Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu: the Kingmaker who would be King?

By 'Tofe Ayeni, in Lagos
Posted on Monday, 27 July 2020 18:12

Bola Tinubu, former Lagos state governor and All Progressives Congress (APC) leader, speaks at a party meeting in Abuja
Bola Tinubu, former Lagos state governor and All Progressives Congress (APC) leader, speaks at a party meeting in Abuja Febuary 17, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Will the Godfather of Lagos politics finally run for the Presidency?

A master strategist who has dominated the politics of Nigeria’s commercial capital for over two decades, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has long been expected to make a run for the country’s top job – his formidable political network, propensity for deal-making and substantial personal wealth give him a head start over many other contenders.

Will Tinubu run for the Presidency in 2023?

On the 2023 presidential elections, Tinubu has been coy. After the latest ructions in the ruling All Progressives Congress, in which Tinubu and his allies seemed to lose out, he mocked those pundits who purported to know his political intentions.

READ MORE Lagos supremo Bola Tinubu puts downpayment on Nigeria’s presidency

To those who have been actively bleating how the President’s actions and the NEC (National Executive Committee) meeting have ended my purported 2023 ambitions … Already you have assigned colourful epitaphs to the 2023 death of an alleged political ambition that is not yet even born.”

On 25 June, the ruling party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) had dissolved its National Working Committee (NWC) on which Tinubu and his allies had a clear majority and could choose the party chair. They lost that battle. Now the management is in the hands of a caretaker committee and state governors are battling to reassert their control over the party’s machinery.

The general view is that Tinubu will run in 2023 but he has not announced any such intentions. This secrecy may be a new strategy given that he is facing serious rivals in the party and the government.

Tinubu has not held an official position in government since his second term as Lagos governor, which ended in 2007, but his influence national politics has grown.

The schisms in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), have led to the formation of at least two different camps: Nasir el Rufai, governor of Kaduna State and Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transport on one side;  and Tinubu, the national leader of the APC and deposed chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole, on the other.

READ MORE Nigeria’s ruling party: Looking into growing schisms inside the APC

Other factions within the party include senior party people such as Kebbi State governor Atiku Bagudu, Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi, Works minister Babatunde Fashola. For now they are discreet about their ambitions but many have their eyes on the succession in 2023.

Reputation in Lagos

Tinubu is a former two-time governor of Lagos State and he retains mass support there, with crowds of people gathering outside his mansion on Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi.

They credit him with the social and economic progress seen in Lagos over the past two  decades. They add that he has also ensured that progressive governors run the state since he left the post.

Some of Tinubu’s notable achievements as governor includes improving the state’s waste management system, and better incentives for civil servants (salary increases and better quality of working environments).

READ MORE Lagos is a country

His successor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, was responsible for the implementation of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Lite System, which ferries passengers in high-capacity buses on dedicated bus lanes.

Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, the immediate past governor, was shut out when he tried to move away from Tinubu and his desires, and instead of allowing him to run on the APC ticket for a second term, he was replaced by Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Governor Sanwo-Olu, the current governor, another one of Tinubu’s picks, has been praised for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s most densely populated state.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Nigeria’s varied responses to controlling COVID-19

Although Tinubu is widely loved in Lagos, his vast wealth and real estate holdings raise questions, especially amongst the critical and independently wealthy citizens.

Most attention has focused on the operations of a company called Alpha Beta Consulting which was awarded a contract that gave it exclusive rights to collect taxes on behalf of Lagos State when Tinubu was governor.

It was believed to also receive about 10% commission from the revenues collected. Many pro-transparency groups and opposition activists have demanded information about this group and its links with Tinubu and other politicians in the state.

After being a two-time governor of Lagos State, he became known as the ‘godfather of Lagos’, handpicking his successors.

Under Tinubu’s tenure as governor of Lagos State, Alpha Beta Consulting was awarded the contract to collect taxes for the state on the recommendation of a committee whose members included the state’s then Attorney General Yemi Osinbajo (now Vice President), then commissioner for finance Wale Edun and former commissioner for economic planning and budget, Yemi Cardoso.

READ MORE Nigeria’s VP Osinbajo: Does he have friends in the political elite?

Attempts by journalists using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to discover the terms of Alpha Beta’s contract with the Lagos government and its beneficial owners have been blocked by state government officials, arguing that the freedom of information only applies to federal government.

It is important to highlight Tinubu’s influence amongst the Area Boys – loosely organised gangs of street youth who roam the streets of Lagos. He is held up as a man of the people, often giving out free food to poorer Lagosians.

Yet he may be losing ground to his opponents in the state.

In the 2019 presidential election, the Lagos votes for APC and opposition party PDP (53.31% to 41.12%) were very close. That suggested either that Tinubu does not have as much influence as was believed or that Lagosians were tired of the APC government and President Muhammadu Buhari at a national level.

