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ASIWAJU: On The Trail of a Master Strategist. By Tunji Bello



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 one of the arrowheads. This was in the late November of 1990. I was then the Group Political Editor of the Concord Newspapers. Asiwaju Tinubu and his caucus saw me and my team as an adversary.

Interestingly, the same accusation was levelled against me by Chief Tom Ikimi, the National Chairman of National Republican Convention (NRC), when I went to interview him at his Victoria Island residence in Lagos. NRC was the second of the two parties General Ibrahim Babangida had created for Nigerian politicians in his bizarre transition programme that time.

Relations between Asiwaju and I never improved until 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 myself to his Ikeja, Lagos residence in late 1992 for advice as he was contemplating running for Presidency following Babagida’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 see evidence of Tinubu’s uncommon traits MKO spoke about when June 12 election was annulled in 1993 and fate brought us together in the subsequent struggle for its revalidation and restoration of democracy.

As Concord’s Group Political Editor, I had gotten, 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, he summoned an editorial meeting that Friday morning and five of us (Dele, Segun, myself and two members of Concord Editorial Board) 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 won’t even be around to publish the story.

Around 7 o’clock that evening, we had the whole premises surrounded by gun-totting men from State Security Service and Anti-riot 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 had almost ambushed his car near the Air Force base on Ikeja Airport Road but he smartly out-manoeuvred them and escaped; but not without causing two car accidents in the process.

As for me 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 escaping into the silent but ominous night. We were later to discover that two of our senior Editorial Managers we held meeting with that morning were actually Babangida’s moles. They leaked the information to the security. We never saw them again as MKO fired them instantly when he got the information.

After beating Babangida’s agents, Dele Alake and I had to keep away from our homes for about two harrowing months as security people were hunting for 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.

While in exile, he was well noted for his ability to mobilize resources and 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 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 deaths of Sani Abacha and 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 myself (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 massive goodwill arising therefrom, it was better for him to contest the Lagos Governorship instead. I remember that Asiwaju did not appear to take our suggestion seriously immediately, until few days later when he got similar promptings from many other Lagosians.

After being elected Governor in 1999, Tinubu’s first step was to set up a think-tank comprising of many experts and notable technocrats to chart the way forward for Lagos of his dream. When the report was submitted, Asiwaju already saw many of the co-opted experts and technocrats as his cabinet members. Summoning the political will, he proceeded to appoint many technocrats with few politicians into his administration. It was a deft manoeuvre, given the dominant sentiment within his party then. By the time he inaugurated his cabinet in June 1999, it was widely regarded as the best in Nigeria at that period. The foundation his cabinet laid through 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 became 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. It was always an inspiration because one was always challenged to do ones homework thoroughly in the awareness that I would be challenged by those with sharp — if not sharper — minds.

First, as Governor, Asiwaju was a meticulous planner. You had to be sure of your facts before you went to persuade him to approve your action. He is forever open to debate with you. I recall how he would challenge several members of the cabinet at a meeting to a vigorous debate on any policy issue. Many members would still recall the almost 3-hour debate on the future of Lagos State Finance between him and his then Commissioner for Finance, Wale Edun, the Commissioner for Budget and Economic Planning, Yemi Cardoso during which Edun had to remove his tie and rolled up his sleeves to illustrate the intensity of the debate.

Asiwaju was the first Governor to teach others how to tap into the capital market and deploy resources for government finance. The Seven Rail Line Vision for Lagos was conceived under his administration, two of which are now coming on stream soonest under Governor Babajide Sanwoolu’s administration. Asiwaju conceived and built the BRT buses system for Lagos and instead of commissioning it and getting the credits, he left it for his successor, Governor Babatunde Fashola, to inaugurate and claim the glory. He grew the revenue base of Lagos from a meagre N600 million in 1999 to close to N10 billion by 2007, to make it independent of 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 of Local Government funds despite court judgement describing FG’s action as illegal, following the creation of new local governments. His Attorney General (now Vice President), Yemi Osinbajo was constantly going to court to challenge Federal Government over one issue or the other bordering on the erosion of federalism. By the turn of 2007, Tinubu had defeated Federal Government with a record of 13 times in the law courts 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 that capacity to stand by anyone he trusts, even if the whole world is against him. I recall the dust raised when Babatunde Fashola was first suggested as his successor in 2007. Though many of us never doubted his ability and capability, our reservation was that it was not politically correct on account of widespread perception of him as being too “aloof“. We expressed the fear that Lagosians would not accept him from us. Asiwaju began by appealing to everyone possible. Despite his series of persuasion, some of us remained adamant. In fact, one night, some cabinet members including Professor Osinbajo, Dele Alake, Muiz Banire, Opeyemi Bamidele and myself went to meet him at home and restated our concerns. Again, Asiwaju started his persuasion homily all over again. On realising that we remained unpersuaded, Asiwaju for once, flared up and attempted to walk out on us, saying if we were not ready to help him market Fashola, we should “leave it for me and I will carry my can”. Somehow, we managed to block him from walking out on us. It was at that point that we all decided to work for his anointed candidate. The rest, as they say, is now history.

Similarly, when our candidates in the Osun, Ekiti and Edo States elections in 2007 were declared losers, Asiwaju refused to buy that and he promised to fight to the end in the law courts. During the ensuing three-year battle to recover the stolen mandates, it is well known fact that one of the candidates got so fed up with the initial court setbacks that he wanted to pull out. It was Asiwaju that kept hope alive, insisting on pursuing the matters to a logical conclusion. Eventually, he was vindicated and this 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 now well known. But what is not well known and much 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 of military despotism in the 90s. For instance, not many know that, as Lagos Governor, Asiwaju instituted a welfare programme for some members of MKO’s nuclear family who appeared most vulnerable and sustained that throughout his eight-year tenure. Successive
Governors in Lagos continued the scheme in appreciation of the June 12 martyr.

Again, 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 words reached him we could not pay salaries and our operations were almost grinding to a halt as a result of cumulative scorched-earth policies of Abacha while MKO languished in the gulag, Asiwaju initiated a massive idea that would have given Concord a significant lifeline to refinance its operations. He offered to buy Concord’s brand new giant power generator meant for our Staff Estate at a very good price for Lagos State Water Corporation, in a win-win deal for MKO’s family and Lagos State Government. Just when the deal was about to be sealed, some members of MKO’s family placed a caveat emptor in a daily newspaper, thereby scuttling the whole idea and denying asphyxiated Concord the needed oxygen.

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 don’t fail. He doesn’t indulge a failure gladly once he had given you all that is required to succeed.

Like every any other human being, Asiwaju has his own failings because he is not a saint. Truly, the political world is yet to see one but what I sometimes find most ironic is the vicious campaign of calumny mounted and sponsored against Asiwaju today by latter-day “democrats” or activists who yet were either barefoot errand-boys of the military in the 90s or willing tools to reactionary forces. Among them will be found journalists using intemperate language against Tinubu today mouthing “high principle”, but unashamed to take a job in a media organization owned by those known to have been paid by military to justify June 12 annulment in international media in the 90s or were known to be on Abacha’s payroll. I guess such characters flourish today only because we are a nation afflicted by amnesia. I can, therefore, now understand why General Babangida banned the teaching of History in our schools after he took over power in mid 1980s. Without a sense of history, a society is sentenced to start worshipping false characters as heroes.