By Louis Odion, FNGE
His bonhomie was unusually absent that night in 2009. He spoke little, his luminous eyes mostly staring at us intensely with an expression difficult to fathom. The “Governor of Example” (BRF) and this writer ended up being the last to leave the putative den of the “Lion of Bourdillon” in Lagos at past midnight.
Not until we were outside at the car park of our host’s Ikoyi home (sufficiently beyond his earshot), did the then Governor Babatunde Fashola (the one who had been Jagaban’s Chief of Staff for five years) share his observation: “Louis, I can tell Asiwaju is very, very depressed tonight.”
Drawing on an intimacy earned from working very closely with Asiwaju, BRF’s diagnosis could hardly be faulted. Lately, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) had suffered a series of reversals in courtrooms in Osun, Ekiti and Edo in pursuit of mandates “stolen” in the 2007 governorship polls in what had become multiple convoluted legal tussles.
Having immersed himself as the chief inspiration and sole financier of the legal kerfuffle unfolding simultaneously at multiple fronts, Asiwaju was thus the one who often bore the burden more. So absorbed, so invested was he in those difficult moments that one could, in fact, be pardoned to imagine that even in his sleep, Jagaban probably still found himself mixing it up with the adversaries he earlier contended with all his waking moment. In the same vein heavyweight boxing champion Joe “Smoking Joe” Frazier once admitted he sometimes found himself in dreams engaged in ferocious fistic combat with eternal rival Mohammed Ali, only to wake in the middle of the night covered in hot sweat.
Such was the exacting climate under which “stolen mandates” were recovered in Ondo, Edo, Ekiti and Osun after epic battles championed by Tinubu, the man young Nigerians (the millennials and Gen Z) do not seem to know or have been misled to hate and deny credits as arguably the biggest champion of multi-party democracy in the Fourth Republic.
The instinctive warrior never shy to insert himself in a battle for others, but often with eyes on the greater prize not easily perceived by the short-sighted. The one who curbed Obasanjo’s imperial aspirations and excesses particularly in Yorubaland and who, from 2003, began to stitch, one thread after another fragile thread, what would blossom into the historic coalition that sensationally unhorsed a ruling party at the centre in 2015.
To be sure, the man from Lagos is no saint. True saints would only be found in heaven. However, there is something extraordinary about Jagaban. His agglomeration of laser focus, daring, Trojan stamina, improvisation, organisational acumen, and mental acuity is surely never seen in any other politician in all of Nigeria’s recent history. It speaks to a forbearing virtue or what the Yoruba call “aforiti” central to “iwa” (good character) which partly defines the Omoluabi ethos often invoked to describe the Yoruba identity and epistemology.
An integral part of “iwa” is, of course, loyalty to friends or values subscribed by the community. Jagaban is a study in loyalty. He expects no less from those for whom he is prepared to take a bullet. (Ask President Buhari or Baba Akande.) In exile, he taxed himself to fund Radio Kudirat set up in the U.K. to battle military dictatorship in Nigeria. As well as provide for fellow exiles pushing for June 12 while its symbol, MKO, was languishing in Abacha’s gulag in Abuja.
“Revolutionary” Tony Nyiam (of the April 1990 coup fame) once told this writer how regular stipends from Tinubu helped alleviate the adversities of exile for him and a number of other June 12 activists. Of course, he gave from the proceeds realised from either properties he sold discreetly back at home or returns from his chain of gas stations in the U.S. being managed by his wife, Senator Remi.
Ever so inventive, he mooted the idea of using the name of the Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, as collateral in Thailand for shipments of rice on credit to be sold clandestinely in west Africa to fund NADECO struggle.
Greater is even the loyalty shown by assisting the dependants when their breadwinner was no more or in a position to repay. In death, no one has stood by MKO’s family more than Tinubu. As Lagos governor, he instituted a special monthly welfare package for some members of his family, a scheme still sustained by the state government to date.
When told about the precarious financial position of Concord Press (owned by MKO) in 1999, he made a generous offer to buy the company’s idle giant power generator on behalf on Lagos State Water Board. The money offered would have been sufficient to offset the long arrears of salaries owed Concord workers and re-finance its operations. But just before the deal could be consummated came a caveat emptor in a national newspaper placed by one of MKO’s children. It did not take long before Concord Press, the asset most dear to Bashorun, finally went under.
