Opinion

Opinion | Three Decades With Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu

By Kayode Oladele

I have a story to tell. It is one that is personal to me, unrelated to the rumours I have heard by word of mouth or on social media. This is my story of a Nigerian I have known for three decades. I was thirteen years old in 1992, holed up in a boarding school in the newly minted Kogi State, but still found ways to follow the exciting transition to democracy during this period. I was part of a generation that had never experienced democracy then, but strangely for me the 1993 electioneering campaign was a beauty to behold and experience. The annulment of that historic election hurt despite being too young to vote. It hurt so deeply I was helpless but still hopeful some patriotic Nigerians could help reclaim Abiola’s mandate of hope from IBB and later Abacha. Patriotic Nigerians did show up and Bola Ahmed Tinubu was one of them. Here began my story of the Bola Ahmed Tinubu I know.

In the months and years following the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, my late father would not spend a day without reading newspapers and would not spend a week without devouring the weekly newsletters, The News, Newswatch and Tell being his favourites. As he got done with one, I picked it to read. And as I read of the political struggles to reclaim the people’s mandate, the Epetedo Declaration, the arrests, clampdown on innocent protesters by the military and then Abiola’s incarceration, Bola Tinubu’s name and voice continuously came through. It took me no time to add him to my list of those patriotic Nigerians I was looking for, joining Pa Anthony Enahoro, Professor Wole Soyinka, Dan Suleiman, Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, Pa Abraham Adesanya, Chief Bola Ige, Gen. Alani Akinrinade among many others.

As most of them moved to exile to escape the brutality of the military, I jubilated, knowing full well they were safe to continue the fight. I was that happy when I read in the news that Bola Ahmed Tinubu made it too. Who wouldn’t? This period witnessed the assassinations of Pa Alfred Rewane, Rear Admiral Omotehinwa, Kudirat Abiola, Bagauda Kaltho, and Suliat Adedeji among others. Pa Abraham Adesanya barely missed the bullets hauled at his car.

The days of Abacha in power were dark, as dark as many nights without electricity in my village in Kogi State. Our only hope during this period was Radio Kudirat named after MKO Abiola’s wife who had been assassinated by the military regime. My father must listen to Radio Kudirat every night at around 10pm. He would tune and tune until he got the underground radio channel playing Fela’s revolutionary music to welcome us. I would join him to listen to the brave exploits of our pro-democracy leaders home and abroad. Sometimes the audio would be so poor he would have to place the transistor radio close to his ear and then relay the information to me. Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s name was mentioned multiple times on Radio Kudirat over the years we tuned in.

He was with NADECO in exile, championing and funding the cause of pro-democracy and the battle to reclaim Abiola’s mandate. It was not a two-week struggle. It lasted four years until Abacha and Abiola died in 1998. By this time, I was at the end of my teenage years and had come to know Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the pro-democracy activist, for four years. Abacha died and Abdulsalami Abubakar took his place, promising a return to democracy in a year and creating the enabling environment for our pro-democracy fighters to return from exile. A promise he would keep. The joy of seeing them return was incredible. Lagos, the centre of the pro-democracy movement, was agog. One after the other, they returned to the warm embrace of a broken people.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu was one of them and in no time joined the political process that would lead to the formation of Alliance for Democracy, a progressive party based on same ideology that late Chief Obafemi Awolowo lived for. The same political figures who praised and supported Abacha had gathered to form the People’s Democratic Party. I followed the events with keen interest, and I was convinced Bola Tinubu, and other pro-democracy fighters would not join these jobbers. As expected, they did not. Bola Tinubu would later emerge as the Alliance for Democracy’s Governorship Candidate in Lagos State. I was pleasantly surprised, considering his progressive elders in the Southwest made it to the governorship tickets in Oyo, Ondo, Ogun, and Osun.

