I had sworn that my first visit to Osogbo would be to its world-famous Osun Sacred Grove. Instead, I attended a “mega” rally in the historic town of Iwo, one of many at which Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola is asking the Osun people to renew his mandate as their governor. I had first taken notice of him for his spartan look which together with his beard halfway between shaggy and kempt, his ubiquitous white skull-cap, and his straight bearing spoke more of an ascetic, a hermit even, than of a governor-in-waiting.
This was while he fought in the courts to claim his mandate wrongly awarded to his opponent. Then I took notice again after he had entered the State House in Osogbo and President Jonathan was about to take his turn at the favourite pastime of our heads of state: increasing the already unbearable suffering of the people by removing a phantom subsidy on petrol.
If I recall correctly, Aregbesola was the only governor that said no to the further enrichment of billionaire contractors at the expense of the people. I wanted to meet him then, and it was only fitting that I should make his personal acquaintance at Freedom Park in Lagos, during the night of tributes to Mandela, led by Wole Soyinka, in November last year.
I had heard that he was expected, but the evening had worn on a bit before he came in and walked sprightly to join Soyinka and Femi Falana, two tables removed from where I was seated with Odia Ofeimun, Kole Omotoso, and Tunde Babawale. Surprised that I had yet to meet Ogbeni, Ofeimun had led me to shake hands with the man. Seven months after that first encounter, there I was in Iwo to witness first-hand how he mixed the ingredients to fashion a political persona that is quite unlike any other in our contemporary political history.
I set out from Osogbo at about 11 AM with Mr Solagbade Amodeni, former Commissioner for Natural Resources in Ondo State, childhood friend of Ogbeni’s and now a voluntary political associate. His mission of gauging the level of preparedness and mood of the people for the rally coincides with mine. As early as Awo town, about 15 minutes from Iwo, we see buses, some screen-painted with campaign posters, ferrying supporters to the venue, small roadside crowds brandishing brooms, the symbol of Ogbeni’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). We arrive in Iwo just after noon and feel immediately the energy in the air.
On Bowen University Road in the Oke Odo area, all feet, it seems, are heading to the township stadium (actually, only a fenced field), venue of the rally, about a kilometre away. A record store is blasting Aregbesola’s praise in Yoruba. Various tee-shirt groups, walking campaign posters: brown tee-shirts that say “’D’ Team proudly support (sic) Rauf,” red-and-black shirts are the Progressive Torchbearers and say only “Rauf 2014 OK,” green shirts proclaim him “Oranmiyan — Yoruba Legend,” lemon-green shirts matched with baseball caps are “DeRaufs,” among many other political aso-ebi.
Finally, we are at the venue, a third full, the crowd swelling by the minute. Sounds of competing talking drum groups, in uniforms, can now be heard underneath the amplified music of King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall, KWAM I, leading his fuji band to entertain the crowd. Brooms, banners and posters everywhere, and even more tee-shirt groups, among thems a clutch of women in navy-blue shirts advertising Aregbesola’s “tablets of knowledge” programme with the slogan “Opon Imo, Empowering minds, Enriching lives.”
I make my way towards the stage — two actually, one covered, with seats for dignitaries, and an open deck with the microphone stands. With the help of Amodeni, I am allowed past security and onto the speakers’ deck where I can more clearly see the crowd. To get there, I have to walk past the covered stage, at the back of which is a big banner announcing Ogbeni’s signature programmes: “O’Reap (rural enterprise and agriculture), O’Schools (rebuilding schools), O’Meals (balanced diet nutrition for pupils), O’Yes (employment). At the bottom of the banner, a sense of rhyme with O’seun! I climb up the speakers’ stage and scan the “stadium,” nearly half-full and quite agog by now.
Someone cries “My in-law!” and I feel hands enveloping me from behind. It is Basiru Ajibola, one of the fearless tribunes of the NANS crusades for democracy and social justice in the eighties and early nineties, now Ogbeni’s Commissioner for Special Duties. I’m his in-law because he had the good sense to travel further down south to Igbide in Isoko South LGA to find his better half. As soon as he lowers his arms, someone else cries “Comrade!” and hugs me. It is Semiu Okanlanwon, another NANS veteran, now a special assistant to Ogbeni. I learn that Segun “Red Drum” Maiyegun, former NANS president, is in the fold too as a special assistant but duty has taken him elsewhere today.
The atmosphere is getting more electric, a red helicopter is hovering above the thickening crowd, circling the vicinity in wide surveillance arcs, and there is very little time to reminisce — that must wait till after the rally. Basiru and Semiu dart off and I turn to read the banner on the wall at the back of the speakers’ stage. “Òrànmíyàn, Leekan si!” it says. “Òrànmíyàn, Once more.” It is a clever pun, as another banner more baldly asserts: “The Return of Òrànmíyàn.” Ogbeni as the reincarnation of the legendary son of Oduduwa whose fabled staff in Ife is probably the most treasured ancestral relic in Yorubaland. Ogbeni has even had the staff stitched onto the breast pockets of some of his shirts and wears it as a personal logo.
If the fastidiously austere Aregbesola can be accused of self-regard, it would be in this appropriation of a hallowed ancestor, but I strain in vain for any outward sign of insincerity. I see, instead, the clever use of myth, blended with pop culture. For soon, Fadeyi Oloro, a popular Yoruba actor famous for his roles as Ifa priest, comes on stage with his entourage, all in danshikis and blackened faces and hands, one of them carrying a basket of horns adorned with feathers, cowries, strips of red cloth; incantations follow.
