Asiwaju at 70: Power and Influence Beyond Public Office

Segun Ayobolu

By Segun Ayobolu

Ever since he resigned from the regime of General Yakubu Gowon as Minister of Finance and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council at the end of the civil war in 1971, Chief Obafemi Awolowo who had been Premier of the Western Region and later Leader of Opposition in the Federal Parliament in the First Republic, never held any public office again until his eternal transition in 1987. Yet, he continued to wield not inconsiderable power and influence in the polity to the extent that military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, famously described the great statesman as ‘the main issue in Nigerian politics’ for the better part of the country’s post-independence history. It is not thus only from the barrel of the gun, as Chairman Mao Tse Tung of China once declared, or from the status and prestige of occupying formal governmental or organizational office that power flows. Influence and power can also flow from the force of ideas and ennobling moral example as Awolowo’s life all too well exemplified. Even though he never realized his ambition of steering the affairs of Nigeria as elected President, Awolowo has had more profound impact on the political and constitutional evolution of the country than any of those who have had the opportunity to do so.

As it was with Awo, so has it been to a significant degree with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007, who has not occupied any elective or appointive office since the expiration of his tenure a decade and a half ago. Many of those who ended their tenures as governors in this dispensation since 1999 have retained their relevance by either contesting for and being elected Senators or appointed as Ministers at the federal level. It is significant that even the honorific title of National Leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) by which Tinubu is widely addressed by party leaders and members is not formally recognized in the party constitution. It has only been bestowed on him in recognition of his pivotal role in the actualization of the historic merger that resulted in the formation of the party that achieved the unprecedented feat of displacing an incumbent administration from power at the centre through the ballot box in 2015 for the first time in the country’s history.


On March 29, Asiwaju clocks 70. He continues to bestride the country’s political terrain like a colossus, a fact vividly demonstrated by the fact that he is a clear front runner in the bid for his party’s presidential ticket in the run up to the 2023 general elections. What, it is pertinent to ask on this critical occasion both in the man’s life trajectory as well the political evolution of the country, has given Tinubu this staying power and uncommon endurance in the public affairs of Nigeria? One reason in my view has been his willingness to sacrifice short term personal interests for long term group and collective gains. Thus, for instance, he is known to have forgone the opportunity to be Senate President during Babangida’s tortuous political transition programme to strengthen the chances of the South West clinching the Social Democratic Party (SDP)’s presidential ticket, which Chief MKO Abiola eventually did although his victory was annulled by the military.

Again, when his tenure as governor ended in 2007, Tinubu had the option of contesting for the Senate from the Lagos West Senatorial District and would certainly have won election to the National Assembly. Rather, he chose to cede the opportunity to Senator Ganiyu Solomon in the interest of intra-party amity and to further brighten the electoral prospects of his party in the state. As the head of the Governor’s Advisory Council (GAC) in Lagos State, Tinubu has continued to play a key contributory role to good governance in the state under his successors and the productive policy continuity in Lagos remains the envy of most other states. His sagacious handling of party affairs including the delicate balancing of contending intra-group interests is no doubt responsible for the parties he helped form – the Alliance for Democracy (AD), Action Congress (AC), Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and now All Progressives Congress (APC) – maintaining a firm control of the political space in Nigeria’s most populous and affluent state over the last two decades without imploding.

I still vividly remember how I and a number of commissioners and other aides of the governor were in his office at the Round House, Alausa, as the results of the 2003 general elections tricked in. The AD had been roundly routed in all the five other states of the South West. – Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun – with Lagos the only exception. Tinubu was understandably distraught and downcast. Would he have any choice but to eventually join the behemoth Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which was now the dominant party not only in the South-West but across the country? The leaders of the PDP were already in celebratory mood that Tinubu would have no choice but to join the party in control at the  centre as he was unlikely to survive politically as the sole governor on the platform of the AD. Tinubu was to prove them wrong. His active and courageous role in the struggle that led to the forced exit of the military in 1999 and the ushering in of a New Democratic dispensation should have warned them that the man was made of sterner stuff than his seemingly fragile physical frame suggests. Not only did Tinubu rally his former governor colleagues in the South West to reorganize and rebuild the AD as well as effectively resist the PDP in the region, he also began systematically to work with others towards laying the foundation for a more broad based political organization capable of challenging the hegemony of the PDP nationwide.

I believe that 2003 was a pivotal moment in the evolution of democracy in Nigeria. Tinubu’s steadfastness in reorganizing the opposition to fight back valiantly in the South-West in the 2007 elections was definitely a critical reason why opposition survived in Nigeria and the country did not capitulate to the one party hegemony of the PDP. In response to the massive rigging of the 2007 elections in Ondo, Ekiti, Osun and Edo states, Tinubu was at the vanguard of the judicial struggle that saw the opposition reclaim its victory in each of these states in court. His role in the successful merger of the legacy parties that fused into the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2014 and President Muhammadu Buhari’s victory in the 2015 polls after three previous failed attempts is too well known to detain us here.

But it is not only at the level of party formation and organization or regional bridge building to enhance national cohesion that Tinubu has been active since 2007. His has also been a vocal and articulate voice on the policy terrain as he has ceaselessly put forward ideas and strategies to resuscitate and energize the economy, strengthen the national currency, revive agriculture, boost industrialization, create jobs on a massive scale, alleviate poverty and improve the country’s federal practice among others. For instance, speaking during his annual birthday colloquium in 2019, he had admonished the present administration thus, “…Consumer spending is slipping and this is where I will stop and appeal to Professor Yemi Osinbajo and his team to put a huge question mark on any increase of VAT please. If we reduce the purchasing power of the people, we can further slow down the economy. Let’s widen the tax net…Those who are not paying now, even if it is Bola Tinubu, let the net get wider and take more taxes and that is what we must do in the country instead of additional layer in taxes…Our economy must be redefined to be an efficient yet moral social construct with the primary goal of optimizing the long-term welfare of the people through the sustained, productive and full employment of labour, land, capital and natural resources…To pull the nation from poverty, government must play a decisive role. It must at times direct and even develop markets and opportunities. This is nothing novel. I am only restating what the established economies did when they were young and assumed trajectories toward growth…”. These views and undoubtedly the most comprehensive treatise for the transformation of the Nigerian economy are contained in the book, ‘Financialism: Water From An Empty Well’ published by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Brian Browne in 2013.

*-Segun Ayobolu, former Chief Press Secretary to former Lagos Governor Tinubu, Special Adviser/Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Strategy and now, Editor at large, The Nation newspapers.