The South West presidential hopefuls

Asiwaju Bola Tinubu

By Reuben Abati

Most of the politicians whose names have been mentioned in connection with Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential election, either as a hopeful or an aspirant would readily tell you it is too early to talk about the next election. Don’t buy that. They are lying. The race for the next Nigerian elections began immediately the last general elections ended.

The politicians are at best hedging their bets. Perhaps for this reason: The two major political parties – the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are busy watching and spying on each other. They have so far refused to announce their zoning formula, but even with all that talk about merit and competence, both parties will still adopt a zoning principle at all levels.

The way I see it, the questions to consider are as follows: Will the Presidency be zoned to the North, the East or the South? The people of the South East have already stated clearly, and they are not joking about this, that the only way to ensure equity, fairness and justice is to allow the Presidency go around the six geo-political zones before anyone begins to reject zoning.

Meanwhile, what we have seen across the country’s six geo-political zones, are persons who have been testing the waters, flying kites, engaging in whispering campaigns, auto-suggesting the future of Nigeria. I intend to devote some time to a deconstruction of the emerging trends, particularly in the South West where members of the APC have made it clear that there is an outstanding Memorandum of Understanding within the party dating back to 2014/2015.

The understanding is that after President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure, the Presidency will be zoned to the South West. Key political figures in the South West wing of the APC are relying on this promise and agreement. Who are they? What is the state of play? Will the APC keep the promise? My preliminary reading is as follows:

The most dominant name, figure and player in South West politics, at the moment is Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the Jagaban of Borgu, former two-term Governor of Lagos State, the man who led the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) into the alliance with Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the new PDP, a faction of APGA and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) to form the APC, the Special Purpose Acquisition Company, that grabbed power by hook or crook from the PDP in 2015.

Tinubu is a national leader of the APC. The big elephant in the APC room is that he, the well-known Godfather, wants to be President in 2023. His posters are all over the country. Yesterday, I saw one of those posters proclaiming his 2023 Presidential ambition around the Ikoyi-Lekki link bridge in Lagos. And I was like: really, so this thing is true?

A few days earlier, social media was awash with images of small bags of rice with Tinubu’s image being distributed in parts of the North. His spokesperson says he has nothing to do with that. Just the handiwork of benevolent volunteers who are distributing rice, in the godfather’s name, in the spirit of Ramadan.

Before that particular monkey business, Tinubu was also shown cosying up to the North; his 69th birthday colloquium was held in Kano, and he has been seen, lately, trying to be more Northern than the average Northerner.

Tinubu’s alleged Presidential ambition has driven up hypertension levels across regions. But his ambition if it exists, is unpopular. Not even his own Yoruba people have bought into it despite the pretensions of a vocal minority. I really don’t think Asiwaju Tinubu wants to be President, nor will he be.

In the course of his political career, he has made more than enough enemies and acquired more than enough baggage, stepping on toes, and playing the role of a Grand Architect. If he steps forward to grab the Crown, he faces the prospect of being told ugly and unpleasant stories.

My view is that Asiwaju Tinubu is savouring the talks about his possible Presidency just to re-establish and reinforce his own relevance. In case some people have forgotten, he more or less single-handedly handed over the South West to President Buhari in 2015 and 2019.

He is today the only person in the South West who can stand up to the same North to remind other elements in the APC of the MOU that was signed when he decided to lead the South West to support Buhari and keep him in office.

He wants to remain relevant and have a voice in determining who becomes President in 2023. His greatest strength is in identifying and building talent. He is exceptional in that regard in contemporary Yoruba politics.

The only problem is that other Nigerians would not want to hand over Nigeria to him so he can run it with the same kind of totalitarian grip that he has over Lagos. His Presidential ambition, for that reason alone is dead on arrival. His strength is his hubris.

