Nigeria 2023: How a Lagos godfather crushed the opposition

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 8 June 2022 16:37

Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (left) and APC leader Bola Tinubu

Nigeria’s eloquent and charismatic vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, lost to his erstwhile benefactor Bola Tinubu, bringing his presidential ambition to an end and cementing Tinubu’s position in the game of politics. This is the inside story of how the Lagos godfather won the presidential ticket for the ruling party - putting him in pole position to become president.

He was publicly threatened by the national chairman of the APC, Abdullahi Adamu, and lambasted by the presidency for daring to say that he was largely responsible for helping a serial election loser, General Muhammadu Buhari, become the president of Nigeria. For many, these scathing attacks on the eve of a presidential primary were sufficient evidence that the game was over for Tinubu.

However, against all odds – including a plot by a powerful cabal at the presidency to undermine him, coupled with a series of online opinion polls predicting his defeat – the 70 year-old ex-governor of Lagos conquered a sitting vice-president, a serving senate president, five current governors, five ex-governors, an ex-minister, an-ex senate president and a host of others, to clinch the ruling party’s ticket.

His total vote tally was more than that of all contestants combined.

Buhari’s indecision and failed consensus

Perhaps the biggest determinant of Tinubu’s victory was Buhari’s indecision. Earlier in January, the president had said he didn’t care who succeeded him. When probed further, however, Buhari said he had a preferred candidate, but would not reveal the identity of the person so that nothing untoward would happen to him.

Days later, Tinubu visited Buhari to inform him of his decision to contest the presidency. He subsequently revealed to journalists who had gathered outside the president’s office that he would be running for office, describing his ambition as a lifelong one.

During the amendment of the electoral law, Buhari insisted that the ‘consensus’ and indirect method of party primary must be included in the law. By Buhari’s thinking, a consensus method would involve a president or governor anointing a candidate and forcing his men to ensure that the candidate emerges the winner.

However, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, a godson of Tinubu, inserted a caveat into the proposed law, which states that in the event that a political party adopts the consensus method, all other contestants who agree to step down must indicate this in writing. Anything short of a written concession, would imply that all aspirants must head to the battleground to slug it out.

With this caveat, a spanner had been thrown into the works. How would the president anoint a candidate and force others to step down remained the biggest challenge.

Although almost all the aspirants, including Vice-President Osinbajo, spent a considerable amount of time lobbying the president to endorse them, the Lagos godfather intensified his campaign across the country and made it clear that he would never step down for anyone. He was also very generous, splashing huge sums of cash in several states that he claimed were facing security issues. Seeing the writing on the wall, Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi also launched a nationwide campaign, but it was  too late.

“We travelled all over and we did a lot. However, almost everywhere we went, we were told that Tinubu had already come and had ‘finished his work’. This made it very difficult for us to penetrate. Unfortunately, we couldn’t start our campaign on time because Amaechi was a serving minister and was busy with official duties, unlike Tinubu who had an early start,” says an aide to Amaechi who wishes to remain anonymous.

Barely days to the primary, the president invited all the governors to a meeting where he told them that he would like to handpick his successor just as they had done in their respective states. However, Buhari’s ambiguous message was not properly interpreted by all the governors. Rather than hold more meetings, Buhari travelled to Spain and then returned after a few days, only to go to Ghana. Earlier, he had visited Equatorial Guinea and rendered himself inaccessible.

“Buhari’s words did not match his body language. In one breath, he asked that the governors should help him pick his successor and then his spokesman issued a statement saying he never asked the governors to help him to pick a candidate. Then he rendered himself inaccessible, travelling to three countries one week to the primary. He didn’t show the needed dedication and Tinubu capitalised on this,” says an aide to Governor Yahaya Bello, a presidential aspirant.

Lawan fiasco

A cabal in the presidency led by the president’s influential nephew, Mamman Daura, also decided to exploit the situation by endorsing Senate President Ahmad Lawan, a northerner, as candidate. Having presented Lawan to Buhari, who did not make any categorical commitment, they decided it was time to execute their plan.

Unfortunately for them, before they could move on with their plans, the northern governors issued a joint communiqué, insisting that the next candidate of the party must be a southerner. Attempts by the APC chairman to force the party to adopt Lawan as the candidacy eventually fell like a pack of cards. The president distanced himself from the fiasco, insisting that he had no anointed candidate.

At the dying minute, the governors, in a bid to placate the president, shortlisted five aspirants and sent the list to Buhari. Those on the list were Tinubu, Osinbajo, Amaechi, Governor Kayode Fayemi and Governor Dave Umahi. However, the president still could not make up his mind and the race was automatically thrown open.

A night of concessions

With the president refusing to take any action, it had become clear from the beginning that Tinubu, who had the support and loyalty of most of the governors, would be the winner; and what should have been a tight race soon became a coronation of sorts.

