By Azu Ishiekwene
After the feisty, if not bitter, presidential primary of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) ended on Wednesday with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu emerging the party’s candidate for the next election, the overriding instinct is to throw the losers under the bus. You can hardly blame Tinubu’s camp.
The man had a raw deal right up to the last minute. For seven years, he was literally an outsider in a party that he played a consequential role to build and a government that he helped to bring to power. And no one seemed to bother.
As Tinubu said in a speech in Yoruba that landed him in hot water almost on the eve of the primary, in spite of investing his all to install Buhari’s government in 2015, he did not ask for water, garri, or fura – and things were so bad that even if he had asked, he would still not have been given.
Up till last week, not only did Tinubu seem to have been denied even the basic courtesies due his contribution, an influential block in the Presidency linked to the President’s cousin, Mamman Daura; and Buhari’s Private Secretary Sabiu Tunde Yusuf, was determined to block the party leader from even contesting after he had been cleared by the screening committee.
When Tinubu mentioned his age during the screening, he was sneered at by a certain member of the committee with whom he had fallen out spectacularly. Even after he was shortlisted, the party chairman, Abdullahi Adamu, ambushed him outside.
He told the press that Tinubu would be punished for his “I-made-Buhari-president” comment, and after plunging the knife, twisted it by announcing that the party had adopted the Senate President Ahmad Lawan as its consensus candidate.
Twenty-four hours to the primary, Sabiu Tunde Yusuf was still frantically pushing the Lawan consensus candidacy, telling the executioners on his side to “insist on party supremacy or nothing.” They were all over the place till the last minute.
But that plot, which collapsed almost as quickly as it was made, was actually Plan B. The original plan was to extract firm promises from the 23 aspirants that they would accept a consensus candidate, and then wangle former President Goodluck Jonathan through the back door on a freeload.
Tinubu’s refusal to accept a consensus candidate thwarted this plan. It left Jonathan flitting from one country to the other on contrived visits and then finally hovering around the screening venue in the vain hope that he might get a much-sought-after guarantee, and be called in for coronation.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The former president and the faction led by former APC interim Chairman, Mai Mala Buni, plotting his return slunk off as ignominiously as they had converged. Yet, in the layer after intricate layer of the plots to supplant Tinubu, the most potentially devasting to him and his camp was the one from inside.
Till the last minute on Tuesday night when Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, and Senator Ibikunle Amosun, among five others stepped down for Tinubu, the South-East and South-West had the largest number of aspirants in a race which was the latter’s to lose. Even though the region has produced a president for eight years and a vice president for seven so far, Tinubu was without a doubt, the most formidable aspirant in the South and countrywide.
What compounded the misery in Tinubu’s camp, however, was not just the number of aspirants in the South (19 in all), but also the fact that his main opponents in the South-West were a part of what used to be his political clan. Amosun, a latter-day part of this clan, and perennial Tinubu rival, was not exactly the problem. He was, if you like, a known foe, with not a few scars. Stepping down is good for him, but bad news for Governor Dapo Abiodun, whose second-term fate now hangs in the balance.
The main headache for Tinubu’s camp were Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Fayemi; the former for his position in the government and star power, and the latter for his role as state governor and chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum.
Fayemi managed, throughout, to keep an open channel with Tinubu (and interestingly with Osinbajo), while he was, at the same time, keenly mindful that his tenure as governor ends this year. His decision to step down was not much of a surprise to insiders. The elephant in the room, not just in Tinubu’s camp, but also among associates, and in the Presidential Villa, was what to do about Osinbajo’s ambition.
Buhari, master of the politics of strategic ambivalence, gave the impression that he belonged to everyone and yet not belonging to anyone. Aso Rock emissaries to Tinubu returned with mixed messages, one of which was that Tinubu would only step down if Buhari told him to do so himself – a risk the President was unwilling to take.
From then on, it was left to the leaders of the South-West to manage the mess. They tried. Before the Segun Osoba-led peace meetings, a former governor from the South-West and prominent minister in Buhari’s cabinet arranged two meetings between Tinubu and Osinbajo, which ended in a deadlock.
Osoba’s peace efforts only managed to obtain promises of fair-play from the contenders, but failed (especially in the last meeting held before the primary), to extract a promise from Osinbajo to step down. The die was cast.
The statement by the 10 Northern governors – a pregnancy inseminated by enlightened self-interest and opportunism – was a positively significant twist in the plot. Whatever the motivation, it strengthened Tinubu’s hand.
Not a few still wonder why Osinbajo refused to step down – a decision for which he would take a beating for a long, long time to come, especially in the South-West where preferment for a benefactor, particularly an older one, is often culturally an article of faith. How come he misread the writing on the wall?
In hindsight, it seems a big opportunity missed, but Osinbajo believed he had a depth of support, especially among the young, increasingly politically active post-ENDSARS population from far and near, that he stood a good chance and was prepared.
Fundamentally, he also believed that, by and by, Buhari’s lukewarm support would lift and shine through. Unlike Tinubu who threw the gauntlet when he lost his patience with Buhari’s cat-and-mouse game, it’s improbable that Osinbajo would have pressed ahead if he did not believe the president would “anoint” him. Alas, he was fatally mistaken!
And herein lies the significant difference between the two aspirants: whereas Tinubu knew that the cabal knew his potential to damage the party in the event that the cabal chose to muscle him out, Osinbajo, with a significantly lower deterrent value, was relying almost 100 percent on Buhari’s benevolence.
Also, whereas Tinubu has been one of the party’s major pillars with an extraordinary capacity to call in favours in spite of the seizures within his clan in recent times, Osinbajo’s camp overestimated the vice president’s great national charm especially in the treacherous waters of internal party politics, where quite often, the piper calls the tune. Nigeria’s delegate system – the equivalent of the US electoral college – is an anachronism in representative politics, all right; but the law, nonetheless.
Tinubu’s camp deserves to enjoy and celebrate its victory. But as he also said during his acceptance speech on Wednesday, his emergence is not only a lesson for Osinbajo and 13 other aspirants who fought to the end; it cuts both ways.
The temptation to revenge in the euphoria of victory can be quite strong. I imagine there would also be strident calls for mass executions of fallen rivals. But this can also be a teachable moment for the victor’s camp – a moment of healing and renewal.
If the APC wants to retain power and keep the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at bay in next year’s presidential (or general) election, it must quickly prevent bad blood spreading.
It cannot depend solely on Buhari, a president at peace with his lame-duck phase, to win the next election, however tempting that option might be. Buhari has shown that he has no dog in this fight, no interest. Tinubu must take responsibility to lead by healing.
And while that process should start with all those who lost to him on Tuesday, and reach to other estranged members of his wider clan, he also needs to assuage the justifiable outrage among South-Easterners who feel that justice in Nigeria is a stranger to that zone.
- Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP