Haemorrhaging support from Nigerian Christians after he chose a Muslim northerner as his running mate, 2023 presidential candidate Bola Tinubu ... has appointed the Christian governor of Plateau State in central Nigeria as his campaign manager to help turn his fortunes around. Can Simon Lalong reverse the tide?
What started out as a rumour three years ago finally became a reality on Monday when All Progressives Congress (APC) stalwart, Tinubu, confirmed to journalists at the Presidential Villa that he wants to be the next President of Nigeria, and that he had informed President Muhammadu Buhari about his intention.
By his action, Tinubu made history by being the first person in recent history to officially declare his ambition at the Presidential Villa.
Responding to questions from State House reporters, Tinubu said he had received the President’s nod to contest. When asked whether he was ready to face Vice-President Osinbajo at the Presidential primary, Tinubu said he was not ready to talk about other contestants but argued that as former Governor of Lagos State, he possesses the capacity, confidence and vision to lead Africa’s largest economy.
“I don’t want to discuss individuals now. I must discuss myself. I have the confidence, the vision, the capacity to rule, build on the foundation of Mr President, and turn Nigeria better. I have done that with commitment in Lagos State,” he said.
Evolution of a kingmaker
Tinubu first joined politics in 1992 when he won a senatorial election in Lagos State during the short-lived and nebulous 3rd Republic. After the military junta annulled the June 12, 1993 Presidential election won by MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Tinubu, who was one of MKO’s lieutenants, became an activist of sorts, demanding that MKO be inaugurated as the President. Eventually, he had to flee the country when he was being hounded by the military.
After the death of Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, Tinubu returned to the country and contested the governorship of Lagos State in 1999 on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and won. He fought many political battles internally, orchestrating the impeachment and removal of two of his deputy governors – Bucknor Akerele and Femi Pedro – for daring to undermine him. He also dumped his party, the AD, during a squabble with the leadership of the party and ended up setting up his own platform known as the Action Congress and later Action Congress of Nigeria
I’ve never seen where it is written in the rule book anywhere in any country that a kingmaker cannot be a king… I want to pursue my ambition without the title of a kingmaker.
In 2007, he endorsed his Chief of Staff, Babatunde Fashola, a greenhorn as his successor to the chagrin of other more popular politicians who all decided to defect. With Fashola’s victory, despite stiff opposition, Tinubu stamped his authority as the Lagos godfather. He continued with this approach in other states in the southwest, anointing obscure politicians to become governors and lawmakers but never contesting any election. He gained the title of the southwest leader and with the formation of the APC, he became the national leader.
In 2014, he helped a serial election loser, General Muhammadu Buhari, to become the Presidential candidate of the APC. Tinubu was supposed to be Buhari’s running mate because of the vote contribution he brought. But because in Nigeria persons of the same faith are discouraged from contesting on a joint ticket, Tinubu, who is a Muslim like Buhari, decided to swallow the bitter pill and cede the position to his former appointee and Attorney-General of Lagos State, Professor Osinbajo.
Osinbajo is a senior pastor in one of Nigeria’s mega churches, the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Having not contested any election since 2003 but produced and mentored several prominent politicians, Tinubu officially became known as a kingmaker, a toga which he now plans to shed. “I’ve never seen where it is written in the rule book anywhere in any country that a kingmaker cannot be a king… I want to pursue my ambition without the title of a kingmaker,” says Tinubu.
The Osinbajo challenge
Having sacrificed his ambition for Osinbajo in 2014, Tinubu and his supporters expected that he would be the undisputed contender for the Presidency from the southwest come 2023 but this has proven to be a pipedream. Osinbajo, who is known for his oratory and intelligence, became arguably the most powerful Vice-President in the history of Nigeria because of the powers foisted on him as acting President during Buhari’s first term when the President spent months on end in London due to his health challenges.
Unlike previous deputies that had been given the derogatory nickname ‘spare tyre’, Osinbajo served as President of Nigeria for 171 non-consecutive days in 2017 and 2018 during Buhari’s first term, bearing full powers and privileges of the President such that he was able to unilaterally sack the head of Nigeria’s secret police, Musa Daura; send proposals to the National Assembly, sign the 2017 budget, and introduce some economic reforms.