Otunba Niyi Adebayo is the son of a retired general who once governed the Old Western Region and with that leverage became the youngest of the governorship candidates in the Southwest, picking the Ekiti ticket. Tinubu was also young but got the ticket on his own terms. 1999 elections came and Bola Ahmed Tinubu became the Governor of Lagos State. Bola Tinubu’s victory was the most celebrated by me because he was the only exiled Pro-Democracy Fighter elected Governor. He, among many others in NADECO, deserved to be elected to public offices, including that of the Presidency. But the other electoral victories left a sour taste in my mouth, especially that of Olusegun Obasanjo who would have nothing to do with June 12. Bola Ahmed Tinubu however ensured Nigeria, Obasanjo and Lagosians never departed from June 12 and the sacrifices of Abiola and others in the struggle.

While other states of the federation moved on with total disregard, the Southwest states declared June 12 as the true democracy day. I was happy and thought that would be it, but Tinubu would continue to exceed my expectations. Oregun Road was reconstructed and made a reference point on road construction in Nigeria. Tinubu renamed it Kudirat Abiola Way in honour of the assassinated wife of the June 12 Hero, MKO Abiola. A new Housing Estate in Ajah built by Tinubu’s government was named after Pa Abraham Adesanya. The media centre inside the Governor’s Office was named after Bagauda Kaltho, a journalist who disappeared in mysterious circumstances during the Abacha years. Marwa Gardens was renamed MKO Abiola Gardens. In all these and many other legacy projects, Bola Ahmed Tinubu ensured our eyes continue to see and celebrate the sacrifices of these great Nigerians in years to come including those years PDP took control of most Southwest states and cancelled June 12 celebrations. Tinubu ensured Lagos kept faith.

Nobody can erase or mask the story of Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s frontline fight for democracy between 1993 to 1999. It was a heroic story many of my generation experienced first-hand. Tinubu’s fight for democracy and the drive to recognize the heroes of that struggle would continue for 19 years until the Federal Government moved Democracy Day to June 12 and the winner of the June 12, 1993, presidential election formally awarded the highest honour in the land. This would not have happened without Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The ruling party is APC, and he was a co-founder. It was a great victory for democracy and pride for the Abiola family who have been scarred not only by the deaths of their beloved parents but also by the disrespect and disregard suffered in the hands of those who profited from this tragedy. I was extremely delighted and filled with emotions to watch Hafsat Abiola-Costello give a moving speech at the conferment ceremony. At that historical moment, a final closure was brought to a democratic struggle that had been active for 25 years! Who can last that long, sustaining the fight without wavering? That is the Bola Ahmed Tinubu I know.

The fight for true federalism and good governance

At the beginning of the 4th republic, I was in Kaduna on an industrial attachment, and I had no reason to visit or follow events in Lagos. But Bola Ahmed Tinubu ensured Lagos took the front page in Nigeria for the next eight years. I was old enough to see Tinubu take on a new battle for true federalism and good governance. It was a tough one, the opponent being a former Military Ruler who had never functioned in a democratic setting and was still raw in dictatorial tendencies. The battle was fought on many fronts – Independent power generation, creation of local development areas, Onshore/Offshore Dichotomy, funding for the dilapidated federal infrastructure in Lagos State. Obasanjo and PDP ensured Lagos, not Tinubu, was punished for it by withholding the much-needed federal allocations. But Tinubu would maintain the same fighting spirit of the pro-democracy years. He won all the battles, the biggest of which was creating a sustainable alternative to federal allocation, the now celebrated internally generated revenue profile of the state. I do remember the signages mounted by Tinubu’s government on dilapidated federal roads in Lagos, informing the residents of the responsibility of the federal government to fix and repair. The federal government still did not repair. Then Lagos repaired the critical ones until the federal government was ready to refund. Such audacity!

