The End of the Kingmaker? Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s Pyrrhic Victory

Tinubu may have won the presidential election, but he has done so at a huge cost: his control of Lagos is already dying, and his work as president will further alienate him from the nitty-gritty of Lagos’ politics. For the first time in over a decade, he may not be able to determine who becomes the next governor of Lagos.

No one knows for sure when the kingmaker was born, literally; but everyone knows his end is near, figuratively. Despite being declared president-elect in a controversial election scoring the lowest votes by a winner since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, Bola Tinubu, the long-term kingmaker of Lagos, could be nearing the end of his political rulership. Especially after having been rejected in Lagos, a state he has long controlled. 

Tinubu’s birth date has always been contentious—most recently, in December 2022 at Chatham House (the darling location of Nigerian politicians) he tried to dismiss the controversy around his age as unimportant. The uncertainty of Tinubu’s birth date is one of several controversies related to his life, others being his educational background and job history. 

What is not uncertain, however, is the dramatic transformation of Tinubu from a former governor of the 1999/2003 ‘set’ into a sphinx-like political godfather and kingmaker. For more than two decades, Tinubu controlled the political trajectory of Lagos in a pseudo-progressive style installing key politicians into major roles and holding strong to their apron as a sort of puppet master. For example, in 2022, Tinubu rewarded former deputy governor, Idiat Adebule with a senatorial seat after she openly antagonized her principal, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode after Ambode fell out of favour. Before then, Adebule had served as a commissioner during Tinubu’s governorship administration and later as chief of staff to Babatunde Fashola when he was governor of Lagos. Tinubu also handpicked the current deputy governor of Lagos, Obafemi Hamzat from the United States. Since 2007, Tinubu has had a hand in the emergence of all the governors of Lagos, a feat whose end is beginning to look imminent as Lagos gears up for a historic governorship election that threatens to deal a final blow to Tinubu’s crumbling control of the state. Already, in the 2023 presidential election which Tinubu won nationwide, he scored 572, 606 votes in Lagos according to INEC, losing to Labour Party’s Peter Obi who scored 582,454 votes.  

THE RISE OF THE DEMOCRATIC AUTOCRAT

On 29 May 2007, 23 governors completed their two administrative terms. A lot of these governors went straight to the National Assembly that same year or made attempts for the presidency. Tinubu was one of the few governors who had other plans: to build a political dynasty. The work to achieve that started in 2006 when he cannibalized to extinction, the Mojisola Akinfenwa-led Alliance for Democracy (AD), the party that brought Tinubu to office.  He left AD to create a breakaway Action Congress, which later became the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), with Adebisi Akande as the chairman. Still in 2006, he anointed his then-chief of staff, Babatunde Fashola, as his successor, knocking off the gubernatorial interests of party bigwigs like his deputy Femi Pedro, Musiliu Obanikoro, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, Jimi Agbaje and Raimo Owonikoko. For Tinubu, this was the beginning of a long line of deciding who emerges as not just the gubernatorial candidate of his party but who becomes the governor of Lagos, a tradition that is currently under threat. 

2015 was the first test against Tinubu’s kingmaker status and his success affirmed Tinubu as the undisputed anointer-in-chief and kingmaker of Lagos. Although a primary election took place, Akinwunmi Ambode, Tinubu’s preferred candidate won the election defeating his closest rival, Obafemi Hamzat, who many touted as then-governor, Fashola’s anointed candidate 

Since then, Tinubu has continued to have a hand—and a very strong one—in the emergence of the governorship candidate of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and the subsequent electoral successes of such candidates. It did not matter if at the time they were being presented to the party and the state, such candidates were relatively unknown; Tinubu’s larger-than-life political presence was enough to get them into office. For example, Ambode who had served as accountant-general in Lagos for six years, was relatively unknown in the political circle until Tinubu hoisted his hand and crowned him Fashola’s successor. When Ambode began to sway away from the dictates of his political godfather, he was axed after four years and replaced with another politically obscure candidate, Babajide Sanwo-Olu. 

