By Eromo Egbejule and Ope Adetayo
Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire & Lagos, Nigeria – Even before independence in 1960, Nigeria’s deeply embedded culture of political patronage was apparent. To date, kingmakers often jockey to become kings and kings morph into kingmakers, but no political godfather has ever become the number one citizen.
After independence from Britain, the leader of the party with a parliamentary majority was meant to become the first prime minister. The lot fell to Ahmadu Bello, a powerful politician and aristocrat known by his title of Sardauna of Sokoto. But he declined, nominating his protégé Tafawa Balewa in his stead.
In 1979, Obafemi Awolowo, former finance minister and founder of the now defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, fell at the final hurdle, losing his presidential bid.
Ahead of the 1993 polls, retired general Shehu Yar’adua was barred alongside dozens of other heavyweight politicians by the military administration. His political associate and business partner Moshood ‘MKO’ Abiola won the polls that were later annulled by the regime.
This February, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and indisputably the most influential political godfather in Nigeria now, is seeking to end that record.
But Tinubu, regarded as a master strategist and seen by his supporters as Awolowo’s political heir, is facing perhaps the toughest hurdles of any kingmaker who has ever wanted the throne.
Indeed, as President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure winds out after serving the constitutional limit of two four-year terms, Africa’s largest democracy is witnessing its first-ever three-man presidential race.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a former Yar’adua protégé and previously APC presidential aspirant, is the flagbearer of the leading opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
But there is also Peter Obi, a two-time governor of the southeastern state of Anambra who ran alongside Abubakar in 2019, who enjoys a massive youth following despite moving from the PDP to the hitherto unknown Labour Party only last May.
A fourth candidate, former Defence Minister Rabiu Kwankwaso, another Yar’adua associate and former two-term governor of Kano – a huge voting bloc in the northwest – is lagging not too far behind.
In June 2022, ahead of the APC presidential primaries, Tinubu appeared before the party faithful in Ogun state to seek delegates’ votes. During his speech, he noted that he had installed the state governor and helped Buhari clinch the presidency after three unsuccessful attempts.
“E mi lokan”, he said, the Yoruba phrase for “it is my turn”. It has since come to define his campaign.
On December 18, the triumph of Argentina’s men’s football team over their resilient French counterparts in the 2022 Qatar World Cup final was seen as a swansong for Lionel Messi. After the game, Tinubu’s official Twitter handle posted a meme with the politician’s signature cap superimposed on the footballer’s face. It was a tacit allusion that like the World Cup for Messi, the Nigerian presidency remains the one height Tinubu is yet to scale.
“Every move he has made has been leading to this point and he has been very deliberate about certain actions that led to this point,” Tunde Ajileye, a partner at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based geopolitical intelligence consultancy, told Al Jazeera.
Tinubu first came to national relevance during the 1993 election, defending Abiola’s presumed victory as a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), an alliance of politicians and civil society, after a brief stint as a senator.
After two terms in office as governor from 1999 to 2003, he installed favoured candidates as successors in Lagos. But his magnum opus came in 2015: his party’s merger with that of Buhari who went on to unseat incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan.
The Financial Times called him a “political Svengali” whose associates saw him as “deeply Machiavellian”.
Around that period, indications that the jurisdiction of Tinubu’s ambition extended beyond being a kingmaker in Lagos and southwest Nigeria to include the presidency, began to crystallise after years of bubbling underneath the surface.
“The entitlement to the presidency that reflects in his campaign stems from that long-term blueprint that has been essentially oiled by state machinery and political patronage,” Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist at Gatefield, an Abuja-based public strategy firm, told Al Jazeera.
Tinubu’s supporters point to Lagos’s successes and insist he can replicate them on a national scale. The city-state is by and large the most viable economy in Nigeria; as a standalone country, it would be among Africa’s top 10 economies by gross domestic product (GDP).
