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Emilokan: Act one, scene one

When the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) completes the constitutional ritual of administering the oath of office to the President-Elect Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu this…

When the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) completes the constitutional ritual of administering the oath of office to the President-Elect Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu this day next week, it will signal not just a full stop to the 2023 election cycle, but the beginning of the real deal: the exercise of power in circumstances known and unknown, foreseen or unforeseen, the very thing Tinubu said he has sought all his life. If the Eagle Square setting of the swearing-in ceremony, inaugural speeches and military displays are all but Act One, Scene One of this Emilokan: My Lifelong Ambition story, how will the rest of the play unfold?

No one can know at this point, and like in a marriage, all that comes before tends to become less important than the here and now on the assumption of the presidential office. But there are at least three themes that could well influence not just the setting of the play but also the characters and their actions or inactions. After all, Emilokan is a political story situated in a specific context of time, place and people, not in a vacuum.

The first of these themes is Tinubu’s relatively weakened hand at the moment of ascension to power. Few Nigerian leaders—presidents or heads of state—assumed office in a comparatively weaker political position than Tinubu would be when he is sworn in by the CJN next week.

Historically in Nigeria, three factors determine a leader’s power at the moment of assuming office: their own personal political and moral clout; the circumstances of their ascension such as whether they are succeeding a deceased or ousted leader; and their commanding lead in the election—or coup—that brings them to power. Tinubu’s hand is weakened on all three counts, a situation enemies and friends alike will exploit for their own benefit.

No Nigerian leader assumed office in a more perilous circumstance than Gowon in 1966, and to a lesser extent, Obasanjo 10 years later. But the force of their own personality, and their standing among their peers (not exactly peers in the case of Gowon during 1967-1970) helped them through the first few months until they acquired their own power independent of the circumstances that threw them up. The national context when Abacha assumed office in 1993 was similarly perilous, but unlike Gowon and Obasanjo, he had more than a little hand in its making. Balewa in 1960, Shagari in 1979, and Yar’Adua in 2007, all assumed office in comparatively weak political positions too, but what they lacked in personal political clout, they more than made up for in their moral standing, if for having done nothing much previously. Plus, Balewa and Shagari were in a formal political alliance with some of the defeated parties which helped shore up their power.

Obasanjo, in his second coming in 1999, was in a similar alliance with the opposition APP, but he didn’t need it. He was in a commanding position, not just from the results of the election, but also his nationwide name recognition as a statesman. Easy, then, for him to bulldoze his way to more power in 2003.

Jonathan and Buhari were similarly strong in almost all three counts in 2011 and 2015 respectively. If Jonathan could not repeat the feat in 2015, Buhari did in 2019. IBB was a master of his own destiny right from the start, but he was still helped by the prevailing perception of the man he ousted and replaced.

Perhaps, then, only Aguyi-Ironsi and Shonekan were probably in a worse position when they assumed power than Tinubu would be. He will be the first since Shagari in 1979 where the combined votes of the leading opposition candidates far outstripped that of the winner. His political clout is solid, but it rested on too many favours from too many people. Now, political favours are never free; in fact, politicians, in Nigeria or anywhere else, don’t say even “Good morning” for free. Many of them would draw on the credit of their favours, which, in turn, will influence or constrain the choices and options available for the main man, if not determine them altogether.

The signs are already there. As an example, we find politicians bandying around voting figures contributed to the presidential victory pot by their states, zones or regions, itself a first in Nigerian politics. Obasanjo drew on a lot of political credit from his northern and old military backers in 1999, but the creditors did not repeatedly throw the debt he owed them at his face at every turn to advance their own interests. Nor did those who supported Jonathan to win in 2011.

The long-drawn and still unresolved contest for the national assembly leadership, where each contender is quick to point to what Tinubu owes them for their contribution to his victory is evidence of the same thing.

The sense of entitlement is palpable throughout the party, and if unchecked, would grow into a force of its own in ways that will severely limit the room for action for the incoming leader to do anything worthwhile with power.

And then, there is the less visible but far more significant theme in the Emilokan story that will also influence the shape of things to come over the next few years at least. Tinubu’s northern backers have been falling over themselves to highlight their contribution to his victory, and to demand something for themselves in return. But I think they need to dust up their political history books, for, they must contend with a much older and far more enduring political debt Tinubu owes.

Tinubu will be the second Yoruba person to be sworn in as president in Nigeria. But in fact, he will be the first from Yoruba mainstream politics and society to attain that lofty height. I am talking about the political line of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, of Abraham Adesanya, of Bola Ige, of NADECO and Afenifere, and above all of June 12. Mainstream Yoruba have traditionally been on the “opposition” side of Nigerian politics, as spoilers rather than holders of real power; and as custodians of their own regional political fortress in the Southwest.

Obasanjo and Shonekan, both of whom came before Tinubu, were never part of this Yoruba mainstream. Tinubu’s presidency, therefore, will be the very first time this mainstream Yoruba is ascending to federal power in Nigeria. How Tinubu balances the interests and aspirations of his new friends with those of his old constituency will one way or another be a prominent theme in the story of his presidency. But we can be certain that the men and women of this Yoruba mainstream will be arriving in Abuja with frustrations and ambitions of their own that go back many generations, and I doubt if they would be cowed by the sense of entitlement of a few contenders for power from across the pond.

And then there is the most important of all themes: the so-called “Muslim-Muslim ticket” will no longer be just a ticket, but would be perceived by many as a Muslim-Muslim presidency; something which millions of Nigerians simply cannot stand, even in a dream. How Tinubu and Shettima handle this thorn in their flesh over the next four years will, to put it bluntly, determine everything else. But the dynamics of this is complex and would require a whole page of its own.

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