The Kingmaker

There are many things we don’t know about Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, one of the most prominent contenders who will be running in Nigeria’s presidential election next February. The first is his name. The Tinubu family is illustrious enough in Lagos (Madame Tinubu was a wealthy slave trader in the nineteenth century after whom a downtown square is named), but they have claimed that Bola is no relation. Then there is his age. He claims he was born in 1952, but that would mean he was just seven years old when he fathered his first child, Folashade, who celebrated her sixtieth birthday two years ago with all the fanfare of a Yoruba chief. (She now claims to be 46, having altered her Wikipedia page at least three times since then.) His education is also a matter of controversy. Nobody has been able to unearth which secondary school he attended. He once claimed to have graduated from the University of Chicago (which everybody had heard of) until the ‘error’ was discovered and it turned out he had meant Chicago State University (which nobody had heard of).

What we do know about Tinubu is that he has a lot of money: $32.7bn according to Forbes, most of it dating from his time as governor of Lagos State (Africa’s fourth-largest economy, with a population of over 20 million). His fortune includes not only a fabulous property portfolio – some have claimed he is the biggest landlord in the country apart from the federal government itself – but also at least one extremely lucrative cash cow: his 10% cut of all Lagos tax revenue. Tinubu’s company, Alpha Beta, was registered as soon as he assumed office in 1999, and the State effectively outsourced its tax collection to the firm. Although he left office in 2007, Alpha Beta earned him $176mn last year alone. That the business continues to enjoy a monopoly testifies to Tinubu’s stranglehold over the affairs of the State, hence his nickname, ‘the godfather’. His successor as governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, elicited the godfather’s wrath by refusing to allow Alpha Beta to double its cut – a transgression for which he was denied a second term. The current governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, then tried to avoid a similar fate by enshrining Alpha Beta’s monopoly in law. He was forced to back down following a public outcry, though it is not yet clear whether he has done what his predecessor refused to do.

It should be said that Tinubu is far from alone in his venality (up to 75% of the country’s national budget is lost to corruption). It’s just that he doesn’t hide it, and even chides those who dare to question him: a habit that was most notoriously on display in the run up to the 2019 presidential election. As the then national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress, he was at the forefront of President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign for a second term, and was busy mobilizing the party faithful when two bullion vans were seen entering the refurbished mansion he was gifted as part of his pension. When queried, he snapped that it was nobody’s business since the vans didn’t have anything to do with the election; but that, in any case, he needed to draw on his vast resources to ensure Buhari’s victory, since even the president ‘doesn’t have the type of money needed for Lagos votes’. Buhari duly won his second term, earning Tinubu the title of ‘kingmaker’ to add to that of godfather.

Now the kingmaker himself wants to be king; but there are reasons why his ‘lifelong ambition’, as he puts it, is unlikely to be realized. One is that he does not have the backing of the very man he crowned. Buhari, from the Hausa-speaking, mainly Muslim north, needed the support of the Yoruba in the south-west because the Igbo in the south-east – the third leg of the tripod who between them constitute about half the population – would never vote for him. Tinubu was instrumental in drumming up the Yoruba vote, but has since become dispensable to Buhari. The latter was only ever using the former for his own ends, as the more perspicacious remarked at the time. By identifying so closely with Buhari during his second-term bid, however, Tinubu has managed to alienate many of his own people, who identified him with the president’s abysmal performance during his first term. Nigeria, a country so richly endowed, has become the poverty capital of the world. About half its 215 million population are now destitute, watching bullion vans drive into the compound of their would-be king.

Nigeria is not working, hence the much-circulated photo of Buhari reclining in an easy chair, a contented look on his face as he picks his teeth, his shoeless feet crossed at the ankles – which many saw as metonymic. Now all the talk is of restructuring. It was precisely because the country was seen as too unwieldy that it was originally conceived as three semi-autonomous regions. That ended with the civil war of the late 1960s and the three decades of military rule that followed. Now we have 36 states, only two of which – Lagos, the commercial capital, and Port Harcourt, the oil capital – are viable. The others depend on their monthly allocation from Abuja, the capital, which jealously guards its powers. Before he decided to vie for the role of king, Tinubu was himself an outspoken supporter of restructuring – ‘Our system remains too centralized, with too much power and money remaining within the federal might’ – but he has since walked back on it. Now he merely says that the country is at a ‘critical junction’, that ‘much work needs to be done’, that we ‘need to continue to transform and improve’.

Whether restructuring will be a panacea is questionable, but it is what most Nigerians believe, which is why Tinubu is out of step with much of the population (including his own ethnic group). He has also alienated the young, the largest demographic by far, following the so-called Lekki Toll Gate massacre in October 2020, when soldiers fired on peaceful protestors, killing twelve. This was the culmination of two weeks of protests across a number of cities under the hashtag #EndSARS. Their original aim was to end police brutality, but the movement quickly adopted demands for more fundamental changes in the criminal justice system. After the massacre, many accused Tinubu of complicity with the authorities following an interview in which he appeared to blame the protestors themselves: ‘Those who suffered casualties need to answer some questions too. Why were they there? How long were they there? What types of characters were they?’ He then proceeded to make matters worse by condemning the killings on the grounds that the soldiers should have used rubber bullets instead. It turned out the electronic billboard above the toll gate – which had been switched off just before the soldiers arrived – was owned by Tinubu’s son, Seyi. There was even a rumour that Tinubu had a stake in the $40,000 that the toll gate rakes in daily, which the protestors had put at risk.

Tinubu denies the latter claim, but it hardly matters whether it is true or false. Either way, he has come to epitomize the tiny demographic of old men – ‘elders’ – whose suffocating sense of entitlement has been a convenient cover for the large-scale theft that has impoverished a country ‘too rich to be poor’. Given the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that power should return to the south at the next election in the interests of equity, Tinubu’s rival will likely be Professor Yemi Osinbajo, his attorney general when he was Lagos State governor and now the country’s vice president (thanks to another gentleman’s agreement which holds that both religions should be represented on any presidential ticket; Osinbajo is Christian and Buhari is Muslim). Last week Osinbajo declared an interest in running, prompting a furious reaction from Tinubu’s camp, which accused the new candidate of displaying a shocking ingratitude toward the person who made his name. Although Osinbajo’s law firm has been linked to money laundering, he is generally regarded as a modest man who doesn’t flout the riches he may or may not have. As a former law professor, his urbanity and articulacy present a sharp contrast with Tinubu.  

Given the odds stacked against him, how far is Tinubu willing to go to capture the highest office? In the past, he has not been hesitant to deploy various cronies – such as his personal agbero or thug, Musiliu Ayinde Akinsanya – to carry out his will. Yet how much this will help him in an election remains uncertain. In 2018, an apparently repentant former managing director of Alpha Beta, Dapo Apara, wrote to Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission alleging that the firm had become ‘an avenue for official corruption’ and ‘conduit for massive money laundering’, at which point he was told by an insider to back off: ‘No one will believe you. We control everything – the press, the courts, EFCC. You will only be endangering your life.’ As it happens, not only is Apara still very much alive; he is currently in court attempting to remove Tinubu from his role in the company. Perhaps, for all his braggadocio, Tinubu is not such a godfather after all.

Matthew Gandy, ‘Learning from Lagos’, NLR 33.