Gbajabiamila: The Making of ‘Jagaban NASS’
It sounds much like a phrase. As such by convention, you must have to take a deep breath before you pronounce the name. On a second thought, phonetically speaking, your brain may register a kind of similarity with Roger Milla. But in truth, the bearer of the name, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, has a lot of similarities with the Cameroonian football star, Roger Milla. Apart from the similarities in their birthdates-Mila was born on May 20, 1952 and Gbaja on June 25, 1962 - both men are strikers! At 42, the Cameroonian star held the record of being the oldest footballer to score in the Mundial, football World Cup; a feat he recorded during the 1994 world cup in the United States, (US). For the Nigerian politician and legislator, at 53 after 49 days of great politicking, he achieved the goal of starring as the Majority Leader of the nation’s House of Representatives in the 8th National Assembly, (NASS). Never before was the contest for a pole position fought with grit, group work and gravitas as in the instant case. Due to the leadership ability, charisma and suave ideological politics displayed by the former Minority Leader in the first forty-nine days of the present plenary, it would not be out of place, to crown Hon.
Femi Gbaja-Biamila the ’Jagaban of NASS’.
In the 57th day of the year 2006, a legislator-turned-traditional ruler, His Royal Highness, Alhaji Haliru Dantoro Kitoro III, the Emir of Borgu, brought the title to national prominence when he conferred it on the then Lagos State Governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, (the last man standing in the camp of the Alliance of Democracy). The Emir gave the meaning of the word Jagaban as “Leader of Warriors”. There is also a kind of political symmetry between Hon. Gbaja-Biamila, who has been representing the people of Surulere I constituency of Lagos State, and his former State Governor, Tinubu. Both politicians have affinity to the progressive bent in their politics. Moreover, they tend to see eye to eye on issues pertaining to the South West or Yoruba politics. It is not also out of place to say that both Tinubu and Gbaja share the same radical approach to politics. Many people believe that Gbaja represents Tinubu’s eye and ear in the House of Representatives from 2003 when the lawyer gained access to the Green Chamber. And 12 years after that entry, Gbaja could be said to have earned the title, Jagaban of NASS! Like all warriors know, the battle was not easy.
Gbaja-Biamila captured national interest and attention with the tenor of his voice and logic in the House of Representatives. As Minority leader, he represented the mind frame of the opposition and delivered harsh punches on the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), both as an Action Congress (AC), Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and All Progressives Congress (APC) lawmaker. And at no time did his leadership style and ideological stamina come into great display as when the stratagems to displace the PDP from the nation’s political power began to unfold. At critical junctures in the interplay of political forces between the ruling majority and opposing minority members, Femi took his position and defended his stands. When it came to selecting the Speaker of the 7th House of Representatives, Femi was there. The perception in the Green Chamber was as if to side with Femi was to side with the winning team and to side against him was akin to political kwashiorkor and mediocrity. That was why when the Tambuwal phenomenon happened at the onset of the 7th NASS, the success of the plan could be traced to enduring behind-the-scene artistries of the member from Surulere I constituency. Those who know Surulere know the identity of its populace, with the rich as with the poor; a kind of geopolitical position of the middle class-a transition from the old and new Lagos! Femi Gbaja-Biamila brought this dual characterization of Surulere to the NASS. Upholding enlightenment that marks the triumph of the middle class, he did not flinch to side with the voiceless; the underdogs! He peers with Dimeji Bankole in elocution and mirrors Chuba Okadigbo in political strategy, planning and mobilization. That blend of qualities was brought to bear on Gbaja-Biamila’s latest exploits in the 8th NASS, as he insisted that roles must be reserved for active players in a multi-party democracy. Indeed Gbaja-Biamila towers high in legislative activism all through his sojourn in the lower chamber of NASS.
