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August 11, 2023

Tinubu’s list, Gbaja-nisation and Nigeria’s politics, By Azu Ishiekwene

Tinubu’s list, Gbaja-nisation and Nigeria’s politics, By Azu Ishiekwene

President Bola Tinubu

IF President Bola Ahmed Tinubu hit the ground running, it was because problems chased him into office. Yet, it wasn’t long before he tripped on a matter in which his genius has been acknowledged: forming his cabinet. One of his credentials for eight years as governor of Lagos, and even outside public office for 16 years, has been his gift for spotting talents and putting them to work. He campaigned on this record in the last election.

You can, therefore, imagine the disappointment in some circles when he not only waited 60 days, nearly exhausting the time allowed by law, but then went on to release in two instalments, lists that have been widely criticised as an appeasement to the “old brigade”. There are, of course, bright spots with a few professionals and proven hands. But a cabinet which features nine former governors, a number of who had lost elections or had been ministers before, gives the impression that Tinubu’s genius for talent hunting may have been captured by vested interests on the national stage. Has Abuja, the graveyard of good intentions, done its worst? Is Tinubu undone by pressure? Or are there forces in his inner circle taking advantage of the chaos to grab power?

Tyre meets road

Reality is more nuanced. We’ve been here before, over 20 years ago. Tinubu was not in charge at the centre then. He was governor in Lagos, a complex place to govern no doubt, but far less so than the “beast” called the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was also faced with choices similar to those that Tinubu wrestled for 60 days. It’s easy to forget now, but Obasanjo’s choice of ministers in his first term, much like those of Shehu Shagari in 1979, gives an idea of what potentially confronts a new president, especially one that is a product of a fragile and fraught political transition. In hindsight, Obasanjo is applauded for assembling perhaps what has, so far, been the best collection of ministers in the last nearly four decades. 

But it was not so when he first got into office. For those who despise politicians intensely, sometimes with reasons, it might be useful to remember that Obasanjo’s first collection of ministers was a shambles of strange bedfellows. It was spiced with Second Republic politicians retrieved from the museums, and former military governors and army generals who ran the country before the #EndSARS generation was born. I’m not kidding. Obasanjo’s first list of ministers contained such names as General David Jemibewon; General TY Danjuma; Tony Anenih; Col. Mohamed Bello Kaliel (retd); Adamu Ciroma; Iyorchia Ayu, Dapo Sarumi; Alabo Graham-Douglas; Bola Ige; Sunday Afolabi; Hassan Adamu; and Haliru Bello. 

Even Ojo Maduekwe, one of the masterminds of Daniel Kanu’s two-million-man march who threatened to go on exile if General Sani Abacha did not run for office, also made Obasanjo’s ministerial list. It was that unwieldy. If the team were a flight crew, not many would have been comfortable to fly. Obasanjo knew that but had his reasons for choosing them. The country was just transiting from decades of military rule. He needed politicians who understood the country, and also military-politicians who could help him stabilise things and keep soldiers at bay, while he launched a shuttle diplomacy to rebuild the country’s battered image. But trust Obasanjo, the old fox. Once he got his footing and at least part-paid his political IOUs, he shuffled his cabinet within months, followed by another shuffle in his second year, in which he weeded out a number of the worst performers. By his second term in 2003, the cub in him had become a tiger drawing in some of the best talents, but also making mince-meat of a good number, including his deputy, Atiku Abubakar. It’s a story triumphantly told in three volumes of Obasanjo’s book, My Watch.

Gbaja rising 

It’s fair to feel disappointed by a few nominees in Tinubu’s lists who make the legend of Robin Hood look like a child’s play. Some have also expressed concern about the role of Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, who has obviously set a new record as the country’s most expensive bespoke delivery service for political nominees’ list. Not a few curious eyebrows were raised when LEADERSHIP reported exclusively, for example, that against the ethics of international courier service, and in the midst of the screening, the integrity of the nominee lists was nearly undermined by allegations of “package tampering!” I was genuinely concerned that the controversial news reports from the office of the Chief of Staff could make Mike Oghiadomhe, former Chief of Staff to President Goodluck Jonathan, look like an amateur. I’m not sure any Chief of Staff since 1999 has assumed and executed with a comparable degree of passion the task of dispatching nominees’ lists the way Gbajabiamila has done so far.  

Those who know him well, famously called Gbaja-philes in Villa-pedia, however, insist that his performance is out of the goodness of his heart; and so, I won’t let anyone put words into my mouth or ideas in my head about his sterling qualities. Since the Chief of Staff has taken over the function of the Senior Special Assistant, SSA, Liaison to the National Assembly as his own contribution to a leaner government, it is my humble submission that the positions of the two SSAs should be scrapped forthwith, at least to appease Labour. It is concerning, however, that at a time when Tinubu needs a strong inner circle to get things done, reports of a civil war, with his Chief of Staff at the heart of it, continue to engulf his government. From the election of presiding and principal officers in the 10th National Assembly to the nomination of ministers and God-knows-what-else, the story has been one of near complete Gbaja-nisation!

Danger ahead 

Yet, Tinubu’s job is cut out for him. He cannot blame anyone for what becomes of his presidency. If choosing the right team helped him get a lot done when he was much younger and stronger, then he needs that gift even more desperately in the midst of the present chaos. The tough, but necessary decisions he has taken already mean that if he has his eye on legacy, never mind a second term, then there’s very little time to settle IOUs or indulge internal strife.

That’s not all. It also means that while Tinubu would hardly get any credit if the suspects in his cabinet perform, he would be blamed squarely if they fail and he alone would bear the brunt of the difference between expediency and necessity. All said, when our obsession with Abuja has faded, perhaps in a week or two after the ministers have been assigned portfolios, we must quickly turn our attention to the states, a number of which offer the premium version of the atrocities we saw on the national stage in the last one week.