Nigeria’s Tinubu: Will the lion of Bourdillon roar again?

By 'Tofe Ayeni, Patrick Smith

Posted on Thursday, 25 March 2021 17:03
Bola Ahmed Tinubu
Bola Ahmed Tinubu, APC national leader and presidential aspirant. (twitter/@AsiwajuTinubu)

Bola Tinubu may dismiss speculation that he is running for the 2023 presidential elections, but political insiders see him as a front-runner, alongside Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi, and Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello.

The Nigerian national elections in 2023 could be one of the most consequential in the country’s history. A new generation of leaders who became prominent in the 21st century are vying for seats at a time when the issues of devolution of power and identity politics are ever more pressing.

At the same time, the shrinking world oil market is forcing Nigeria to navigate an energy transition over the next decade, as government and companies struggle to create meaningful jobs for the biggest labour force in Africa.

Contenders started jostling for positions as soon as the 2019 elections were out of the way. The first politician to have a campaign launched on his behalf was Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos state and godfather to a generation of politicians from south-west Nigeria.

The phrase “have a campaign launched on his behalf” is key: Tinubu had mockingly dismissed journalists who reported that he would be running for president in 2023.

In Nigerian politics, it is a fact that the first hat in the ring for the presidential race can get trampled on, hard. As such, there is every reason for Tinubu to distance himself from those running the indiscreetly named South West Agenda 2023 (SWAGA 23) campaign on his behalf.

And it’s hard to find a political insider in Abuja and Lagos who doesn’t see Tinubu as a frontrunner for the 2023 race alongside Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi and Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello.

In Tinubu’s favour is his determination to develop a new political class in south-west Nigeria with allies across the country. Without a doubt, Tinubu is the best-networked politician in Nigeria aside from serving heads of state.

The array of friends, associates and even rivals that he has accumulated remains unmatched, to the extent that he has been a factor in almost every political conversation and every resulting deal over the past two decades. It helps to have been the boss of Lagos – the commercial capital of Africa’s biggest economy.

Tinubu had the convening power to put together alliances for causes and ultimately build a formidable vote-winning machine in the form of the All Progressives Congress, combining Muhammadu Buhari’s bloc of over eight million votes from the north with electors of the south-west who have proved more fickle in their choice of leaders over the years.

Climb to the top

His national ascent started with the demise of General Sani Abacha and military rule in Nigeria. His defeat of Funsho Williams and Wahab Dosunumu in the primaries for the Lagos state governorship elections in 1999 was a turning point.

As governor of Lagos State (1999-2007), Tinubu built his political and business empire, albeit falling out with several associates along the way as detailed in the Lion of Bourdillon documentary film.

After 2007, Tinubu strutted on to the national stage with his plan to form an opposition alliance to the dominant People’s Democratic Party. After several false starts and accusations of double-dealing, the aspiration turned to reality with a merger of the three biggest opposition parties, one from the south and two from the north to form the All Progressives Congress with Buhari as its presidential candidate in 2015.

It is important to note, however, that there has not been a Yoruba president in 16 years, since General Olusegun Obasanjo.

After Buhari won the prize, many thought Tinubu would be quietly swept aside. That didn’t happen, although his regional influence has diminished in recent years. Yet Tinubu masterminded the APC victory in 2019 in the governorship and presidential elections in Lagos State. He had earlier secured the exit of Akinwumi Ambode, a one-term (and therefore unicorn) governor of Lagos.

Across the south-west and the wider federation, Tinubu has kept his network up and running, but with mixed results. His close friendship with abrasive former trades union chief Adams Oshiomhole backfired last year when their political rival — Godwin Obaseki — won the Edo State governorship election in what was seen as a key test of strength. At the same time, Oshiomhole was pushed out as chairman of the APC – a decision he is still contesting.

Another ally, former acting chairman of the Economic & Financial Crime Commission Ibrahim Magu, has also fallen by the wayside after losing a battle with the increasingly assertive federal Attorney-General Abubakar Malami. The new chair at the EFCC Abdulrasheed Bawa is a close ally – some say relative – of Malami’s and is said to be behind an investigation into Tinubu’s companies in Lagos.

Such a probe would be widely seen as politically-charged but it may be no less effective for that. This month, Malami has come out to say there is no probe into Tinubu’s business or political operations. What lies behind that is another story.

Another big question is the state of relations between Tinubu and Buhari. They needed each other in 2015 and 2019 when the south-west allied with Buhari’s vote bank in the north was a critical component of the APC victory.

Some strategists in the APC are now trying to rewrite the plot, building alliances in the south-south and south-east which would render Tinubu’s south-west convening power less vital for election success.

It is important to note, however, that there has not been a Yoruba president in 16 years, since General Olusegun Obasanjo. The ethnicity of politics in Nigeria means some may see this opportunity as the ‘time’ for Yorubas. However, Tinubu is not the only popular Yoruba politician that could be a contender even though he is the wealthiest and arguably the most influential.

In June 2007, after his win as governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola inaugurated the House of Assembly and the parliamentarians went to Tinubu’s residence to pledge allegiance to him, even though he was a private citizen. That was an indicator of his power and influence.

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