Up against the wall, Tinubu will need his famed political savvy—and more—to stanch rising discontent in Nigeria.
By Ebenezer Obadare
Twice in the past two-and-a-half years, it had seemed all but certain that Bola Tinubu would be denied the object of all his political labors. The first time was in October 2020 when some #EndSARS protesters in Lagos took out their frustration with the Nigerian political establishment on investments and properties believed to be owned by Tinubu, including Television Continental (TVC), The Nation newspaper, and Lagos Oriental Hotel on Victoria Island. Such was the ferocity of the attacks—and the ostensible damage to Tinubu’s reputation— that there seemed no way back to widespread public acceptance for him, let alone a credible challenge for the presidency. In hindsight, the #EndSARS-inspired attacks were a forewarning of the outcome of the presidential election in Lagos, albeit there were clearly other factors involved. The second time was last year during the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential primary, when Tinubu faced up to a shadowy coalition within his own party that seemed determined to go to any length to deny him the nomination.
That Tinubu managed to survive all this, including, during the campaign season, some of the most savage depiction of any Nigerian political leader in recent memory, speaks to his tenacity and durability. Yet, tenacity and durability do not in themselves guarantee political success, and in Tinubu’s case they had to be combined with a foresightedness and strategic thinking that had always meant making such “investments” in people and communities that made little or no sense to an observer. This is what Tinubu was referring to with his now infamous June 2022 “It is my turn” declaration; that he had paid his dues—to persons, entities, and sundry ethnic and sociocultural communities across the country, and it was time to cash in. For his critics, this “I have done well by you, now it is your tun to do well by me” mercantilist conception of politics and the sense of entitlement that comes with it is precisely the problem.
Partly because of this, Tinubu mounts the saddle at a time of profound social rancor and widening political division in the country. If the bulk of the younger generation finds his very idea revolting, it is because, rightly or wrongly, it sees him as the personification of the debasement of the nation’s moral currency, and, as if that is not bad enough, a continuation of the woeful Buhari administration. In this reasoning, that Buhari owed his ascent to the presidency to the Tinubu political machine makes Tinubu equally culpable for the Buhari calamity and, from that standpoint, engraves his image as an amoral horse-trader.
Yet, the firehose of aversion for Tinubu is not emanating from the younger generation alone. For the part of the Christian community that feels aggrieved at the perceived disregard for the community’s safety and interests during the Buhari years, Tinubu’s decision to select a Muslim running mate was the height of contempt, and the “Not My President” refrain steadily coming out of this constituency is a reflection both of its lingering annoyance at its perceived marginalization and the yet to be proven belief that Tinubu acted in cahoots with both the federal government and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to swing the election in his favor.
Nor can Tinubu afford to rest easy in his Yoruba ethnic home base, where his emergence as APC candidate ended up splintering and pitting him against one faction of Afenifere, the Yoruba sociocultural group. Besides, there is no love lost between Tinubu and former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who clashed with Tinubu when he was president and the latter was Lagos State Governor (1999- 2007), and made a late, head-scratching move to stop the count when early results from across the country pointed to a Tinubu victory.
Lastly, the Igbo remain justifiably resentful having seen another tilt at the presidency rebuffed, and the international community, a section of which was understandably sympathetic to the candidacy of Peter Obi and remains skeptical about Tinubu, is caught somewhere between nonchalance and low wattage hostility.
Tinubu will have to find a way to make overtures to these constituencies, even as he balances his outreach to them with the imperative to retire outstanding political debts to his allies and groups in the core northern region and parts of the lower Middle Belt where concentrated support got him over the line. For the younger generation, many of whom, understandably enough, are diffident about their immediate and long-term prospects in the country, nothing but a conscious and genuine effort on the part of the Tinubu administration to expand opportunity, increase social mobility, and deepen popular faith in the Nigerian enterprise will do. Already entrenched on social media and wielding tremendous power within Nigeria’s increasingly influential infotainment industry, this constituency will play a critical role in how the public, and crucially the international media, perceives Tinubu and his administration in the coming years.
