Last Saturday’s governorship election in Osun State was the last off-season poll to be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) before next year’s general elections. INEC is widely perceived to have continuously improved on its technical proficiency in the conduct of elections with the successive elections in Edo, Ondo, Anambra and Ekiti states culminating in that of Osun. Not only has the commission grown increasingly more adept in the deployment of technology to aid the credibility of the process, its handling of election logistics has become more efficient even if there will always be room for improvement. The commission has come a long way from when it was no better than a parastatal under the control of the presidency with no choice but to do the bidding of the ruling party particularly during the presidency of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Thus, in the five states where governorship elections have been held since 2020, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party won in Edo and Osun, The All Progresives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Anambra and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in Ondo and Ekiti.
Strengthened by the provisions of the new Electoral Act, especially the provision for online uploading of results once votes are cast and counted, has also made the process more substantially autonomous of the arbitrary whims of electoral officials and also less prone to such violent acts as snatching of ballot boxes, which is now of negligible consequence for the outcome. Overall, democratic practice can be said to be alive and well and systematically being improved upon in the country in spite of the prevalence of the menace of vote buying, which is a function of the pervasive poverty in the land and the low level of political education and sophistication of the electorate. These are ills that will gradually be overcome with the continued institutionalization of elections as sustained democratic practice is the key to overcoming observed shortcomings of this system of government. There can be no short cut to concrete democratic development and political maturation.
It is of course only natural that analysts have focused on the determining factors of the outcome of the election in which Senator Ademola Adeleke of the PDP secured victory with 50.14% (403,371) of the votes cast to incumbent governor Gboyega Oyetola’s 46.2% (375,927) which represents a 3.5% margin of loss. There are those who attribute the triumph of the PDP to the sharp division in the APC between the factions led by governor Oyetola and the Interior Minister, Ogbeni Raufu Aregbesola’s group known as The Osun Progressives (TOP), respectively. It is bad enough for a party to go into any election factionalized as the APC did in Osun but this, in my view, was not necessarily a key variable in Oyetola’s loss. Aregbesola’s supporters have naturally been celebrating the loss of their party, the APC, thus suggesting that this was a function of their leader’s electoral value and popular appeal in the state. This may not necessarily be so.
The APC’s struggle to win the 2018 Osun governorship polls, which the party won by approximately 482 votes after a tight run-off between Oyetola and Adeleke, was largely a referendum on Aregbesola’s eight years in power between 2010 and 2018. This was particularly so because many were wont to dismiss Adeleke as a political neophyte unlikely to make much electoral impact despite the popularity especially in Ede of his charismatic late elder brother, Senator Isiaka Adeleke and the prominence of the family. In any case, as my colleague, Sanya Oni, noted in his column in this newspaper on Tuesday, “In the same vein, had the party, then under the leadership of Rauf Aregesola as governor, yielded the seat to the younger Adeleke in deference to the mourning family and in recognition of the powerful interest the family represented and continues to represent in the state’s political matrix, the individual, who has now become his party’s nemesis, would in fact have contested and most likely would have won as an APC candidate with things possibly taking a different trajectory. Unfortunately, Aregesola, the leader, would have none of it – and the rest as they say is history”.
Despite some of his bold infrastructural strides and welfarist policy initiatives, Aregbesola failed to decisively alter the relatively even balance of political forces in the state between the PDP and APC since 2003 against the background of the immense enthusiasm and momentum that accompanied the restoration of his 2007 stolen electoral mandate by the courts after a protracted legal struggle and his assumption of office. Although he obviously meant well as governor, many of his policies were populist but clearly not well thought out for example in the education sector. His administration courted avoidable controversy and caused considerable polarization among different religious faiths for instance. Oyetola was compelled by popular demand to reverse some of these policies such as merger of schools, introduction of the same school uniforms for all public schools, and re-introduction of the 6-3-3-4 system to the chagrin of the former governor who saw his successor as trying to erode his legacies in the state. This was a major cause of the deterioration in their relationship.