Lagos has also emerged as the hub of entertainment on the continent, the birthplace of the world-famous music genre, Afrobeats. Many industry insiders have cited him as a patron.
Tinubu is credited with widening the city’s tax base and embarking on an infrastructure drive but some analysts disagree on the degree of his competence.
“It is clearly a narrative that seems to resonate with a lot of Nigerians … the entire idea that Lagos is the place where Nigerians look for opportunities and where economic values are being created,” Emoruwa told Al Jazeera. “But Nigerians who care about policy will know that Lagos has been a development nightmare.”
Others say the pro-Tinubu narrative erases the welfarist politics of Lateef Jakande, governor between 1979 and 1983, who laid the foundations of today’s Lagos, which has swelled from four million people three decades ago to 21 million people today.
With that growth has come notorious traffic gridlock and repeated flooding. Multiple slums have also suffered from gentrification today with little or no compensation for those affected.
To fulfill his longtime ambition, Tinubu will have to contend with his personal demons too, critics say.
Controversies about the true age of the 70-year-old, as well as inconsistencies in his educational and professional qualifications, have long circulated locally. In 2000, a young lawyer called Festus Keyamo sued the state parliament for clearing Tinubu on allegations of perjury about those qualifications – and lost.
There have also been multiple allegations of state capture and tax evasion levelled against Tinubu from his time as governor. He could not be prosecuted due to the immunity he enjoyed as governor.
In 2011, he was acquitted by the Code of Conduct Bureau over prosecutorial misconduct after the federal government accused him of illegally operating foreign accounts when he was governor.
The biggest blot has been his 1993 indictment in a drug cartel’s dealings in the United States, which led to his forfeiture of $460,000. Tinubu himself has never addressed the topic, but his camp has often refuted mentions of it saying the settlement was no evidence of criminality.
“He has refused to address those claims to delegitimise them and keep them in the realm of conspiracy theory,” Emoruwa said.
Instead, he has continued coalescing associates and adversaries into a formidable political machinery. For instance, Keyamo, now a minister, is also the APC campaign spokesperson.
Tinubu’s health has also been the subject of speculation, after repeated medical trips to London in recent years. To prove his fitness, he has resorted to strained dancing at campaign rallies; his team also once released a video of him riding a stationary indoor exercise bike.
He has also dodged election debates even as videos of his slurred speech at several rallies have gone viral on social media.
This January, his running mate Kashim Shettima said there was a “mischievous fixation” on his principal’s health.
“We are not preparing for the Olympics,” he stressed.
But the biggest hurdle in Tinubu’s way may be the legacy of the machine he built – the APC.
During Buhari’s eight-year tenure, there have been two recessions and the naira has shed more than three times its value in that time.
Almost half of the country lives in multidimensional poverty – more people than there are in neighbouring Cameroon and all 11 countries of Southern Africa combined – according to the UNDP and Oxford University.
There are also layers of rampant insecurity nationwide; Boko Haram and its ISIL (ISIS)-allied offshoot – the Islamic West Africa Province (ISWAP) – continue to launch offensives in the northeast, while armed bandits and separatists are running riot in the northwest and the southeast, respectively.
In October 2020, the Nigerian military shot dead an unspecified number of youths at an anti-police brutality protest in Lagos. That episode left many youths, particularly in the south, with no love lost for the government of the day and has inspired an exodus of young people from the country.
Tinubu’s campaign has tried to dissociate his candidacy from the APC’s shortcomings but has also promised to build on the successes of the Buhari presidency if elected.
His manifesto has pledged to “give economic opportunity to the poorest and most vulnerable among us”, tackle insecurity, expand public infrastructure and fight corruption.
But that has been a tough sell.
“People … believe he was a very eminent contributor to the emergence of the current administration and he is from the same party and people that are around him are stalwarts of the same party,” Ajileye said.
The 70-year-old will slug it out against the opposition’s 75-year-old candidate to succeed 79-year-old President Buhari.
Al Jazeera Media Network