A bully reigned on his street, a huge boor whose visage, gait, brawls and conquests menaced everyone around. But he was nothing like the thug. He was slight of build, thin and lightweight. By all perception, the tough would gulp him up in one swoop.
But he was no one to bait. The coercer came his way and wanted to browbeat him, especially because he did not share in the intimidated respect others nursed for him. Before the bully struck him, Bola popped his faced with a head butt. The brute retired as the neighbourhood tyrant, his face squished into a dam of running blood.
The myth was over. A diminutive fellow had played David, and the goliath scampered out of sight. Bola stunned not only the tormentor but the street. “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of,” noted the great computer code breaker Alan Turing, “who do the things that no one can imagine.” Everyone knew he was spry and stubborn. Few expected the giant to turn clay at his feet.
As Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu marked his 65th birthday last week to an uproar of praise as a political high roller, few know he has been a giant killer from childhood. It is perhaps to make the symbolic point that former world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield will meet him in the ring in May. He does not see giants. He is not like the 10 Israeli spies in the Bible who returned with fright and saw their enemies as giants and themselves as grasshoppers. He is like the other two who knew that the enemies were little.
He is also a practical gladiator. He knows the fight to accept, when to unleash a blow and how. He is not a megalomaniac like Hitler who boasted before the Second World War when he crooned: “Our enemies are tiny little worms. I met them the other day at Munich.”
While the party lasted and the colloquium buzzed, President Muhammadu Buhari came close to classifying the stature of Tinubu when he described him as the greatest politician of this era. That understates him. Any credible student of Nigeria’s history would know that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu is not only the greatest politician since independence; his is the greatest since Herbert Macaulay.
As he beat the bully, he has been replaying that script all his life. He has done so in the corporate world as auditor. He shook up Mobil with a report that capsized the company’s top brass. The CEO fell. He earned the fear of his bosses, but the respect of the headquarters in the United States. He did it in the democracy struggles as senator in the June 12 struggles as well-documented in an upcoming book. He baited, dared the Abacha junta, was gaoled, escaped death a few times, and amassed resources and brain to fight the despot till his death.
He returned to slay giants and became governor of Nigeria’s signal state, Lagos. As governor, he inhabited an island when the centre under the Owu chief could not unseat him. He challenged and outclassed him. With his party of one state, and the rest of the country under the sway and resources of a behemoth of the PDP, some saw his obituary. His colleagues fell after the first term, and OBJ was shocked Tinubu returned a glory.
Lagos became the last bastion, what in Texas history is called the Alamo. They expected him to fall in 2007. They plotted Obanikoro to unseat his party and best Babatunde Fashola. Obj dallied and wanted his troops to move on Lagos. Security forces warned him against it. Eventually, he yielded and Fashola became governor. The king had become a kingmaker in the most contentious of elections.
With all of these, he had earned himself the plaudit of a great politician. He was not yet in the big league with the great politicians of our history. He was still a regional wrestler.
He was still so when he brought the West back to the progressive fold. Osun. Oyo. Ekiti. Ondo. Ogun. Then even Edo.
It was time to go national, and that was the big task. No politician had been able to rally forces in our history to victory. We had in the First Republic an alliance to bring down the NPC government under the Nigerian National Alliance. They owned the centre. To topple them, other parties coalesced under the United Progressive Grand Alliance. It did not fly, and the result was not only the turbulence of the West, but it triggered a coup that gave us a 30-month bloodbath.
The next attempt was the PPA in the Second Republic. Some were sanguine and expected the coalition, especially of Awo’s UPN and Zik’s NPP and Waziri’s GNPP. They could not form a melting pot. Ego replaced concord, and each party went its separate way. At one stage, Zik landed in Enugu airport after what seemed a cheerful dialogue in Lagos airport. He accused Awo of contempt. NPN won the election but it lasted only a few months when Buhari struck.
The only attempt to bring parties across the regions for a truly national foray was spearheaded in 2011. It all seemed it would work but it fell apart in the last flush. Jonathan had his way. Buhari is president today after many expected the APC to be a bust. The party’s formation is the biggest fruition in our political history. He single-mindedly envisioned, architected and worked it. Even a little detail like getting the logo right made him travel across the country from Lagos. US President Richard Nixon wrote in his memoirs that the proof of a tough guy is not only to make a tough decision but his ability to bring his associate along the path.
The big feat was not so much the 2015 election as the APC primary, which he choreographed without a bitter aftertaste. The primary prefigured the ultimate triumph. That triumph, history will show, saved us from the abyss. Jonathan and Nigeria was ineluctably on the path of perdition. Debts and corruption were out of control.
Macaulay rode the nationalist movement across tribes and regions. Zik succeeded him but the NCNC progressively shrank into a regional party. Zik was a diffusion. Tinubu is osmotic. He has been in this odyssey since he abandoned his lush job as Mobil treasurer. He slept on the wet and damp floor of Alagbon prison, ate on the fly, ran out of money, hid in bushes and stared death in the eye. He never accepted the Mobil offer to return to the luxury of his former life.
Yet his is not about politics alone. It is politics as buoy to policy. He began a governance template that compelled Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun to confess that they want to copy it in the centre. No politician in history has enjoyed such emulation in politics and governance. It is not for nothing that Lagos is the one great story of governance today under alpha Governor Akinwunmi Ambode.
Not since independence have such an array of bigwigs in politics, business and culture gathered in honour of a man who left office a decade ago. Governors, former governors, bureaucrats, captains of industry, CEOs, cultural mavens, et al. They were there. It is a tribute to his soft power, apologies to Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. Hard power collapses easily. But soft power endures. Those who have not read Governor Ambode’s parable of the coconut should digest it for its import of a man who, in spite of many laurels, is still a phenomenon on the make.
What other major statesman is known by his chieftaincy title from a different tribe!
Just as he fell the bully, he still has giants to bait and beat. Except that he sees grasshoppers when others see giants.