By Louis Odion
He who has not discovered what he/she can die can die for is not fit to live. – Martin Luther-King
The organizers probably only intended an entertainment for charity. But, beyond raising cash for the needy, the brainchild of the novelty duel would, at the end, find they have also helped fashion an enduring allegory for what often animates enlightened conversations in Nigeria today: the Tinubu role in the nation’s riveting political narrative in the last two decades.
Sure, pitting world heavyweight boxing champion Evander “the real deal” Holyfield against Asiwaju, a warrior in Nigerian politics, in a bout slated for May in Lagos is the stuff legends are made of. What Bola Tinubu lacks in physiognomical weight against the Goliath from Atlanta, for instance, he easily makes up where it counts most – will power.
But the real excitement should be more in the countdown. Will there be the customary weighin ritual where the combatants, flaunting sweating 6-packs, exchange icily cold stare before television cameras transmitting to a global audience? Will ex amateur boxing champion Wale Edun (the inspiration behind the monthly Lagos amateur boxing tournament) volunteer to be sparring partner to much older Jagaban ahead of the big night? (As a former amateur boxer himself, this writer can vouch for Mr. Edu’s terrific footwork and even more terrifying hands combination).
Now, the evaluation of the arsenal. As any Tinubu insider will attest, Asiwaju’s most dreaded weapon against neighbourhood bullies while growing up in Isale Eko was a ferocious head-butt. Could that also be deployed after the sound of the bell against the man whose mystique is partly framed by the humbling two decades ago of the once menacing Mike Tyson?
Then, the dramatic punch of Professor Wole Soyinka, a literary giant with global reach. With his immaculate white mane that readily evokes the shadow of boxing icon Don King, it will be interesting to observe Kongi’s agility in still “holding rapid dialogue with” his feet even at 83 while officiating the exchange of blows and upper-cuts in the rope square on the night ahead… Now, away from the sweat-bespattered arena of “the noble art in self-defense”.
In characterizing Tinubu as the “Asiwaju of the universe” on Tuesday, boxing could not have featured, even remotely, on President Buhari’s mind. In his tribute at a colloquium held in Lagos as prelude to his 65th birthday Wednesday, PMB further described the celebrant as “the most outstanding politician of his generation”. Indeed, the president only restated what is already well known.
Viewed closely, the theme of struggle and liberty is easily discernible in all of Asiwaju’s political engagements. They remain a study in uncommon courage, forbearance in adversity, grace in denial. Those who dare him don’t know him; those who know him never dare him. He carefully picks his friends. He relishes the company of activists and the likes.
His titanic exploits and huge sacrifice in NADECO in the 90s while Abacha tormented the land are already well documented. The illustrious memory of that struggle is what, according to him, now partly finds constant expression in the motif of a broken chain embroidered in his cap. (The now recognizable Asiwaju insignia, that is.) As he puts it, the broken chain epitomizes freedom.
What’s more, if you come over to his private office on Lagos Island, a giant signpost, “The Freedom House”, welcomes you. Since 1999, compared to the poverty of ideas and acute leadership bankruptcy suffered at the national level for the 16 straight years PDP controlled Abuja, Tinubu’s Lagos has continued to sparkle as the ultimate center of innovation and excellence, holding aloft the flicker of hope for other states.
Nothing readily illustrates this perhaps more than the very location of the forthcoming novelty boxing fight. Planted in a soil reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, the emerging Eko Atlantic City is a shining monument to human ingenuity in seeking to quench a megacity’s thirst for more land space and, at a personal level, a golden testimony to Tinubu’s fecundity as a man of ideas.
