Nigeria 2023: Bola Tinubu – From taxi driver to President? 

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Wednesday, 28 December 2022 14:10

APC party convention in Abuja
APC party's new presidential candidate Bola Tinubu shakes hands with Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari during the party's convention in Abuja, Nigeria June 7, 2022. Nigeria's Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Bola Tinubu has been many things – an executive at Mobil, a senator, governor, kingmaker and now a Presidential hopeful. But long before fame and fortune, he was doing menial jobs in the United States in the 1970s just to get by. Can he round off the perfect dream by becoming Nigeria’s President?

Born in March 1952, the specifics of Tinubu’s ancestry, early life and primary education have remained a subject of debate for the last 22 years.

But one aspect of his life that has remained indubitable is his doggedness and determination to succeed and an ability to wriggle out of problematic situations, a quality that has always put his opponents on the back foot.

In a rare interview with The News Magazine back in 2012, Tinubu for the first time spoke about his early years and how he made his way to the United States with some friends in the 1970s and began doing menial jobs to make ends meet.

Slapped and fired

Tinubu said that while working as a driver, he was once slapped by a naval officer for charging the wrong fare.

“Another experience was when I took a guy whom I didn’t know was drunk. When I drove to his house, he pointed a gun at me instead of paying the fare. He took my leather jacket and said: ‘Get into your car and get lost.’ He did not pay,” Tinubu adds.

He noted that on one occasion, he was fired from his security job for sleeping on duty.

However, he eventually graduated with honours from Chicago State University where he studied Accounting and went on to work with some of the richest companies in the world.

“Bola Tinubu came to us in late 1983 in Mobil Oil Nigeria to attend an interview for the position of auditor. He performed excellently well at the interview and we had no choice but to offer him the job. He came in and his performance was great. He is a hardworking individual,” said Pius Akinyelure, a former director at Mobil who was also Tinubu’s superior.

In the early 90s, Tinubu came under investigation for alleged heroin trafficking. However, he entered into a settlement with US authorities and forfeited $460,000 to the government.

From business to politics

In 1992, he eventually took a decision that would change the course of his life forever.

“He came to us that he wanted to go into politics. We were surprised. In fact, he was tipped as one of the people to be appointed as the next finance director but he was adamant and we allowed him to go. We asked that if he had to go and he loses, he should return to his job. He left and the rest is history,” Akinyelure recalled.

A confidential United States diplomatic cable dated 21 February 2003 spilled by Wikileaks stated that Tinubu confirmed that it was Atiku that actually convinced him to join politics, adding that their relationship predates politics.

“Tinubu credits his going into politics to Atiku’s personal encouragement,” it reads.

He joined a group known as PRIMROSE (People Resolved Irrevocably to Maximise the Resources of the State for Excellence) which included several political heavyweights in Lagos.

The PRIMROSE members were also part of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Tinubu contested the Senate race and won. The next task was to get Yar’Adua to emerge as the Presidential candidate of the SDP.

Yar’Adua was disqualified by the military, paving the way for MKO Abiola who would go on to win the party’s ticket and the main election which was held on June 12, 1993, but the poll was annulled and this gave birth to the June 12 struggle.

Political exile

During the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12, Tinubu joined the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). He along with several others were detained by the military junta but were released.

“I disguised with a huge turban and babanriga and escaped into Benin Republic on a motorbike. My old Hausa friend gave the clothes to me…. I left at 1am While in Benin Republic, I was still coming to Badagry to ferry people, organise and coordinate the struggle with others on the ground. We put a group together, ferrying NADECO people across. It was a very challenging time,” he recalled.

From governor to kingmaker

After the death of dictator General Sani Abacha, Tinubu returned to Nigeria to contest elections and won the governorship election of Lagos State where he governed for eight years.

During this time, he reengineered the finances of Lagos State through better tax enforcement which saw the state’s revenue increase by more than 10 fold.

But in the process of changing the state’s finances, he was accused of securing lucrative contracts for himself and cronies and enriching himself with a law that would guarantee a lifetime pension for him as well as mansions in Lagos and Abuja. He remained the subject of investigation for years.

Towards the end of his tenure, he made it clear that his Chief of Staff, Babatunde Fashola, would be his successor. This angered many in the party and led to mass defections.

However, Fashola still went on to win that poll, while Tinubu cemented his place as the godfather of Lagos politics. The arrangement was simple. He would run party politics while Fashola governed the state.

Beyond Lagos

By 2011 Tinubu had stretched his influence to five other states contiguous with Lagos as he sponsored candidates to win governorship elections.

With political dexterity, he negotiated with President Muhammadu Buhari and others to form the APC in 2013. The new mega party went on to win the Presidential election two years later.

“He tried the first time and failed. He tried a second time and failed. He tried the third time and failed. He even cried on television that he will never run for president again. I went to meet him and told him this is not a crying matter. We will support you and you will be president,” Tinubu said of Buhari back in May.

Lifelong ambition

Against all odds, Tinubu defeated a sitting Vice-President, Senate President, five governors, five ex-governors, ministers and others by a landslide to clinch the Presidential ticket of the APC.

He told journalists that becoming Nigeria’s President was his lifelong ambition.

By virtue of being the ruling party’s candidate, with the support of President Muhammadu Buhari and 21 governors, coupled with a huge war chest, Tinubu already has one leg in the Presidential Villa and is clearly the frontrunner.

But he will have to beat his old friend, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Peter Obi of the Labour Party and 15 others to become the next President of Africa’s largest economy.

In a bid to inherit Buhari’s Muslim northern base, Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim, nominated fellow Muslim, Kashim Shettima, as his running mate, effectively contravening a tradition that ensures a balanced faith ticket.

“How can I be a minority Yoruba Muslim and take Emmanuel in Sokoto? I have gotten the result of the election then. Fail. I must design a formula that will make me win, and it is only after winning that I can change the character, content and approach of governance that you can participate,” he told a gathering of Christian clerics in a bid to pacify them.

However, his candidature has still not been embraced by the conservative Christian establishment. Also, the southeast region, which has not held Presidential power since the beginning of the 4th Republic, is unlikely to support Tinubu with Peter Obi on the ballot.

Tinubu means business

The APC candidate believes the private sector is the engine of the economy and seeks to end the petrol subsidy that burns through $40m per day, as well as the multiple exchange rates.

Tinubu forecasts a steady increase in GDP of Nigeria by 10% every year which will ensure a GDP of $781bn by 2027.

Like his time as governor of Lagos in the early 2000s when he increased the state’s internal revenue by over 700% through stricter tax enforcement, Tinubu hopes to replicate this at the federal level by expanding the tax net but without increasing existing taxes.

“Higher taxes drain an already weakened private sector, inviting possible economic contraction and higher unemployment,” he says.

The Presidential hopeful promises to ensure that states have greater autonomy and a fairer share of their resources. Tinubu seeks a constitutional amendment ensuring states are also given greater powers in the area of tax collection.

Through the constitutional amendment, he promises to ensure states are given “greater control over certain critical matters. Focus areas will include crime prevention, prisons, stamp duties and certain forms of taxation.”

He promises to ensure states have greater autonomy and a fairer share of their resources.

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