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Bola Tinubu's Turbulent Journey from Opposition Leader to National Leader

Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu may lack the gift of gab or political charisma of great politicians of yore, yet he makes up for this with a rare gift of political organisation and planning.


Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu may lack the gift of gab or political charisma of great politicians of yore, yet he makes up for this with a rare gift of political organisation and planning. Today he stands out as one of the grandmasters of Nigerian politics. His fingerprints are writ large on the political landscape where he is seen as a smooth political operator. With time he has risen in stature from an opposition leader to National Leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), plainly an honorific office. Clearly, his political tentacles spread across the nation like a spider’s web. His political dexterity has brought together people of unfathomable diversity under the umbrella of the APC. He achieved his grand vision while at the same time transforming a regional party into a national political movement. What’s more, he has an extraordinary ability in knitting coalitions for a greater goal. For one thing, he was instrumental to the victory of General Muhammadu Buhari as president in the 2015 general elections through a grand coalition which eventually led to the birth of the APC, mainly an amalgam of conservatives, republicans, progressives, socialists, feudalists, and monarchists.

More important, as the symbol of opposition, he was a bulwark against the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) when it held sway between 1999 and 2015. Still, whereas many of his contemporaries as governors between 1999 and 2007 have gone into oblivion, yet he continues to wax stronger like a new moon in full bloom. Indeed, he is regarded as the godfather of Lagos politics, and nay the southwest where his acolytes rule the roost. Today his protégés among who are the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, former governor of Lagos State, Mr Babatunde Fashola and Mr Babatunde Fowler, Chairman of the Federal Internal Revenue Service (FIRS) form the cream of the Buhari administration.

Bola Tinubu had been in the trenches of political activism starting from the period when the June 12, 1993, presidential election, widely believed to have been won, fair and square, by the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Bashorun Moshood Abiola, was annulled by the ruling military junta led by military president General Ibrahim Babangida. Against all odds, at the onset of civilian rule in 1999, he later emerged on the political scene by clinching the gubernatorial ticket of the Alliance for Democracy (AD). Thereafter he was elected as governor of Lagos State. He had earlier served as a senator during the political experimentation of President Ibrahim Babangida during which the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention (NRC) were formed in 1993. He represented the Lagos central senatorial district.

Bola Tinubu’s activism would later metamorphose into a coalition of democrats, retired senior military officers and civil society groups which crystallized in the formation of National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). This civil society group had turned a grand opposition against the ruling military junta led by General Sani Abacha who after seizing power in 1993 made short shrift of the June 12 presidential elections and subsequently clamped Bashorun MKO Abiola in jail. As one of the leading lights of NADECO that valiantly fought the military in a bid to restore the mandate of Bashorun Abiola, Bola Tinubu was caught in the crosshairs of the ruling military junta. For some reasons, among which was a genuine fear for its own legitimacy, the ruling junta was bent on burying the June 12 election for good.  Over time NADECO became a thorn on the side of the military junta as it called on Gen Sani Abacha to step down in favour of the winner of the June 12 elections. This subsequently led to the proscription of the organisation. Shortly thereafter leading NADECO chieftains were arrested and detained by the government. By chance, Bola Tinubu managed to evade the tight noose of the security agents by escaping abroad where he continually stoked the fire of opposition.

 In a way, Bola Tinubu’s stratospheric rise in national politics was partly aided by the shenanigans that went on during the quest of former President Olusegun Obasanjo for reelection in 2003.  As it happens, Bola Tinubu consolidated on his rising profile in 2003 when he emerged the sole survivor of the PDP hurricane that swept the AD southwest governors out of power. The AD had entered into a sweetheart deal with President Olusegun Obasanjo who was seeking reelection on the platform of the PDP. As if acting on clairvoyance, Bola Tinubu had seen through the charade and therefore maintained a safe distance from President Obasanjo and the PDP. As a matter of fact, analysts had observed that the alliance between Obasanjo and the southwest governors was a smokescreen meant to rein in the AD in that region. But then the governors were hoodwinked and fell flat for the dummy sold to them.  The election came and went. Of course, the PDP swept through the southwest capturing five states with the exception of Lagos State. As the lone ranger in the AD, Bola Tinubu set out to rebuild the party again from scratch.