From being the “last man standing” in 2003 in the South-west after Obasanjo’s ambush of the Alliance for Democracy confraternity, Tinubu held out bravely in Lagos in the subsequent years against the rampaging PDP. With an uncanny application of populism, uncommon daring and innovative ideas, he inspired a progressive resurgence that eventuated in ACN’s total control of South-west in 2011, except Ondo State. Of course, that created the momentum that would alter, on a seismic scale, the national landscape in the years ahead. If Hurricane Buhari overwhelmed Jonathan in 2015, it was only because, for once since June 12, the usually fractious progressive community across the nation agreed to pool their resources together and confront a common enemy. The turning-point was undoubtedly Tinubu’s self-sacrifice in accepting to forgo his own personal ambition and putting in the service of the renascent progressive coalition his vast political assets. Since Buhari took over in Abuja, opinions are definitely divided today if Asiwaju has got a fair treatment relative to his toils and whether sufficient space is created for the infusion of his fabled winning ideas in the governance process at a time of economic pestilence. Some would argue he was too trusting to agree to lead a battle without first agreeing on the terms of compensation after victory. Regardless, only those who don’t know Tinubu intimately would, by any stretch of imagination, continue to peddle the fallacy of any regret on his part. In planting the seed, a farmer acts in faith. It is rarely within his powers to also determine how bounteous the harvest would be. Before throwing himself into any battle, all Tinubu often bothers about is whether such is consistent with his core value as a human being – social justice, the pursuit of what is best for the community. The formula for sharing the war booty can wait. So, in spearheading the coalition against PDP between 2014 and 2015, Tinubu must have reached a personal conclusion that the clearly sybaritic and clueless Jonathan now posed grave danger to Nigeria’s continued survival as a corporate entity. That principle was very much in evidence in 2011. Apparently not unmindful of the just cry of the people of Niger Delta over the years for power shift, Tinubu would seem to have chosen not to mobilize fully his political forces against Jonathan in the South-West in the historic presidential election of that year. It was, therefore, not a coincidence that Jonathan won big in Yorubaland in that poll, save in Osun State where hard-tackling Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, for once, broke ranks. But in appreciation, one of the earliest projects embarked on by Jonathan with much zealotry after being sworn in was to put Tinubu on trial at the Code of Conduct tribunal over what turned out to be false charges. The cost of that political folly must have dawned on Jonathan four years later following his forced return to his native riverine Otuoke, humbled and battered electorally. Jagaban had resolved to stake his all to rout PDP from Aso Rock. At a personal level, to say Asiwaju is a reporter’s delight will be an understatement. As governor, he preferred to host journalists at informal sessions periodically to foster personal relationship, deftly seizing the moments to create for them a sense of ownership of his administration. On the whole, his charms derive largely from his humility, not deeming it belittling to share even the darkest secret or seek the opinion of someone who, by stature and status, could not be considered an equal. All he has to establish first is your trustworthiness. As administrator, his strength lies in surrounding himself with mostly those who can disagree with him. In an environment where only sycophancy seems most desirable and fashionable, this is quite significant indeed. In fact, Tinubu craves intellectual jousts, often at the dinner table. At such moment, you could mistake him for a hyperactive schoolboy, either punching the air or banging the table while marshaling his point before equally unyielding quarries, luminaries of varying talents themselves. From such hot distillation of ideas, what then emerges as consensus at the Bourdillon roundtable is a robust prescription to identified challenge. So, when at a crossroads vis-a-vis policy options, it is often this formidable faculty Asiwaju engages. And when in the dark at personal level, it is the sense of judgement of that inner circle Tinubu depends on. The depth and range of that leadership recruitment and grooming process is clearly reflected in the constellation of Tinubu boys and girls who today occupy the commanding heights of the nation’s political economy and are individually proving their mettle. In a close encounter, Tinubu is not your fasttalking braggart. A man of deep emotion, he carefully picks his words in a deep guttural voice, gesticulating occasionally. But don’t be fooled; behind that seemingly vacant stare is an encyclopedic mind. No less engaging is his self-humour. He would recall with nostalgia his early childhood exploits on Lagos Island under the wings of a doting father. As was common with Muslim homes then, an Alfa (Islamic tutor) was contracted by Pa Tinubu to teach his brood Koran verses at home after school hours. To get pupils to memorize long verses, most Alfas took extraordinary measures, especially a generous application of “atori” (horse-whip). So, for then little Bola and other kids, the mere thought of Alfa was a source of fear, if not terror. For a long time, Pa Tinubu would only sit in his reclining chair in the veranda, savoring the evening breeze, not bothering to enquire what transpired between the bearded Alfa and the kids in the courtyard behind. But following a shriek cry by one of the kids one day, the old man broke his rules by walking over. To his chagrin, he met the Alfa still thrashing his beloved little Bola mercilessly not just with a big whip; his left hand clutched another one. Many decades later, Asiwaju, a glint of boyish mischief in his eyes, would recall what had transpired next that fateful evening: “My daddy came to our rescue by telling the Alfa off, ‘Will you stop this nonsense! I pay you to teach my children Koran, not to kill them for me with cane!!’ ” Of course, that was the last day that particular Koran teacher came to their home. In yet another fit of self-humor, Asiwaju would recount, with photographic clarity, his ordeal at the hands of night marauders during his early days in politics in the early 90s. The party caucus had just risen from a meeting ahead of a campaign date. As the treasure, he was handed cash to share to the foot-soldiers the following morning. Later that night, he was barely half-asleep in the hotel room when a cold hand violently roused him. Looking up, what he saw sent shivers down his spine: a gunman stood by the bed menacingly. Quickly wiping the last trace of sleep off his face in the half-lit room, Asiwaju’s instinct to duck vanished the moment he beheld two other assailants brandishing equally dangerous weapons just on the other side of the bed. Given the timing of that unholy visit, he needed no reminding that his quarries were acting on insider information. Realizing the futility of resisting in the circumstance, he did the most sensible thing by not waiting to be asked before dragging out the bag of cash he earlier carefully stashed away under the bed. His recollection: “I found myself cooperating without a question.” To see the emotional side of Asiwaju, you only need to steer your conversation to his very humble beginning or the question of comradeship or loyalty to friends or ideas. He never forgets a favour, however minor. Just as he is ready to stake his life defending anyone he considers a true friend. Little wonder he is fondly called the “Lion of Bourdillon”. •This piece, slightly abridged and updated to reflect recent developments, first appeared as a chapter in a collection of essays entitled “Asiwaju – Leadership In Troubled Times” published in 2012 to mark Tinubu’s 60th birthday.