Nigeria: Tinubu and Aregbesola, how a match made in heaven went sour

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 11:50

Osun state Governor Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola (C) speaks to aides after a rehearsal parade in Osogbo, southwest Nigeria, on the eve of his inauguration for a second term in office, November 26, 2014.
Osun state Governor Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola (C) speaks to aides after a rehearsal parade in Osogbo, southwest Nigeria, on the eve of his inauguration for a second term in office, November 26, 2014. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The relationship between All Progressives Congress (APC) leader, Bola Tinubu and the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, which started some 30 years ago was once described as a match made in heaven. Now the two are at daggers drawn. Could this dent Tinubu’s Presidential ambition? And what does it say about unity in the South?

It was a relationship that began sometime in 1992 during the short-lived Third Republic. Tinubu, a new entrant in politics, was the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the Lagos-West senatorial election. Rauf Aregbesola was an engineer that had worked in Lagos Airport Hotel and a few other firms. He was also a big time dealer in air conditioners and had several apprentices in Alimosho, arguably the most populous local government area in Nigeria.

Sources close to both politicians told The Africa Report that Aregbesola had hoped to emerge as the candidate of the SDP in the Alimosho federal constituency election in Lagos State but this was not to be. Nevertheless, he and Tinubu were part of the same political camp and they soon forged a bond that would blossom into a brotherhood.

After the 12 June 1993 election was controversially annulled by the military junta, Tinubu, a senator at the time, was hounded by the General Sani Abacha regime and went into exile until Abacha’s death in 1998. He returned soon afterwards, declaring his intention to run for governor of Lagos State. He needed someone he could trust to run the campaign and picked Aregbesola as his campaign manager in the 1999 governorship election.

As campaign manager, Aregbesola launched a massive campaign across the state’s 20 local government areas, helping Tinubu to win the governorship election. Tinubu rewarded Aregbesola by appointing him the Commissioner for Works, the biggest portfolio in the state which also controls the largest budget. This was despite the fact that Aregbesola is originally not from Lagos State but Osun, a largely agrarian state located some 200km from Lagos.

Inseparable pair

In Tinubu’s first cabinet which included notable personalities like Yemi Osinbajo (now Vice-President), Lai Mohammed  (now information minister), Musiliu Obanikoro and several others, Aregbesola was considered as Tinubu’s soul mate mainly because of his loyalty to the Lagos godfather and his willingness to protect his boss’ interest at all times.

So important was Aregbesola to Tinubu that in 2002, when the deputy governor of Osun State, Iyiola Omisore, had been impeached, Governor Bisi Akande reached out to Tinubu, seeking his permission to appoint Aregbesola as the new deputy governor. Tinubu responded by saying that Aregbesola was too important to him and that he could not let him take up another job in Osun State especially when elections were a year away.

An excerpt from Akande’s recent book titled My Participations reads in part, “Tinubu explained that Rauf [Aregbesola] was holding an important position for him in Alimosho local government politics and that he would still need him for mobilisation leading to the 2003 general elections. He apologised that it would not be possible for him to release Rauf. He said I should look for someone else and after my second term, we would think of the next step.”

And in 2003, when Tinubu was seeking a second term in office, he called on his trusted ally once more to be his campaign manager and deliver the goods. That year turned out to be Tinubu’s biggest political battle yet as he contested against Funsho Williams, the popular governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

On election day, the PDP cleared all the governorship elections in the southwest including Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Ondo and Ekiti which had hitherto been ruled by members of Tinubu’s party. In Lagos, it seemed the PDP would also win as early results indicated. However, thanks largely to Aregbesola’s political dexterity, he was able to ensure that Tinubu won in Alimosho by a wide margin thereby nullifying Williams’ lead and retaining Lagos. Tinubu effectively became the only governor elected on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) in the entire country. Once again, he appointed Aregbesola as the commissioner for works for another four years.

“Aregbesola was one of the few people that could see Tinubu at anytime without scheduling an appointment. He could go into Tinubu’s bedroom for private discussions. We took it for granted that anything you said in the presence of Aregbesola would automatically be heard by Tinubu. Their children were friends. He had Tinubu’s ear and Tinubu trusted him with his life,” a commissioner who worked in Tinubu’s cabinet at the time, told The Africa Report.

The Osun mandate

Towards the tail end of Tinubu’s second term in office, he formed a new party known as the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and encouraged some of his protégés to run for office. The outgoing governor supported Aregbesola to contest the governorship election in Osun State in 2007. Aregbesola went up against Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola of the PDP in the 2007 poll but the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Oyinlola the winner in one of Nigeria’s most violent and controversial elections.

While many had given up on the possibility of Aregbesola reclaiming his mandate, Tinubu soldiered on and called on his former Attorney-General, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, to come up with a strategy and set up a forensic team that could prove to the court that the fingerprints affixed on most of the ballot papers were the same, indicating that the election was massively rigged.

This was the strategy that was used in pursuing the mandate of Aregbesola in Osun State, Kayode Fayemi in Ekiti State and Adams Oshiomhole in Edo.

Osinbajo recalled at Tinubu’s birthday colloquium in 2018 that he travelled to the United Kingdom and hired the most experienced finger print experts including 63 policemen who helped analyse 1.3 million fingerprints.

