Tinubu crosses the Rubicon
Former Lagos State governor and national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is a very fortunate man. Before he declared for the presidency last Monday during a snap visit to President Muhammadu Buhari, he was virtually the main talking point in Nigerian politics. He had long hinted his interest in the presidency, leading sections of Nigeria’s resentful public to chafe at his decision. But even before he expressed interest, and since 2015 in fact, he had been the same public’s talking point. Few could afford to be indifferent to him, or take him for granted. Few former governors enjoy such ample mention, and most of them had long been consigned to anonymity. By finally declaring his interest, even though he claimed to be still consulting, his friends and supporters have become exultant, while his enemies are enraged.
The coming months will be fretful for Asiwaju Tinubu, seeing he is the first aspirant to publicly declare his interest in the top position. Except he discloses his private contemplations, the public will not know whether his natural stoicism can withstand the ensuing withering media attacks, or for how long. During and after the EndSARS protests, when he was puzzlingly made the target of the protests in Lagos, he was said to have briefly considered dropping out of the race. Abandoned by the Villa, despised by the presidential cabal, and roundly hated and pilloried by Lagos-dominated social media influencers, it seemed he had come to the end of his tether. But a few months down the road, he had bounced back, more determined than ever to try his fortune. He was not just a stoic and an incurable optimist, he had also become inured to abuse and every form of revilement. His supporters and contacts around the country, particularly in the North, egged him on, and assured that presidential elections all over the world were unpredictable, and determined to take to heart the Rooseveltian dictum of daring mighty things in order to win glorious triumphs, he quickly dispelled all doubts, abandoned timidity, and last Monday threw his hat in the ring.
Asiwaju Tinubu has immediately become the leading aspirant, a position conventional political wisdom declares is fraught with danger. He will find that throwing his hat in the ring, through mere pronouncement, is far easier than the coming ordeal of taming of the intemperate and cantankerous APC shrew, his first port of call on the way to the presidency. The ruling party, as everyone knows, is seething with plots, most of them directed at the former governor. It has been led for more than 18 months by a caretaker committee whose members are neither humbled by the gravity of their assignments nor indifferent to harvesting the benefits of a ‘reshaped’ and ‘retuned’ party. The APC has thus played cat and mouse with the former governor, and he in turn has continued to bait them. He has some of his men in the committee, and his defiant shadow continues to loom over the party. Were the committee to be sure it could neutralise his influence in the party and dissipate his shadow, its leaders would have held the convention and looked forward to the awe-inspiring presidential primary that is the fulcrum of their plots.
The former governor knows that the dethronement of former APC chairman Adams Oshiomhole was designed to whittle down his influence in the party and foreclose his presidential ambition. It is not clear whether President Muhammadu Buhari realised this when the governors unsheathed their swords with his support, but Asiwaju Tinubu recognises that he must transcend their intrigues by appealing directly to the emotions of party members through their sympathetic governors. This is probably the consultation he spoke about. He knows that while the caretaker committee members plot against his presidential ambition, they are unable to, in the same breath, pay attention to the weightier issue of finding and settling for a candidate that can also galvanise the party base, win the confidence of many of the party’s governors, and exude the capacity to network and envision a new Nigeria. APC leaders know they cannot sell another pious leader to the country after President Buhari, regardless of what they think, so they will need a secularist, a constitutionalist with an eye for the rule of law, and a bold and courageous social, economic and political engineer. The former governor believes he is that exuberant man. More, he believes that throwing his hat in the ring early in the race would not disadvantage his bid but give it added fillip. He will wait patiently to see his supposition validated.
Asiwaju Tinubu probably anchors his bid on, among other planks, his record as Lagos governor and the fact that he masterminded the rebirth and reinvigoration of the Lagos dream and ethos, achievements which the unmanageable, if not apocalyptic, influx of Nigerians and non-Nigerians into Lagos has complicated but not diminished. He credits himself with strength of character that saw him withstand rather than genuflect before the imperial federal government of his day. That strength of character also saw him play a major role in cobbling together a coalition of political parties that rivaled and dethroned the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015. But that effort also won him implacable life-long enemies, all of whom he believes his canniness would help him tame. Buoyed by years of helping two or three West African leaders win elections and reelections, his confidence has become infectious, winning to his side a number of past and serving governors who instinctively believe he will be on the winning side in 2023.