The custodian of the mythical Lagos Master Plan, Tinubu has, in a PR masterstroke, portrayed himself as a progressive democrat whose successors in the state have been chosen by the party through democratic primary elections. In reality, one could argue these candidates were personally shopped and hand-picked before being shoved onto the laps of the party and the state. While primary elections truly take place, these elections are mere charades to window dress the autocratic nature of Tinubu’s role in the emergence of his subsequent successors. ThisDay editor and columnist, Shaka Momodu has explained of Tinubu that:  

His desire to be seen and called a democrat is only matched by the reality of his undemocratic tendencies. Measured by every standard of transparency, accountability and openness which are the hallmark of democratic enterprise, his then ACN was the most undemocratic party amongst the lot, yet he never misses any opportunity to lay claims to democratic high grounds. Give it to him, he sure knows how to mouth the platitudes at public fora but they are meaningless to a lot of people by the contrasting reality of his activities, actions, public pronouncement and the manner of the choices he makes. 

Tinubu’s supporters have claimed that his political success is hinged on his deep-woven connection to the grassroots. When critically examined, his connections to two agencies have helped to strengthen his control especially when it comes to winning elections in the state: first, the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), a blanket association that encapsulates commercial transport workers and the touts that supervise their operation led by Musiliu Akinsanya (more commonly known as MC Oluomo);  second, the street markets led by his mother, Abibatu Mogaji, and since her death in 2013 by his daughter, Folashade Tinubu. 

Apart from being a revenue-generating agency for the Lagos state, the NURTW has become a foot soldier of the ruling party in the state, offering political mobilization. MC Oluomo has been vocal about his political support for Tinubu and his party, galvanizing his members towards providing the necessary support. Connected to the NURTW are also market people at bus parks and hawkers who are expected to be card-carrying members of Tinubu’s party, thereby helping the NURTW spread its tentacles to affect millions of Lagosians. 

The Iyaloja position Tinubu’s daughter currently holds is also strategic in helping Tinubu maintain a support system among traders many of whom are women. During elections, these people become valuable tools for campaigns and other forms of political participation. Since not participating may come at a cost to them, many of these people help to sustain the political momentum of Tinubu and his party from campaigns to elections. 

However, this long held tried and tested electoral system orchestrated by Tinubu failed significantly in his presidential bid. Despite reported cases of voter suppression through violence and intimidation by thugs, LP’s Obi defeated Tinubu in Lagos. 

This is not the first time Tinubu’s party, APC, has lost a presidential election in Lagos. In 2011, APC’s presidential candidate, Nuhu Ribadu lost in Lagos to the People’s Democratic Party’s Goodluck Jonathan.  Especially as Tinubu was on the ballot in this presidential election, his losing in Lagos is devastating to his political hegemony and is a clear message of rejection of both his candidacy and his political rulership by his supposedly ‘own people’. How did this happen after more than 20 years of Tinubu having uninterrupted control of the political apparatus of Lagos State?  

It began with the EndSARS protest of 2020. 

END SARS: THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Despite Tinubu not holding any official political position, fingers pointed at him on what many assume was his background role in the carnage that followed the October 2020 EndSARS protest. 

The protest was a breaking point for Nigerian youths who for a long time were, and are still, profiled by the police, extorted and in some cases tortured and killed.  

Lagos soon became the epicentre of the nationwide, youth-led protests and the Lekki Toll Gate, which many claimed Tinubu owned, became a focal point. The protests caught the attention of the international community and the rest of the world and spurred conversations about Nigeria’s additional challenges related to policing, governance, employment and the economy. 

On the morning of 20 October, Governor Sanwo-Olu declared a 24-hour curfew in Lagos. By evening, the lights at the Lekki Toll Gate were removed and the toll’s CCTV cameras were turned off. That night, armed soldiers invaded the protest ground and fired sporadically at protesters. The Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS-Related Abuses put the number of deaths at 46 although some analysts believe that more people died. 