“All they were doing was simply thumb-printing booklets, as many as possible. We demonstrated this in court, and one by one, we were able to get back the states that had been taken away from us. The last state that we finally won was Osun State, after almost three years of battling,” he recalled. This was a first in Nigeria’s jurisprudence.

Enter Oyetola

Upon becoming governor, Tinubu demanded that his cousin, Gboyega Oyetola, be made Aregbesola’s chief of staff, a request which the Osun governor was forced to honour.

While Aregbesola initiated several projects and educational reforms including the school feeding programme, his administration was also marred by several challenges. He failed to pay salaries and pensions for several months, putting him on a collision course with the organised labour. As governor, he introduced an educational policy mandating all public schools to wear the same uniforms, a move which was criticised by many. He also plunged the state into its worst debt crisis ever.

Towards the end of his tenure, Aregbesola had become rather unpopular, making it difficult for the APC to win the 2018 governorship election. Tinubu insisted that Oyetola, a political greenhorn, be anointed as Aregbesola’s successor to the chagrin of other more popular politicians, some of whom decided to defect.

Apart from being his cousin, Oyetola was also Tinubu’s business partner and had headed many companies that were rumoured to be owned by the Lagos godfather including Alpha Beta Consulting, a firm with the exclusive rights to generate revenue for the Lagos State Government.

Oyetola lost the election to the PDP’s candidate, Senator Ademola Adeleke, on the first round but after a supplementary poll in a few polling units which was marred by violence, Oyetola was eventually declared winner.

Cracks surface

Months after leaving office, Aregbesola was appointed as the Minister of Interior by President Muhammadu Buhari, forcing him to spend most of his time in Abuja. In his absence, Oyetola also began to make significant changes. The new governor reversed some of his predecessor’s policies including the one on uniforms for schools. He discontinued some contracts awarded by Aregbesola. He also ensured that Tinubu ran the politics of the state often without Aregbesola’s input. In addition, many of Aregbesola’s core supporters were neglected by Oyetola. Complaints made by Aregbesola to Tinubu were said to have been ignored as Tinubu took sides with his cousin, a development which infuriated Aregbesola’s camp.

Amid rumours that Aregbesola was nursing a Presidential ambition, the Governor’s Advisory Council in Lagos, which is led by Tinubu, ordered the dismantling of all political groups within the APC including the Mandate Group, Aregbesola’s base in Alimosho, Lagos State, which had helped Tinubu to win two governorship elections. Many in the party believed that the directive was targeted at Aregbesola’s group which was the strongest in the state.

The relationship between Tinubu and Aregbesola became more evident in August 2021 when APC congresses took place in Osun State. The congresses, which were organised to produce party leaders, further exposed the hidden cracks in Osun State as Oyetola and Aregbesola’s camps produced two different factions. Party leaders in the state called several peace meetings but Aregbesola snubbed them all. Rather, the minister headed to court, praying that his faction be recognised as the authentic one but the court threw out the case. In the end, the national headquarters of the APC sided with Oyetola.

Things eventually reached a climax ahead of the governorship primary in the state which Oyetola desperately needed to win. Aregbesola publicly endorsed his former Secretary, Moshood Adeoti. He vowed that Oyetola would be defeated at the primary.

While making a veiled reference to Tinubu, Aregbesola stated: “We came back home to reposition our party to where it was meant to be because we followed the leading of our leader that we thought was a noble and reliable fellow. We followed him dutifully with all sense of loyalty.

“Some people even thought that we were no longer Muslims because of how we cooperated with him. We dealt with him without treachery but we never knew he planned evil for us. We exalted him beyond his status and he turned himself to a god over us and we had sworn to ridicule anyone who compares himself to God. God has no competitor; He is enough to be God.”

Aregbesola’s anointed candidate went on to lose the primary to Oyetola but the crisis has continued. In Lagos, Tinubu supporters took to the streets to mock Aregbesola, the once beloved protégé of the Lagos godfather. They burnt his effigy and paraded mock coffins signalling the death of the minister’s political career.

The aftermath

But could this signal the end of Aregbesola’s illustrious political career? Sources tell The Africa Report that the minister would be supporting Vice-President Osinbajo for the Presidency against Tinubu as an act of revenge.

Experts in Nigerian politics say the fact that Tinubu’s house remains divided ahead of the crucial Presidential primaries could spell doom for the Lagos godfather. Apart from Aregbesola, his former lieutenants such as Osinbajo, Governor Fayemi, ex-Governor Ibikunle Amosun and former Governors Babatunde Fashola and Ambode are also not in his good books, meaning his southwest political empire is vulnerable.

Speaking to The Africa Report, Bosun Oladele, who is the Secretary of Southwest Agenda 2023 (SWAGA 2023), one of the major groups rooting for Tinubu, said all of Tinubu’s protégés would reconcile with him when the time is right.

“Tinubu is good a leader and a large hearted man. Hardly will you see him fight his protégés even when they attack him publicly. They may leave his camp and even attack him but he will never respond. Many have disagreed with Tinubu but they always come back and he has a large heart and he always takes them back and reintegrates them into the party every time,” says Oladele.

However, inside sources told The Africa Report that some monarchs in the southwest are now planning a peace meeting in order to foster unity in the region ahead of the Presidential election. Whether this will work remains to be seen.

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