FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu addresses the media after casting his ballot in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria February 25, 2023. REUTERS/James Oatway
By Tim Cocks
LAGOS (Reuters) -For much of his political career, Nigerian President-elect Bola Tinubu has exerted power from behind the scenes, widely regarded as a “godfather” who uses an extensive patronage network to back candidates for office.
Tinubu’s support helped outgoing leader Muhammadu Buhari win two terms in office, in 2015 and 2019. And since he bowed out as Lagos governor in 2007, Tinubu has picked every subsequent winning candidate to run Africa’s biggest city.
That power will now be tested as Tinubu attempts to tackle Nigeria’s crises and improve on Buhari’s lacklustre record.
Nigeria is beset by armed groups that have rendered swathes of the country ungovernable, while its economy is barely keeping up with population growth amid surging inflation and crippling cash shortages after a botched introduction of new bank notes.
Many of these problems worsened under Buhari, on whose party ticket Tinubu ran. But asked at a weekend news briefing why voters should elect him, he distanced himself from the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) party he helped create.
“I am not the party,” he said. “My track record should speak for me. Look at Lagos: Before I came, we had dead bodies on the road, a chaotic traffic system, robbery daytime and nighttime.”
“Come on: clap for me,” he added in an appearance typical of the hubris that often marks leaders of Africa’s top oil producer and most populous country.
While Tinubu missed several of his party’s big campaign events and has appeared frail during some appearances, his speech often slow and slurred, he has repeatedly brushed aside concerns about his health.
Few doubted Tinubu’s well-resourced campaign would triumph in a country in which the ruling party has a major advantage, despite strong challenges from Atiku Abubakar, of the former ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and Peter Obi, of the insurgent Labour Party.
Tinubu supporters portray him as an effective administrator with a track record of picking competent technocrats.
Critics say he awards lucrative contracts and plum jobs to loyalists and has in the past turned to so-called area boys, who informally control the streets of Lagos and attend his rallies en masse, to intimidate opponents if he does not get his way.
The 70-year-old does not respond to such allegations, tending instead to ignore them. A spokesman for Tinubu’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
A biography on his campaign website says Tinubu was born in Lagos in 1952, to a Muslim family from the Yoruba ethnic group, the majority in southwest Nigeria. Others say he is much older.
In the 1970s, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a dishwasher, taxi driver and night guard to fund his studies. He graduated from Chicago State University in 1979 with a degree in business administration.
After working for U.S. consultancy firms, he returned to Nigeria in the 1980s and worked for the branch of the Mobil oil company as an auditor.
He first got involved in politics in the 1990s and was elected governor of Lagos when military rule ended in 1999. He served two terms.
His supporters say he improved roads, trash collection and other services in the chaotic city, but many Lagosians say it remains deeply dysfunctional.
Others wonder whether, with the exorbitant cost of contracts – some to companies in which his close allies have a controlling interest – the city really got value for money. A light rail project he started has not been completed after 20 years.
Tinubu’s support for Buhari, whose government struggled to tackle Nigeria’s major economic and security problems, also did little to increase confidence in him among many of the 93.4 million registered voters.