Unlike Buhari who had been nicknamed, ‘baba go slow’ because of his slow approach to governance, Osinbajo took quick and decisive decisions. A report in the BBC titled, ‘Yemi Osinbajo – why Nigeria’s favourite leader won’t become president, yet’ released on 19 August 2018, explained how Nigerians were yearning for Osinbajo to become President and how this was shared across social media platforms by his supporters.
Fearful of his soaring popularity, several interests – including a powerful cabal in the Presidency – saw to it that Osinbajo was relegated in Buhari’s second tenure, but this did not stop many from campaigning for him.
What are Osinbajo’s options?
Hundreds of support groups have in the last six months been campaigning intensely for Osinbajo to succeed Buhari. Osinbajo has received open endorsements from Nasarawa State Governor, Abdullahi Sule, and former military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida. The challenge, however, is that he lacks a base in the APC to win the Presidential primary.
Aware of this challenge, his supporters have been calling on Tinubu to shelve his Presidential ambition and endorse the Vice-President. One of such groups is the South West Movement for Osinbajo (SOWEMOVE) which has urged governors and traditional rulers in the region to convince Tinubu to step down for Osinbajo in the battle for the party’s ticket.
Some of these groups have been so vehement that they have indirectly caused friction between Osinbajo and Tinubu. On several occasions Osinbajo’s team have had to issue statements distancing the Vice-President from the attacks directed at the Lagos godfather. But with Tinubu’s declaration, it is obvious that these pleas and campaigns have fallen on deaf ears. With Tinubu – the acclaimed leader of the southwest – now fully in the race, the chances of Osinbajo, who is also from the southwest, have also shrunk.
The only thing that can stop Tinubu is his health but he keeps getting stronger every day. You can be sure that he will not step down.
So what are Osinbajo’s chances? Alternatively, the Vice-President can join forces with powerful blocs in the APC to defeat Tinubu in the APC especially if the consensus option being championed by the likes of the APC caretaker chairman, Governor Mai Mala Buni, is adopted. But Osinbajo joining forces with Tinubu’s enemies could make him seem a traitor and an ingrate, a scenario similar to that of Chief Ladoke Akintola, who in order to retain power in the southwest in the 1960s, formed an alliance with northern leader, Ahmadu Bello, to displace Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the hero of southwest politics.
“There might be some moral issues about Osinbajo running against Asiwaju,” says Ademorin Kuye, a federal lawmaker and member of the Tinubu Support Group.
But there exists a second path to the Presidency for Osinbajo. The Vice-President could take the Presidential seat if Buhari passes on, resigns or is impeached by the National Assembly and Osinbajo takes over by virtue of Section 146 of the Nigerian constitution. Should such an unlikely event happen before the APC primary, Osinbajo would be able to use his power as the President to win the Presidential primary, but this is an unlikely scenario. Thirdly, Osinbajo could still be supported by Tinubu if the Lagos godfather steps down due to other circumstances like the health challenge he grappled with for several months last year.
But a close aide to Tinubu said the Lagos godfather was ready to go all the way. The aide – who wishes to remain anonymous because he/she is not authorised to speak with the press – says: “The only thing that can stop Tinubu is his health but he keeps getting stronger every day. You can be sure that he will not step down. I told you this long ago. His declaration was also strategic. He did it at the Presidential Villa where Osinbajo also works. We are expecting the Vice-President to support him just as he stepped down for Osinbajo in 2014.”
A top aide of the Vice-President tells The Africa Report that Osinbajo had said that since 2020 he would not contest against his mentor if he wanted to contest.
“The VP told us in 2020 that he would not contest against Tinubu if he [Tinubu] declares his intention, because doing so could be viewed as treachery. But you know politics is fluid. We will continue to do our work at the Presidency because governance must continue. However, we will wait for the next line of action,” he says.
But Fouad Oki, a former Vice-Chairman of the Lagos State chapter of the APC, says loyalty to Tinubu ought not to prevent Osinbajo from declaring his Presidential ambition. Oki argues that politics is not based on morality but is driven by the goal to win.
“I know for a fact that the Vice-President will also declare his intention soon.”
When asked if Osinbajo would be willing to contest against his boss, Oki says: “Boss in politics? There is no such thing. They are associates.”
On whether it was moral for Osinbajo to contest, the APC chieftain says: “Whether it is a moral question or otherwise about him (Osinbajo) coming out to run, it doesn’t have a place in politics because they are both eminently qualified… If the Vice-President says he wants to run, you don’t have to be emotional about it.”
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