Nigeria 2023: Will Sanwo-Olu get Tinubu’s blessing for re-election?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Monday, 7 February 2022 16:32

Lagos state Governor Babajide Sanwo-olu attends the new year celebration in Lagos
Lagos state Governor Babajide Sanwo-olu (C) attends the new year celebration in Lagos, Nigeria December 31, 2019. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

With the 2023 Nigerian general elections fast approaching, 11 governors are up for re-election. However, while almost all the governors are sure of getting the tickets of their respective parties, Governor Sanwo-Olu’s case in Lagos State may not be that simple. Head of the Lagos State Civil Service Hakeem Muri-Okunola and Senator Tokunbo Abiru have been floated as possible successors.

In 2010, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State (now minister of works and housing) was one of the most popular governors in the country, having initiated several reforms and infrastructural projects in Nigeria’s commercial capital. The eloquent governor and his supporters across the state were sure that he would be given the party’s ticket for re-election on a silver platter, but they were wrong.

Unknown to members of the public, Fashola had been engaged in a cold war with his predecessor and godfather, Bola Tinubu, who controlled the political structure while Fashola handled governance. The Lagos State House of Assembly, which was loyal to Tinubu, also began probing Fashola for alleged corruption and possible impeachment, following a series of petitions written against the governor.

Amid this crisis, the ruling party in the state, Action Congress of Nigeria (now part of the All Progressives Congress), was divided. Even though Tinubu remained the undisputed godfather in the state, some political office holders were brave enough to openly support Fashola and called on Tinubu to endorse him so that he could be given the party’s ticket. They claimed that Tinubu was jealous of his successor’s achievements and warned that should Fashola be denied the ticket, he would defect to another party and win the election based on his popularity.

After an intervention by some elders in the state, including the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, Tinubu bowed to pressure, giving Fashola his blessing at the last minute.

“He is my son… They said I was jealous of his achievements and all sorts of things. If you have a son that has surpassed your records, you celebrate him. I am the pathfinder, he is the navigator. I am the one who identified the talent,” Tinubu said while endorsing Fashola in front of party supporters.

However, the Lagos godfather ensured that some who took sides with Fashola during the cold war were punished. Deputy Governor Sarah Sosan, Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora and the Secretary to the State Government, Princess Adenrele Adeniran-Ogunsanya, all lost their positions for siding with Fashola.

Ambode’s rise

Towards the end of Fashola’s term, many politicians began lobbying to succeed Fashola. However, Tinubu again handpicked a political greenhorn by endorsing the retired Accountant-General of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, to succeed Fashola.

As his first term in office drew to a close, Ambode and his supporters also thought he would be given the party’s ticket. This was reinforced by the fact that on 25 March 2018, the three senators from Lagos State, including Tinubu’s wife, Senator Remi Tinubu, visited Ambode where they publicly endorsed him for a second term.

“Since 29 May 2015, when you took the mantle of leadership and administration, you have made it clear that you are out to deliver on all your campaign promises. Looking back today, we are senators representing the three senatorial districts of Lagos State are very proud of your achievements and the renewed vigour which you have brought to the public service of Lagos State,” they said in a joint address.

However, Ambode was in for a shock as the endorsements he received were suddenly withdrawn when it had become clear that Tinubu would not be supporting him for a second term. Before long, he was accused of marginalising the leaders of the party and working against their interests, including revoking some lucrative refuse disposal contracts. Ambode was also accused of being arrogant and inaccessible to several top politicians who began lobbying Tinubu to do away with him. Despite entreaties from several quarters, including the presidency, Tinubu remained adamant, accusing the governor of straying from his “master plan”. “Ambode is doing well, yes, but he hasn’t been a good party man,” said the Lagos godfather.

Tinubu called on Ambode to step down, but the governor preferred to take his chances, a decision that the Lagos godfather regarded as an insult. Tinubu subsequently came out publicly to pass a vote of no confidence in Ambode and asked all his supporters to vote for Sanwo-Olu at the primary. In the end, Tinubu emerged as the undisputed godfather of Lagos politics by ensuring that Sanwo-Olu, the dark horse, defeated the sitting governor by a landslide. Effectively, Ambode’s sudden defeat was as dramatic as his meteoric rise.

