Only a democratic era such as ours could have produced Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Yet convincing Nigerians to ignore the controversies of his past, his wealth and his choice of running mate will be the crowning achievement of Tinubu’s career—not becoming president.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Road to 2023. Buy the issue here.
The 2019 elections marked several important milestones in Nigeria’s political history. It was the twentieth anniversary of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. It was also the second time a president was re-elected to a second term and a reaffirmation of the All Progressives Congress (APC)’s emergence as Nigeria’s ruling party. But above all, by 2019, Nigeria had officially spent more time under democratically elected leaders than under military rule.
In the different eras of democratic rule (1960-1966 and 1979-1983) before the current uninterrupted period, Nigeria’s leaders have sought power by appealing to followers to support their ambitions. However, their chances of success have historically been rooted in their ability to place their ambitions within the context of the demands of that moment in Nigerian history. The different stages of Nigeria’s democratic evolution have shown the strengths, and occasional limitations, of some of the country’s most storied political actors. But, like the authenticity that comes with tracing the source of a hadith to the prophet, tracing one’s political lineage to formidable forebears is a stamp of legitimacy.
The 2023 presidential election comes with the opportunity for APC’s presidential nominee, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to lay claim to a throne that has eluded many on the political lineage he seeks to follow. It comes with a chance to succeed where political luminaries, such as Obafemi Awolowo and M. K .O. Abiola, failed. It also offers Tinubu the chance to define this stage of Nigeria’s political journey by becoming one of the handful of Nigerians to lead the country.
Convincing Nigerians to ignore the controversies of his past, his wealth and his choice of running mate will be the crowning achievement of Tinubu’s career. A potential victory will also serve as a marker when we look back to discuss this stage in the country’s political evolution.
Political campaigns often provide candidates a chance to rewrite their narratives, but Tinubu’s sustained involvement in politics means that many Nigerians have already made up their mind about who he is and what they believe he stands for. There is no argument over the more incontrovertible facts, such as his election to the Nigerian Senate during the short lived Third Republic (1992-1993) and then as governor of Lagos State (1999-2007) in between being a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). However, opinions begin to diverge when evaluating his legacy in politics after serving two terms as governor.
For those to whom Tinubu is truly ‘Jagaban’, a Hausa phrase that means ‘take us forward’ and a title conferred by the Emir of Borgu, he earned the title in 2006 through his ability to provide purposeful and progressive leadership. This includes his tenure as governor of Lagos State, during which, his supporters claim, he increased the state’s revenue; and after which, they also argue, he bequeathed competent and productive successors. Asiwaju Oladimeji, a political analyst and APC member, believes, for instance, that Tinubu ‘deserves kudos for spotting political talent’. There is also the sagacity in his firm stand against the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) during the 2003 election—at a time when his fellow governors lost re-election bids and his party, the Alliance for Democracy (AD)’s control of the South West was whittled to just Lagos.
Additionally, Tinubu is lauded for his unwavering resolve in propping up AD, the Action Congress (AC) and then the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) as effective opposition parties. Of course, the pivotal role Tinubu played in the formation of APC, which eventually wrested power from PDP, cannot be ignored. As APC’s party leader, he was initially slated to be Muhammadu Buhari’s running mate. He nominated Yemi Osinbajo in his stead, to ensure religious balance in the party’s presidential ticket and give the party a better chance of success. Now, faced with the final opportunity to be—as he suggested earlier this year—adequately rewarded for his role fighting for democracy with NADECO, providing effective governance in Lagos and leading the APC to power, he is on the precipice of a chance to lead Nigeria. His party members certainly share this view. Preferring to remain anonymous, an APC party chieftain, told me the presidency is Tinubu’s ‘due reward’, for midwifing APC and remaining steadfast in the opposition.
