The last time a brand-new President was sworn in – on May 29th, 2015 – I was invited to watch him formally take over from Dr Goodluck Jonathan. I had campaigned for Muhammadu Buhari, and been a member of his inauguration committee.
The ceremony took place in Abuja’s Eagle Square. Obviously, Buhari had detractors who regarded his elevation to commander-in-chief as an unmitigated disaster. But the nation’s mood was buoyant overall.
His emergence was a revolution of sorts. He was the first-ever opposition candidate to win a presidential election; and frissons of excitement rippled through Nigeria as millions eagerly waited for him to start solving problems the Jonathan administration had failed to solve and, in some cases, created.
When President Bola Ahmed Tinubu was sworn in on Monday, the general mood was much more sombre; and I wasn’t at Eagle Square.
Since I’ve been one of his most vociferous critics and have accused him of rigging the election, I was never going to be on the guest list. And it has to be said that I listened to his speech with an extremely jaundiced ear, ready to pick huge holes in it. But guess what?
It wasn’t perfect but it was impressive overall. There was an empathetic acknowledgement that “we have endured hardships that would have made other societies crumble”.
There were stirring, poetic words. We have, he said, arrived at “this sublime moment.” We need, he declared, to “march beyond the dimness of night into the open day of renewed national hope.”
There was a patriotic focus on transforming Nigeria into a united and truly great African giant that fulfils its unmet potential, respects religious, regional and ethnic diversity, and is the “strongest champion of the black race”.
There was the pious reference to faith in “God Almighty” that most of Tinubu’s fellow citizens regard as mandatory.
Desperately needed economic reforms – fuel subsidy removal, harmonization of exchange rates, and so forth – were promised.
He assured his domestic and international audiences that he would reform the security architecture. He extended an olive branch to political rivals who are challenging his victory in court, defended their right to seek legal redress, and described their support bases as “important constituencies that wisdom dare not ignore.”
He announced that he would “discourage” corruption and beef up the efficiency of anti-corruption agencies. He humbly pledged to govern rather than rule, dialogue rather than dictate and to “never put down a single person for holding views contrary to our own.”
Was Tinubu being sincere?
“Fine words butter no parsnips” is my favourite old English proverb. It means that no matter how wonderful utterances sound, they are empty unless they are acted upon. “Actions speak louder than words” is a more prosaic way of expressing this indisputable truth.
The most memorable aspect of Buhari’s 2015 inauguration speech was his declaration that “I belong to everybody and nobody.”
It sent shivers down the spines of destructive specialists in state capture and delighted frustrated idealists who yearned for a radical cleansing of the Augean Stable that Nigeria had become.
Sadly, Buhari spectacularly failed to deliver the scrupulously fair, no-nonsense governance he told us to expect from him.
Onlookers and critics say that Tinubu, a member of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) party and the recipient of substantial assistance from his predecessor, will be equally disappointing or even worse.
This is a man who has serious reputational problems, some totally deserved in my opinion. And I am wondering whether this particular leopard can change its spots and pleasantly surprise his critics.
Altruistism and election politics
At an interdenominational church service last Sunday, his wife, Oluremi, informed the congregation that her family “does not need Nigeria’s wealth to survive” – an understatement, to put it mildly.
While cynics question the origins of the eye-wateringly rich Tinubus’ financial security, it is clear he is not short of cash and can afford to be altruistic, no matter the source of his wealth.
If Tinubu is really ready to effectively launder his image and become known as a genuine icon of integrity, he will have to ruthlessly control cronies, relatives and powerful vested interests, who may be more interested in aggressive self-enrichment than in helping him rescue a country that is on its knees in so many different ways.
From his Eagle Square podium, he insisted that “since the advent of the Fourth Republic, Nigeria has not held an election of better quality … the outcome reflected the will of the people.”
This, for me, was the one jarring note in an otherwise good speech.
And it proves that Tinubu can be very economical with the truth.
As the late Queen Elizabeth once observed when her grandson, Prince Harry, accused the British royal family of ill-treating his wife, Meghan: “Recollections vary”.
There are millions – including a number of foreign election observers and journalists – who do not share Tinubu’s rose-tinted view of the polls.
Furthermore, given that he only got 37% of the vote and that many reckon that this figure was exaggerated by the allegedly bribed and biased Independent National Electoral Commission, I struggle to endorse Tinubu’s claim that he is the people’s choice.
Meanwhile, 18 governors have left office, thereby losing their immunity from prosecution. Some who are close to Tinubu – Nyesom Wike of River and Ganduje of Kano, for example – are being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). But critics say it’s doubtful Tinubu cares about such inconvenient details and intends to give them senior jobs.
Let’s not forget Godswill Akpabio, a former governor (of Akwa Ibom State) also being scrutinised by the EFCC, who has been earmarked as Tinubu’s choice for senate president.
Also, what are we to make of Gilbert Chagoury, a famous Lebanese tycoon who has had a brush with the law, was sighted in the VIP box at Eagle Square, sitting next to Seyi, Tinubu’s son?
Improving Lagos infrastructure
Ethical concerns aside, there are doubts about whether Tinubu can significantly add value to Nigeria on a practical level. His fans say he is a visionary who massively upgraded Lagos during his two-term governorship and transformed it “from a jungle to a megacity”.
But again, recollections vary.
“I am tired of hearing that Tinubu made Lagos because the reality is that Lagos made Tinubu,” scoffs Henry Odeinde, a businessman who says that Tinubu exploited his legendary political clout to acquire extensive property holdings and “endless” business benefits.
According to Odeinde: “Tinubu was nothing to write home about. He became governor in 1999 and only started to resurface internal roads on Lagos Island in 2006. This was the only improvement in infrastructure I noticed. As for all this talk about him drastically increasing internally generated revenue, please note that he collected a large percentage of this increase via his consulting firm.”
Tinubu is often – quite rightly – described as a skilled talent spotter who likes to work with competent professionals.
The editor of a newspaper who wishes to remain nameless says that Tinubu “puts square pegs in square holes and will be a much better economic manager than Buhari.”
However, Senator Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele, who was Tinubu’s deputy during his first gubernatorial term, resigned because “he doesn’t listen to alternative opinions”.
Tinubu also clashed with his second-term deputy, Femi Pedro, whose impeachment he eventually engineered, using a State House of Assembly that was firmly under his control.
Given the considerable difference between running a six-state geopolitical zone (Tinubu has been the main mover and shaker in the southwestern region for nearly a quarter of a century) and running 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory, Tinubu will do well to suppress any self-defeating tyrannical tendencies and take advice from technocrats who understand federal-level challenges.
Finally, the elephant in the room: Tinubu’s age and health.
Bluntly put, though he is a super-smart strategist by nature and may be in a well-intentioned frame of mind at the moment, he is way past his prime and visibly frail. There are widespread fears that he will be forced to delegate most of his duties to unelected cabalists who will prefer a “business-as-usual” modus operandi to nation-building.
But let’s not be pessimistic. Buhari once looked deathly ill, but he had excellent doctors and wound up lasting another eight years and had a spring in his step at the end of his tenure.
Tinubu has craved the presidency for most of his life. Even if the election tribunal eventually sends him packing, he can still hit the ground running and make a big mark in a short period of time.
Let’s hope that pride will prevent him from messing up this golden opportunity to leave a sound legacy when he does leave office.
Tinubu has what it takes to succeed, on paper at least. So let’s wait and see whether he will listen, learn, honestly tackle leadership challenges, and prove his critics wrong.
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.