In due course, Senator Tinubu gradually rebuilt the party from the base back to the national reckoning. For instance, he was instrumental in wresting power from the PDP in Osun State which led to the emergence of Mr Rauf Aregbesola as the governor of the state. Aregbesola had been locked in a legal tango, and after a protracted legal battle, the Appeal Court finally nullified the election of Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola as governor. Subsequently, Mr Aregbesola was pronounced as duly elected governor on November 26, 2010. He was immediately sworn in the next day.  Soon after that Comrade Adams Oshiomhole who ran on the platform of the AC also reclaimed his mandate as the duly elected governor of Edo State after another legal tussle in which the serving PDP governor Senator Oserheimen Osunbor was worsted and his election as governor annulled in November 2008. Having brought Osun and Edo states back into the progressive fold, Tinubu capped his innings with another winning streak with the return of Ondo State to the APC fold. Even though he was at odds with the candidacy of Mr Rotimi Akeredolu put forward by the party and who was later declared a winner in the governorship elections on November 27, 2016, but then winning Ondo State meant Asiwaju Bola Tinubu would further wield greater influence in the southwest region.   

 Asiwaju Tinubu’s credentials as a resilient and dogged fighter were affirmed by Vice President Prof Yemi Osinbajo who served as Attorney General in Tinubu’s cabinet.  Prof Osinbajo who spoke on the occasion of Bola Tinubu’s 68th birthday in Abuja had described him as a man of great vision and purposeful leadership. According to the Vice President, back then Governor Tinubu had directed him to search for a brilliant fingerprint expert in the UK or anywhere in the world. The aim of Tinubu was getting a fingerprint expert to give evidence at the Osun Election Petition Tribunal. Prof Osinbajo wondered how in the world a fingerprint expert would be able to go through thousands of ballot papers in order to give informed evidence. Eventually, Prof Osinbajo procured one from the UK who proved crucial to the case of the AC candidate. Later the evidence of the fingerprint expert removed the bottom from under the PDP governor’s case and was germane in the determination of the suit filed by the AC candidate, Mr Rauf Aregbesola. The evidence of the fingerprint expert proved weighty enough for the court to annul the election of the PDP governor. Despite the herculean challenge posed by the legal battles, the judgment of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu had proved right.

Even President Buhari on his part had described his political ally, the National Leader of the APC in glowing terms. He stated that “Asiwaju’s uncompromising posture in the face of injustice and refusal to follow the path of least resistance for personal gains stand him out today as a rare breed and one of the cornerstones of Nigeria’s democracy, especially with his track record of persistence, consistency and effective leadership.”

More than any other contemporary politician, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu has tested the elasticity of the constitution to the limits, settling once and for all, vexed constitutional issues such as powers of states to create new local governments, boundaries of littoral states for the purpose of revenue derivation and other issues that border on a fundamental restructuring of the federation using the instrumentality of the law.

Indeed, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s recourse to the courts to test the limits of the constitution is a testament to his commitment to the rule of law, due process, and true federalism, as well as his desire to expand the frontiers of justice. For instance, when the federal statutory allocation of the Lagos State government was withheld by the Obasanjo administration, he challenged it in court.  To his credit, Lagos State was vindicated by the Supreme Court when it challenged the directive by former president Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to the effect that statutory allocation to states that created Local Governments be withheld by the Finance minister.

Again, the frontiers of the Constitution were tested to their elastic limit when Lagos State under his watch challenged the Federal Government on the constitutionality or otherwise of the Urban and Regional Planning Act, 1992. The Federal Government had sought to rely on the law to sell off some of its property in Lagos without any recourse to the state. Other issues raised included whether the ownership rights of the federal government over land in state territories included the power to control and regulate town planning and physical development in relation to such lands. After several legal fireworks, Lagos State again won its case at the Supreme Court.

Another landmark case was control of natural resources located within the Continental Shelf of the country for the purpose of calculating the amount of revenue accruing to the Federal Government directly for any natural resources derived from that state pursuant to section 162 (2) of the Constitution. The dispute was between the Federal Government and eight littoral states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Cross River, Rivers, Lagos, Ogun, and Ondo in relation to the southern (or seaward) boundary of each of these states.