The other title by which Tinubu is known is ‘Asiwaju’, a Yoruba phrase that means ‘frontrunner’ and a name his supporters in the South West often use. However, this name has taken on a life of its own, especially in the wake of his famous ‘Èmi ló kàn’ declaration, which is Yoruba for ‘It is my turn’. Tinubu uttered this phrase in Ogun State, earlier this year, during a speech to party members and politicians. In his speech, he insisted that it is time for the Yoruba to produce Nigeria’s next president and that he, as the foremost Yoruba politician, was entitled to the presidency.
Tinubu’s supporters say ‘Èmi ló kàn’ defiantly and proudly, but many Nigerians still attribute a more sinister connotation to this phrase. Farida Adamu, a development research analyst in Abuja, expressed her disappointment at Tinubu’s run. While saying that she did not expect Tinubu to attempt to run for presidency, she stressed that ‘what is most shocking is the banality of his reasons. I think he represents honestly what most Nigerian politicians come into office to do—their turn’.
Beyond his intentions for the country, Nigerians like Adamu may even doubt Tinubu’s very origins. Already, some like journalist David Hundeyin have argued that contrary to what he may purport, Tinubu is a man from Osun State who was adopted into the Lagosian Tinubu family without actually being a blood relative. According to such reports, Tinubu later moved to the US, to Chicago, where he became an active participant in a cocaine-smuggling group and then used the ill-gotten funds to sponsor a bid for the Nigerian Senate. He later put forward a company to collect a percentage of tax revenue from Lagos in exchange for conducting its internal revenue and, Premium Times has reported, continues to profit from Lagos, a state he stopped governing in 2007.
This ‘godfather of Lagos’ would dispense with politicians at will—denying a governor a second term in 2019 and ensuring his daughter succeeded his mother as the head of the market women in Lagos. This man, an entitled politician whose wealth raises questions and who notoriously brushed off concerns about the arrival of bullion vans in his house before an election in 2019, now insists that it is his turn to lead—as though the nation’s highest political office is a reward for his antecedents and despite clear signs of age-related health issues.
The two titles by which Tinubu is associated hint at the political authority many Nigerians believe he wields. But it could be argued that part of Tinubu’s ‘appeal’ is his ability to adapt to the necessities of the moment that he has been fated to contest in. And to lend credence to this point, it is worth going back to see the political titans that marked preceding eras, and whose progeny he will claim to be part of.
THE REGIONAL NIGERIAN: AWOLOWO
Awolowo is mentioned in the same breath as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa despite not being president or prime minister. He was not the leader of the ruling party like the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, and took the title of leader of the opposition at the federal level instead of being premier of the Western Region. However, like his contemporaries, his position of prominence in his region meant that he was very influential and followed. Followers of leaders like Awolowo who had Awoists and Azikiwe who had Zikists, embraced not only their leaders’ names but also their ideologies. Awolowo’s policies while premier of Western Nigeria (1954-1960), such as the introduction of free primary education and healthcare, meant that he was associated with effective social democratic policies. He was also able to utilize the cocoa industry to support many of his infrastructural plans which included creating the Western Nigeria Television Service (the first television service on the continent).
Disagreements formed between the Awolowo, the federal leader of the opposition and his erstwhile loyal lieutenant premier of the Western region Ladoke Akintola. Awolowo’s desire to maintain the Action Group (AG) as a social democratic party and Akintola’s desire to adopt a more conservative approach in alliance with the then-ruling Northern People’s Congress led to a schism between both leaders and the division of AG. Akintola and his followers created the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) which split AG and played a spoiler role in the 1964 elections by relegating AG and joining NPC in government.
The end of the First Republic in 1966 also saw regional government end in Nigeria. This meant that subsequent leaders would have to contend with more nuance in their political pitches, which can prove to be difficult in a country as multifaceted and multi-ethnic as Nigeria. It is why, despite being the two most prominent post-independence leaders active in the Second Republic, neither Awolowo nor Azikiwe was successful in getting elected and receiving votes across all 19 states. More acolytes had emerged, more fiefdoms were present, and more alliances needed to be cultivated beyond just simple handshakes across the Niger. However, from this era, Tinubu must have learnt the need to minimize the chances of a usurper rising from within his political camp à la Akintola.
