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The occasion of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s 69 birthday last month invited, as such occasions are wont to do, a flood of encomiums, each intent on reminding us what a blessing the man is to our national politics. Tinubu, of course, knew that some of them spoke from both sides of the mouth. He knew that among those who loudly proclaimed his political greatness were men who could not stand his guts, his political sagacity and courage and, of course, his assumed and legitimate political ambition to climb to the top of the totem pole. There is nothing wrong with the king-maker becoming the king. He knew they did no more than stroll down the path of tradition in order to be numbered among those who appreciate him in earnest. Nothing strange there. It is the way the cook stands; it is the way it crumbles.
Tinubu is in the eyes of the storm; he has been in it for as long as one can remember. People are suspicious of his political moves. If he keeps his lips sealed and refuses to jump into the fray of needless and often puerile controversies, he is said to be doing so because of his presidential ambition. And even if he speaks, he satisfies no one. Whatever he does tends to be clothed in dark and sinister motives of an unbridled personal political ambition by men who fear his principles. It is an unkind cut. But he is a smart man. I believe he is neither fazed by the unkind cuts he receives nor inebriated by the whiffs of panegyrics. It is, as they say, politics in action.
This piece is not intended to praise Tinubu. This old codger is hardly qualified for that. Its noble intention, even if I say so, is to use the senator’s role in our national politics to assess our increasingly wobbly steps down the garden path of our national politics in the context of our assumed ambition to water, protect and grow our democracy. Tinubu represents for me a more committed approach to that great ambition than we are willing to give him credit for. He has done some very titanic things and helped to effect some critical changes in the direction, if not the tenor, of our national politics and discourse. He is one of a handful of principled men among our politicians who have not been blown off course by the ill wind of naked political ambition and casting about for where the bread is likely to be better buttered in the next circle of general elections, even if it means picking up the crumbs from under the table.
Tinubu remained firm and loyal to his original political party, AD. It changed its name to CAN and later helped to birth a new political party, APC in 2014, that has cemented the South-West in the mainstream of our national politics; politics at the centre, that is. AD was a child of political circumstances. It did not meet the condition for national spread stipulated in the General Abdulsalami Abubakar transition programme but nevertheless made the grade because the gun of protests over the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election was still belching ominous smoke in the South-West geo-political zone and threatening to blur the path to the birth of the third or fourth republic.
Tinubu needed no one to tell him that the party was what the South-West needed to bargain with the Nigerian on its fair share of the national cake. He entered the 1999 race for the governorship of Lagos State. He won and began the steady spread of a shift in state-cum regional development paradigm. AD went on to win all the six states in the geo-political zone in 1999. And this, despite the fact that one of its illustrious sons, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a presidential candidate of PDP, was virtually crowned as president by the generals long before the first ballot paper hit the bottom of the ballot box that year.
President Obasanjo, smarting from being treated as a political orphan because he did not enjoy the support of his own people, outsmarted the AD governors in the 2003 general elections. He convinced them to support him for his re-election in return for his support for them for their own re-election. Tinubu was the only man who saw through Obasanjo’s plan and rejected it. The rest of his colleagues took the bait and the umbrella replaced the broom in their government houses.
Unusual for a Nigerian politician, most of whom are permanently in search of greener pastures, Tinubu remained alone and true to AD and was determined to make Lagos a successful political and economic story and thus an enviable island in the muddied sea of our national failures. I understand he unveiled the local equivalent of a Marshall plan for the old Western region to which all the states in the zone were originally obliged to tap into and make it the new hub in our national development. His infrastructural development has had a tremendous and positive impact on the rest of the zone, even in states that do not quite share in the policy of collective system of regional development.
We can all see it. Lagos is the only state in the federation that does not wait for the monthly handouts from the federation account. It generates enough revenue internally to take care of itself and oil its developmental ambitions. Internally, the state has more and better roads than the rest of the country. Its economy is said to be fifth largest in Africa. That is something to be immensely proud of – even if out of a reluctance to applaud those who make a difference, we clap for Tinubu, the architect of all that, with one hand. Still, the Asiwaju stands out in the teaming crowd of political jobbers parading themselves as patriots committed to rebuilding Nigeria.
From what I can see, Tinubu stands out as the kind of political leader we need and urgently so, to help stop us from moving in circles in a vain search for a magical development paradigm that does not exist. We need politicians forged on the anvils of their principles who are not easily swayed by the mere lure of power or of lucre. He is. We need politicians with a larger concept of public service and who bear no allegiance to tribe or religion and can, with some courage, manage our ethnic diversity and political pluralism. The Asiwaju fits the bill.
Tinubu has consistently opened the doors of Lagos State to politicians from other states to find their berth. He left a legacy of building a state in which every Nigerian has a stake by accommodating non-indigenes in the state cabinet. You can find Yoruba from within and outside the South-West in every Lagos State administration; just as you can find some other tribes there too. Thus, the son of the minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed, is a member of the Lagos State house of assembly. He is from Kwara State. And from Kogi State comes James Faleke who is a member of the House of Representatives in Lagos State. I know of no other state in the country where people from other states enjoy this degree of political space with the sons and daughters of the soil. I can think of nothing more effective in building a united states of Nigeria than by making every part of Nigeria home to every Nigerian as Tinubu has done.
I confess that I do not quite know the colour of his politics in terms of an ideology but whether he has one or not, he has shown that he is a pragmatic politician with a capacity for hands-on leadership. His succession plan in Lagos has worked and made the state the least atomistic one in the country. This has also ensured consistency in infrastructural and economic development plan from one administration to the next. In no other state is this evident absent of succession plans. Instead a departing state governor anoints a successor with two left hands and leaves the state in the lurch with an unprepared and confused man fumbling in the darkness of his blind ambition. Sure, Tinubu has done well for his state as well as getting a chunk of power at the centre for the South-West geo-political zone. However hard we may try, I think it would be dishonest not to admit that Tinubu and he alone made the birth of APC possible in 2014, and changed for ever the political fortunes of Muhammadu Buhari and that of many others. But his work is not done. Our country is still on the weary trek towards transforming itself from a mere geographical expression into a united and egalitarian nation. Buffeted as it is by unprecedented violence and insecurity, the clouds are beginning to blur our vision – in case the Asiwaju is kept unaware of it.