At first, following the shootings, Tinubu was uncharacteristically silent, and many interpreted his silence as being an attempt to protect his investment in Lagos. When he finally spoke to the press, he questioned why protesters were at the toll gate in the first place, and the sort of characters they were. 

‘Who gave the order?’ became a popular catchphrase young Nigerians directed at Sanwo-Olu and Tinubu, believing the two were complicit in the attack. It spurred a reawakening in the minds of the youth to take their grievances to the polls 

Unsurprisingly, ahead of the 2023 general elections, 37 million of the 93.4 million registered voters were youths, representing about 40 per cent of the total number. Political analysts believe that a large number of these young voters, especially those in Lagos, belonged to the ‘OBIdient’ movement and used the movement as a vehicle for promoting a candidate they felt could represent them in the presidential election. The vast youth mobilization which reflected in the high voter registrations was an expression of intent to take the control of the state away from Tinubu. 

This interest in regaining control played out on 25 February 2023 when Lagosians went to the polls and voted for Obi over Tinubu. The result was a defiant expression that not Tinubu, but Lagosians owned Lagos, dealing a heavy blow to Tinubu’s years of empire-like grip on the state. While Tinubu’s path to presidential victory was helped by his divided opposition and votes from the largely Muslim north, a new political dynasty, one controlled by the people, has been created in Lagos. Certainly, a new dynasty that threatens the re-election of Sanwo-Olu in the coming, March 11 governorship election. 

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

Tinubu may have won the presidential election, but he has done so at a huge cost: his control of Lagos is already dying, and his work as president will further alienate him from the nitty-gritty of Lagos’ politics.  

Many political godfathers, especially former governors who transitioned to national politics either through the National Assembly or the presidency, found out later on that their control of their states had either waned or disappeared. In their absence, their anointed successors either seized control of the party and state or lost the state to the opposition. What kept Tinubu’s hold of Lagos alive for so long was his decision to not seek political power outside of his state immediately after his governorship ended in 2007.  

Bukola Saraki, for instance, was the godfather of Kwara state politics after his two-term in office as governor. As governor, he even challenged the hegemony of his father, Olusola Saraki when he rejected the emergence of his sister, Gbemi Saraki, as governor of Kwara state in 2011. Not only did he prevent her from succeeding him despite she having the backing of their father but also took her senatorial seat. In 2011, Saraki installed his successor, Abdulfatah Ahmed, before going to the Senate. In 2015, he became Senate president; however, in 2019, he lost control of Kwara. Not only did Saraki lose his Senate re-election bid, his anointed governorship candidate, Razak Atunwa, also lost his election. Fuelled by citizen dissatisfaction, the wave of ‘Ó Tó Gẹ́ (It is Enough) consumed Saraki’s political empire. 

Similar can also be said about former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio. Akpabio lost control of Akwa Ibom after installing his successor, Udom Emmanuel, and moved to the Senate in 2015. Stepping out of Akpabio’s shadow, Emmanuel took charge of Akwa Ibom’s politics, refusing to defect to APC with Akpabio in 2018. In 2019, Emmanuel won his re-election bid in Akwa Ibom, while Akpabio lost his senatorial election. 

Another example: in 2015, two-term governor of Benue State, George Akume, helped to shepherd in Samuel Ortom as the next governor of the state. Akume headed to the Senate, winning his senatorial election three consecutive times. Despite this, in 2018, a political rift between Akume and Ortom cost Akume his senate seat while Ortom won his re-election. 

For Tinubu, the combination of a youth-led revolution and a federal assignment will bring an end to his decade-long control of Lagos. For the first time, the election of his favoured governorship candidate—Sanwo-Olu, who perhaps in a bid not to end up as another Ambode, has breezed through his governorship term uninspiringly—is under threat. Like Obi, the youth seem to have chosen LP’s Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour as their candidate and barring any last-minute politicking, the final nail on the coffin of Tinubu’s political control of Lagos may be sealed on March 11

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