By Tunji Olaopa
It’s been long after 1979 that Nigerian politics has excited me enough for me to encourage myself after APC presidential primary in Abuja with Lionel Richie oldie: ‘Let the music play on; everybody sing, everybody dance; lose yourself in wild romance … All night long … on and on’. Indeed, I have remained an ardent student of Nigerian politics for as long as I can remember. And it could not have been otherwise. Nigeria, and her politics, has made a student of almost every Nigerian. Since I found myself enrolled at the department of political science, University of Ibadan, in the eighties, the theoretical analysis of politics in Nigeria has been broadened by the practical immersion in its practical dimensions. And my sense of Nigeria’s predicament and possibilities has been deepened also by my luck in more than casual meeting with the political gladiators, from Chief Awolowo through General Obasanjo to Asiwaju Tinubu, and getting a sense of the direction Nigeria is headed. The aggregation of the vast opportunities I have been given to learn, from all the great books I have encountered—a la Plato’s Republic—to the university experience of activism, not only sharpened my understanding of politics as praxis. It also focused my attention on the critical role of political leadership in the attainment of good governance, modulated by infrastructural development for the citizenry.
Nigeria needs to be taken seriously. And one does not need to read Odia Ofeimun’s book, Taking Nigeria Seriously, to deeply appreciate this (even though that book provides some unique and well-articulated groundings for those who would appreciate them). The mention of Ofeimun leads me to my encounter with Chief Obafemi Awolowo as a research assistant. That, out of all my experiences (though short-lived), was a great tutelage in political craftmanship. With the Sage of Ikenne, I had a deepening of my theoretical understanding of the relationship between good politics, good governance and ideological leadership. The closeness that the appointment afforded me was a critical learning curve that further fueled my yearning, as young as I was then, to continue in my fervent desire to generate a governance and reform model that not only carries the weight of the fundamental readings I have encountered—from Plato’s Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia—but also the peculiarity of my postcolonial context in Nigeria. Chief Awolowo was deeply passionate about Nigeria. Saying Nigeria was ‘a mere geographical expression’ was, for him, the first crucial premise in dealing with the rampaging ethnicities that needed to be welded into a harmonious plurality that defines national integration.
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When I met Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, by another providential opportunity, I saw the passion about Nigeria in another dimension. The political assessment of Awolowo has always been crippled by the critique of his being too ingrained into the Yoruba ethnic politics in ways that hurt his national leadership ambition. With Obasanjo, there is a near-consensus about his nationalist credential. If anyone doubts that Obasanjo loves Nigeria, then the person does not really know him, and has not studied the trajectory of Nigerian history and its political dynamics well. Chief Obasanjo was confronted with the same challenges of nation-building that Awolowo was confronted with, especially with the Yoruba factor as a major issue in achieving integration. And Obasanjo stepped up to the challenge. Nigeria might not be better after his presidency, but we have a sense of how nation-building could be fast tracked.
It is this Yoruba factor in Nigerian politics, and the paradox that it generates in building Nigeria, that led to my encounters and, eventually, to reflections on Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. I have written two op-ed pieces about Tinubu. And this was not an easy thing to do. He is certainly a man surrounded by many discourses and crises. As 2023 approaches, and with the recent political back-and-forth in the APC primaries, the Tinubu-bashing has gone up several octaves. This is further fueled by the “Emi Lokan” sing-song that Asiwaju just waxed. Much has been made of the “Emi Lokan” song, which many wished were the author’s verbal self-annihilation. It will however turn out to have become a divinely enabled “Yes, I can” audacity. And at that, in the mold of the power in the word which provoked the ultimate breakthrough in the spiritual: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in”. And since the words came forth in Abeokuta, none of the political variables in contention have remained the same again. Is it any wonder therefore that those pronouncements, in mystery, have become a pattern of invocation for prayer warriors and as overlay for Ese Ifa incantation, in a sense, an affirmation of the canon in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose”?