The mismatch between the quest for ambitious infrastructural provision during Aregbesola’s tenure and the resource base and fiscal capacity of the state resulted in a severe fiscal crisis, which worsened when the state’s allocation from the Federation Account dwindled considerably. Not only did the administration have to devote substantial resources to servicing debts that had accumu lated heavily in the pursuit of its projects, it was unable to meet its wage obligations to public sector workers resulting in the payment of half salaries to some categories of public workers which further alienated the latter from the government and constituted an electoral albatross for the APC.
The loss of Oyetola in last Saturday’s election takes nothing away from the governor as a competent administrator and shrewd manager of resources. To his credit, he paid full salaries of workers and met pensions’ obligations of the state from the inception of his administration even though many workers were reportedly unhappy that he did not clear the unpaid salaries inherited from his predecessor as well as not doing enough about backlog of stagnated promotions. The governor’s constraints in this regard are understandable and his performance heroic as he was not only systematically meeting inherited debt servicing obligations of the state, he also made impressive strides in infrastructure provision and social service delivery within the limits of available resources without taking any new loans.
Oyetola is not a charismatic or natural politician given to theatrics, frivolity and garrulousness. He has a serious minded demeanor and approach to issues. This was evident in the gubernatorial debates where he simply stated the facts as he saw them and allowed his more flamboyant opponents to get away with evident exaggerations and willful distortions. This may not be an asset in our type of political clime and culture especially within the context of pervasive poverty. Oyetola is finance expert and an nsurance professional given to being sober and conservative. His plugging of sources of resource wastage and frugality caused disaffection even among some of his aides and party members leading to meager resources deployed for critical electoral purposes such as payment of party agents and other logistics being diverted to private pockets with negative consequences for the party’s fortunes at the polls in contrast to the reportedly free-spending disposition of his major challenger and eventual winner.
Oyetola in many ways reminds one of the first governor of the state in this dispensation from 1999 – 2003, Papa Bisi Akande. Despite his impressive accomplishments in providing infrastructure for the state and gradually repositioning the finances of the state, Akande lost reelection for a second term largely because he was perceived as too austere by workers and members of the political class and other stakeholders who were unhappy at his stubborn refusal to frivolously spend the scarce resources of the state in dispensation of patronage.
It is also not improbable that the harsh economic climate in the land and the perception that, unlike Oyetola, there would be free money to spend under a governor like Adeleke with an endlessly sunny outlook on life and most likely oblivious of the parlous finances of the state and the tremendous demand this will make on the intellect, seriousness and administrative dexterity of a governor and his team, contributed to the PDP victory. The honeymoon is unlikely to endure.
Since the governor was Chief of Staff in the Aregbesola administration for eight years, does he not also bear some responsibility for the policies of that administration some of which his government reversed? It would appear that Aregbesola’s domineering style and allegedly authoritarian outlook limited the ability of members of his Executive Council to play the necessary collegial role in contributing to policy debates and initiatives with negative implications for the quality of governance during his tenure. Could the relationship between the two have been more astutely managed especially by the governor? There are those who contend that Oyetola allowed himself to become unduly preoccupied with his tiff with his former boss and in the process being unnecessarily distracted and that he could have done more to carry key members of the Aregbesola faction along in the process of governance without necessarily compromising the imperative of carrying out necessary policy reforms demanded by the public. However, the management of relations between former governors and their successors continues to be a major problem in this dispensation and is not limited to Osun state.
It is obvious that the outcome of the Osun governorship election was influenced essentially by local factors in the state and the PDP is grossly mistaken that this will have a defining impact on its performance in the 2023 presidential election in the state or across the South West. A video that has gone viral shows some voters who were celebrating Adeleke’s victory also affirming that they would vote for the APC presidential flag bearer, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, in the presidential election. Of course, the prospects of the party’s victory will be significantly strengthened if it engages in serious conflict resolution and fence mending not just in Osun but across the board before the elections.
Beyond the ethno-regional factor, a key selling point for Tinubu in Osun and elsewhere will be his track record in laying the foundation for the accelerated and sustained transformation of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007 and his demonstrated capacity to identify and utilize the best and brightest brains to run the country and redress the dangerous economic slide, deepening poverty and worsening insecurity that afflicts the country within and beyond Osun and the South-West. The 2023 presidential election will be less a competition between the two dominant parties with nationwide structures than a contest between the candidates and their perceived comparative ability to effectively tackle the existential challenges of contemporary Nigeria.