In addition to proving his mettle on the campaign trail in the months ahead, the former Lagos governor will also have to overcome a number of hurdles before he can actualise his dream of winning the presidency. First is the issue of Muslim-Muslim ticket that has become a bugaboo. Critics suggest that neither the APC nor the electorate would countenance a Muslim-Muslim ticket, thus technically disqualifying the former governor. Considering that religion was thought to have played a role in determining the APC presidential ticket in 2015, as indicated in former Osun governor Bisi Akande’s book, My Participations, critics suggest that the religion factor is much worse today than it was in 2015. They insist that both the North and the South would resist a northern Christian on the ticket and a Muslim-Muslim ticket, and that APC would have no choice but to pay heed. The North has been predictably reticent about that dilemma or largely theoretical about a Muslim-Muslim ticket. As things stand today, they are unlikely to embrace a Christian running mate representing them, leading many analysts to suggest that Asiwaju Tinubu has an insurmountable difficulty capable of dooming his ambition.
Considering that many southern voices, including the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), have echoed the rumble in the North, the former governor has a potentially terrifying choice to make. Should he win the party’s primary, he will have to determine between the North and South which region he is willing to dare. He probably remembers 1993 and the MKO Abiola-Babagana Kingibe Muslim-Muslim winning ticket, wondering whether it can be replicated in view of the fouled political environment made more so by religion over the past 28 years. He presents himself as a bold and courageous political fighter and tactician, but how safely does he think he can buck the trend? The unhappy fact he must wrestle with is that, should he win the party primary, he is unlikely to find a northern Christian running mate popular and acceptable enough to add value to his ticket. And if he cannot convince the North to bend, can he persuade the South, particularly the Southwest, to yield?
If the party does not seize upon that issue to deny him the ticket, then after the primary, Asiwaju Tinubu will still have to confront that question head-on. His best bet is not to try to convince the Southeast or South-South that a Muslim-Muslim ticket can fly; his only option is to remind and re-educate the Southwest that years of careless politicking and socialisation had made that enlightened and secular region to begin repudiating the values and principles that have stood them well over centuries, up to as recent as the Second Republic. Those values had helped them develop the most sophisticated Nigerian political system that has prospered its people, lessened poverty, created an oasis of peace and tranquility unknown to any other region in the country, and inspired the best adherence in Africa to the doctrine of separation of powers. Surprisingly, Southwest media professionals and religious leaders have yielded to the debilitating national disease of exploiting religious influence to distort and infect their politics simply because other regions, particularly the core North, revel in it. The Southwest is not as opposed to Asiwaju Tinubu’s aspiration, as strident social media campaigns have probably led him to believe. In the end, his birth region will have to determine whether it has another aspirant with deeper network and connections. As problematic as it may seem, his best bet, should he persuade his party to trust him with the ticket, is to run with a Muslim-Muslim ticket. He can sell that iconoclastic ticket much more than he can sell a Muslim-Christian ticket, and he may in fact present the best chance for the Southwest, nay Nigeria, to again attempt to delink religion from politics.
The second major hurdle before the former governor is the issue of his ‘rebellious’ mentees, most of whom have developed interest in the presidency, convinced that if they miss it this time, they may never have the chance again. It is an irony that the former governor’s mentoring effort to thrust his protégés into the limelight as well as his impactful contribution in birthing the APC and turning it into a winning machine has made it possible for his mentees to aspire to the highest office and be transformed into his remorseless competitors. Critics suggest that Asiwaju Tinubu’s leadership skill and mentorship prowess may be overrated considering that nearly all his well-known mentees have seemed to turn against him. Former Osun State governor Rauf Aregbesola is not only covertly angling for the presidency, he has also openly and heretically endorsed the opposition to Osun’s Gboyega Oyetola, whose victory about four years ago he did his best to undermine by chicanery and highhandedness. Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi lobbied furiously for a few years to be adopted for the presidency and has only now relented because he has made no headway, but not before helping to damage the APC brand in Edo, unseating Mr Oshiomhole as APC chairman, and hobnobbing with critics of his mentor, including the fiery Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai.