The first to withdraw from the race was ex-Governor Godswill Akpabio of the oil-rich Akwa Ibom State who had, barely a month ago, resigned from Buhari’s cabinet.

“I am ably qualified to be your president, but I have stepped down for Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Vote for Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. Unite Nigeria, vote for Tinubu,” he said.

The next person to withdraw was ex-Governor Ibikunle Amosun who only recently patched things up with his estranged mentor, Tinubu. Amosun had been cross with Tinubu for teaming up with Osinbajo in 2018 to dubiously install Dapo Abiodun as Amosun’s successor. However, things soon changed after Abiodun decided to campaign for Osinbajo instead of Tinubu. With Amosun and his erstwhile godfather now reunited, he decided it was time to bring down Osinbajo.

When he was stepping down, Amosun said: “In the spirit of consensus building, I have stepped down for Bola Ahmed Tinubu. There is no better man to do the job. It’s Tinubu.”

Perhaps, the biggest surprise of the night was Governor Fayemi of Ekiti State who in the last couple of years maintained a frosty relationship with Tinubu, his erstwhile godfather. Barely two years ago, Fayemi had teamed up with some elements in the APC to undermine Tinubu and oust the national chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole, who was believed to be working to ensure that Tinubu becomes the presidential candidate of the party.

To add insult to injury, Fayemi had also barred Tinubu supporters under the aegis of the South-West Agenda 2023 (SWAGA 2023), from holding processions in the state, accusing them of heating up the polity.

However, at the presidential primary, Fayemi recalled how he had been in the trenches with Tinubu in the mid 90s when both of them were on exile having fled the persecution of then military dictator, General Sani Abacha, during the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12 presidential mandate.

Announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race, Fayemi said: “Give me the honour to step down for my leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. He is a democrat that I worked with. I am not doing this for any prize.”

Former House of Representatives Speaker Dimeji Bankole; Jigawa State Governor, Abubakar Badaru; Deputy Senate Majority Leader Senator Ajayi Boroffice; and the only female aspirant, Uju Kennedy Ohaneye, also stepped down.

Osinbajo, Lawan crushed

Perhaps, the biggest loser in the primary is Vice-President Osinbajo who was handpicked by Tinubu in 2014 to be the VP candidate of the APC. With Tinubu contesting, many believed it would be disrespectful for Osinbajo to contest against the man who took him from relative obscurity to national relevance.

For several months, Osinbajo refused to reveal his presidential ambition, until April 11. His team stressed that it would be unpatriotic for him to deny over 200 million Nigerians his services because of his loyalty to one man.

He [Osinbajo] may have lost the contest, but he didn’t lose the battle.

From the beginning, Osinbajo’s campaign was dogged with allegations of betrayal, with many comparing his frosty relationship with Tinubu to that of southwest hero Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his trusted ally Chief Ladoke Akintola in the 1960s. Akintola has continued to be described as a Judas over 50 years since his death.

During the presidential primary, delegates from the southwest (where both Tinubu and Osinbajo come from) chanted “betrayer”, “thief” and other derogatory slogans as Osinbajo made his way into the venue. The hostile atmosphere forced the vice-president to stay back in his vehicle for a moment before he came out again. This time around, his supporters also roared.

Manifesto vs money

Osinbajo, a charming orator, law professor and charismatic preacher, delivered a powerful speech at the convention wherein he revealed his brilliant manifesto that would guarantee prosperity for Nigerians. Unfortunately, he was unable to sway the delegates, having failed to build a grassroots support base, sustained by money and rent-seeking – the key to success in Nigerian politics.

Had it been a general election, he probably would have stood a stronger chance of winning, analysts say. The president’s failure to publicly endorse him followed by moves by the cabal to undermine him, also worked against him.

No doubt, Osinbajo’s defeat will be used as social media memes for many days to come. The fact that he came third behind Amaechi makes the defeat even more humiliating. Even if Tinubu is disqualified by a court, Osinbajo still cannot get the ticket. Whether their relationship will ever be the same again remains in doubt, given the fact that all that have ever crossed Tinubu are treated as pariahs in Lagos.

The Nigerian dream

However, Kayode Ajulo, a major campaigner for Osinbajo, thinks otherwise. He tells The Africa Report that Osinbajo’s candidacy represents the hope of Nigerians and Osinbajo will not be remembered as a traitor.

“He may have lost the contest, but he didn’t lose the battle. He personifies the Nigerian dream and that is what he presented at the convention. He finished the race gloriously, but if some people, for the love of personal interest, looked the other way, I can only say may God almighty have mercy on us. It is just like how Jesus Christ was abandoned in favour of Barabas,” says Ajulo.

Senate President Lawan, the candidate of the cabal, is also one of the major losers of the primary having refused to step down for a southerner despite all entreaties. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to win re-election to the federal parliament where he has served since 1999. For Amaechi, who has held public office for 23 consecutive years as Speaker, governor and minister, this may just be the end for one of the country’s longest-serving politicians.

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