The Nine Lives of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu
Love him or despise him, you ignore him at your peril – especially if you have more than a ‘waka-pass’ interest in Nigerian politics.
For Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the journey from being a private sector technocrat; to being a political activist and later a dissident on the run from the Nigerian military junta; to being a Senator (albeit for a brief spell); to becoming a 2-term Governor of Lagos State; to becoming Nigeria’s President-elect (and soon-to-be 16th Head of Government) has been a grueling one indeed. His path to the highest political office in the world’s most populous Black nation has been a catalogue of opportunities and threats that have tested his strengths and showcased his all-too-human weaknesses. A SWOT analysis of the Tinubu Brand would make an interesting study indeed.
Perhaps one outstanding quality that would come to the fore in the ‘Strength’ section of such a SWOT analysis would be his tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity and imminent failure. Whether from his actions or inaction, or from the machinations of political/business opponents, or even from circumstances beyond his control, adversities that would have undermined individuals/entities of lesser mettle have only served to strengthen (and ultimately propel) the Tinubu Brand to yet another level of ascendancy.
No wonder some call him ‘IDAN GANGAN .’
Like the traditional chieftaincy titles by which he is widely known (Asiwaju, and Jagaban), ‘idan’ is a many-sided compliment which has become the most-recent street slang for strength, native intelligence and an indomitable will to win, no matter what. The word, now trending on the Nigerian social media space, is Yoruba, for “magic” or “charming” – but also ‘wonderful’, ‘glamorous’, ‘fascinating’, and so forth. It denotes the possession of exceptional (even supernatural) ability and describes people who attain to success seemingly effortlessly. Used in some conversations, ‘idan’ alludes to some form of secrecy and even underhandedness – often attributed, fairly or unfairly, to someone who is street-smart, especially when they show a knack for getting out of tricky situations unscathed.
The word ‘idan’ has garnered considerable traction in the days following Tinubu’s victory in the 2023 presidential election. Used in connection with the President-elect, the word has sometimes taken on the added connotation of a ruthless and unscrupulous Don, a Godfather – as portrayed so memorably by Marlon Brando’s character, Vito Corleone in the movie ‘The Godfather.’ As perhaps befits the way the Nigerian public often views successful politicians such as Asiwaju Tinubu, ‘idan’ holds within it both positive and negative connotations – depending on context.
Which is not so surprising when one looks at the personal, professional and political trajectory of the man who is set to decide the destinies of millions of Nigerians and position the country for the next chapter of her troubled journey, come May 29, 2023. Born on the 27th of March, 1952, Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu spent his early life in Lagos and other parts of Southwestern Nigeria before moving to the United States of America, where he studied, first at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago, and then at Chicago State University, graduating with a B.Sc degree in Accounting. During his time in the USA, Tinubu also worked for companies such as Arthur Andersen, Deloitte and GTE Services Corporation.
Returning to Nigeria thereafter, he worked for a spell as an accountant with Mobil Oil Nigeria Plc before his entry into politics. He was elected to the Nigerian Senate from the Lagos West Senatorial district in 1992 under the banner of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). But that tenure was short-lived following the dissolution of democratic institutions by the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, following the June 12 election impasse in 1993. As the Abacha junta moved to entrench itself in power, Tinubu became an activist campaigning for the return of democracy as a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), a role which eventually drove him into exile.
On Nigeria’s return to civil rule in 1999, Tinubu was elected the 3rd civilian Governor of Lagos State under the flag of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), and re-elected four years later. On leaving office in 2007, he continued to maintain a very visible political profile, playing a key role in the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013. His stature grew exponentially following the party’s victory in the 2015 general elections, and his reputation as a political fixer and dispenser of political favours at the head of a ‘political machine’ earned him a huge amount of respect across the nation’s political divides, and gave him the ability to call in debts from a wide circle of political proteges.
His own victory in the 2023 presidential polls – and the actualisation of what he described as ‘a lifelong ambition’ has been hailed in many quarters as the next logical step in a political journey that has seen him – like a rising and inexorable ocean tide – lift many other political careers and destinies to prominence, careers which otherwise might have been stranded on the shore like grounded ships.
His battles in and out of office since 1992 have been the stuff of media attention and public fascination. As Governor, his contentious relationship with a succession of Deputy-Governors and would-be successors within his party (not to mention local chieftains of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP) threatened to derail the business of government before Tinubu, through a combination of canniness and diplomacy – was able to steady the ship and keep his government on track. This was followed by his battles with the federal government under then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose PDP won every state in the country’s South West region in the 2003 polls – except Tinubu’s Lagos. The saga of Tinubu’s gallant efforts to save the much-coveted Lagos Governorship seat from the Obasanjo hurricane was the subject of much analysis in that election’s aftermath. Shortly after, the Tinubu administration fell out with the Obasanjo-led FG on the issue of whether Lagos State had the right to create new Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs) to meet the needs of its large population. That controversy led to the FG seizing funds meant for local councils in the state – even in defiance of a court order.
But Tinubu’s political journey was not all about battles and controversies. Like the wise general who knows when to retreat and when to advance, Asiwaju has often been the initiator and beneficiary of political alliances and alignments – some of which, to the untrained eye, may seem like a marriage of strange bedfellows, as they oftentimes involve his erstwhile traducers. In the run-up to the 2007 presidential election, for example, Tinubu was able to persuade Atiku Abubakar, then Vice-President in the PDP federal government (who had fallen out with Obasanjo over Abubakar’s ambition to succeed him as President) to run on the banner of Tinubu’s party, by this time known as the Action Congress (AC). Though Atiku and AC lost that election, Tinubu’s reputation for forgoing personal or political animosities for the bigger picture was cemented. For that reason, his later support for Malam Nuhu Ribadu, the former anti-corruption chief whose agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had pursued Tinubu for years on allegations of sundry financial crimes, as the AC’s (later ACN’s) presidential candidate in 2011, didn’t come as a surprise to many who knew Tinubu’s capacity for conciliation.
That attribute was very much on display during Tinubu’s efforts to bring together the fragmented opposition parties into a “mega-party” capable of challenging the PDP, which had by this time become a seemingly invincible juggernaut. The success of those negotiations, and the subsequent victory of the resulting party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) under the candidacy of current President Muhammadu Buhari, must rank as one of the most consequential political events in Nigeria’s chequred history.
Tinubu’s own nomination, in June of 2022, as the presidential candidate of the APC, and his subsequent election as President in February 2023, have only served to confirm his ‘idan’ credentials – especially after a campaign which combined profound policy pronouncements with cringe-worthy gaffes that made him the subject of an unprecedented number of memes, cartoons and TV skits across the nation – a never-before-seen phenomenon in a single election cycle.
Surviving media caricatures has, however, been the easy part so far. More remarkable has been Tinubu’s ability to survive (often by debunking outright) serious criminal allegations, some of them stemming from his time in the USA, and others from his time as Lagos State Governor. He has also displayed remarkable equanimity in weathering (often by ignoring) cynical insinuations about his provenance and parentage, his ‘real’ names, biological age, schooling and work background, source(s) of wealth; as well as his current state of physical and mental health.
In the course of his Presidency, Nigerians and the rest of the world will determine if Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s reputation as an ‘idan’ is well-deserved. More importantly, his stewardship, and its results (in terms of the welfare and security of the people) will determine in what context that designation should be viewed – whether positively or negatively.