upcoming election, there are two leading candidates from Osun West on the ballot: Adeleke of PDP and Ogunbiyi of Accord. Based on the prevailing sentiments in Osun West, both of them are expected to do well in the senatorial district. But to win, either of them will additionally need substantial support from the two other senatorial districts in the state. Will messaging around injustice be enough to get them the needed support or will they be able to appeal to other things like their credentials and visions or do they have strong electoral structures that can get them across the line in the 30 local government areas of the state? Saturday holds the answer.

Article Courtesy ThisDay Newspaper

Picture credit: The Sun Newspaper

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