In the Lagos gubernatorial election, the APC’s candidate Babajide Sanwo-Olu, a Tinubu ally,  won nearly four times the number of votes as the PDP.

Tinubu’s rise to power

Tinubu started out in  politics in Nigeria’s third republic, where he represented Lagos West in the Senate.

When the APC was formed – a merger of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Congress for Progressive Change (CPC, headed by current President Buhari), and the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) – Tinubu was a key member in bringing together these parties to oppose the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) ahead of the 2015 elections.

After being a two-time governor of Lagos State, he became known as the ‘godfather of Lagos’, handpicking his successors.

Those that stopped listening to him, or decided that they held all the power, were removed – as was seen with Akinwunmi Ambode, a one-term governor of Lagos State who was pushed out in state primaries ahead of the 2019 elections.

Falling out of the good graces of both the people of Lagos State and the kingmaker of Lagos politics resulted in Ambode’s going from being the governor of the country’s most thriving state to being hunted down by the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission in just six months He was replaced on the APC ticket for the gubernatorial elections by another Tinubu loyalist, current governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu.

Tinubu’s current role is the national leader of the APC, a title that, although an honorific, gives him power and influence within the party structures.

Tinubu holds two chieftaincy titles:

  • Asiwaju of Lagos
  • Jagaban of Borgu Kingdom in Niger State

In a country where traditional leaders are still widely respected, these chieftancy titles enhance his power and reach.

Many younger politicians owe the success of their careers to Tinubu, notably Fashola, and Vice-President Osinbajo. His model has always been to encourage the younger generation.

Support within the party

Before the dissolution of the NWC, it was said that at least 15 out of the 20 members were loyal to Tinubu and Oshiomhole.

Governors loyal to Tinubu include Ganduje of Kano, Masari of Katsina (President Buhari’s home state), Abdulrazak of Kwara, Sanwo-Olu of Lagos, Abiodun of Ogun, and Oyetola of the State of Osun, amongst others.

On the other side lies Governor Obaseki of Edo State, Fayemi of Ekiti, and El-Rufai of Kaduna. Edo State is to hold gubernatorial elections in September 2020. If Obaseki wins the re-election, this will be a kick in the face for his rival Comrade Oshiomhole, and perhaps Tinubu by extension. Many think that El-Rufai and Fayemi also have presidential aspirations for 2023.

Does Tinubu need Buhari to succeed?

The big question is whether President Buhari wants to play a lead role in determining his successor, like Obasanjo did in 2007. Nobody knows the answer of this for certain, but people around Buhari are trying to make sure they are on his good side, hoping that if he does decide to influence the choice and the primaries, he will be on their side.

Although the Nigerian political system is meant to work in a way that the presidency rotates between a southerner and northerner in power – implying that Buhari the notherneer should be succeeded by a southerner –  the question of whether the APC’s next candidate will be a northerner or southerner looks far from resolved.

Tinubu cannot succeed with support only  from the south-west, he needs northern votes as well. Will the eight million strong voter block that Buhari tapped into stay with the APC, regardless of candidate, or will they go to a northern candidate, regardless of party? For example, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the north-east state of Adamawa is likely to contest again for the PDP and fight for those eight  million northern votes,

The collaboration between Buhari and Tinubu in 2015 involved the latter being tasked with bringing in the south-west votes and providing a southern technocrat as the vice-presidential candidate. When the APC vote count from the south-west for Buhari slipped, it seemed that Tinubu had become less important for him.

READ MORE Team Buhari: choosing who to lead Nigeria

It’s unclear how far Tinubu and Buhari trust each other. And whether Buhari would  support Tinubu as an APC candidate for the next presidential election. Buhari plays his cards close to his chest.

Recent troubles in the EFCC

Ibrahim Magu, Acting Chairman of the EFCC ( Economic and Financial Crimes Commission), was suspended in early July, facing a slew of allegations of fraud, including diversion of recovered funds and seized assets. Magu is known to be a Tinubu man. So his suspension might reduce Tinubu’s influence within the system.

READ MORE Nigeria’s EFCC boss suspended from office following secret tribunal

Magu has been released on bail, so it is not yet certain that these troubles will lead to his permanent downfall. If Magu is taken out of the system and his successor decides to investigate Tinubu, that could trigger new political problems for the Lagos godfather.

Bottom Line

Tinubu has not announced his decision to run for President in 2023, but it will surprise few if he does. The threat of an EFCC investigation and the APC divide could thwart such an ambition but all the other contenders will have their own crosses to bear.

Asiwaju Tinubu remains a local hero in Lagos, the country’s commercial capital. He would prepare his campaign with an acute strategic sense of the voter data and the political messaging.

Tinubu’s critical task would be to bring in allies from across the middle and the north to bolster his national reach – his deal-making in the past has proved effective but this would be his greatest test yet.

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