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‘Godfather’ of Lagos aims to become Nigeria’s next President

By Neil Munshi / Financial Times

Bola Ahmed Tinubu is pitching his stewardship of Lagos as a template for how he will fix Nigeria

After a three-month stay in the UK for knee surgery, the former governor of Lagos state returned to his compound in Nigeria’s wealthiest neighbourhood, Ikoyi, in a dozen-vehicle convoy, greeted by scores of supporters, praise singers and politicians.

Last October’s jamboree, broadcast on local television, underlined Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s status as the most powerful man in Lagos, the commercial engine of Africa’s biggest economy.

But it also made clear the challenges he faces as he runs for Nigeria’s presidency in February 2023: his age in a country where almost two-thirds of the population is under the age of 24, his wealth, and long-running questions about the source of it.

As party leader of president Muhammadu Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress, Tinubu, who is known as the “godfather of Lagos” to many in the country, is the frontrunner to secure his party’s nomination and the presidency. His declaration this month marked the unofficial launch of campaign season in Nigeria.

But it also set off questions such as those posed by an anchor on the Arise News channel to a Tinubu supporter the following day: “How did he make his wealth?” Oseni Rufai asked. “And how old is he?”

Tinubu is 69, according to his official bio, and has been dogged by allegations of corruption, which he has always denied. The huge influence of the man credited with shaping modern Lagos and securing Buhari’s path to victory in 2015 may yet hold him back.

“He’s too powerful . . . that’s not how Nigerian politics works,” said Amaka Anku, Africa director for Eurasia Group. “He’s powerful just sitting there in Lagos with no position. How can you let a man like that be president? You can’t, because you need someone who needs stuff from you, not someone who can just control everything on their own.”

Tinubu is pitching his stewardship of Lagos, which has a gross domestic product bigger than most African countries, as a template for how he will fix Nigeria. His tenure as governor from 1999-2007 transformed the city. He steered major infrastructure projects such as the rapid transport bus system, civil service reforms that removed ghost workers from the payroll, and fiscal reforms that set Lagos on the path to country-leading tax revenues. Each subsequent governor has been one of his protégés, largely following plans his administration laid out for Africa’s biggest city.

Some supporters derive hope from his performance as governor. When Tinubu was “governor of Lagos, which is the commercial city of Nigeria, business thrived”, a businessman in Lagos said. “One thing he’s shown is that he brings professionals to work with him.”

There are still doubts his candidacy will succeed. Nigeria’s two main political parties circulate power every eight years between the predominantly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south, and always nominate a ticket that has a member of each religion. The system complicates things for Tinubu, a southern Muslim, given the dearth of prominent northern Christian politicians.

It is also unclear if Tinubu will ultimately receive Buhari’s backing. The president campaigned on an anti-corruption platform in 2015, and may balk at the allegations against Tinubu, said Anku. “It’s still his party and he cares about the party,” she added.

A member of Tinubu’s campaign team dismissed the allegations. He said the ex-governor, a US-educated accountant, had made his money in business — he worked for Deloitte in the US and as an executive at Mobil Oil in Nigeria — and by making sound investments before entering politics that are still generating income. “He came from humble beginnings, but he has made money before he joined politics,” the official said, referring to his corporate jobs, a petrol pump he owned in the US and shares he holds.

In 2009, Tinubu was cleared alongside two other governors of money laundering allegations related to the sale of a mobile operator. Two years later, Nigeria’s Code of Conduct Tribunal dismissed charges that he operated foreign accounts while serving as governor.

During the 2019 election, Tinubu dismissed accusations of buying votes for Buhari after cameras captured an armoured bank truck pulling into his compound. “If I have money, if I like, I give it to the people free of charge, as long as [it’s] not to buy votes,” he said.

Age is another complicating factor. Many of the men on the political playing field when Tinubu first entered politics continue to dominate, even as they enter their seventies and eighties.

Oluseun Onigbinde, director of BudgIT, an open data good governance non-profit, pointed out that the septuagenarian Buhari this month said the rigours of the office were getting to him. “The age is telling on me, working now for six, seven, eight hours a day in the office is no joke,” the president said in an interview with the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority channel. “Does the candidate have the energy and tenacity to match current challenges?” Onigbinde said.

The campaign official pointed to Tinubu’s hectic post-announcement schedule as proof he’s up for the job. Tinubu spent the week after his announcement meeting governors in northern Nigeria, which has the most votes, in an attempt to shore up support. He announced a donation of 50m naira ($122,000) to victims of banditry in Niger state, sought the blessing of ex-dictator Ibrahim Babangida and met the governor of Nigeria’s most populous state, Kano.

If he fails to make it to the presidency “he will try to reprise his kingmaker role in exchange for him delivering this coalition he has built to that candidate, so he can maintain an influence in a post-Buhari Nigeria”, said Cheta Nwanze, of the SBM Intelligence consultancy. Among the ex-governor’s political protégés are vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, another potential Buhari successor, who is widely expected to declare if his mentor falters or drops out.

Whoever takes over faces huge challenges. Buhari has presided over a tumultuous seven years — his administration has undertaken large infrastructure projects but also seen the spread of insecurity to every corner of the country. The economy is slowly recovering from a recession brought on by the pandemic-induced oil price crash, but inflation remains high and half of Nigeria either has insufficient work or is unemployed.

A Lagos businessman was blunt: “Would we prefer a much younger candidate so Nigeria can move forward? Yes,” he added. “But if you are presented with the devil and the blue sea you’re best with the devil that is presented.”

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