The potent indicator that his eyes were trained at the leadership of the Green Chamber emerged when 37 members crossed over from the PDP to the APC. Instructively, the 37th defector happened to be the current Speaker, Barrister Yakubu Dogara from Bauchi State. Elated at the cross over of his colleagues from the ruling PDP to the inchoate APC, Hon. Gbaja-Biamila decided to rub the loss in to the remnants. He deliberately denoted the then Deputy Majority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor, as the Deputy Minority leader. The verbal dart sparked off the latent supremacy battle in the Green Chamber, where the then Speaker, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, was enjoying a somewhat bi-partisan acclaim. It came as a passing remark. But given the mood of the members, Femi decided to use the opportunity to contribute to a motion on the political trauma in Rivers State and calls for the removal of Mr. Joseph Mbu, the then Police commissioner; to make his point. Stung by the suggestion that the defection has not only depleted its ranks, but rendered it a minority, the PDP lawmakers demanded a withdrawal from Femi. But an exultant Gbaja maintained that his was a “statement of fact.” Though Speaker Tambuwal, alluding to Court ruling on the matter, cleverly navigated the legislature away from further sally into troubled waters, the pain Gbaja-Biamila’s remarks left on the psyche of PDP members was palpable.
Then towards the end of the year 2014, when Speaker Tambuwal decided to “come open” by dropping off his false PDP garment, the idea of impeaching the Speaker was mooted. Gbaja addressed the press on the defection of Tambuwal and the threat of impeachment. Mounting the rostrum of jurisprudence, the activist lawmaker stated that impeaching Speaker Tambuwal when the House reconvenes from their recess on December 3, 2014 was a constitutional impossibility. He contended that going by Nigeria’s Constitution, it is only by the signatures of 240 members out the 360 number of legislators in the chamber could the Speaker of the House of Representatives be impeached. “That is a number the PDP does not have in the House,” be declared. The stalemate in the Green Chamber continued through the barricade scaling exercise early this year. In all its momentous occasions, Gbaja-Biamila’s membership of the seventh House of Representatives, supplied the nuances, especially the verbal salt and pepper that made it lively.
It was therefore against that eventful background that the member came into the Eighth plenary. His aspiration to drive the activities of the session as first among equals threw the House and the nation into political convulsions. The election of the Speaker was much like a replay of David and Goliath. But while the victor took the prize, the attempt to deny the runner-up a consolation laurel brought to the fore once again, the doggedness and political staying power of Gbaja! In the battle that ensued, Gbaja showed that his search for prominent position in the Green Chamber was buoyed by his convictions and capacity. Throughout the 49 days of plots and counterplots, he earned the loyalty of his supporters in the Loyalty Group and earned the understanding sympathy of party men for which he had played the loyal ambassador.
And on Tuesday July 28, 2015 come came to become. The former Minority Leader transited to office of the Majority Leader of the same House of Representatives. The announcement and the ovation that attended it showed how much Gbaja reigns in the hearts of his colleagues. It was a win-win situation. Speaker Dogara showed the leader in him by the stylish way he brought the cheering news. Describing the selection of Gbaja as the new Majority Leader, Speaker Dogara actually said it was “the big one”. Whether the eventual triumph of Gbaja-Biamila in the struggle for House floor functionaries came by grace of Presidential intervention or not is immaterial. The lawyer and legislator, has left some rich lessons for politicians and aspiring leaders that perseverance, conviction and focus can be rewarding. It was an exultant Gbaja-Biamila that expressed happiness over the eventual outcome assuring that “you will now see the House you knew in the last four years back in action, working for the people, working for the nation”.
Femi Gbaja-Biamila could be said to have been prepared for his legislative and activist political roles through the various educational institutions he attended, both in Nigeria, United Kingdom and United States. As a lawyer by profession, Femi received tutelage in a law firm before setting up his private law chambers. A resourceful legislator, Gbaja have to his credit the sponsorship of many bills. He was spectacularly outstanding during the attempt by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to elongate his tenure beyond the constitutionally sanctioned two terms of fours each. It was perhaps on account of his brilliance that he consistently remained leader of opposition in the Green Chamber. The lawmaker astounded the nation when he rejected a national honour award from the ruling PDP. But for his engaging presence and political wit, especially the race to become the majority leader, Femi Gbaja-Biamila’s cannot refuse the crown as Jagaban NASS!