Opinion: 54 garlands for Bukola Saraki, the 'Sugar Boy' By Akintoba Fatigun

Date: 2016-12-20

Those who knew Senate President Bukola Saraki before his romance with politics must be sore pained at recent attempts to portray him as a cheap larcenist.

People would say this is why many good Nigerians avoid public office like plaque. Our people are hardly willing to separate the wheat from the chaff when condemning public officers. As far as most of our people are concerned, all politicians are nothing to but petty criminals and pen robbers.

But this is not always true. We still find folks with a genuine mind for service and the Senate President is one of those.

I remember an occasion during his campaigns to be governor in 2003. A couple of us were in a discussion with an old aide of his and this led us into his work ethic. The lead discussant, who was clearly one of Saraki's most trusted aides, informed the small group that his boss and some of his friends worked like there would be no tomorrow.

He said that Saraki's business friends included billionaire Aliko Dangote, Audu Dantata, Sam Nwanjoku, Olu Fagbemi, Deji Adeleke all of who were the biggest players in commodity market at the time.

He said that this group young of businessmen were referred to as "Sugar Boys," and that they always met at Saraki's Victoria Island home, him being the biggest trader in fertilizer, rice, powdered milk, vegetable oil and sugar. He would later venture into real estate, another enterprise that thrived.

By the time Saraki would delve into politics therefore, he had charted a successful path for himself in business even as he is credited with some of the fundamental innovations that launched the banking sector into the 20th century in this country. One of these is the pioneering introduction of the Automated Teller Machines phenomenon as Managing Director of Societe Generale Bank of Nigeria.

Although people generally assume that Saraki's foray into politics was at the prompting of, the late Dr Olusola Saraki, his late politician father, this is not correct. One clear indication of this is that while the late Waziri of Ilorin was one of the moving forces in the All Nigeria Peoples Party) ANPP), the budding politician allied with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He was soon invited to join the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration as Special Assistant Special Duties, a designation which he politely turned down.

The thinking of Saraki then was that the position he was offered ultimately added no value to the nation. He requested to serve in an office in which he would be able to add value to the national economy.

After a lull in the enthusiasm of the government, Saraki was appointed Special Assistant on Budget to the President. With this, he became part of the team that re-organised the budget office, serving on many presidential committees including the non-oil revenue committee. He also chaired the tariff and incentives to promote local industries and agriculture.

I argue that Saraki is one of the most development conscious political leaders of this time. This is exemplified by the issues, policies and ideas that drive his every move in public office. One of the most inspiring things that he did as Governor of Kwara State is the introduction of a community health insurance scheme in 2004. This scheme which started in one of the 16 local government areas of the state was in collaboration with the Hygeia Health Insurance Scheme and the Dutch Health Insurance Scheme.

When it started, with a premium of N200, every individual was entitled to medical treatment for the rest of a financial year. Surgeries including Ceasarian Sections as well as the treatment of lifestyle and some non-communicable diseases were covered under this scheme which, without any doubt saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The last I know of this scheme was that it had been expanded to cover all the 16 local governments.

The invitation of experienced commercial farmers to start what is now known as the Shonga Commercial Farms Limited is another virgin initiative of Saraki. Observers would testify that this step spurred a revolution, which encouraged other states and corporate entities to embark on commercial agriculture.

To deepen this initiative and incentivise young Kwarans to love agriculture, Saraki established the Molete Farm School as a training ground for young graduates and non-graduates who have interest in commercial agriculture. After graduation, this school cleared farm lands for its students, assisted them with inputs as well as and fund to run the farm. The first produce of the first few sets of students were also purchased by the government. This was to ensure that the young farmers took of smoothly.

Further in his bid for the education of young citizens and stimulating economic interest in the state, he thought about turning the state into an aviation hub. This led to the establishment of the Kwara Aviation College, the first time a state government would so venture. He also approved the remodelling of the Ilorin International Airport and ensured the resuscitation regular flights through partnerships with Overland Airways, Capital Airline and Arik Airline all of which introduced flights on the Lagos- Ilorin and Ilorin- Abuja routes. Saraki, in furtherance of this motive did all within his power to encourage the Nigerian Air Force to site his maintenance hangar in the state. Saraki also established the modern cargoes terminal to support exportation of farm produce from Shonga Farms and any other such initiatives in the state to other part of the world.

His bid for the industrialisation of the state led to the reviving the Kwara Cashew Industry in partnership with Olams Limited, an initiative which makes Kwara the biggest exporter of cashew to Europe, Asia and American, currently. His eight year tenure was hugely felt in every area of the state as he led reforms in health, which led to the establishment of the Kwara State Diagnostic Centre to encourage medical tourism; the Kwara State University which presently rank 15th out of 159 Nigerian universities; the Kwara State Vocational School in Ajase-Ipo , to bridge skilled labour gap in Nigeria and stop the influx of skilled workers from francophone African countries into the country and the Kwara Football Academy, run by veterans Clemence Westerof and Kojo Williams. History will vindicate Saraki as a visionary leader who set Kwara State on the path for sustainable development.

And as a first term Senator, Saraki arguably lit the fire that is consuming the malfeasance that has permeated Nigeria' oil and gas sector when he raised a motion to investigate the astronomical rise in national expenditure on fuel subsidy under the Jonathan administration. Saraki did not allow party affiliations becloud his loyalty to the nation on this front as he encouraged his colleagues to dig into the matter.

It was also during this term that he led the first visit by a Senate Committee to Ogoni land and mooted the idea of the Ogoni Clean Up that is now a reality.

Of course the achievements of the Senate under Saraki's direction since 2015 is there for all to see. He has continued to pilot the affairs of the senate on behalf of the people, nudging the executive to work in the interest of the people, again in spite of party loyalty.

The acumen which he has employed into his engagements as a private businessman has continued to serve him well in public service. It is the same acumen and the favour of the Almighty that selfless service to humanity engenders that will see this sugar boy through in the current persecution and sustain him through his days.

Fatigun wrote in from Abuja.

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