Bola Ahmed Tinubu
By Kashim Ibrahim-Imam
There are politicians; and there is Bola Ahmed Tinubu. In terms of sheer doggedness, innate sagacity, and strategic outlook, it is difficult to find a match for the political giant who turns 60 today. Even with his slight height, he towers head and shoulders above everyone else on the scene at the moment. He is simply nonpareil. A lot of ink has been spilled, and justifiably so, to mark the three scores of the Asiwaju of Lagos. I will add a bit on his phenomenal political life, with insights drawn from an association that goes back to the early nineties.
In a little over two decades, Tinubu’s political stature and stock have grown astoundingly. He has become the political colossus of our time. This he has done almost from nothing if we remember that he was a political unknown when he quit his secure job as the Treasurer of Mobil to venture into the uncertainties of politics. Many who joined politics before, around and after the same time have fallen by the wayside.
But in short but steady order, Tinubu has been a Senator, an exile, a two-time governor of Lagos State, the sole survivor of the political hurricane that swept the South-west in 2003, the undisputed political leader of the Yoruba race, the leader of a national party, the sponsor of the main opposition party, and a major power-centre in the country today. God’s inimitable hands are clearly at play. But as we rejoice with and celebrate Tinubu today, we should also look at his staying power and tease out enduring and generalisable lessons.
I have known Tinubu for over 20 years, since those early days in the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and we have remained close despite having taken different political paths. Drawing from the advantage that both the closeness and the distance offer, I will attempt to boil the enduring lessons of his accomplished but still unfolding political life into three points: the value of passionate belief, the ability to stay ahead of the game, the capacity to grow others/his matchless generosity.
Everyone knows that Tinubu is a dogged fighter. But before the fighter is the believer. Once he believes in a cause, he will give it his all. His contributions to the quest for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate are well known and well documented. But much before the June 12 Struggle was the Iyorchia Ayu Project. I recalled how nobody gave us a chance when we worked on the Ayu for Senate President project in 1992. Despite that it looked like a herculean task, Tinubu, who had been elected Senator from Lagos West, threw himself into it. We worked tirelessly on the project and networked with friends in Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna and other places until Ayu became the Senate President.
This uncommon capacity to believe in a cause and fight for it was equally on display in the Hope ’93 Campaign of the late Bashorun MKO Abiola. Tinubu crisscrossed the country, and gave everything he had until Abiola won the fairest and freest election in the history of this country. And when this landmark election was annulled, Tinubu was right in the forefront of the resistance. I recollect the endless strategy sessions on how to upturn the annulment in his office on Saka Tinubu and in his house on Maitama Sule, both in Victoria Island in Lagos. All these didn’t go unnoticed to the authorities as some of us were clamped into detention, and he and others had to scurry into exile.
From exile, he teamed up with others to become one of the arrowheads of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). It took a heavy toll on him and his family, especially his dear wife, Oluremi, (our own Kudirat, given the way she transformed from a dutiful, loving housewife to an amazon in her own right), and their daughters Busola and Habibat. In the heat of state harassment of activists, someone once drew my attention to the fact that some of Tinubu’s cars were impounded at Alagbon because of his involvement in the bid for the actualisation of June 12. I went there myself and counted eight of his cars in Alagbon. All were vandalised. But that didn’t deter him.
Tinubu’s second enduring attribute (and lesson) is his capacity to stay many steps ahead of the game. He is blessed with an uncanny ability to read the mood of moment and even beyond the moment, to see through the stratagems of others, and to design appropriate strategy and tactics. In fact, he is a master strategist who is capable of playing the game at different levels simultaneously.
It is this uncommon strategic disposition that made him the sole survivor of the PDP hurricane that blew through the South-west in 2003, that drove him into working with others to quickly establish a successor party to the dying Alliance for Democracy (AD), and that turned him into the moving spirit behind the quest to retrieve the South-west from a serving president, who himself is not a political pushover.
His third distinguishing factor (and lesson) is his capacity to recognise and surround himself with talents and grow them. In many instances, he goes out of his way to recruit new talents. He has the good sense to know that a politician or a leader is as good as the people around him. Unlike others who get easily intimidated, he is an intellectual in his own right and is very comfortable in his own skin. To cap it all, he is an incredibly loyal boss.
He looks out for those who stick with him, and evidence of that abounds. Our father Rily, Kabiyesi Akiolu, is the Eleko of Eko; my sister Oluremi, Tinubu's better half, is the Senator representing Lagos Central; our own Ogbeni Rauf is Gomina Osun; my friend Fayemi of Radio Kudirat is Gomina Ekiti; and BRF is holding fort as Governor in Lagos. Gbolahan, our policeman, is today the Commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos State; our boy, Hakeem, is Permanent Secretary of Lands; our land-man, Gbenga, is today a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Tunji is back as Commissioner for Environment; and Muiz is the National Legal Adviser of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi is also back in the cabinet.
This capacity to reward and grow loyalists ensures that Tinubu is never short of strategic and resourceful foot-soldiers, who in turn are ever ready to give him their all, and who geometrically multiply the intellectual and operational resources available to the master-strategist. I recall towards the tail-end of his second term, when we discussed the issue of his successor, he told me confidently that he had so many capable and resourceful lieutenants any of whom would make a worthy successor. Amongst them BRF, who eventually succeeded him, Muiz Banire, Professor Osibanjo, his Commissioner for Finance, Yemi Cardoso, Wale Edun and a host of others.
But it is not only his lieutenants that he is loyal to. The flip side of his loyalty is his compassion and generosity of spirit. Tinubu is blessed with both native intelligence and emotional intelligence.
He remembers weddings, birthdays, thanksgivings, and coronations. Besides, his capacity for giving is matchless. I recall an occasion when we both drove into Isale-Eko and the area boys besieged his car, he kept screaming at the ADC "e fun won lowo" and he actually kept giving them until he left. He gives to the mighty and the low. It doesn’t matter to him how comfortable you are. In my Kanuri language, we say SADU SALT'E WAJIN'BA (which roughly translates to “even the Atlantic Ocean will not refuse additional droplets of water”). Tinubu, who seems to have taken this saying to heart, gives equally to those who have and those who don’t. His uncommon compassion and strategic approach to giving ensure that he has enormous goodwill that can easily be leveraged whenever the need arises.
The lessons sketched above might seem so commonplace, but they are not. The fact that not many people possess them in the right quantity or mix is what makes Tinubu the colossus that he has grown to become. He is by no means without fault. In fact, his faults are many and his capacity for mischief is legendary. (I recall at the peak of hurricane PDP that swept through the South-west, Tinubu called me and said that I should warn my people (PDP). He said they could try being funny elsewhere but not in Lagos. He said if they tried to be funny in Lagos, they would burn down everywhere. Fortunately, common sense prevailed. The PDP swept all the other states in the South-west, but Tinubu kept Lagos.)
Tinubu is certainly not a saint, but as the Hausas say, the best a man can be is 9, not 10. Warts and all, Tinubu in my view is the most consummate politician alive in Nigeria today. His eventful political life bears useful lessons for the rest of us, whether we are politicians or not. I join many others not just to congratulate him on this landmark anniversary but also to acknowledge his great contributions. Clearly, the last chapter on Tinubu has not been written—as his best is yet to come. And even as we patiently await that, Tinubu's place in Nigerian history is rest assured.
•Ibrahim-Imam, banker, farmer and politician, was Presidential Adviser and Liaison Officer to the Senate to President Olusegun Obasanjo