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Having said that, democratic imperative also dictates that sentiments—ethnic, religious, regional—should not have a place in the determination of the credentials of a possible and potential leader. The most fundamental axiom of democratic participation is that every human has the right to vote and be voted for, even the meanest and the most vilified. Indeed, Jane Addams, American activist and reformer, noted that “If the meanest man in the republic is deprived of his rights then every man in the republic is deprived of his rights.” I once wrote that Asiwaju is not a hero or a saint. Like most Nigerian politicians, he is caught up in the politics of power play that defines party politics in Nigeria. He is also caught up within the rubric of political corruption that encloses almost everyone of the political class. Must we then import new set of politicians from Mars? Or must we begin a process of reclamation, as I have argued before, in ways that allow the citizenry to delimit a sphere of progressive politics around which it can take the politicians to task around what constitutes good governance?
Unlike all others, Tinubu possesses qualities, if we can go from seeing the trees for the forest, which could be analyzed for the possibility of recuperating a leader who can achieve. Unlike all others, he is too significant to be a tool in the political calculations of others. He is not only his own person; he is equally the avatar that others look up to. This is one of the subtexts that was demonstrated at the just-concluded APC primary. His unique sense of political realism is heightened by his positioning within the Yoruba political space—from Lagos State to the entire Southwest, and fundamentally the Nigerian political universe. Since the critical agitations that resulted in the jumpstarting of the democratic experiment in Nigeria, Tinubu has kept his solid presence in almost all significant political events and incidences.
This brings me to another point. By being this prominent in Nigeria’s political affairs, Tinubu has situated himself aptly in the line of the Yoruba-Nigerian political gladiators that the whole of Nigeria took notice of—Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief MKO Abiola. And he is not just a figure that completes the lineup. Asiwaju, and true to that cultural title, is a true scion of deep Yoruba sociopolitical dynamics that at least Awolowo and Obasanjo utilized. First, Asiwaju, like Awolowo made the Southwest his governance and political base of excellence. And we just need to look at Lagos State to agree. Second, there is that fundamental commitment to intellectual capital and knowledge management model as the basis for affirming the place of meritocracy in governance. Awolowo, Obasanjo and Asiwaju are unrivalled in this. And lastly, there is an unequivocal commitment to Nigeria and her development, and of course through the understanding of a coherent federal dynamics that allows every constituent to come to the federal table from her position of strength.
As 2023 approaches, and the entire gamut of politicking attending it, I cannot but bring myself to remembrance about my abiding fascination with Tinubu talent management system, his genius in leaning on high-end expertise and skills, as well as his critical knowledge management model to build legacies exemplified in the Lagos governance narrative, from Fashola to Ambode to Sanwo-Olu. I once had a discussion with Asiwaju about this capacity to empower technocrats for the governance task, people who, being politically naïve, would later return with a sense of over-bloated self-worth. His response was valuable: “Tunji, my training is to be proven as a professional first, before I dared launching into political adventurism. I think we just must use our very best people if Nigeria’s complex issues would ever be resolved.” It is this sense of what Nigeria needs—this technical and ideological understanding of how to go about resolving Nigeria’s predicament—that makes me incurably fascinated with Bola Ahmed Tinubu. And I have not only the trajectory of those who came before him to attest to him as evidence, but also the significance of this as a reform element that is irreducible.
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I come to Asiwaju Tinubu’s possible presidential worth from the perspective of his Yoruba sociocultural background as well as his possible reform capability. Put side by side with Alhaji Abubakar Atiku (who, by the way, I worked with very closely and whose cosmopolitanism and national outlook I can boldly attest to), we have two powerful political juggernauts who both, not only have political potential and limitations, but also are the best of friends. Of course, this combination makes the electoral task ahead all the more interesting. But the interest for me lies elsewhere—in the development possibility inherent in reforming and transforming the governance model of the Nigerian state and getting things done, vide unblocking implementation landmines and execution traps that historically hindered strategic moves, in the past, from vision to strategy and to performance. Just in the service of these admirable emerging political leaders, I have already started ransacking my library to highlight all possible reform blueprints—from leadership change model to scenario planning and the framework for a new national productivity paradigm; to the governance and public service reengineering dynamics; and from the need for a cultural adjustment programme to change the mind of the nation through values reorientation to unlocking the great democratic and development potential of grassroots politics.
. Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, and
Professor, National Institute
For Policy and Strategic Studies
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.
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