It was always obvious to keen, disinterested observers that Bola Tinubu’s gamble in helping Muhammadu Buhari to ascend to power won’t pay off in the end; that his opportunistic political love affair with Buhari won’t be requited; and that the brittle, delicately thin thread that held their relational dynamic would snap sooner or later. I wrote countless columns on this.
Tinubu won the nomination of the APC not because of Buhari and the cabal of provincial power brokers that prop him but in spite of them. Tinubu was compelled to ventilate his famously impassioned “emi lo kan” outburst in Abeokuta (in the Yoruba language, no less) when it became nakedly apparent that Buhari and his cabal had perfected plans to edge him out of the APC presidential primary contest.
People who know Tinubu from his inchoate age in Iragbiji tell me that he is a dogged, rugged, never-say-die fighter who would rather die fighting than give up a fight. His contemporaries dreaded fights with him not because he was strong but because his fights were often brutal and never-ending until he won. Even when he was bloodied and beaten to a pulp, he would get up and continue the fight if not immediately then later.
The story I heard of Tinubu’s childhood in Iragbiji reminded me of someone I grew up with in my hometown whom we nicknamed Mohammed Shaytan. Mohammed was his given name, but his bizarre emotional investment in endlessly ferocious fights with anyone until he won earned him the name Shaytan, the Arabic word for Satan. We used to allow him to “defeat” us so we would have peace. Perpetual personal strife, which he thrived in, wasn’t physically, mentally, and emotionally sustainable for a lot of us.
When the cabal was plotting to exclude Tinubu from the APC presidential contest, I had an informal chit-chat with a higher-up who had some associational affinities with the cabal. I told him that based on what I’d learned about Tinubu’s childhood and teenage years (some of which I can’t disclose publicly) and which seem to have endured into his adulthood, he would rather be dead than give up the APC nomination.
After the “emi lo kan” blow-up, which shook Buhari and his inner circle to their roots, my older acquaintance called to tell me I was right. The speech—and, of course, the support of APC’s northern governors, and his deep pockets— caused him to win the battle, but he is now in danger of losing the war, if he hasn’t already lost it. Here’s why.
Tinubu’s fervent, arrogant, and vaguely vituperative speech in Abeokuta at once unnerved, humiliated, and alienated Buhari and his inner circle in ways they had never been since 2015. Buhari never forgives, but he is also diffident, hates direct confrontation, and evades taking responsibility. That’s why he is such an ineffective but dangerous leader.
All indications clearly point to the fact that Buhari is still nursing the hurt of his well-justified humiliation by Tinubu. His inner loop of advisers is also waiting in the wings to exact revenge against Tinubu, which is frankly inexplicably self-indulgent, even hypocritical, because they would not have supported Tinubu even if he didn’t humiliate them on national television, even if he praised them to high heaven from now till kingdom come. Well, they seem to be now out for Tinubu in full force.
This signal first emerged in the open when Sani Zangon Daura, a former minister in Obasanjo’s administration who is very close to Buhari, Mamman Daura and members of the cabal, gave a sermon in his mosque in Kaduna where he importuned northerners to support their own. It’s entirely possible that this opinion is his alone.
Nonetheless, as many people have observed, Buhari has so far studiously refrained from asking voters to vote for Tinubu. He raises Tinubu’s hands on the campaign trail, but it’s as a mere ritual political gesture that he is required to perform. He also raises the hands of other APC candidates. But he has so far not directly solicited votes for Tinubu.
In a November 10, 2022, interview with Premium Times on the so-called currency redesign, which has gone viral in the last few days, Buhari justified the currency redesign by gratuitously invoking the specter of unscrupulous moneybags who use thugs to win elections, which many people, including Tinubu’s people, understood as an indirect attack on Tinubu.
“Nigerians should vote for whoever they like from whichever party. Nobody will be allowed to mobilize resources and thugs to intimidate people in any constituency,” Buhari said in what seems like a sneaky barb at Tinubu who infamously uses money and thugs to win elections, including elections that Buhari has benefited from. “This is what I want to go down into Nigerian history for.”
Of course, when Premium Times’ reporter pushed him to speak on his support for Tinubu, he uttered platitudinous, half-hearted, mealy-mouthed praises of Tinubu and Lagos and said, “the party was lucky to get [Tinubu to] accept to be its candidate.” We all know it wasn’t the party that got Tinubu to accept to be its candidate; it was Tinubu who fought tooth and nail against the machinations of Buhari and his cabal to become the party’s candidate.
In the aftermath of the renewed attention to and intra-party criticisms of Buhari’s failure to publicly urge his supporters to vote for Tinubu, Buhari’s associates organized a charade in Bauchi. During the APC presidential campaign in Bauchi, Buhari was asked to speak in support of Tinubu. Then, suddenly, the microphone mysteriously developed a malfunction—or there was a power cut—and Buhari left the venue of the campaign in a faux huff. It seemed all carefully choreographed.
Being the aggressively wily and perceptive political fox that Tinubu is, he has sensed all the Machiavellian political mischief that’s afoot. And he has had enough. So, he threw another pugilistic rhetorical blow at Buhari and his cabal in Abeokuta—and in the Yoruba language. When he is drowning and is fighting for his political life, Tinubu cries in Yoruba. English has no capacity to carry the full weight of his fury.
Unfortunately for Tinubu, his avoidably self-inflicted reputational injury in the Muslim North by his inability to recite the first chapter of the Qur’an is eroding his support. Salafi clerics in the Hausaphone Muslim North who used to preach that a vote for the Tinubu-Shettima Muslim-Muslim ticket was a jihad in the service of Islam have gone quiet. They can’t justify calling someone who can’t recite the fatiha a Muslim. In fact, the clerics have become objects of ridicule now.
This was completely preventable political self-harm. All he needed to do was continue being seen praying in mosques and going to Mecca for hajj. No one ever asks Muslims, not least wealthy ones like Tinubu, to justify their claims to their faith by reciting verses of the Qur’an. Most northern Muslim elites, including Buhari, know next to nothing about their religion. But it’s sufficient that they are seen in public performing the rituals of the religion.
Tinubu would have benefitted from having northern Muslims in his inner circle. They would have advised him against attempting to recite the fatiha that he has obviously lost because he doesn’t use.
The only silver lining in the cloud of political troubles for Tinubu in the Muslim North, which he needs to have a fighting chance, is that almost all APC governors in the region are solidly behind him for two reasons. The first is the embarrassment of betraying him after he stood with them in the 2015 and 2019 elections. Nasir El-Rufai is the arrowhead of this sentiment. He thinks it would be a treachery for the history books should the entire Muslim North forsake Tinubu.
The second reason is more selfish. Should Atiku Abubakar win the election, the dreams of another northern Muslim from the northern governors’ ranks becoming a president would be perpetually deferred. Even though Atiku has said he would do only one term, it would be almost impossible for another Muslim to succeed him after four years.
It remains to be seen if the support of the governors can reverse Tinubu’s lost ground in the Muslim North. But the fight is on, and it’s just getting started!