Bola Tinubu – the Lagos kingmaker – holds the key to plans for President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election next year
It was smiles all round as the happy band of politicians encircled a giant green and white birthday cake. Centre-stage at this grand party in Lagos on 27 March was President Muhammadu Buhari; on his right was the beaming celebrant – the former governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, marking his 66th birthday.
As the party-goers blew out the candles, the message was clear. Tinubu – widely known as the Jagaban, after he was turbanned as such by the Emir of Borgu, Haliru Dantoro Kitoro III, in 2006 – is back. His best ally is the numbers game. Despite Buhari's almost impregnable base in the north-west and north-east, his support had been waning in the south-west. The man to fix that is Tinubu, the regional godfather.
The appointment in January of Tinubu, a veteran political infighter, as head of reconciliation in the governing All Progressives' Congress (APC), suggested a sense of humour somewhere in the party hierarchy (AC Vol 59 No 4, The Tinubu test). Until now, Buhari had tried to keep Tinubu, one of the biggest property owners in Lagos, at arm's length.
Over a year ago, at the height of Buhari's ill-health, Tinubu had announced he would be a candidate for the 2019 presidential elections and had been meeting discreetly with former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, another contender. For now, that is water under the bridge and Buhari and Tinubu are indispensable allies.
The Jagaban's re-entry into the party's magic circle was a tactical blow, at least, against two of his rivals, the APC's national chairman John Odigie Oyegun and Senate President Bukola Saraki. Fighting their own battles for influence and power in the run-up to next year's elections, both men were conspicuously absent from the Tinubu birthday party.
A month ago, Odigie Oyegun had enlisted the support of most of the APC's 24 State governors at a National Executive Committee meeting to extend the tenure of the party's top office-holders for a year. Odigie Oyegun argued that holding competitive elections for the party's top jobs would be divisive ahead of national elections next March (AC Vol 59 No 5, Who goes first?).
Change of heart
It also held the attraction, for Odigie Oyegun at least, of another year in his powerful party role from where he has been arguing for his radical interpretation of ‘true federalism'. Initially, President Buhari seemed to endorse the decision. But just before his trip to Lagos, he announced a change of heart.
The legal advice was, he said, that the extension of Odigie Oyegun's tenure could be unconstitutional and subject to challenge in the courts, setting off further disputes. In turn, that could derail the party's schedule of primary elections to pick its candidates at local, state and federal level. This advice also suits Tinubu, who is at odds with Odigie Oyegun and wants to see more of his own people at the top of the party.
When Buhari met the governors and top party officials again in Abuja on the issue on 3 April, there was stalemate. Now, this procedural dispute is turning into a bigger test of the President's authority.
Another looming problem facing Buhari's team is a proposal to reform the Electoral Act, specifically to reverse the order of the elections so that the presidential elections, previously held first, would follow the State and national assembly elections.
Party strategists see this as a way to reduce the power of the incumbent President to corral the support of governors, senators and lower house representatives. As it stands, President Buhari looks likely to veto the amendment, retaining the existing election schedule.
There is strong support for the change in the House of Representatives, which has the numbers to reject Buhari's veto. Opinion is more divided in the Senate, where the Buhari group will be reliant on the good offices of Senate President Saraki.
If it comes to a showdown between the Presidency and National Assembly over the Electoral Act, the losing side is likely to take its case to the Supreme Court. All this will put pressure on the Independent National Electoral Commission's chairman Mahmood Yakubu. Already under fire for failing to respond to reports of under-age voting in local elections in Kano, Yakubu is becoming an opposition target.
Lagos is not Buhari's natural habitat. In fact, it was his first official visit to the nation's commercial capital since he took office. For their part, Lagosians were not wholly ecstatic. Motorcades, blue lights flashing, careered around as police seemed to delight in closing down the city's main arteries.
Buhari's Lagos problem is that the city, which accounts for more than a third of Nigeria's US$500 billion gross domestic product, was hit by a devastating recession shortly after he took over the presidency (AC Vol 57 No 8, Economy thwarts Buhari). Although the downturn was triggered by crashing oil prices, the business class in Lagos rejected Buhari's policy response: bans on imports and a staunch defence of the naira against ubiquitous market forces.
Worse, some in Lagos believed that Buhari's team in Abuja was unworried by the oil crash, seeing it as catalyst to change the structure of the economy, weaning it off dependence on hydrocarbon exports. As the Lagos economy, driven by trade, finance, light manufacturing and technology, sputtered, rice and sugar production rocketed in the northern states, Buhari's political heartlands.
For many in Abuja, this was a necessary rebalancing. Oil money had been sluicing through the Lagos banks, financing all manner of non-essential imports, little of it going into productive investment. Now, there was a reckoning with businessmen such as Aliko Dangote, who started out from Kano, investing tens of millions in the new farms.
On the ground, the split doesn't work out quite so neatly. Dangote's corporate headquarters are in Lagos and his biggest national project – a
$15 bn. oil refinery, petrochemicals and fertiliser plant – is being built on the eastern borders of Lagos State. Such details haven't changed the widespread dissatisfaction at the slow economy in Lagos. There is still the matter of widespread fuel shortages late last year and early this, as well as the continuing lengthy power outages.
Added to which, the Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, has become wildly unpopular. His latest move, the introduction of swingeing property taxes in Lagos, has prompted still more barbs. However, one of the companies collecting the taxes, Alpha Beta, has close ties to Tinubu. Unquestionably, Ambode owed his nomination as the APC's gubernatorial candidate in Lagos to Tinubu.
With a penchant for bulldozing ‘illegal structures', Ambode is seen as set on destroying the legacy of his predecessor, Babatunde Fashola, a persuasive business-savvy politician who is generally seen as one of the state's best ever governors.
Buhari has doubtless been boosted in the south-west by Tinubu's backing but there are questions about the trade-offs. Despite endorsements to run for a second term next year from loyalists such as Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai, Buhari has said nothing so far. However, his more energetic national travel itinerary, visiting states in the middle belt and north as well as the south-west suggests, at the least, a campaign in the making.
The day that Buhari arrived in Lagos, Atiku Abubakar announced he would be seeking the presidential nomination of the opposition People's Democratic Party. With both the main parties, wracked by factional disputes amid calls for a new political force, next year's elections look wide open.
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