To date, Tinubu has imposed all successors as governors of Lagos, even dispensing with Akinwunmi Ambode in 2019 to show how influential he can be. He has waded into other South West states to endorse candidates and ensured that none of his proteges or collaborators are strong enough to unseat him—a lesson that former Osun State governor, Rauf Aregbesola, recently learnt when, despite since becoming interior minister, he was unable to assert his choice for governor on the party. Where Awolowo was ideologically motivated, Tinubu and many APC leaders appear to be united simply by their quest to attain power. Awolowo might not agree with this approach, but he will always remain, in Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s words, the ‘best president Nigeria never had’ while Tinubu could actually become president in 2023.
THE DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION NIGERIAN: ABIOLA
More so than Awolowo, the Yoruba leader that Tinubu is likely to draw close to in terms of appeal and presentation is Abiola, the widely adjudged winner of the June 12 1993 presidential election. It is nearly the thirtieth anniversary of that election, and the similarities between Abiola and Tinubu have become more apparent. For one, both politicians are well known for their wealth and influence (or rumoured control in Tinubu’s case) in different parts of the economy. But the major similarity—and one that the Tinubu campaign has already invoked—is Tinubu’s decision to nominate a fellow Muslim on the ticket, which goes against the decision by most leaders to run with a candidate of a different religion to theirs.
Abiola’s first foray into active partisan politics was in the Second Republic, when as a member of the ruling NPN, he used his Concord Newspaper Group to attack Awolowo. Ahead of the 1993 election, the Babangida regime decreed only two parties into existence, the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the right-wing National Republican Convention (NRC). Abiola, contrary to the capitalist reality of his control of a vast business empire, joined SDP and sought the presidential nomination. Facing off with the well-known Babagana Kingibe and a then-little-known Atiku Abubakar at the Jos Convention, Abiola was able to outmanoeuvre his rivals and win the ticket. Despite picking Kingibe, a fellow Muslim as his running mate, the SDP ticket was on the cusp of victory before the election was annulled. This decision led to the beginning of more opposition against the military regime and the rise of pro-democracy activists in exile and culminated with the transition to democracy in 1999—following the deaths of then-dictator General Sani Abacha and Abiola, which happened within a month of each other.
A question that many will pose is the viability of a sole religion ticket in a country that is divided along many identity lines, a prominent one being religion. Oladimeji believes that in 1993 the mood of Nigeria and the popularity of the candidate meant that such a choice was not as politically divisive then as it is now. ‘The popularity was there for Abiola and the mood was for someone to remove the military,’ he told me, while also pointing out that ‘the mood was so overwhelming that no one can recall the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) being as vocal as it is being now.’ However, this kind of unity is rarely found in elective politics. Such rarity also adds to the growing challenge that politicians, including Tinubu, have found in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.
THE NEW MILLENIUM NIGERIAN: OBASANJO
Yoruba leaders have often benefited from the work and antecedents of previous leaders. Abiola benefitted from the structure and development that Awolowo had cultivated during the First and Second Republics. More recently, in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo benefited when most parties, acknowledging the legacy of the aborted 12 June election, decided to zone their tickets to the Yoruba in 1999. The two candidates in the 1999 election had different legacies among their people, which indirectly led to their fortunes during the election. Olu Falae, a former finance minister and secretary to the government of the federation, was the candidate of the AD, which was the new custodian group for former UPN and SDP members.
