The piece below was written in April 2012 by Bayo Onanuga, then Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director of TheNews Group of Newspapers. TheNews, was co-founded by Babafemi Ojudu.
I have known Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu for more than a third of his life on earth. My first impression about him stuck since then: a man of conviction and courage, a generous man, ready to deploy all his arsenals, human and material, in the promotion and realization of public good, a man who genuinely befriends people and sticks with them, bad weather or good weather, a man who sees the future, far ahead of his time.
Back in late 1992, we were looking for champions to back the publication of our anti-establishment news weekly, TheNEWS magazine. A friend of mine had spoken to the American accented man, then known as Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu and also gotten an appointment fixed for me to see him in Abuja.
I still remember my first meeting with him in one of the suites at Transcorp Hilton Hotel, along with Opeyemi Bamidele, who was then his PA. He was all ears as I told him our needs and our invitation to him to support us. He listened sympathetically and offered words of encouragement. Few minutes after, I walked out of the hotel room with the address of the person that I would meet in his Compass Investment in Lagos, to collect a cheque. Bola Tinubu had made an investment in a low margin media business, look so simple! My greatest surprise was that he never asked to see our feasibility report, which you would expect from a man who had then spent over a dozen years in the corporate world. He simply invested because he subscribed to our dream, to start a paper that had promised to be on the side of the people, under a military-civilian order.
His gesture completely stunned me. Here was a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, a businessman in his private life, who did not equivocate for a moment; who did not even say ‘treat me as an anonymous backer’, like some other lily-livered people would have preferred: he was ready to risk all his privileges, his business engagements, his rising political profile and be on the side of the people.
The investment was to prove very significant to our organization, especially in the special relationship that it enabled me and a host of my colleagues—Dapo Olorunyomi, Babafemi Ojudu, Idowu Obasa, Kunle Ajibade, Seye Kehinde— to forge with Senator Tinubu. Although known as an accountant or an auditor by professional calling, Bola Tinubu would also have made a success of journalism as a career. A voracious consumer of the printed media in Nigeria, Tinubu possesses a very sharp analytical mind and every seasoned newsman’s instinct: ability to scent what is news, especially news that will be of public interests and public good.
Sometimes, when I ran out of ideas about what to put on our magazine’s cover, I would simply walk to his office, especially when he became governor, and by the time we discussed the state of the nation, I would depart , with an idea. There was always something to take away, after rubbing minds with him. I sometimes joked that he should have come to the world as an editor and not as an auditor! He must have taken my joke very seriously considering the big media architecture that he had erected since leaving public office in 2007.
He was for the short spell he spent in the Senate, a great source of news for our TEMPO and TheNEWS. His Balarabe Musa Crescent home, with his beautiful wife ever available to pamper us was our meeting point, away from the snoopers of the Babangida-Abacha junta. And when the Abacha junta proscribed several newspapers in 1994, he was the man who inspired the establishment of P.M.NEWS, our most successful medium, with the seed money.
In exile, both in the UK and the USA, he continued as our freelance reporter, feeding us now and then about the external activities of NADECO and information about the Abacha regime that he had picked up from his impeccable sources, close to the junta. I must say some of the information he passed on to us, were dangerous and one of them led to the arrest of Babafemi Ojudu, after we published the story of the massive looting that General Abacha was inflicting on the Nigerian treasury. This was two years before General AbdulSalami Abubakar made this known to the nation.
Tinubu was ever there for us in those dark days when we operated underground, when it was not easy running a ‘guerrilla’’ operation, having to contend with the constant harassment of Abacha’s goons, shut downs, and the incarceration of staff. I remember one day in December 1995 when he called to ask about our well-being and I told him we were having problems paying staff and staring at the possibility of many staffers spending Christmas in hunger.
His reaction was spontaneous: there was some money with his friend in Surulere. ‘Go and collect the money’, he said. That friend happened to be Lai Mohammed, who later became his Chief of Staff, when Tinubu was crowned the governor of Lagos State in 1999.
The money was a big life-saver for many of our staff and for the company that December.
He intervened decisively several times even as Governor in ensuring that TheNEWS and P.M.NEWS survive the harsh economic environment of our country.
