By Reuben Abati
Then let them laugh and rejoice in our man’s ill-luck. Alive perhaps they felt no need of him, but now that he is dead, they will grieve their lack in the demands of war. For foolish men do not appreciate the noble prize they have, until it is discarded from their hands. His death pains me and falsely pleasures them, for him it is a pure delight. For he has gained all that he wanted for himself and that was simply death. Why then should they exult in overbearing mockery? He died at the hands of god. They had no part in it. And let Odysseus gloat at this along with them. For Ajax is no more for them- for me his loss bequeaths a legacy of pain and lament. – Teucer in Ajax by Sophocles (442 BC)
Buruji Kashamu, Nigerian politician, entrepreneur, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and a controversial public figure, has gone the way of all mortals- one of the high-profile victims of the global scourge called COVID19 – which has effectively turned the year 2020 into “annus horribilis”. No man is completely good, nor is any man completely bad, all mortals are archetypes of the very incompleteness of Creation itself. But if anything must be said of Buruji Kashamu whose last remains were buried in his home town of Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun State, on Sunday, August 9, it is that he was deeply loved by the common people whose aspirations he championed and who benefited greatly from his benevolence. It was not for nothing that Kashamu was known as “Alanu Mekunnu”. He was more comfortable identifying with the poor, despite his stupendous wealth. He was in his lifetime one of the most prominent Ijebus of the first quarter of the 21st Century.
I recall that each time he entered Ijebu Ode from Lagos, motorcyclists (that is Okada riders) would form a convoy – that convoy could be as long as a durbar/calvacade of 100 motorcycles, hailing him, and they would lead him all the way from Ijebu Ode to his home town, Ijebu Igbo, about 20 minutes away. The first time I witnessed that spontaneous reaction to his presence by ordinary people trying to earn their own living, I was shocked. In the course of his public career, Kashamu had gained a reputation as a friend of the ordinary people, not just in Ijebuland, but across Yorubaland and by extension, other parts of Nigeria. He had established a group known as the Omo Ilu Foundation through which he provided support for the poor. These include(d) indigent students whose school fees he paid, the sick whose hospital bills he picked up, struggling petty traders for whom he rented shops and paid house rent. He donated vehicles to many and provided shelter. He sponsored community development projects. With the Omo Ilu Foundation, he also managed to build a vast, grassroots political network, across the South West.
The headquarters of the Foundation in Ijebu Igbo sits on acres of land, and if Buruji called a meeting of members of his grassroots network, every local government in the South West sent delegates. I saw the power of such a political network on display when in 2019, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) held its South West flag off campaign at Mapo Hall in Ibadan, Oyo state. There was and there is still conflict in the Ogun State branch of the People’s Democratic Party, with Buruji Kashamu at the centre of it all. In 2019, the party at the national level had refused to work with him and chose instead to collaborate with other forces within the state. The plan was to hand over the party flag to the Ladi Adebutu group whereas the Kashamu-led Engr. Bayo Dayo faction of the party was legally recognized by the Courts and was effectively in charge of the party secretariat. If the party was not so divided at the time, the PDP would perhaps have won the Gubernatorial election of 2019 in Ogun State. But Ogun PDP remains divided. On election day, fifth columnists further worked against the party.
I was talking about the Mapo Hall flag-off. Senator Kashamu ensured that his grassroots network in the entire South West was fully mobilized. By 2 am on the day of the event, his political machinery was already effectively on the ground at the venue. We left Lagos at night. When we arrived at Mapo Hall around 3 am, the only people who had secured all the strategic positions were Kashamu’s supporters. They were fully dressed in party garments, ready to receive the Abuja crowd. He had ensured that his own supporters outnumbered every other group. When the programme began, nobody was unruly. Everything went smoothly. But nobody gave out any flag. That particular item on the programme was conveniently omitted. I saw an aspect of Nigerian politics at work that day. The loyalty of Kashamu’s supporters was obvious for the discerning to see.
I saw that loyalty on display again, last Sunday. The masses trooped out en masse to honour their hero; members of the Kashamu grassroots network defied COVID19 and ignored the circumstances of his death to pay their last respects. Earlier in the day, access to his residence was controlled. Barrel-chested security men stood at the gates to enforce guidelines. But the people soon found a way around that. They wanted to catch a glimpse of their hero. They climbed the walls of adjoining buildings and occupied every possible rooftop. Others jumped the fence into the compound. Outside, on the streets of Ijebu Igbo, the people mourned. If the people had been allowed, they would have taken charge of the very burial itself. The Governor of Ogun State, Prince Dapo Abiodun was there to commiserate with the widow, the children and other members of the family. Islamic clerics recited Quranic verses. It was as if those verses, oozing out of the loudspeakers in the compound touched a vein in the people’s hearts. People wailed and wept. I was later told one of our female foot-soldiers became hysterical with grief and kept saying “Kashamu was killed. Wicked people have done their worst. What is Corona? Corona cannot kill Baba. Is it money? Baba can buy Corona many times over.”