I moved to Lagos in 2006, towards the tail end of Tinubu’s 2nd term in office. The last seven years had witnessed major reforms and legacy projects in Lagos, and I was delighted to see them in person. LAWMA was reformed and I could see their trucks picking up trash even in faraway Ipaja and sweepers diligently cleaning Lagos streets with dignity. LAMATA had been established and driving the Bus transportation reform. I saw the BRT lane under construction on Ikorodu Road, causing huge traffic congestions at that time. LASTMA was caging the traffic madness on Lagos roads, overshadowing the understaffed Federal Police ‘Yellow Fever’ Traffic Officers. I saw the remodelled public schools, especially the Millennium School on the Ojodu to Ogba road. There was more funding available for public schools because Tinubu had returned the mission schools to the missionaries despite resistance especially from his Muslim brothers and sisters who felt the secularity of those schools, mostly Christians, will be lost. He did it anyway and the schools are better for it. As of 2006, Lagos state had maintained unbroken record of free education in public schools and consistently paid WAEC fees of all SS3 students in Lagos without discrimination based on religion or ethnicity. I experienced this in 2009 when a young girl from Ogun State came to live with us in Lagos and we enrolled her in a public primary school in Akoka, just beside the University of Lagos. She was accepted without hesitation, and I can’t remember paying a dime in school fees. She came back home on the first day of school with notebooks and textbooks, all provided for free! For emphasis, she is from Ogun State and had just come into Lagos.

This is the Lagos Tinubu remodelled and was about to handover to his successor in 2007. A state that refused to become clannish and tribal despite the emergence of indigenes as Governors of states in Nigeria in 1999. Unlike other states, Lagos under Tinubu refused to sack non-indigenes in its public service or send them back to their respective states of origin; I know this because my cousin from Kogi State just retired from Lagos Civil Service. Unlike other states, Lagos maintained its secularity despite having a Muslim as Governor. Unlike other governors, Tinubu formed a cabinet of indigenes and non-indigenes including other tribes outside his Yoruba race. Tinubu also led the way nationally in returning mission schools back to their original owners – Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican. These are the foundations of Lagos of today, a thriving city of all tribes and religions, isolated from Nigeria’s extreme level of insecurity and tribal warfare.

In 2007, Babatunde Raji Fashola became Governor. It was another victory for Tinubu despite intense, initial rejections of the Fashola candidacy. I watched on television as Tinubu made case for Fashola on many platforms including his own party, now Action Congress. There were agitations from the Christian community. Why should another Muslim succeed Tinubu? There was also a loud outcry of imposition, but Tinubu made his points and worked for victory in a general election President Obasanjo was also planning to use as the final nail on Tinubu’s political career. Fashola made it to Alausa, and all critics watched in wonderment as he took off on the tarmac Bola Ahmed Tinubu had laid for eight years. Enough has been said about Lagos enjoying the investments made by the Federal Government when it was a federal capital. Do I have to remind myself that the federal government ran away from the rot in Lagos to start a new life in Abuja as far back as 1992? I have followed governance in Lagos closely since 1999 when Bola Ahmed Tinubu became Governor and I have now lived in Lagos for 16 years to reach a conclusion on this debate. Tinubu was handed an investment that was dwindling in value and yielding no returns. He restructured the investment and invested more in it. Today, the returns on investments are coming in droves. Lagos is the 4th Largest Economy in Africa and the 2nd in West Africa. I could see and feel the audacity of Tinubu’s vision in reclaiming Bar Beach from the Atlantic Ocean and birthing the Eko Atlantic City; creating a private sector-led housing revolution on the Lekki Epe Axis; establishing Lekki Free Trade Zone which now hosts the largest refinery in Africa and a Deep-Sea Port; carving a corridor for the BRT lane in a crowded city; and cleaning up Oshodi as an example of what is possible. I know Fashola implemented some of these as some people would want me to note, but as I already mentioned, Tinubu fought a great battle to convince Lagos voters and party men that Fashola would continue the good works. And he did.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu exited public office in 2007, leaving behind a legacy of bruising fights and victories for true federalism and good governance. He fought the dictatorial tendencies of Obasanjo and won. The 2003 governorship elections in the southwest left him as the last man standing. A significant one for me was the battle to establish a line of succession and sustainable governance model that has made Lagos succeed where Nigeria failed – having a long-term development master plan and stubbornly sticking to it.