But once he achieves his goal of remaining relevant and being the go-to-person in the South West, he will be fine, and that is all I believe he can get. Tinubu’s so-called Presidential ambition is all about tactics, so finely honed that anybody who wants to be President from the South West cannot side-line him. With the noise made so far about his imagined Presidency, Tinubu appears to have already checkmated every other likely aspirant from the South West. But that may not be the true picture of things.

There is Vice President of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. He has been facing his assignment as Vice President dutifully, doing only what they allow him to do and keeping his head slightly above water. In six years of being Vice President in a cabal-dominated environment, he is beginning to look like he has learnt his lessons.

However, there are persons who think that he is President Buhari’s safest bet as a successor. He is not likely to probe the Buhari administration for sure. That would amount to self-immolation. The way the Buhari government has played its game so far, if power gets into the hands of an adversary, every member of that government would have to leave town or prepare to go to jail.

There are forces and elements waiting to expose and humiliate President Buhari the moment he leaves office and they are wielding all kinds of weapons: their pens, laptops, tongues and smart phones. An Osinbajo Presidency will naturally serve as a bulwark against that, to the extent that a President Osinbajo is not likely to betray his boss.

There is also the view that Pastor Adeboye once predicted that a member of his church would one day rule Nigeria. Could he have been referring to Osinbajo? But there are problems: Osinbajo is a teacher of letters, the law and the word of God. He doesn’t have a political base of his own. It is too late for him to create one.

He is therefore, completely, a creation of Tinubu’s political machinery. If Tinubu is genuinely interested in becoming Nigeria’s President, I don’t see Professor Osinbajo challenging his former boss and benefactor. He can try but he won’t succeed. If Tinubu backs him however, he will be a main player. If Buhari supports him also, then he would have received divine anointing. His Redeemed Church politics may however count against him.

There is also Senator Ibikunle Amosun, former Governor of Ogun State. His name has been mentioned as a potential President of Nigeria from the South West.

Amosun has been Senator twice representing Ogun Central. He has also been a two-term Governor of Ogun State. He has both bureaucratic and legislative experience. He also spent his initial years as a key player in the private sector, so it can be said of him that he has quality and broad-range experience. He, Tinubu, and Osinbajo are not likely to be tongue-tied at an international conversation forum whether on radio, television or in person.

But Amosun’s biggest obstacle is that his fortunes depend almost entirely on President Buhari. He is Buhari’s man and friend. Can President Buhari make him President? I am not sure. There are forces in Amosun’s immediate constituency that will fight tooth and nail to stop him. Tinubu. Osoba. Gbenga Daniel. Dapo Abiodun. And others.

Besides, Amosun’s main constituency is Abeokuta where he has proven to be a loyal son of the Realm. A Nigerian President of whatever regional extraction will need a lot more than village support. He is also a Muslim like Tinubu and Buhari. That could be a problem.

There is also Kayode Fayemi, the current Governor of Ekiti State. Some people tell me he is the man to look at if the APC zones the Presidency to the South West. Like Amosun, he has been Governor twice in his state of birth. Like Vice President Osinbajo, he is well educated. He has also been a Minister of the Federal Republic in charge of Mines and Steel Development. He can write, talk, and hold his own in international circles. He has a Ph.D in War Studies.

And Nigeria just happens to be at war. He is also the only one who does not have the kind of baggage that the others carry on their backs like the curse of Atlas. Fayemi has not said he wants to be President, but there are persons pointing in his direction. I tell them he is my friend and brother and that he has one of the best wives anyone can get who will make an excellent First Lady for Nigeria. In Ekiti State, he has put up a great performance. He is also unencumbered compared to the others from his zone.

But people don’t become President because they have everything in place, from “the other room” to the public sphere.

Will Fayemi no longer be part of the conversation when he ceases to be Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum? Is his Chairmanship an advantage?

My take is that the biggest challenge to anybody’s Presidential ambition in the South West today is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. He won’t be President. But will he also be allowed to determine Nigeria’s future? And unfortunately. we are all bound to revisit that perennial controversy about religion and ethnicity.

First published in THISDAY Newspapers