Obasanjo, on the other hand, was the former head of state who presided over the 1979 elections that saw Shehu Shagari’s victory over Awolowo in one of Nigeria’s most controversial presidential contests. Many did not forgive Obasanjo for what they perceived as the betrayal of a fellow Yoruba when Obasanjo supported a court decision to award Shagari the victory. They felt that he would be an unworthy recipient of Yoruba goodwill. This fact mirrored the results—Falae floored Obasanjo in all six South West states, polling 4,366,993 votes to Obasanjo’s 1,092,216. This meant that despite Obasanjo’s resounding win in other regions, a clear message had been sent: his own people had rejected him and did not count him as one of theirs.
Obasanjo, the wily strategist, would seek to rectify this slight during the 2003 election. He is reported to have made a deal with AD governors to back his presidential bid in exchange for a guaranteed ride to re-election. Tinubu did not acquiesce and became the only AD governor in the country following PDP’s sweep of the other five states in the region. This upset would systematically be overturned through the courts but, unlike Muhammadu Buhari in the North or Odumegwu Ojukwu in the East, Obasanjo would never be able to exert influence in his home region. It was having a significant support base that made Tinubu an appealing partner when Buhari decided to make a final attempt at the presidency in 2015. This lesson would prove key to the final part of Tinubu’s bid—just like Awolowo, Tinubu had to maintain, or at least provide the illusion of having an impregnable hold in his region. A strong base would make Tinubu a powerbroker and provide a key platform to launch his bid for the highest office in the land.
THE LAST PRE-NIGERIAN: TINUBU
To paraphrase American writer James Baldwin, to be a young Nigerian and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. Tinubu’s candidacy will need to address the many concerns that young Nigerians today routinely express. Young Nigerans are not only able to vote but are also increasingly vocal. Not only will Tinubu need to engage with their concerns, he will also need to address the challenge that his age poses in being able to relate to them.
The government’s response to the #ENDSARS protests—particularly the ban on crypto assets and the infamous Lekki tollgate killings—its subsequent Twitter ban and its handling of the ongoing Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike are sad legacies of the current administration. The concept of ‘japá’, a Yoruba word meaning to ‘run away’, has gained more prominence in recent years as a result of mostly young Nigerians seeking to escape the harsh realities of living in Nigeria. Attempts to show a more progressive government, such as the signing of the ‘Not Too Young To Run’ bill in 2018, have not done much to change this perception. ‘The president has given up on leading the country so I’ve given up on having hope that things will get better,’ Adamu told me for instance.
Inclusive policy advocate, Elmer Aluge, also told me that ‘Our youth population is our largest asset. However, our dysfunctional system and government is not strategically positioning to tap into this resource.’ According to Aluge, Nigeria’s policymakers continue to overlook health and education. ‘This makes me wonder about how we can transition to being a developed nation. We are seriously behind on the basic needs as far as the average citizen is concerned,’ she said.
In 2023, concerns such as Elmer’s will be front and centre because of the expected increase in youth participation in these elections. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), over eight million young Nigerians have been registered in the forthcoming elections. For context, in the 2015 and 2019 general elections, the margin between the top two candidates was less than four million. Attending to this bloc will be key for any successful candidate. The implication on Tinubu’s candidacy comes across in three major points that may or may not play a major role in the 2023 elections.
First, is Tinubu’s sense of earned or entitled acknowledgment. A big element of this is in reference to the infamous video where Tinubu tells his listeners that ‘Èmi ló kàn’. What is often missed out in the translation, is that he begins his speech by imploring his followers to give him this chance to serve out. Oladimeji explained that this part of his speech draws from his legacy of supporting other candidates and politicians. ‘What he really says,’ Oladimeji told me, ‘is that I supported you during all your other contests, it is now left for you to also support me because I can do the job. I came through for you before, come through for me now.’ While this clearly resonated with some politicians, with seven dropping out at the APC presidential nominating convention in Tinubu’s favour, many have criticized this and painted it as an entitled politician seeking power as a reward for ‘longevity’. Mayowa Idowu, editor-in-chief of Culture Custodian, told me, for instance, that part of his aversion for Tinubu’s candidacy was because he believed it was ‘an entitled bid for legacy’.
