A Titan’s Life

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Political economist and former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Kingsley Moghalu, reviews ASIWAJU: The Biography  of Bolanle Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu, a book written by two PhD holders, Moshood Ademola Fayemiwo and Margie Neal-Fayemiwo

Who is Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the Asiwaju of Yorubaland and the Jagaban of Borgu, and why does his biography matter? Nigeria has many politicians of varying degrees of consequence, and countless political jobbers that perambulate the corridors of power in any dispensation. But the country has very few leaders in any real sense, and Bola Ahmed Tinubu (henceforth “BAT” or “Asiwaju”, not to be confused with “ASIWAJU”, the book title) is one of them. He is calculating, performance delivery-focused, decisive, and, at 65, has already achieved a legacy of positive consequence. A biography of him therefore matters.

The authors gave three reasons for writing this book: first, BAT’s pivotal role in the alliance of political parties that became the All Progressives Congress (APC) and accomplished the historic feat of defeating an incumbent president at the ballot box and bringing Muhammadu Buhari to power as President of Nigeria on his forth attempt. Second, the book is written to “celebrate” Asiwaju Tinubu’s life as a champion of democracy and, third, because Asiwaju is a strong advocate of true federalism.

One important function the book accomplished early on is to shine some light on the exact circumstances of Tinubu’s birth in 1952 and his family in Lagos. BAT was the product of a liaison between his father Ahmed Tinubu, after whom he is named, and Mama Abibatu Mogaji, an independently wealthy female trader in Lagos who felt little need for a husband. Ahmed Tinubu having passed on just a few years after his son’s birth, BAT was brought up by his mother, and the tensions of a “rascally” young male child growing up under the care of a single, widowed mother are evident in Asiwaju’s early years.

Stories are often woven around great men, by friend and foe alike. The farther back in time such stories go, the harder it becomes to separate fact from fiction, myth from reality. BAT has been the subject of whispered allegations that he is not, in fact, a native of Lagos and that he was born in Iragbiji in today’s Osun State in South-western Nigeria. These innuendos, aimed at de-legitimising their subject, are reminiscent of the “birther” movement in the United States that for years spread the false story that Barack Obama, America’s first black and 44th President whose father was Kenyan and his mother a white American woman, was not born in the continental United States and was therefore not legitimately elected. Obama ultimately produced the certificate of his birth in Hawaii to put paid to these jaundiced rumours. To the book’s credit, the authors undertook painstaking research in Lagos and Iragbaji that sought to debunk the story of Tinubu’s birthplace as anywhere other than Lagos.

Asiwaju was a “late bloomer” in the popular parlance. After his primary school education in Lagos, during which he was markedly prank-prone, his concerned mother packed him off to the Children’s Home School in Ibadan, a school known for its strict discipline and Christian religious orientation (BAT is a Muslim) for his secondary education. Whether this experience contributed to BAT’s well-known religious tolerance (his wife, Oluremi, is a Christian) is unclear. His secondary education was uneventful, and he later studied at Chicago State University in the United States and received a degree in Accounting. Life began looking up for Asiwaju after he landed a job with the global accounting firm Deloitte, Touche and Tomatsu. The late bloomer was becoming a star whose trajectory ultimately led him back home to Nigeria and a coveted job in Mobil Oil Plc in 1983.

As the military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s controversial democratic transition unfolded in the early 1990s with an experiment in diarchy, BAT resigned from Mobil and contested and won a seat in the Nigerian Senate on the platform of the Social Democratic Party, one of the two political parties (one, the SDP “a little to the left” and the other, the National Republican Convention, NRC, “a little to the right”) created by fiat by Babangida. When IBB ultimately cancelled the presidential elections that Chief M.K.O. Abiola of the SDP won in 1993, Tinubu became a member of the political opposition to military rule and went into exile in London after narrowly escaping the killer squads of the military dictator General Sani Abacha.

It is debatable if his role in the APC victory of 2015 is Bola Tinubu’s greatest political legacy when we consider objectively the internal crisis that bedeviled the APC after its victory at the ballot box, the governance challenges that have confronted President Buhari’s government, and the widely-held perception that Asiwaju was shunted aside by other forces within the party even as he gamely maintains a stiff upper lip. Is this “success” really all that it has been made out to be?

