By Bolanle Bolawole
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The 2023 presidential race, which many predictions have described as a race to nowhere, gathers momentum all the same! The theatrics of Rotimi Amaechi, the Minister of Transportation, who ran round the field in an orchestrated show of fitness as he made his presidential declaration, added drama – and distraction – to the race last week! But don’t mind Amaechi; if fitness is all that is required, then, we should head to Oyingbo or Oke-Odo market in Lagos to scout for presidential candidates!
In the two leading political parties of APC and PDP, most of the early risers and late-comers are already known; those deemed as serious contenders and the also-ran have been pigeon-holed as analysts and pundits try to separate the men from the boys, as it were. As the race heats up, we have witnessed a lot of what many regard as back-stabbing, betrayals and treachery as loyalties are being re-defined and men and women take positions antithetical to what they were hitherto known for. This is nothing new, though, as it has become the defining feature of Nigerian politics renowned for its ideological deficits.
Cans of worms are being prised open as the public is allowed a glance into once closely-held secrets amongst hitherto allies and associates now turned bitter political foes – but much of this is sweet, melodious music to the ears of our long-suffering people! We must then echo William Shakespeare and Lionel Richie as we say “Let the music play on!” For those gunning for office, these are indeed times that try the soul of men! They are also times when true friends and loyalists are standing up to be counted. One such friend, disciple, political ally and loyalist of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is my friend and professional colleague, Tunji Bello.
Tunji and I have come a long way. What better way for him to renew his “vows” than to restate, rather than recant, as some have done, the positive views he had expressed in a popular news medium concerning Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu years back! We have heard the likes of Babafemi Ojudu and Rauf Aregbesola turn full circle on Tinubu, taking the Jagaban Borgu to the cleaners. More of such shenanigans should be expected across board as we are bound to witness many nights of long knives! We shall pass comments on personalities and events as the race progresses!
Only last week, a professional colleague asked why I have not said a word about the presidential ambition of, wait for it, the Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello! I will, God willing. I already have started turning pages on him and interviewing people I think should know. This is also an invitation to many of my readers who, for long, have requested that I say something on Yahaha Bello aka “ta-ta-ta-ta-ta”! But today’s piece is devoted entirely to another Bello –Tunji Bello, who described Tinubu as a master strategist. Enjoy it!
“Our first encounter was rather frosty. Senator Bola Tinubu thought I was assigned to denigrate the Sarumi Group in the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of which he was an arrow head. That was in late November 1990. I was then the Group Political Editor of the Concord Newspapers. Asiwaju Tinubu and his caucus saw me and my team as adversaries. Interestingly, the same accusation was levelled against me by Chief Tom Ikimi, National Chairman of the National Republican Convention (NRC) when I went to interview him at his Victoria Island residence in Lagos. Relations between Asiwaju and I never improved until the late Chief MKO Abiola’s sojourn in politics fortuitously brought us together.
“MKO had summoned Dele Alake (Sunday Concord Editor), Segun Babatope (Chairman, Editorial Board) and I to his Ikeja, Lagos residence in late 1992 for advice as he contemplated running for President following Babangida’s cancellation of the presidential primaries of the two parties. He was seeking counsel on which of the parties to join. It was in the process of our discussion that he mentioned Senator Tinubu as one of the strategic political alliances he needed to make. He spoke glowingly of Tinubu’s political networking ability, his reliability once convinced, dedication and passion for a political cause. I was to later see the evidence of Tinubu’s uncommon traits which MKO had spoken about when the June 12 election was annulled in 1993 and fate brought us together in the subsequent struggle for its revalidation and the restoration of democracy.
“As Concord’s Group Political Editor, I got, on a Thursday, an “Exclusive” on what transpired at Babangida’s AFRC (Armed Forces Ruling Council) emergency meeting the previous day and their resolution on political actors to be arrested and news media to be shut down. I thereafter alerted Dele Alake about the development with a view to farming around it for his paper on Sunday. Almost immediately, Alake summoned an Editorial meeting that Friday morning and five of us (Dele, Segun, two members of Concord Editorial Board and I) attended. I briefed them about the “Exclusive” for Sunday and how we were to handle it without knowing that trouble had already begun for the whole publication and that we would not even be around to publish the story! Around 7 o’clock that evening, we had the whole premises surrounded by gun-toting men from the State Security Service complemented by Mobile Policemen. Specifically, they were looking for the Sunday Concord Editor and the Group Political Editor!
“Providentially, Dele Alake had gone out and was on his way back when he sighted the Security people ahead. They almost ambushed his car near the Air Force Base on Ikeja Airport Road but he out-manoeuvred them and escaped; but not without causing two car accidents in the process. As for me in that moment, following a tip-off from a colleague at the Gate that our premises had been surrounded, I hurriedly “buried” all the documents on the proposed story, sneaked through the backyard, managing to scale the high fence into the residential compound behind us and escaped into the silent but ominous night! We were later to discover that two of the senior Editorial managers we held a meeting with that morning were actually Babangida’s moles!
“Dele Alake and I had to keep away from our homes for about two harrowing months as the SSS hunted us. During that hibernation, the politician that showed so much concern about our welfare was Asiwaju. Funnily, he himself had become a target of the Security agencies, given his pro-June 12 stance. He was the one asking how we were surviving in our hideouts. It was a commitment he even carried to Alagbon when he himself was detained with others before he escaped into exile while on bail. In exile, he was well noted for his ability to mobilize resources and the contacts necessary to pursue the struggle while at the same time sending money to some of us at home to keep up the momentum. Retired Colonel Tony Nyiam and Kayode Fayemi (now the Ekiti State governor) can bear witness to Tinubu’s uncommon generosity while in exile.