The virtue of “aforiti”, it bears restating, is not a province for those given to instant gratification. Nor for those who switch political loyalties for electoral convenience or casually break oaths for any accommodation, however transient. Rather, it is a mantra for the committed marathoner, for the patient sower who plants in faith, hoping for boom with the same zeal they are prepared for bust. The pot truly seeking the honey in pepper must endure the ravages of fire.
Such resourcefulness was very much in evidence in the way and manner Osun was recovered in 2010. In 2007, the electoral bandits stole too much for the owner not to notice. But it would require exceptionally ingenious application of forensic testing of the ballots by Englishman Adrian Forty to establish what everyone had suspected: ballot stuffing on a mindless scale. All thanks to Tinubu.
The same wizardry came in handy in unearthing illicit exchange of text messages between the presiding judge and the defence counsels to confirm offer and receipt of dirty cash, thus extending the frontiers of Nigeria’s jurisprudence in general and criminal investigation in particular.
Finally sensing his fall from power, the story is told that the embattled infantry General, who had exercised a stolen mandate for almost three years, now pleaded, “Bola, fimi sile o! Awon lawyers ti gba gbogbo owo mi tan!” (Bola, leave me alone! Lawyers have emptied my pockets!) shortly afterwards when he and Jagaban met at an Owambe.
Elsewhere in Ondo, forensic examination of ballots revealed even more comical details. Among those listed to have voted PDP’s Olusegun Agagu was one-time “baddest man on the planet”, Mike Tyson, widely known to be domiciled in faraway U.S. So pervasive, so audacious were the forgeries that famous poet/journalist Sam Omatseye, otherwise registered and permanently based hundreds of miles away in Lagos, was also implicated to be among those who voted Agagu in Akure!
Indeed, few days away, Tinubu will be crowned the 16th leader of the most populous black nation on earth. How fitting that he is ascending the golden throne his mentor, MKO, was denied. Suddenly, his trademark cap with distinctive embroidered broken shackle, perhaps the worst contraband to be caught with in Abuja between 2015 and 2022, has turned the hottest fashion item craved by new fortune-seekers.
But a quarter century ago, his dream was no more than a chance to return to the senate after Abacha died in 1998. A meeting in Lagos altered that trajectory. On arriving Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos after five harrowing years of exile in the U.S/UK, his first stop in his green Mercedes was Concord Press premises (less than a mile away) to reunite with his old “co-conspirators” in the June 12 struggle, Messrs. Dele Alake, Segun Babatope and Tunji Bello (editor of National Concord, Editorial Board chairman and editor of Sunday Concord respectively).
After bouts of long, fraternal bear-hugs with old comrades amid bitter-sweet reminiscences on the darkness that had pervaded Nigeria in the preceding five years, the returnee hinted a plan to return to the senate where he was chairman of the Appropriations Committee until Abacha’s coup of November 17, 1993.
“Why not contest the Lagos governorship instead?,” Bello interjected. Alake and Babatope shared that view, perceiving a vacancy in Lagos’ emerging politics after Abacha. Well, to be honest, that has not crossed my mind,” he replied and before leaving Concord that day, promised to reach out to his base and consult widely.
The vacuum the Concord editors were seeing was in the abdication by the “Prince of Hope” (Ademola Adeniji-Adele). Upon his release from military detention in 1996, the erstwhile chairman of Lagos Island council had received a tumultuous welcome in Lagos, thus becoming the new darling of the progressive community, having played a pivotal role in June 12 protests in 1994. And when Abacha announced a transition programme, many began to see him as the next governor.
But in a moment of grave indiscretion, Adeniji-Adele would allow himself to be lured into moving the motion for Abacha’s adoption as GDM’s “consensus presidential candidate” at the party’s national convention in Maiduguri in April 1998, at the expense of the revered and consequential Dikko Yusuf. Just like other teleguided parties memorably characterised as “the five fingers of a leprous hand” by Bola Ige.