The loyal governor

Having witnessed firsthand the treatment meted on Ambode, Sanwo-Olu made it clear from his first day in office that he would be a loyal party man. Even before Tinubu officially declared his intention to contest the presidency, Sanwo-Olu helped mobilise several support groups. He even endorsed Tinubu as the best man for the job, but despite his loyalty to the party, Tinubu has yet to officially back him.

There are discussions for the governor to be replaced. However, I seriously doubt if Tinubu will sign off on it…

Sanwo-Olu was recently on television where he was asked if he would be seeking a second term in office. He failed to provide a direct answer to the question, instead saying that he was still consulting. He however noted that it would be a huge loss for the people of Lagos if he wasn’t allowed to finish the job. “I think we are doing a very good job, I dare say so. I think the citizens know they will be missing if they don’t let us continue to wrap up all the things we are doing,” the governor said.

Sanwo-Olu’s challengers

Though there have been no complaints about Sanwo-Olu’s loyalty to Tinubu, his handling of the #EndSARS protests of 2020, which cost Lagos State over $2bn, and led to the destruction of Tinubu’s companies and other private properties, raised questions about his competence and critics have used this against him. The health community has however praised the governor’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Still, rumours are rife that Tinubu and his Governor’s Advisory Council (GAC) – which comprises the most senior APC leaders in Lagos State – are considering replacing Sanwo-Olu with the current Head of the Lagos State Civil Service, Hakeem Muri-Okunola or Senator Tokunbo Abiru. Both Muri-Okunola and Abiru also owe their meteoric rise in politics to Tinubu.

Even so, top sources in the APC say it would be foolhardy for Tinubu to remove the governor at such a critical time when he is also contesting the presidency.

“There are discussions for the governor to be replaced. However, I seriously doubt if Tinubu will sign off on it. This is because Tinubu has been spending more time in Abuja than in Lagos these days due to his presidential campaign.

“So, he needs stability in his home state. Removing or attempting to remove Sanwo-Olu now could cause some instability and rub off on his campaign negatively, but you know, in politics, nothing is impossible,” says an APC chieftain who wished to remain anonymous because he isn’t authorised to speak to the press.

In a statement, the advisory council – led by Tinubu – also said: “The GAC has not settled for any person to replace Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu as governor. Therefore, it is absolutely false and preposterous for anyone to suggest so.” The group, however, did not endorse the governor for a second term, but only stated that Sanwo-Olu had done well so far.

In an attempt to take advantage of the situation, the main opposition – Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – has encouraged Sanwo-Olu to defect to the PDP ahead of the next elections.

Sanwo-Olu no push over

Nevertheless, the spokesman for the APC in Lagos State, Seye Oladejo, tells The Africa Report that it is premature to speculate on whether the governor could get a second term in office or not.

“I think some 5th columnists are the ones at work, so everything is just in the realm of speculation. No one can confirm, publicly, that Tinubu has asked Sanwo-Olu to serve for just one term. In any case, the governorship candidate will be picked by the party and not an individual.

They may not find Sanwo-Olu as calm as Ambode who refused to put up a proper fight. 2023 is [too] delicate […] to attempt to deny him the ticket…

“The governor has been clear that he does not want to be distracted so when we get to the bridge, we will cross it. I think it is because of what happened to Ambode that the speculations are rife, but you must understand that no two elections are the same,” Oladejo says.

Dare Ariyo-Atoye, a political analyst who is also the Convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, believes Sanwo-Olu is not a pushover like Ambode. He advises Tinubu to tread with caution, citing the case in Edo State in 2020 when Tinubu moved against Governor Godwin Obaseki

“They may not find Sanwo-Olu as calm as Ambode who refused to put up a proper fight. 2023 is [too] delicate […] to attempt to deny him the ticket. It may be suicidal for Tinubu who is running for president. It is bad enough that governors are being treated in such a condescending manner in Lagos State. I think he will put up a fight if they try to replace him,” says Atoye.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options