At their exit, pop culture takes the stage. KWAM I has left his band on a stage 50 meters away to join Sir Shina Peters (Afro-juju/Aregbesola, the difference is clear), Weird MC and Tony Tetuila for banter and photos with their fans among the technical crew and campaign and security teams. Then Peters, Tetuila and Weird MC perform. Back with his band, KWAM I leads sweeping-dance choruses in-between his colleagues’ acts: “Igbale ti m’owa, DEMO ni mo ti gba.” With this broom, I will sweep the reactionary party away, DEMO being a reference to S. L. Akintola’s Nigerian National Democratic Party which allied with the Northern People’s Congress in the First Republic to break the dominance of Awolowo’s Action Group in the old Western Region.
More than three hours have passed since I entered the stadium. And now a loud buzz followed by faces turned en mass to the stadium entrance warn of Aregbesola’s arrival. He makes his entry to the tune of the song “Stand Up for the Champion” cued for the moment by the DJ. The stadium is now feverish with excitement. Ogbeni’s convoy is led in by a throng of jogging men, followed by a horse-rider, and then an aquamarine 24-seater bus, Aregbesola perched atop the sun-roof. He is dressed in his customary white skull cap, matched with ochre aso oke danshiki, sokoto and shoes. In his right hand is a broom with which he sweeps the air above the crowd.
At the entrance to the stage, he dismounts and half-runs to the speakers’ deck to greet the crowd, not to speak yet, this time serenaded by KWAM I. Then he takes his seat on the canopied stage while Osun’s political worthies in the APC fold address the crowd: Isiaka Adeleke, the state’s first governor, now a senator; Senator Sola Adeyeye, the re-election campaign director; Najeem Salaam, speaker of the state house of assembly; Mrs Grace Titilayo Laoye-Tomori, the deputy governor, among others.
At 4:55 PM, Ogbeni is introduced, right after his deputy has addressed the crowd. He dances onto the stage, broom in hand, to the pulsating beat of Skelewu. He begins his address with a Muslim chant that progresses into a call-and-response with his audience, then he goes through a long list of personalities and groups whom he greets. When he gets to “the great Nigerian students,” he departs from the formulaic “Mo ki” to salute them in the familiar idiom. “Great Nigerian students!” he hails them, and gets the obligatory response, “Great!” “Great gbogbo!!” Gbogbo!! “Great gbagba!!! Gbagba!!! Great gbogbo-gbagba!!!! Greeaaaat!!!! At which point the great Nigerian students in the crowd, all now mysteriously massed in front of him just behind the security fence, break into song. “There is victory for us. In the struggle for Africa, there is victory for us.”
Now choirmaster, Aregbesola leads them on to fuller voice. “Forward . . . ever! Backward . . . never! In the struggle for Africa, There is viii-ctoo-ryyy for us!!” Then calling on the youths to resist any attempt to turn elections into military operations, to rig the vote, he raises another staple of student street protests. “How many people soldier go kill o?” They snatch it from his lips. “How many people soldier go kill!” “I say, How many people power go kill o?” Tempo rising higher, “How many people power go kill!! Aayyy, dem go kill us tire . . .” Slight of frame, were he in jeans, sweat-soaked tee-shirt, and a beret, he would pass for a 21-year-old student leader rousing his dare-devil comrades to confront tanks and rifles with stones! Very stealthily, Ogbeni works the crowd to a passionate affirmation of his re-election against any machination of the opposition party, brooms hoisted, fists clenched and raised, talking-drums in frenzied rhythms and KWAM I supplying fuji chants to every applause line.
Ogbeni had been speaking for over half an hour to a rapturous crowd. Amodeni comes upstage to nudge me off the loud-speaker box where I am now seating to give my feet a little reprieve. He says we should leave “just before Aregbe finishes his speech and the crowd surges after him, hampering our exit.” I follow him. Many others have decided to avoid that scenario as well. Soon, we are back on Bowen University Road for the kilometre-long trek to where Amodeni’s car is parked. Under a large white canopy on the right side of the street, at about midway, is a gathering that will discuss the rally till the wee hours. We enter the car and have barely shut the doors than Ogbeni’s convoy is upon us.
Crowds line either side of the road in the outskirts of Iwo, in Awo, in Ogbagba, down to the suburbs of Oshogbo, brandishing brooms and shouting, APC! Change! The students are in the convoy too. “Aluta Continua!!!” says the back of the white minibus in front of us, belonging no doubt to the Student Union Government of one of Osun’s tertiary institutions. Above the back bumper the bus declares, “One for all, all for one.” I turn to take in the countryside and when I return to the road I see that a different minibus, plate number “Aluta 003,” has replaced the previous one. “Aluta Intervention,” this one says under the roof before declaiming more loudly above its back bumper “TO HELL WITH OPPRESSION!” The heady defiance of student “governments” finds a perfect echo in the quiet revolution of the state government under Ogbeni’s charge. Or not so quiet, after all, given the exclamatory O’s of his programmes: O’Schools, O’Meals, O’Reap, O’Yes!
Nineteen days after, Aregbesola’s brother governor in neigbouring Ekiti State shockingly loses his mandate to a former governor impeached on several grounds, including corruption, in an election that will be known to history by the unfortunate phrase “stomach infrastructure.” The very improbability of that victory gives the opposition in Osun, led once again by an aspirant under a heavy cloud of suspicion, high hopes. If what I witnessed before, during and after the Iwo rally is anything to go by, I doubt very much that it is not a highly misplaced hope. Aregbesola cuts the picture of a man totally immersed in his people and their history, one who comes from and is of the masses. Blessed with boundless energy, he is astonishingly reanimated in their midst to star in the “total” people’s theatre that each of his mega rallies truly is. I don’t believe in reincarnation but I would bet on Ogbeni’s return as Òrànmíyàn’s chief of staff!
Professor Ogaga, a poet and lawyer, is running for political office as a representative in the forthcoming Isoko Federal Constituency elections in Delta State. Please give him feedback via firstname.lastname@example.org