Former Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola has been smarter, consistently stopping short of open rebellion, preferring instead covert games, unlike the more emotional and less tactical Akinwumi Ambode. Though not averse to seeking the presidency, Mr Fashola has not taken any visible step to actualise that dream, and has seldom been mentioned in the computations of Nigeria’s political kingmakers. But he also broke out in open disagreement with his predecessor in his first term. The surprise for everyone is actually Vice President Yemi Osinbajo whose interest in the presidency seemed to have been fired by a few conspiratorial governors in the APC, particularly the troika intriguing against both the party’s national convention and the Asiwaju Tinubu ticket. It is of course significant that the mentees, to a man, have broken out in ‘rebellion’ against their mentor. But a closer study of the dynamics of the ‘rebellion’ will show that it is more a reflection of the character and worldview of the mentees as well as the politics and sociology of the Southwest than the failings and misjudgement of the mentor. Analysts and historians have sometimes erroneously extrapolated the steely resolve and ethical soundness of Obafemi Awolowo to approximate the Yoruba worldview. This is far-fetched. Chief Awolowo and a few like him are the exceptions, not the rule, and their profundity and virtues are not exclusive to race, gender, age, class, religion or tribe.
The third hurdle is also as critical as the other hurdles, but no less difficult to surmount. Quite apart from the shenanigans of northern governors who have put a hook on APC’s nose, the party must still convince itself that whoever they settle on as candidate can win in 2023. Under the APC’s President Buhari, nearly all economic indicators are looking derelict, despite the construction of bridges, roads and rail lines. Coupled with the president’s poor image occasioned by skewed appointments, uninspiring communication skills that provoke and infuriate south-easterners, mixed results in countering banditry and insurgency, and refusal to anticipate the structural changes needed to stabilise and develop the country, any APC candidate is fated to face an uphill struggle to win the presidency. Once nominated, the candidate will face the dilemma of associating with or dissociating from the president’s records. Asiwaju Tinubu will face the additional obstacle of silencing the most vociferous opposition to his aspiration emanating, surprisingly, from the fractious and opinionated Southwest. The Southeast argues unconvincingly for the nation to consider an Igbo candidate, but some Yoruba groups, one of which is inspired by the apoplectic former Ondo State governor Bode George who defines himself and his politics by his opposition to Asiwaju Tinubu, have been the loudest and acerbic. The former Lagos governor believes that regional opposition can be overcome, hence his determination to first secure the core North, particularly the Northwest. But having declared his intention, he will have no choice but to follow through with his plans, battle against and win the opposition to his side, convince the party that he can retain the diadem in the party if given the ticket, and finally assure the country that in his hands the reins of government will be steady and firm.
In the end, many notable aspirants will also enter the race, and a lot of horse-trading will take place. Cabals and troikas will do all they can to get their way, but whether the president likes it or not, he will eventually have to reveal his preferences for party chairmanship in the convention and standard-bearer for the presidential poll, and hopefully pull strings to get favourable outcomes. Asiwaju Tinubu will hope to be that candidate and eventual winner in the biggest election of 2023. It is a race he is eager to run, despite sneers and opposition and, at a point years ago, ostracism. The months ahead will be the longest of his life, full of emotional roller coaster, unpredictable events, triumphs, disappointments, support and betrayals. This early riser will hope to last the enter race and even breast the tape. But the bigger battle for him in the immediate future will be within his party, not the national poll. As he said gravely last Monday, if a little tremulously, winning the presidency “is my lifelong ambition”. And when he chose the president to be the first he would intimate his ambition, he obviously hoped to be lent a listening ear and to receive favour. Did he get the support he craved, even if surreptitiously? And what will that support be worth?