What cannot be contested is Tinubu’s transformational a achievements as the Governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007 on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) party, his effectiveness as a leader and political strategist, and the ultimate wisdom he has demonstrated in choosing his political successors as governors of Lagos in the persons of Raji Fashola (despite the frictions that later developed between the two) and Akinwunmi Ambode.

Tinubu as governor of Lagos unleashed massive infrastructure development and environmental reforms, and created an efficient, effective revenue base through taxation. His political resilience was demonstrated in his ability to bounce back to regional political dominance in the South-west in the 2011 elections, with his Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) party winning a strong majority of the gubernatorial and legislative seats in that region of Nigeria after having lost several states to the national ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2003 elections under the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency.

Asiwaju’s recommendation of the cerebral technocrat-politician Yemi Osinbajo, a professor of law, to Buhari as the latter’s running mate in the 2015 elections, is an important contribution to Nigerian leadership. While Vice-Presidents have limited powers, Osinbajo’ s performance as a stand-in during Buhari’s recent two-month long medical leave was widely acclaimed. Clearly, BAT has a talent for spotting and developing leadership talent.

Which brings us to whether this political juggernaut is, in fact, a national politician or more accurately a dominant regional actor with national influence, much in the tradition of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Here we must look closely at Tinubu’s “alliance politics”, a realistic recognition that no part of the country can win political power without the collaboration of at least one other regional block. It is beyond dispute that President Buhari would have remained a regional champion and an unsuccessful presidential contender without the bridge to the South-west that Asiwaju constructed for him.

But there is a difference between transactional alliance politics and being, or becoming, a truly national leader with an all-inclusive vision, which is the type of leadership Nigeria needs going forward. As recent events are demonstrating, political “visions” that in reality are limited to the Hausa-Fulani northern and Yoruba South-western agendas, essentially ignoring the Igbos of the South-east zone and the minority South-south, are short-sighted and will be self-defeating to national stability and development in the longer term.  Perhaps Tinubu needs to return more actively and visibly to what this biography states as his commitment to true federalism, and to the quest for a constitutional restructuring that must birth a new, more equitable order in Nigeria.

“ASIWAJU” is an important contribution to political biography in Nigeria and Africa. It is broadly well written and well-researched, and holds the reader’s interest well. As an in-depth account of the rise to political power and influence by one of the few truly effective leaders in Nigeria’s contemporary history, it is an authoritative compendium.

But the book has important shortcomings. For one, does its subject have no weaknesses or limitations that the biography might have pointed to and analysed as evidence of a more balanced approach? Perhaps the book’s stated intention to “celebrate” Asiwaju provides an explanation, but not a justification. Beyond that, the book appears not to be an officially “authorised” biography, hence Asiwaju’s personal voice is absent. The authors attempt to make up for this by including a compendium of Tinubu’s speeches at the end of the book, but that cannot replace the authentic, personal voice of the subject, in quotes from interviews, participating directly in the project. It is doubtful that Asiwaju Tinubu is blissfully unaware of this work, seeing the foreword by Rauf Aregbesola, the Governor of Osun State and Asiwaju’s close political associate, as well as the tribute in the book by Alhaji Kashim Shettima, Governor of Bornu State. But that is the realm of speculation.

“ASIWAJU” should have more closely analysed the outcomes of the historic 2015 presidential and gubernatorial elections, since Tinubu’s role therein is offered as a major reason for this biography. And a discussion of the subject’s possible future(s) would have made a fitting end to a political biography. Will the Asiwaju of the Yorubas become that of Nigeria? Will he transition from kingmaker to king himself, does he want to, and, can he? Time will tell. Whatever the case, that Bolanle Ahmed Tinubu has more than made his mark in Nigeria’s political history is not in question.

 Book Title: ASIWAJU: The Biography of Bolanle Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu

Authors: Moshood Ademola Fayemiwo, Ph.D. and Margie Neal- Fayemiwo, Ph.D.

Publisher: The Jesus Christ Solution Center, DBA, USA in collaboration with Booklocker Publishing Company, Inc., St. Petersburg, Florida, USA

Publication Date: May 30, 2017