Confronted by Segun Adeniyi and this writer in an interview we conducted for Sunday Concord shortly afterwards, Adeniji-Adele told us in confidence that he had been directly threatened by a notorious army Major close to Abacha, listing that as a pre-condition for him to contest the coming elections. In his own calculation, he did not consider that a significant price to pay “if only to reclaim Lagos and use it to defend Abiola’s interest”.
But the jealous Lagos progressives never forgave that betrayal. It took Abacha’s death two months later for Adeniji-Adele’s political stock to crash from the zenith of fame into the valley of infamy. The revanchist spirit that generally gripped the land thereafter meant that anyone associated with Abacha instantly turned a leper. The heartbroken progressives in Lagos were now looking for a new bride.
That was the moment Tinubu arrived. So, he could not be said to have forced his way into Lagos governorship in 1998. Rather, unique circumstances of the moment anointed him for the historic journey ahead. His first acid test soon came over alleged discrepancies in the form submitted to INEC.
A lesser mortal would probably have buckled in the heat of vicious smear campaign that ensued. But sometimes, the truth is not so straightforward. In the rush to submit the nomination form for Lagos governorship in 1998, Tokunbo Afikunyomi, a fellow NADECO returnee, did the filling. In some regards, he mixed up some information.
Unfortunately, once the form got submitted, all the depositions therein became binding. To claim otherwise elsewhere is perjury. Out of malice, political opponents twist this to mean he told lies about his past. It is one of the burdens Jagaban has had to bear ever since.
As an editor of a national newspaper with more than a casual knowledge of what transpired at the time, I can attest another exaggeration in Tinubu’s much trumpeted drug story. Ahead of the 2003 polls, someone with deep connections in the national security establishment was interested in AD’s governorship ticket in Lagos. Apparently privy to the original court papers, he twisted the story to present Tinubu as villain and was looking for any newspaper to publish the story dangling a blank cheque, with a view to tainting him ahead of the AD primaries.
Once he found a platform and the contrived story was uploaded, conspiratorial Obasanjo jubilated thinking he finally got Tinubu in the bag. Malicious mischief was barely concealed in a confidential memo immediately dispatched to the United States by the Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun, earnestly seeking clarity on the rather “disturbing story about Tinubu’s drug trafficking in the U.S. in the past”.
Responding swiftly in no unmistakable language in a public statement, the State Department declared Tinubu was not involved in any drug trafficking nor convicted for any drug crime.
In all the wild goose chase, the real substance of the story was not more than the fact that someone abused Tinubu’s trust. Being naturally a magnet for people, his Chicago residence was open to all folks from Nigeria in the 80s. It turned out that one of those who had been allowed access got entangled in a drug mess, warranting U.S. investigators to list him as a person of interest and his bank accounts frozen in the interim. But after months of forensic investigation, they found nothing against him, except the “offence” that due tax was not paid on some cash found as fixed deposit, for which a surcharge was imposed.
This essentially is the actual meat of what would be misappropriated to feed the apocryphal tale about “Tinubu’s massive drug involvement in the U.S.”, now grown into a cottage industry in the past two decades, spawning a vast army of media experts and procured pundits surfacing in every election season, elaborately theorising a petty lie.
When it was time to share the spoils of APC’s victory in 2015, it is common knowledge that Tinubu was virtually left empty-handed, without being able to nominate anyone of consequence in Buhari’s first cabinet. Party leaders he earlier helped install also forsook him. The new one he was allowed to nominate on the eve of the 2019 polls was again defenestrated soon after victory was secured. Such serial heartbreaks would certainly leave a lesser mortal broken.
But again, Tinubu’s “aforiti” shone forth.
Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is the betrayal of close disciples who had climbed on his back to power and glory. Like the biblical Apostle Peter who forsook his master three consecutive cock-crows before dawn, thrice many had denied Tinubu too. First, immediately they got appointed in Abuja in 2015. Next was 2019 after APC got re-elected. And later on the road to APC presidential primaries of June 2022 when they reckoned Jagaban was not the anointed of the “Villa cabal”.
Still, the man kept faith.
Upon being declared winner of the February 25 polls by INEC, wherever he went or whomsoever of consequence he met, Jagaban formed the habit of flaunting his certificate of return as “my own World Cup”. But on account of his tortuous and thorny odyssey to Aso Rock in the past twenty-five years, that may as well pass for a testament in tenacity.