There have been debates about the lack of ideology in Nigeria’s politics and references are made to defections across party lines. One may need to look deeply to see that there are a few who have defined their ideology and stuck to it in all seasons. Bola Ahmed Tinubu is one of them. Progressive Politics is an ideology brought to life in Nigeria by the late Sage Obafemi Awolowo. It is an ideology that was easy for me as a teenager to identify with. Free education and free health services were all I needed to see in the manifestos of Social Democratic Party and Alliance for Democracy to form my conclusions that I am on the side of moderate form of socialism, social justice and equality and the responsibility of the government to directly support poor and vulnerable citizens. Before Social Democratic Party and the Alliance for Democracy, there was Action Group in the 1st republic and the Unity Party of Nigeria in the 2nd republic leading the progressive ideology. We also have the conservatives on the other side, the right wing that will never put anything free in their manifestos. On this side, nothing is free; the private sector, free markets and extreme capitalists should take care of the weak and vulnerable citizens. On this side, you will find the National Party of Nigeria in the 2nd republic, the National Republican Convention in the botched third republic, and then the People’s Democratic Party in the current 4th republic.

In all these years of our democratic experiments and defections across party lines, Bola Ahmed Tinubu has never crossed to the right wing of the ideological divide. In the botched third republic, Bola Ahmed Tinubu was with the Social Democratic Party which was grounded in the progressive ideology. In the 4th republic, he was with Alliance for Democracy, also a progressive party. As Governor of Lagos State, the progressive ideology was at the core of governance and has been sustained for an unbroken period of 23 years. He also created the Action Congress, a progressive party which later became the Action Congress of Nigeria, yet another progressive party. He was the mastermind of the biggest merger of progressives in Nigeria’s democratic history, the All Progressives Congress in 2014. Bola Ahmed Tinubu has never defected in 30 years of active politics, nor has he ever belonged to a political party that mirrored the ideology of the right wing. As a progressive, this is the Bola Ahmed Tinubu I know.

A true progressive who brought back that ideology from near extinction under Obasanjo’s marauding right wing, reclaimed its mandates through tortuous legal battles across the Southwest and in Edo State, and then made it a formidable force to take federal power in 2015. Same cannot be said of the other political figures including presidential candidates who have moved from PDP to APC back to PDP, or APGA to PDP to Labour, chasing personal ambitions without any political ideology. So much noise has been made about Tinubu’s idea of recruiting five million youths into the army and feeding them Agbado and Cassava. The noise is coming from those who do not understand the progressive ideology. It is indeed a profound idea I connect with and here is how I see it: Nigeria bought 12 Tucano jets for $500million, and this money was paid in advance to the United States – Nigeria had to wait for two to three years for the jets to be manufactured. On completion and delivery, only 12 pilots will fly these jets, creating just 12 core jobs. These fighter jets can only attack bandits and terrorists from the sky, and none can occupy our forests and our vast lands. However, that $500m can sustain an army size of a million-youth armed with light weapons for at least a year or two. With this approach to fighting insecurity, millions of jobs are created immediately, and we have one million soldiers to occupy every land space in Nigeria, pushing the bandits out of the forests and out of our country. It was the same progressive idea that birthed LASTMA which took thousands of area boys and jobless youths off the streets and at the same time eased the traffic madness in Lagos. We should not overthink this. There are millions of brave Nigerians who will join the army or its reserve if the conditions are right.

