Nigeria 2023: Controversy over Tinubu’s childhood lingers ahead of polls

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Tuesday, 6 December 2022 09:11

Members of the public stand behind a campaign poster of presidential candidate of APC's Bola Tinubu and runningmate Abdullahi Shettima, displayed on a bus, during a party campaign rally at Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, on November 26, 2022. - (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Bola Tinubu – the presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) – has been in the public eye for the last 30 years. However, his childhood years remain a subject of controversy ahead of the election, which comes up next February.

Former Governor Donald Duke of Cross River State was shocked to see his childhood photograph being passed off as that of a young Bola Tinubu. The photo was featured in a documentary that was produced by Tinubu’s campaign team and aired repeatedly on TVC, a television station owned by Tinubu.

“There is a new documentary titled The Nation Builder and it is on Bola Tinubu… My disagreement is that my photograph as a 12-year-old is used as his photograph.

“In other words, they couldn’t find a photograph of him as a young person, and they used my own photograph from my days in Sokoto. I don’t know if I can get some justice on this, but I feel very pained,” Duke said.

Who is Bola Tinubu, really? 

The question over Tinubu’s real identity has remained a subject of debate for many years. Although his father’s identity is not generally known, the late Abibatu Mogaji (who was a market leader) is recognised as his mother. Kafaru Tinubu, the federal commissioner who is also the father of Wale Tinubu (CEO of Oando Plc), is widely regarded as Bola Tinubu’s uncle.

However, this belief was questioned in 2007 when a former head of the civil service of Lagos State, Abdulrafiu Babatunde Tinubu, who had earlier enjoyed a cordial relationship with Bola Tinubu, published a book titled Onijumu Wura: The Tinubu Dynasty of Kakawa, Lagos (The Tree).

Tinubu should come in the open to effectively disclaim the allegation that his name as it appears on public documents is not his name.

Abdulrafiu, who said the book was a product of years of painstaking research, included the names of all members of the Tinubu dynasty from the 19th century to date. Conspicuously missing from the book was the name of Bola Tinubu, who had just completed his tenure as governor of Lagos. The author claimed anyone whose name was not listed in the book was not an authentic member of the Tinubu family.

Efforts to launch that book with fanfare were scuttled with Tinubu’s media aide blaming the opposition. Copies of the book remain scarce as they are not in public libraries or bookshops, while the author has since passed on.

However, this has gone on to spark more rumours that Tinubu’s real name is actually Yekini Amoda Ogunlere and that he is from Iragbiji, an agrarian community in Osun State, Southwest Nigeria. Those who propagate this view claim that he was only adopted by the Tinubu family as a teenager and changed his surname.

Education controversy 

Apart from his ancestry, Tinubu’s educational background has also remained a source of controversy for the last 22 years. Ahead of the poll, the issue has become ammunition for the opposition.

In 1999, when running for governor of Lagos State, he submitted credentials to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that later raised eyebrows. The documents indicated that he had attended St Paul’s Primary School in Lagos and then Government College, Ibadan before heading to Richard Daley College and Chicago State University in the US.

However, the late legal icon, Gani Fawehinmi, sued Tinubu in court for certificate forgery and asked the judge to compel the police to investigate him. The court, however, ruled that since Tinubu was governor at the time and had immunity, he could only be investigated by the House of Assembly.

The House subsequently investigated him and within a week, he was cleared of all wrongdoing under the most controversial circumstances. Dissatisfied with the resolution of the Lagos Assembly, Festus Keyamo (now spokesman for Tinubu’s campaign) sued all the members of the state legislature for clearing Tinubu, but lost in court.

In a bid to avoid the controversy that dogged his tenure as governor, Tinubu left out his primary and secondary school record when he submitted his credentials to INEC ahead of the 2023 presidential election. He only indicated that he attended university in the US.

This again sparked a fresh controversy even as his campaign team claimed he schooled from home.

“They are asking what primary school one must have attended to go to secondary school. We want the younger ones to know that this is a virtue and not a vice. In those days, great men wrote exams from home. One of the greatest lawyers in this country, Afe Babalola, did not get his formal education from the four walls of a school,” said Keyamo.

Tinubu avoids debates 

Tinubu’s media aides have been defending him as he has refused to make any clarifications or address allegations directly. He has also avoided debates and interviews further fuelling reports that he is doing it because he cannot confront the truth.

According to his campaign team, Tinubu avoided debates or interviews because he did not want to seem partial towards some media outlets.

“Firstly, many radio and TV networks in Nigeria have indicated interest to host such debates and out of deference to other TV and radio stations. Our candidate will not be making selective appearances on some networks, whilst ignoring others,” the team said in a statement.

They said Tinubu will continue to communicate directly with his supporters at town hall meetings organised by the APC.

At a recent rally, the Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila said anyone who had questions over Tinubu’s records should ask his late mother.

 “They will ask you how old he is. Tell them he is the age his mother said he is and if they are in doubt of his age, tell them go and meet his mother to reconfirm,” Gbajabiamila said.

Opposition hit back 

Even so, the opposition believes that Tinubu’s past is fraudulent as his life before 1975 seems non-existent. Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, made a veiled reference to the APC candidate.

“They know where we were born, they know where we lived, they know the school we attended, we have classmates… There are people in Rivers State that went to school with me, but some people nobody went to school with them,” Obi said in response to an attack Tinubu launched against him.

[…] the only thing that is real about Tinubu is his person and that every other ascription on him is a borrowed robe

Also, Atiku’s media adviser, Phrank Shaibu, says Tinubu will continue to avoid debates and public engagements because his past remains a fraud.

“He should tell Nigerians about himself, especially at this time when it is said at various forums that the only thing that is real about Tinubu is his person and that every other ascription o[f] him is a borrowed robe.

“To be sure, Nigerians believe that Tinubu should come in the open to effectively disclaim the allegation that his name as it appears on public documents is not his name; that the parents he claimed were not his; that the certificates he claimed to be his are not and that the schools he claimed to have attended didn’t know him,” Shaibu tells The Africa Report.

Despite this, Hannatu Musawa, a spokesperson for Tinubu’s campaign, tells The Africa Report that the obsession with Tinubu’s past is diversionary. She insists that it is clear that the opposition is scared of imminent defeat at the polls.

Musawa dares those questioning Tinubu’s life to go to court rather than engage in ‘dirty’ politics. She adds that Tinubu is not avoiding public engagements as he has been attending rallies and town hall meetings.

“These matters are just diversionary. What we should be discussing are manifestoes and not extraneous matters. If anyone has a case then they should go to court. What Tinubu is focusing on is how to deliver his promises to Nigerians. Why is it just now that people are bringing up this matter?”

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