At the same time, Tinubu will have to go out of his way to persuade the Christian community that its apprehensions about political marginalization and social inferiorization are unfounded. Beyond symbolic politics, he must act swiftly to rein in attacks by suspected Fulani herdsmen on Christian communities and places of worship, specifically in the Middle Belt, but also across the country generally. According to the Anambra-based International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), at least five thousand Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2022, while more than one thousand were killed in the first three months of 2023 alone.
Yet, as daunting as the foregoing political challenges sound, they are nothing compared to the situation that Tinubu faces on the economic front, where an imminent debt overhang, dependency on oil revenue, industrial restlessness, rising unemployment, and a chronic culture of waste continue to frustrate ordinary Nigerians’ entrepreneurial spirit and undermine the expectations of the country’s friends and allies. While it requires no extrasensory perception to discern what needs to be done—diversify the economy, embrace fiscal discipline, invest in infrastructure, ensure transparency, curb public waste, unchain the private sector—that it continues to elude successive generations of political leaders is one of the more enduring mysteries of the Nigerian condition.
Insofar as Tinubu is willing to tackle these problems, and while he has to master the momentum of unanticipated events so as not to be engulfed by it, one thing is painfully obvious to every student of Nigeria: he stands little chance of success if he does not first confront the bugbear of corruption. While every leader in recent memory has tried and failed—an outcome partly explained by the fact that corruption in Nigeria, being normative, is not amenable to unilateral correction, no matter how earnest—Tinubu faces a greater challenge in that, given the torrent of recent accusations of graft against him, he has to convince a rightly dubious public that he is above board and is sincere in his promise to “change our mindset” and “kill corruption in our society.” Early this month, Bloomberg reported that Oluwaseyi, Tinubu’s 37-year-old son, had acquired a London mansion that the Federal Government had intended to seize “over an alleged $1.6 billion fraud.” The slender moral legitimacy of his administration will crumble in short order if the public has reason to believe that his raison d’être is to continue with business as usual while feathering his immediate family’s nest.
Beyond the immediate horizon of corruption, but falling under the same normative rubric more or less, is the problem of everyday lawlessness and collapse of civility. To say that civility is in short supply in contemporary Nigeria, where jumpy citizens and reckless police dole out instance justice, is an understatement. Among other things, this owes to collective mistrust of state institutions, especially law enforcement and the judiciary, seen by many Nigerians, and often correctly, as obnoxious at best and pernicious at worst. Against this background, it is vital that the new administration move to reestablish the legitimacy of the Nigerian state and its constituent institutions. This is all the more important because, as the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once contended, “Without a minimum of good manners, society has never been able to exist whether as a people, a tribe, or a nation.” In other words, the increasing coarsening of mores threatens the foundation of social order in Nigeria.
While the ask is profound, Tinubu, a known delegator, at least boasts a formidable pedigree. Clearly, and as he once showed with his accomplishments as Lagos State Governor, he has what it takes (including critical connections to international business) to govern and is smart enough to realize that the coalition that brought him political victory may not necessarily be the one needed for governing. Where Buhari was decidedly tame—on foreign policy for instance—he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by being more assertive and taking up the diplomatic mantle that the rest of Africa and the world see as Nigeria’s destiny.
Tinubu’s most earnest desire (and the wish of every Yoruba leader) is to be elevated to the same pantheon in the Yoruba political imagination as the late philosopher-statesman Obafemi Awolowo. However, lacking the latter’s ideological discipline and personal austerity (granted, Awolowo may have been a tad too monastic) Tinubu must be content with being handed an opportunity that Awolowo, for all his sagacity, never came close to getting.
Having been scheming for the presidency since his term as governor ended in 2007, Tinubu has had enough time to prepare for this role. Now, he must demonstrate that he has spent an equivalent amount of time thinking about how to govern.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.
*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: https://www.cfr.org/blog/tinubus-turn