“When the ban on politics was eventually lifted in 1998 by General Abdulsalam Abubakar and political exiles were allowed to return home following the death, first of Sani Abacha and then of MKO, Tinubu’s first port of call on touching Nigerian soil that night was our newspaper premises where he met Dele (then, Editor, National Concord), Babatope (still Editorial Board Chairman) and I (then, Editor, Sunday Concord). After a rather emotional reunion that night, Asiwaju requested to see MKO’s grave to pay homage. On his political future, he hinted about his plan to go back to the Senate. It was on that note that we advised him that, given his popularity as a notable June 12 activist and the massive goodwill arising there from; it was better for him to contest for the Lagos Governorship instead. After being elected Governor in 1999, Tinubu’s first step was to set up a think-tank composed of experts and notable technocrats to chart the way forward for the Lagos of his dream. When the report was submitted, Asiwaju already saw many of the co-opted experts and technocrats as his Cabinet members. By the time he inaugurated his Cabinet in June 1999, it was widely regarded as the best in Nigeria of that period. The foundation his Cabinet laid through its 10-point agenda and a 15-year development plan is what has sustained Lagos till date. Successive Administrations after him have built or improved upon that Roadmap.
“By 2003 when I joined the Cabinet (from being Chairman, Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers), I got closer to Asiwaju. That was when I became more appreciative of his exemplary leadership attributes. To be in Asiwaju‘s Cabinet was a great honour and rare privilege indeed, given the array of worthy and great talents I encountered there. It was always an inspiration because one was always challenged to do one’s homework thoroughly. As governor, Asiwaju was a meticulous planner. You have to be sure of your facts before going to persuade him to approve an action. I recall how he challenged Cabinet members at meetings to vigorous debate on policy issues. Members would still recall the almost 3-hour debate on the future of Lagos State finances between him and the then Commissioner for Finance, Wale Edun; and the Commissioner for Budget and Economic Planning, Yemi Cardoso!
“Asiwaju was the first Governor to teach others how to tap into the Capital Market. The Seven Rail Line Vision for Lagos was conceived under his Administration, two of which are now coming on stream under Governor Babajide Sanwoolu’s Administration. Asiwaju conceived and built the BRT Bus system for Lagos and, instead of commissioning it and getting the credit, he left it for his successor, Governor Babatunde Fashola, to inaugurate and claim the glory. Asiwaju grew the revenue base of Lagos from a meagre N600 million in 1999 to close to N10 billion by 2007 to make Lagos independent of the Federal Government financially. Many will recall how Asiwaju constantly challenged the imperial excesses of President Olusegun Obasanjo, one of which was the latter’s seizure, despite court judgement describing the FG’s action as illegal, of Lagos State’s Local Government funds following the creation of new Local Governments by the Lagos State Government. Following Asiwaju’s trail blazing, creation of LGs has become a fad for many state governments all over the country today! Tinubu’s Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice (now Vice President) Yemi Osinbajo was constantly going to court to challenge the Federal Government over one issue or the other bordering on the erosion of Federalism. By the turn of 2007, Tinubu had defeated the Federal Government a record 13 times on issues bordering on interference with, or usurpation of, State functions, thus deepening and enriching Nigeria’s Federalism!
“Tinubu’s most important attribute is, perhaps, the capacity to stand by anyone he trusts, even if the whole world is against him. I recall the dust that was raised when Babatunde Fashola was first suggested as his successor in 2007. Though many never doubted Fashola’s ability and capability, the reservation was that it was not politically correct on account of the widespread perception of Fashola as being too “aloof“. Similarly, when the party’s candidates in the Osun, Ekiti and Edo elections in 2007 were declared losers, Asiwaju refused to buy that and vowed to fight to the end in the law courts. During the ensuing three-year battle to recover the stolen mandates, it is a well-known fact that one of the candidates got so fed up with the initial setbacks that he wanted to pull out! It was Asiwaju that kept hope alive, insisting on pursuing the matter to a logical conclusion. Eventually, he was vindicated and the “Doubting Thomas” became governor.
“Of course, the story of Asiwaju’s sacrifice towards sustaining NADECO in the pro-democracy struggle with his personal resources is well known. What is, however, not well known and, therefore, less appreciated is his continued support and solidarity with the families and dependants of known Comrades who paid the supreme price during the popular resistance to Military despotism in the 1990s. For instance, not many knew that as Lagos Governor, Asiwaju instituted a welfare programme for some members of MKO’s nuclear family who appeared vulnerable and sustained that throughout his eight-year tenure. Successive Governors in Lagos continued with the scheme in appreciation of MKO, the June 12 martyr. As Editor of National Concord from June 1999, I can confirm that Asiwaju did all he could to support MKO’s Media Organization in terms of deliberate patronage. When word reached him that we could not pay salaries and that our operations were almost grinding to a halt, Asiwaju initiated a massive idea that would have given Concord a significant lifeline to refinance its operations.
“Overall, Asiwaju’s leadership talent, courage, character, and risk-taking in a calculated manner will continue to endear him to many. His skill, when it comes to political calculation and strategy, is very inspiring indeed. For every plan he has, there is always a backup position. If he gives you an assignment, he gives you free hand and all that is required to get it done – but do not fail!”
In pushing the above out at this point in time, Tunji Bello is simply saying in popular journalism parlance: I stand by my story on the Jagaban Borgu!
- Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, BOLAWOLE was also Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Westerner newsmagazine. He writes the TREASURES column in the New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesday and the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune newspaper. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.