President Tinubu: An Ambivalent Record?
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The announcement on 1 March 2023 of Bola Tinubu of the incumbent All Progressive’s Congress as Nigeria’s President-elect was met with a muted response. With a lukewarm 36.6% of the vote share, on just under 29% turnout, Tinubu comes to power with the slimmest electoral mandate of any President since 1999. Notwithstanding the ongoing legal challenges, with an official tally of around 8.8 million votes for the Tinubu in election that has been described by authoritative local press as “fairly free, fair and credible”, it remains to ask what positive appeal the 70 year old political veteran held for at least some of those voters. During the campaign, Tinubu downplayed persistent questions about his personal background, instead emphasising his track record: as one Channel’s TV headline puts it “No One Can Run It like Me, They Have No Track Record”. What exactly does this record consist of and why might it hold electoral appeal? The answer hinges on what we understand by “record”.
The most obvious meaning of track record is successful policies and governmental achievements. Tinubu and his supporters point to his two terms as Governor of populous Lagos State. After his election in 1999, Tinubu oversaw a wholesale transformation of the state’s economic base and mode of governance. He established a series of city-wide public agencies such as the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA) and turned key agencies like the Lagos State Inland Revenues Service into technocratic enclaves. His vision could be summarised as: long-term economic transformation through private sector led growth, with interventions from an activist state to attract investment. Lagos State Government was the first government in West Africa to use public-private partnerships, extending the model to the provision of transport, infrastructure and security. Tax receipts grew from N600m a month in 1999 to N15bn in 2012, with the tax base growing from half a million to four million Naira over the same period. The economy of Lagos grew out of step with the rest of Nigeria and Tinubu’s party won a series of landslide victories. Tinubu appeared to have found the recipe for development and electoral success. Indeed, this new approach was celebrated by aid donors like DfID and the World Bank who had previously held out little hope of serious reform in Nigeria.
However, this showcase of donor-friendly policies and shiny public new infrastructure may only be part of the picture when we talk about Tinubu’s record. In a country where the state often seems both impotent and unwilling to engage with recurrent problems, Tinubu’s greatest appeal may lie in his ability to get things done.
First off, Tinubu’s reforms were achieved against a backdrop of severe governance challenges. Tinubu was the first democratic Governor of the state after the country’s return to democracy and had to shoulder high expectations from voters of a “democratic dividend” with a city facing multiple crises. Planes had ceased landing at the city’s Murtala Mohamed Airport because authorities were unable to guarantee that passengers would not be robbed between exiting the plane and entering the terminal, leading then President Olusegun Obasanjo to threaten federal intervention via emergency powers. Adding to the challenge, Tinubu was a member of a small regionally based opposition party, Alliance for Democracy. This meant that payment of the state’s monthly statutory allocation – the share of national funds to be shared with the state governments – from the People’s Democratic Party controlled federal government was unpredictable at best.
Indeed, some of Tinubu’s headline achievements, for example the oft-cited multiplication of tax revenues putting Lagos State’s internally generated revenue the highest in the country and the roll-out of PPPs, were motivated as much by the need to build an alternative political-economic base for a viable opposition party as they were by technocratic aspirations to improved government outputs. His skill lay in crafting interventions which managed to serve both political and policy ends: the formation of LAWMA and LAMATA were simultaneously about solving serious issues of insecurity by incorporating restive youth, known as the Area Boys, into newly created networks of state patronage. Given the extent of serious insecurity across Nigeria’s regions, this approach to statecraft will be sorely needed in the coming years.
After eight years in office Tinubu handpicked his successor, his former Chief of Staff, Babatunde Fashola. Tinubu later described himself as having “laid the governance foundation and started the first lap” before “handing the baton” to Fashola in 2007. As Fashola built on Tinubu’s legacy, the newspapers talked of a “Tinubu Tendency” and a “Tinubu School of Politics”. It became clear that a consistent “model” was emerging (I refer to this in my forthcoming book as the “Lagos model”). After he left office, Tinubu used his influence and the wealth he amassed from various business ventures to support progressive candidates to run for election and extend the Lagos model to neighbouring southwestern states. In 2011 the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), with Tinubu at its helm, succeeded in winning gubernatorial elections in five out of six states in the Yoruba south-west zone, all delivering some version of the Lagos model. Tinubu was established as a king-maker in this region of over 35 million people. Much as the term “godfather” has an ambivalent meaning in Nigerian politics, Tinubu’s dominance was variously greeted with reverence, suspicionand resignation.
Throughout Tinubu’s rise, the PDP remained hegemonic in its control of the federal government, maintaining its grip on the Presidency through the widely flawed 2011 elections. Tinubu was central to the formation of the All Progressive’s Congress in 2013 and bankrolled Buhari’s successful presidential bid for the party in 2015, ending 16 years of PDP rule. Unifying two previously regionally concentrated parties – the ACN in the south-west and the CPC in the north – brought about the country’s first democratic alternation in power since the return to democracy in 1999. All this is to say that, by the time Tinubu announced his bid for the presidency in January 2022, claiming during his campaign that “It is my turn”, there was for many a sense of inevitability that Tinubu would end up in the top job.
Coming back to the question of track record, Tinubu’s most compelling victory may be less about any specific policy and more about his ability over the past 25 years to being able to navigate the cut and thrust of Nigeria’s treacherous political economy to his advantage. His record, in this sense, is of making things happen – via both formal and informal, licit and illicit means. From this perspective, the last eight years of stagnancy and inertia under President Buhari are doubly troubling. So too, the ethnicisation of the recent Lagos gubernatorial election, with APC organisers stoking anti-Igbo sentiment, is part of a worrying trend, all happening under Tinubu’s watch. Given Tinubu’s seeming ability to move mountains to get himself into power, the real test is whether he can still turn this drive to the substantive problems that Nigeria faces.