The outcome of the most brutal presidential primaries in the 4th republic once again confirmed Bola Ahmed Tinubu as that political figure I have always known for courage. Now in his 70’s while I am in my 40’s with a successful career in the private sector, Bola Ahmed Tinubu has become the most formidable political figure in Nigeria. It was never served to him A la carte. It was 30 years of democratic struggles and political networking. Never in our democracy have we seen a politician without a public office convincingly win the presidential primaries of a ruling party, in a contest that had an incumbent Vice President, incumbent Governors, members of the Federal Executive Council and Senators. Late Umar Musa Yardua was a Governor when he emerged PDP’s Presidential Candidate in 2007 and had the direct support of then President Olusegun Obasanjo. Goodluck Jonathan was already President when he contested the PDP primaries in 2011. Bola Ahmed Tinubu broke a new record many would not admit. A bigger battle is coming, and I look forward to it with a renewed hope of 1993.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu deserves this same spot where late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola was standing in 1993. Like Abiola, he has strategically built vast political, inter-religious, traditional, and business networks across Nigeria. Like Abiola, he won a brutal presidential primary against all odds. Like Abiola, he choose a formidable Muslim running mate in Kashim Shettima from the minority Kanuri tribe in Borno. Like Abiola, he has gone for a Muslim/Muslim ticket. Like Abiola, he is facing criticism for the same faith ticket he has chosen. I was old enough in 1993 to remember the rumours about Abiola sinking a ship load of bibles in the Atlantic ocean to stop the spread of the gospel in Nigeria. Yet he won. Like Abiola, Bola Ahmed Tinubu is poised to win the 2023 Presidential Elections. This time the hope of 1993 shall be fulfilled in 2023 when that handover is finally done on May 29, 2023. I will be as excited as the 13-year-old boy seeing the results of the 1993 Presidential elections coming in. No annulment and no death foreseen by God’s grace.

To secure victory for this same faith ticket, I hope Christians like me will acknowledge that there is no greater religious tolerance than having a Christian wife and partner for over 40 years. I hope Christians like me will remember how Bola Ahmed Tinubu returned the Christian mission schools back to the Churches despite genuine concerns and reservations from the Muslim community. I hope Christians like me will acknowledge how he started the Annual Christian Thanksgiving Service that has remained a reference point in Lagos today. I hope non-Yoruba’s will acknowledge how Bola Ahmed Tinubu continued to make Lagos the land of equal opportunities for all tribes and faith when he had the option to turn it to a tribal Yoruba state in 1999 as the governor with unfettered powers to do so. He had the power to deny non-Yoruba’s and non-indigenes Certificates of Occupancy on Lagos land. He had the power to weed out non-indigenes from Lagos Civil Service. He had the power to exclude non-indigenes from free education in Lagos Public Schools. He had the power to fill up his cabinet with people from Isale Eko only. But in all, Tinubu chose the paths of nationalism and inclusion, and Lagos is better for it. I hope the people reward him for all these, despite his shortcomings which we all have as humans. Lagos is what Nigeria must become – relatively peaceful, governed like a business, protective of all citizens, secure, and prosperous with more opportunities for growth and development. Bola Ahmed Tinubu should be judged not by the recent divisiveness and insecurity in the country, but by his antecedents in private life and his performance records in the private sector and public service. In all these we will find a leader who knows how to bring together a formidable team of talents regardless of ethnic or religious inclinations. He has started with the selection of Senator Kashim Shettima, who I consider the most courageous Governor of the 4th republic. It is Shettima who refused to desert his people in Borno when Boko Haram was at its most terrifying form and breathing on the capital, Maiduguri. Who else can partner the President in resolving our security challenges if not the man who alongside his people were the victims of the worst form of terrorism Nigeria has ever seen, yet still standing tall in victory and now ready to confront the degraded terrorists and bandits with federal might?

I have never had a personal encounter with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. I wish I have. My apologies for disappointing those who were looking for scoops or spectacular stories of my encounters with him. I have only been privileged to live in his time and experience his politics and approach to governance in the last three decades. This is enough for me to support him like many others who have similar stories to share. There are millions of such people who will not fall for the current wave of propaganda and fake news especially on social media. We know our history and we know those who have made it possible for us to have the democracy we enjoy in Nigeria today and the significant progress Lagos has made in the last 23 years. Their votes shall count for Bola Ahmed Tinubu because like me, they know his story of perseverance, courage, vision, sacrifices and good governance.

I hope the undecided can find some truth in my story to help shift their votes to Bola Ahmed Tinubu in the coming elections. Nigeria will achieve greatness with him in the saddle.

Oladele writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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