Buruji Kashamu was many things to many people: Baba, Chairman, Senator, Olori, Leader, Esho Jinadu, Ibu Owo Baba Sherifatu, Ekun Oko Susan… He loved the people’s adoration, and he captured their imagination for sundry reasons. He had the common touch. He had no airs. He could stop by the roadside, go into the bush and urinate and then come out. He could enter a store on the highway to buy snacks and drinks for his entourage. He once told me that he started from a humble background. He said he once worked as a ticketing officer at a motor park in Makoko, Lagos, and later at a Local Government Council. He spoke the language of the streets even better than the boys. During the campaigns, he held meetings with all manners of people. One day, a group of street boys stormed the Omo Ilu Foundation. They said they wanted to see him. The security people told him to ignore them. He disagreed. He went immediately downstairs and asked that the gates should be thrown open for them. He was a courageous man who loved challenges. He told the boys to calm down and without any introductions, he personally called out their leaders. He then proceeded to speak about his own life. He said he would like them to be like him and make something out of their lives. He gave them a lecture on drug abuse and warned them never to take drugs or they would end up badly. That encounter ended with the boys prostrating and lifting their hands in the air (Tuale Baba, Buruji, Buruii, Kashamu Kashamu, ori e wa n be!.)He gave them money and gifts and told them he was ready to support any one of them who was ready to change and be a responsible member of society.
I am not sure Senator Kashamu had exactly that same kind of connection with the Nigerian elite. He had friends who loved him passionately, but there were also many who had reservations about him. When I accepted to be his running mate, there were many members of the public and the PDP who used to call me aside to say: “You have to be careful. That man may be your friend today, but there is nobody he cannot quarrel with, and if he disagrees with you, he will fight you to finish. He doesn’t have permanent friends.” Kashamu’s public persona and politics were constructed around this and other narratives. But beneath that, you could sense that he was feared. His combination of financial power, street wisdom and his growing influence as a political force was a bit rather intimidating for his rivals. He probably didn’t help matters with the manner in which he pursued every matter as if a war was afoot. He was a tall, well-built man, robust and inescapable with his physical presence. He devoted both his physical weight and mental energy to every task. He was also brutally blunt. He didn’t know how to pull his punches. On many occasions he showed me vitriolic text messages he sent to those who offended him. If they replied, he would fire back. He feared no one. He once explained to me that he was driven by a commitment to justice. “Too many people are treacherous”, he said. “they would use you and dump you and then work against you.” He told me he would always stand for the truth. “I hate hypocrisy”, he would add.
This brought a wedge between him and many people, particularly within the political sphere. But while he would mend fences with others, there were persons he took on with all the weight at his disposal. This probably explains why he loved litigation. I was with him once and someone brought a woman to him whose son had been detained by the police and was charged to court for what looked like a minor misdemeanor. He didn’t allow the woman to finish before he called one of his lawyers, and told the woman, a complete stranger, that he would take up the matter. A lawyer was dispatched. Some assistants were told to go to the police station. Any matter related to police station or the courts brought out a special side of him. If he had not been an entrepreneur and politician, he probably would have been a lawyer or a policeman. I saw him in action explaining legal concepts and quoting precedents. No lawyer could hoodwink him. He would probably be the first to figure out the technicalities of the case. He once asked me and someone to go to a police station to report a matter. He gave a summary of the statement that should be written and I simply marveled. He had a retinue of lawyers and he knew just who to consult on a variety of matters from real property to fundamental human rights. One PDP leader once told me: “That your man. He doesn’t ever get tired of going to court. That is our real problem with him. Court. Court, every time. If you greet him and he takes offence, he will go to court.”
I found all that intriguing considering the fact that after the 2019 Gubernatorial elections, he and I had a meeting and he told me his plans for the future. He would not run for elective office again, he said. He would rather concentrate on his businesses which were beginning to suffer at home and across the West African region. He wanted to do three things: (a) build his Lottery business into a more profitable venture across West Africa, (2) re-organize and strengthen the Omo Ilu Foundation to support the grassroots, and (3) stockpile resources for the 2023 election, not for himself but to provide support for his political associates. On the third point though, he added a caveat. He said he would not support me to challenge Governor Abiodun because he cannot sponsor someone from Central to challenge an Ijebu man. “But don’t worry, all of that depends on if Dapo Abiodun does well or not, and then we can sit down and re-strategize. In politics, everything is about strategy.” I told him my plan was to keep doing journalism, see if I can publish one or two books, and that before 2023, I intend to go back to school and get one more degree. He pretended as if he didn’t hear what I said. He sent for drinks and asked if I wanted food. Then he started laughing: “Abati, you mean with all that you have read, you still want to go to school? What for? What do you want to prove? You don’t want to set up business! You want to read more books?”
He then told me the story of how a former wife of his once pushed him to do an Executive Programme at the University of Lagos. He said it was a harrowing experience. Every day in class was like a punishment. Every examination was like a death sentence! He said he used to sweat in class but he kept at it because that his wife would not allow him to drop out. He said he was relieved when the ordeal was over. “But do you know, my enemies even tried to use that against me, politically?” He was above all, a family man to the core. His young children who are below ten, will one day read about him. May Almighty Allah grant him Aljannah Firdaus. For him, the journey is ended. Let the living worry about their future…
■ Dr. Abati, a senior journalist was Kashamu’s running mate in 2019 Ogun State governorship election