Dr. Tony Ikpasaja
omewhere along James Watt Road in Benin city, a well-dressed middle-aged man sauntered down the walkway lined by roast-corn sellers. He stopped by the first woman as she mopped her face with the tip of her dirty wrapper. During the seasons, roast-corn sellers are countless in the streets, mostly women trying to rake something for their families.
Fresh roast-corn are delicacies for all and sundry in this part of the world. In very elitist gait, the man enquired for the price as he started to tease; “na dis kind corn Oshiomhole dey eat when him dey take deceive una for Edo.” Swiftly the woman hit back, “abegi how many big people fit chop wetin we poor people dey chop. How many? Abeg leave Oshiobaba alone o.” Sensing he probably played a wrong note, he selected some of the maize for the woman to pack for him.
That was during the peak of Governor Adams Oshiomhole’s administration in Edo state, when he was campaigning for his successor. The viral photo of the former governor eating roast-corn with his aides in the streets of Benin added vitality to the campaign. It somehow reassured the ordinary people that this governor was still one of them. Godwin Obaseki won that election with a comfortable margin and became governor.
The middle-aged man told his encounter with the corn seller to some of his friends and it became a debate about cult followership. Since the days of Awo, Zik and Tafawa Balewa, only very few politicians could retain immense followership. Shortly after the 2007 election, when Professor Oserhemen Osunbor became Governor of Edo state, the biggest headache the administration had to contend with was Comrade Oshiomhole’s crowd of supporters whenever he entered Benin city.
As soon as the court declared him governor in November of 2008, his opponents predicted he would soon fail. Rather he proved that a labour activist could do better. Bad roads were restored, security, healthcare, schools and other public infrastructure were alive again. Seven years down the line after handing over, Edo state has become a shadow of itself with federal and state roads in very derelict condition.
Only last year, federal government refunded N16 billion to the state coffers as costs of what the former governor spent in fixing Federal roads. Some of that refund was never ploughed back into fixing the bad roads as both the local and federal roads have become very appalling. The days of Oshiomhole have become nostalgic in Edo state. The only passable roads were the ones he constructed while in office.
The electrifying moments that Comrade Oshiomhole creates in public gatherings are testaments of his popularity and admiration. Cult followership is used to describe group of fans who are highly enthusiastic to some persons. These persons become their heroes. Nelson Mandela leads the pack in this category. In 1942, he joined the African National Congress and was arrested several times as he fought against apartheid in South Africa.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr represented the face of US civil rights movement in the 1950s and played a fundamental role in ending the segregation of African Americans, having been arrested five times before his assassination in 1968 at 39. Rosa Parks was an African American civil rights activist, arrested for sitting at a vacant front seat of an Alabama bus on her way home after a long tedious day at work in December of 1955.
Chinese professor, writer and human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo called for political reforms to end the communist single-party rule and was arrested severally. India’s Mahatma Gandhi went to prison in 1922 after leading a protest march to quit British colonial rule. Susan Brownell Anthony was an American social reformer and feminist who was arrested in 1872 for promoting women’s suffrage movement in the US.
History have also recorded leaders who forced their personalities on the people using absolute powers, but soon expire after their regimes. Nur Mohammed as President of Afghanistan in 1978 compelled people to call him the Great Leader and hung his portraits across the country. General Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, and called himself the Captain-General.
Chairman Mao of China called himself the Great Supreme Commander and his supporters established a loyalty dance for him in 1966. President Theodore Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, declared himself the country’s ‘god’ who had powers to even kill anyone and will not go to hell. The Egyptian state played around Gamal Abdel Nasser’s image as the immortal.
Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu Sese Seko of Democratic Republic of Congo joined Adolf Hitler in the notorious list of absolute demi-gods. Dictator Francois Duvalier of Haiti claimed he was the physical embodiment of the nation. Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein’s pervaded Iraqi society with his images and made every tenth brick of the reconstructed ancient buildings, including Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, marked with his name and signature. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya forced his face on every item in the country.
Americans differed though in this regard. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan commanded unforced cult followership with Abraham Lincoln appearing as the greatest. They inspired cult followership through nationalism like Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again programme.
Oshiomhole’s humble beginning and ascendance to power was like that of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who first won election in Brazil in 2003, and defeated a sitting President in 2022 under the Workers’ Party. Da Silva started as a metal factory worker, and rose to become a labour leader. Despite being scratched by the murky nature of politics, his people still trusted him with power. Barack Obama once described him as the greatest politician on earth.
Born on April 4, 1952 in Iyamho, around Auchi in Edo State, to late Alhaji Aliyu Oshiomhole and Alhaja Aishetu Oshiomhole, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole after his primary and secondary education, proceeded to Kaduna for greener pastures. He started as a factory worker in a textile mill, proceeded to study Industrial Relations in Ruskin College, London in 1975, and returned to lead the 75,000-strong National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria as Secretary General. In 1999, he became the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
He led Nigerians to resist arbitrary increases in fuel prices without corresponding palliatives and suffered police tear gas, blockades of union offices, arrests and detentions. He also secured a 15% increase in salaries for workers nationwide. As Governor of Edo state, he made history for the social revolution against one-party structure which PDP fostered. When asked how he would handle a workers’ demonstration in the streets if he ran into them in his convoy as governor, he swiftly replied, “I will join them.”
Such iconic echoes boosted his street popularity. His regrets were tangled in the abysmal performance of his successors; Abdulwaheed Omar as NLC President and Godwin Obaseki as Governor of Edo state. His succession pattern reflected how he trusted those around him. As governor of Edo state, he wanted a successor who would carry on with his vision to make Edo greater and become a destination in tourism.
The great China walls which attract 10 million tourists yearly is second to the Benin Moat with the Guiness Book of Records referencing it as the world’s largest earthworks before the mechanical era. Portuguese documents dating back to 1472 described the Benin sunken ancient basins with outlets to deal with flooding. Today, even in the face of modern technology, the state is yet to resolve storm water problems when Oshiomhole’s administration started and handed over a blueprint on how to deal with the erosion problems.
Like the cat with nine lives, Oshiomhole has returned to power and he is expected to play key role at the tenth Senate. He defeated an incumbent senator in the recently concluded election with 107,110 votes against 55,344, inspite of not having enough time to campaign in his locality owing to his engagement at the national level. Rumours are widespread that Oshiomhole will be the next Senate President.
He will be a strong bridge between the north and south; Christians and Muslims; elite and the masses, the weak and the poor, and as such he appears to be the best man for the job. The rule, though not law, could be amended to pave way for him. As a former NLC President, former Governor and former National Chairman of the ruling party, he is widely believed to possess the critical skills required to stabilise the country at this perilous time.
When he came to receive his Certificate of Return recently, the ovation that greeted his name at the hall of the International Conference Centre, Abuja, from among his yet-to-be-inaugurated colleagues spoke volumes about his all-inclusive acceptance. Outside the conference hall, it was another wild ovation from ordinary Nigerians who besieged the venue to catch a glimpse of the new ‘Comrade Senator.’ Happy birthday to Comrade Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole.
Dr. Ikpasaja teaches Leadership studies at the University of Abuja.