Second, is the call for a generational changing of the guard. Tinubu’s age has often been cited as a question mark around his capability to grapple with the demands of the moment and the people he seeks to lead. His well-documented health challenges will bring memories of Buhari seeking help abroad and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua dying in office. Tinubu’s current aversion to engaging with the media will smack of the aloofness that trailed Buhari’s campaigns before 2015 and his re-election bid in 2019. And, perhaps most importantly, his major disadvantage is his arrival at this juncture in history when the rigours of the country demand a more active and healthier candidate, such as the Labour Party’s nominee, Peter Obi.
Third, and perhaps most critically, the election will be a key test of the impact of fault lines in either unifying or dividing Nigerians. The recent governorship election in Osun State, which saw the opposition candidate defeat an incumbent governor from Tinubu’s party, has led to questions surrounding Tinubu’s ‘impregnable’ hold in the south-west geopolitical zone. But, as Oladimeji points out, this isn’t exactly strange and also points to the key decision that has threatened to define this election. ‘The South West has some of the most complex voting behaviours in Nigeria. Previous elections with Yoruba candidates have seen them lose in their wards or states,’ he told me. ‘So, while Tinubu is easily the foremost politician from South West, it doesn’t mean he, too, doesn’t have to work hard for votes,’ he explained. This reality, especially now that PDP will control two of the six states in the South West, makes APC’s decision to choose a Northern Muslim as Tinubu’s running mate electorally practical.
These reasons three complete that most difficult of electoral trifectas—a race along generational, ethnic and religious lines. Whether he wins or loses, part of Tinubu’s legacy will be how he navigates these issues that will make or mar future generations of Nigerians. Independent researcher, Dr. Sa’eed Hussaini, believes that the discussions around the preceding points have been ‘a very helpful distraction from Tinubu’s governing record’. So far, according to Hussaini, ‘Tinubu has been able to avoid touching on a range of issues including his adroit complicity in the legacy of Lekki Toll Gate, and its role during the #ENDSARS protests, and a fairly unpopular government that he helped put in power.’
Tinubu’s supporters no doubt believe he can navigate these pitfalls and point to his administration while governor of Lagos and the many mentees they claim he has identified and elevated, as reasons. Tinubu’s supporters also point to his wife, Oluremi, a Christian, to suggest his ability to balance religious sensitivities. But these are points that are sure to be relitigated over the course of what is already going to be the longest election campaign period in Nigerian history.
Regardless of the outcome of the 2023 election, Tinubu will remain a prominent fixture of history books chronicling Nigeria’s imperfect march towards a more perfect nation. What 2023 will determine is whether Tinubu will be part of another story, or a chapter by himself. Tinubu would no doubt have had strengths in other eras: his intellect might have marked him out in the First Republic, while his subsequent wealth might have seen him assume the toga that Abiola had in the Second Republic. Yet, Tinubu’s candidacy appears fated to this moment. The hard work of building a strong opposition party, cultivating a network of allies around Nigeria and amassing the necessary wealth to contest an election could only have been carried out in a democratic era as long as ours. The ability to generate media coverage and invest in judicial-based contests for his allies could only have been carried out without the fear of an impending coup.
This leads to the question of whether Tinubu is the manifestation of the Nigerian Fourth Republic to date, but even that is not a question that can be answered right away. Hussaini explains, ultimately, that ‘knowing Tinubu could only have arisen to this position, in this republic, would not mean that such a rise was overdetermined and previously unimaginable’. As a result, the answer to that question, as with most temporal ones, can only be found in hindsight and when our history is studied. The 2023 election will either enable or extinguish Tinubu’s ability to set the tone for the next era of Nigeria’s democracy. This responsibility and power, much more than any elected official can wield, is what Nigerians should know they are deciding in the 2023 election⎈
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