Tinubu goes to great length to ensure that those around him never unduly suffer, even when he bears the brunt. His trademark is spontaneity: ever ready to give, ever ready to lend a helping hand to the weak.
When he was in exile during the Abacha years, his homes in the UK and Maryland in the USA were points of convergence for many emigrants. In my own case, he accommodated me in one of his flats in DC for all my eight months in the USA, arranging that I applied for asylum and ensuring that some allowance in hundreds of dollars were given me by his gas station in Washington DC, then being managed by his wife.
All this while, even while he spent himself thin in exile, he kept in touch with the Nigerian based NADECO and the other political structures in Lagos. He was not just ‘touching the base’ by word of mouth, he was also contributing financially to all the schemes being carried out by the politicians at home. There was an incident that remained evergreen when he sent me to Pa Abraham Adesanya at his office on Simpson Street, Lagos. Pa Ajasin had died and NADECO Nigeria was trying to mobilize funds to give the old man, a befitting burial. Pa Adesanya and other NADECO chieftains were at a meeting when he was informed that I bore a message from Senator Bola Tinubu. I handed the old man an envelope, containing N200,000. Pa Adesanya was utterly overwhelmed as he told me Tinubu’s donation was the biggest the group had received for the burial. Many Yoruba businessmen, he said, were afraid of identifying with the burial and had given miserly donations, the highest of which was N50,000.
I believe such contributions came into reckoning when Tinubu was locked in a dispute with Engineer Funsho Williams for the Lagos governorship ticket of the Alliance for Democracy in 1999. There was no way the grand old men of Yoruba politics would have forgotten Tinubu’s past contributions. It was only logical that they backed him against Funso.
In office as governor for eight years, Tinubu forged a distinctive character for himself, about how those who occupy power should behave. The character I speak about is beyond his trade-mark cap; it’s about a style that he deployed to make a mark. From day one, he refused to fall into the trap of the establishment by declining the drivers sent to him from Alausa, moments after his election as governor was announced in January 1999. He told the lame duck government then that he had his ‘’personal driver’’. That driver, Mustapha, who died last year, was to prove a big bridge, in connecting Tinubu with his primary constituency—the media, the human rights groups, the political activists and so on. Being part of Tinubu’s struggles for more than a decade, Mustapha knew everyone who ever interacted with his boss and he ensured his boss never missed ‘touching base with them’. All through his tenure, it was EITHER HE PICKED HIS PHONECALLS HIMSELF or Mustapha picking it and passing it on. Besides, he gave out a long list of people to his security men, in Alausa, Marina and Isaac John, of people who did not need any appointment to see him, people who must have freeway to him. That was why it was possible for some of us to leave our offices and go to Alausa to have ‘lunch or dinner’, with the ‘very busy governor’. He simply made himself accessible. His accessibility also made him not to fall into the trap of being disconnected and shielded from the society by sycophants and liars to power. He tried to get information outside of his immediate aides. He was one leader who was not imprisoned by the trappings of office.
Today, Tinubu remains the leading Yoruba man, ready to back good political causes, with everything he has got— his brain, his energy, his money, his ideas and tactics, his connections, in very high places.
He remains the foremost defender of our constitution and the apostle of true federalism, fiscal and political. He has also been a great defender of the sovereignty of the people: that at election time, the people’s will must prevail, their votes count. His greatest weapon is the law court. Though not a constitutional lawyer, he is always encouraging the lawyers to test certain provisions of our constitution, the limits of federal power, the rights of the states and the local councils.
The Nigerian nation must be grateful for his many interventions, in helping to tame the rampaging and Leviathan Federal Government and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party.
However, Bola Tinubu’s greatest weakness is inhered in his strength: because he is faithful to people, to his friends, he is also easily too trusting and ends up being bamboozled by some of those friends, leaving him shattered with grave disappointment.
He also works too late into the night, denying himself of the rejuvenation of the body and soul that sleep offers. As he takes the steps up the sexagenarian ladder, he needs to change his sleep culture, as we need him to be around for at least four more decades.
Yoruba nation and indeed Nigeria need him badly too. We pray that God would give him a very long life and continuous prosperity.
Happy Birthday, the Asiwaju of our time.