Monday, 5th June 2023

Bola Tinubu: Nigeria’s political ‘godfather’

22 February 2023   |   1:41 pm
Bola Tinubu, a political "godfather" famed for his strategic deftness and clout, has never hidden his ambition to be president of Nigeria.

Candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu gestures during the final campaign rally of the party at Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, on February 21, 2023, ahead of the Nigerian presidential election scheduled for February 25, 2023. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Bola Tinubu, a political “godfather” famed for his strategic deftness and clout, has never hidden his ambition to be president of Nigeria.

Last year, when he announced his plans to champion the ruling All Progressives Congress APC party in this weekend’s election, Tinubu said he would be fulfilling a “lifelong” goal.

“It’s my turn,” he later told supporters in his Yoruba language, upsetting APC rivals with a phrase that has become his campaign slogan.

Now the 70-year-old gets to test his mettle against two other main rivals in the ballot to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, a man Tinubu brags he helped put into power.

He will run against opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) flagbearer Atiku Abubakar and surprise third party candidate Peter Obi from the Labour Party.

Often referred to as “Jagaban,” a chieftain’s title, Tinubu has spent years building his Lagos powerbase into a nationwide network of contacts from Lagos market cooperatives and transport unions to political chieftains.

He is seen as an astute and influential political strategist as well as a tenacious survivor.

He co-founded and financed the Alliance for Democracy (AD), which later became the Action Congress of Nigeria, then helped make the All Progressives Congress (APC).

He was seen as instrumental in helping bring the APC’s factions together to push Buhari to victory in 2015, ending 16 years in power for the rival PDP.

When the PDP chose their candidate for next year’s race, fellow longtime political stalwart Abubakar, Tinubu was quick to present himself as the man to take him on.

“I look forward to squaring up with him as a worthy opponent in the coming election,” he said.

– Staying power –
A Muslim born in Nigeria’s Yoruba-speaking southwest, Tinubu trained as an accountant in the United States and worked for several US companies, including as a treasurer in oil giant ExxonMobil.

He was first a political activist before becoming a senator and then governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007.

During his activist days, he was hounded into exile by military dictator Sani Abacha along with scores of others for campaigning for a return to democratic government in 1999.

The election of Buhari, the first opposition victory in the country, and his 2019 re-election were partly attributed to Tinubu’s political influence.

As APC national leader, Tinubu’s hand is seen in all party decisions and winning his support was vital for any candidate’s ambitions.

In a mark of his staying power, Tinubu kept a tight grip over the governorship of Lagos state from 1999, holding the post until 2007 and then having a hand in choosing his successors since leaving office.

As governor, his relations soured with the federal government, then led by president Olusegun Obasanjo, while he has frequently fallen out with his own deputies.

But at the end of his two terms in Lagos, Tinubu hand-picked one of his close aides, Babatunde Fashola, to take over.

Tinubu’s influence in the southwest has irked some would-be candidates who missed out on top jobs and he has been criticised as dictatorial and undemocratic in style.

“Tinubu has a very aggressive, very solid political machine,” said Dapo Thomas, a political science lecturer at Lagos University.

– Corruption charges –
If Tinubu’s political power has often been controversial, so too have been his financial dealings, and questions over his health during the election campaign.

He is believed to be one of Nigeria’s richest politicians and after leaving office was accused and later cleared of corruption, money laundering and operating more than a dozen foreign bank accounts.

During campaigning, PDP critics labelled him as “wobbly, wonky and narcotic-devastated”, a reference to health concerns, and a US court filing in Chicago in 1993 for a “drug-related seizure of property” from his US bank account.

The actual source of his wealth is unknown but he has interests in a number of business ventures, from media and aviation, to tax consultancy, hotels and real estate holdings.

One critic described him as “a greedy politician” who had gobbled up the major sources of revenue in Lagos.

But Information Minister Lai Mohammed, who was Tinubu’s former chief of staff, insisted he was one of the shrewdest political operators.

“His capacity for work, his tolerance, his foresight, his courage and his penchant for self-sacrifice is unmatched,” he said.

Tinubu’s health was a source of speculation in 2014 when he was pictured frail and gaunt on his return from an unspecified foreign trip but the APC denied he was ill.

More recently, he spent several months in London receiving treatment that his office said was related to knee surgery. But in a sign of his influence, he was also visited there by a train of political leaders, including Buhari himself.