 Once more the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of the littoral states in a lead judgement of Justice Michael Ogundare pronounced on April 5, 2002, in which he held that “the seaward boundary of a littoral state within the Federal Republic of Nigeria for the purpose of calculating the amount of revenue accruing to the Federation Account directly from any natural resources derived from that state pursuit to section 162(2) of the constitution  of the Federal Republic of Nigeria1999 is the low-water mark  of the land surface thereof or (if the case so requires as in the Cross River  state with an archipelago of islands) the seaward limits of inland waters within the state.” The celebrated case was handled by Professor Yemi Osinbajo who was then the Attorney General of Lags State.  

Beyond all that, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s talent for political recruitment is legendary. He has a knack for spotting talent and grooming them for service. Yet Tinubu has attributed his talent hunt to his stint in the corporate world where careful and deliberate succession planning and recruitment were the norms. Still, he seems imbued with a great vision of building a better society. His broad vision for a modern Lagos State has turned Lagos into a mega city with his successors building upon his legacy. Due to his vision, Lagos State has become self-sustaining with the highest internal generating revenue, which outstrips whatever it collects from the federal purse, and now the fifth largest economy in Africa. Although critics point out the fact that Lagos reels under the weight of a huge debt burden, with the highest profile of debts among the federating states. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Lagos State’s external debt stock stands at over $1.4 billion.

Meanwhile, the last general elections witnessed once again Bola Tinubu’s supremacy as the godfather of Lagos politics when he withdrew support for the incumbent governor Mr Akinwunmi Ambode who was seeking reelection.  Still, Tinubu’s decision to back another candidate for the governorship in Lagos State, despite the sterling performance of Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, had sent ripples through the political space. It was a calculated gamble because Tinubu had shunned all entreaties from the party leadership including the president. In the end, his gamble paid off with the election of Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu as the governor-elect of Lagos State. Tinubu may have had his way, yet analysts believe Bola Tinubu had only succeeded in ruffling many feathers. He may yet pay a high price for that political gamble.

Notwithstanding, the last general election was a watershed in the political trajectory of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. It was billed to make or mar his political career. With an eye on the 2023 presidential elections, Asiwaju Tinubu had pulled out all the stops to ensure victory for the APC in Lagos State and most parts of the southwest. His yeoman effort is unconnected with a bid to retain his stranglehold on Lagos state so that it will serve as bragging right in his quest for the presidency. This desperation to retain Lagos State manifested in strong-arm tactics that were applied to keep the Igbos in check, as they are largely seen as an emergent force in Lagos State politics. Whether Tinubu can retain his magical hold on Lagos in the years ahead is another thing altogether. For now, there are undercurrents of disquiet in some quarters over his grip on Lagos State.

Despite his glittering political career, Bola Tinubu’s footsteps have been dogged by allegations of corruption peddled against him. There are unsubstantiated reports that he has his hands in every pie in Lagos State. For example, Alpha Beta Consultancy, the agency that collects revenue on behalf of the state government is also believed to be linked to him with allegations that the company skims millions of naira from taxpayers, without paying its fair share of taxes to the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).  

According to a petition sent to the EFCC dated 6th July 2018, Mr Dapo Apara, a former chief executive of Alpha Beta Consulting, sent on his behalf by Adetunji Adegboyega Esq., his solicitors, said: “Over the years the company is being protected and shielded by some powerful politicians and people in the society which made them to always boast of being untouchable, but our client feeling the need not to keep quiet again and strengthened by his belief in the fact the government of President Muhammadu Buhari is keen on fighting corruption, which has been the bane of our country, is of the firm belief that it’s time to expose and open the can worms called Alpha Beta Consulting.” The petitioner further noted that Alpha Beta has become an avenue for official corruption of government officials, a conduit pipe for massive money laundering schemes, and tax evasion, among others. It is important to note that Alpha Beta was appointed as a consultant to the Lagos State government in 2002 when Bola Tinubu served as governor.  

All said and done, for the period the PDP held power, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu proved an effective opposition figure. Besides this, not only did he rebuild the Action Congress party from scratch, but he also went on to build a strong coalition that gave birth to the APC. The party later defeated an incumbent president in the 2015 general elections, and also formed a majority in the National Assembly, while winning more states to the bargain. The reelection of President Muhammadu Buhari is also a plus for him. As he positions himself for a major role in the future, he would require all the skills and political sagacity of an adept to negotiate the shark-infested political waters as it were. Still, everything depends on the wheels of destiny.   

This article was originally published in 2019 in Nigeria Now magazine. It is republished unedited. 

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