Today, 29 May, 2023, Bola Ahmed Tinubu was sworn in as President of Nigeria at Eagle Square, Abuja. Muhammadu Buhari handed the flag of leadership to him. For Tinubu, it has been a marathon race which started over 30 years ago.
In this interview, Bayo Onanuga, the Director, Media and Publicity of All Progressives Congress (APC) Presidential Campaign Council, goes down memory lane to explain the different political undercurrents before the party primaries, the elections proper. He reveals what made it possible for him and his team to market Tinubu to Nigerians.
How did it feel to be at the commanding height of the messaging of the Asiwaju Tinubu Presidential Campaign?
You know the campaign was in two phases: We had the campaign for the primary election and then the campaign for the presidential election.
Asiwaju asked me to lead the Media and Publicity Directorate because he wanted me to be there. We’ve come a long way since 1992 or so. So, I knew him and he also knows me very well. That is why he said there cannot be any better person than someone who has been with him for a long time.
I also happened to have been his Publicity Secretary when he ran for governor in 1998/99. So, it was a familiar role. And you know, you can only sell a brand if you know the brand very well. So I know him.
During the campaign, what we tried to do at the two phases was to sell him as a candidate who has a lot of things to offer. In my interaction with him, I have known him to be a man of deep knowledge, a man of very great ideas. He has profound ideas about a lot of things.
When you talk to him, what people will call the native intelligence, he has it. The way he is able to solve problems really astounds and you wonder, where is this man coming from. And things like that.
So, the central message of our campaign was to say, here is a man who has a lot of ideas, who has been governor of Lagos State and who did very wonderfully well in Lagos State. If you were in Lagos in 1999, you should have known that the Lagos he inherited was in a total mess.
Somebody visited me from the USA, a woman, and she asked me to take her out. While driving round Lagos, the first thing she said was, Mr Bayo, you don’t seem to have road signs in Lagos. This was in 2000 or so. I said road signs? I have been in Lagos since 1977 and I never noticed that there were no road signs. So, I went to Governor Bola Tinubu and told him about the observation. He too had not noticed it.
He immediately called the Commissioner for Transport, and instructed him to start putting road signs in all parts of the metropolis. That was how they started it. That was even a simple one, because he listens to advice.
In Lagos, when he came in 1999, mountains of refuse were all over the place. He found a solution by involving the private sector. Refuse collection is now an industry in Lagos, employing thousands of people. Despite the population, Lagos is one of the cleanest capitals in Nigeria if not the cleanest capital.
Then in terms of revenue, he used to tell us the challenge he was facing in governing a state without money. He worked around it by first of all, cutting waste and plugging financial holes and then developing a template to raise the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). Even before Obasanjo seized the money for Lagos councils, he (Tinubu) has been thinking about how to raise money. He successfully raised it and he left a template that other governors followed.
(Babatunde Raji) Fashola came in, ballooned the revenue. (Akinwunmi) Ambode came in and increased it also. Today, under (Babajide) Sanwo-Olu, Lagos is easily, effortlessly, raking in over N50billion every month.
The state does not need to wait for federal money to survive. Along with Rivers, Lagos doesn’t need to wait for federal government allocation. The way Lagos has developed over the past 24 years, it can successfully be a nation state on its own. It was all his ideas. As a person, he is endowed with seeing things we cannot easily see.
Like the idea of saving and developing the Bar Beach for instance, everybody just saw it as Bar Beach, and they come year-in and year-out. The ocean was coming, taking away the sand and everything. And suddenly, the beach wasn’t there anymore. Then, every year, the Federal Government was pouring sand into the sea.
So, he thought this was a foolish idea. He and his team shopped for a lasting solution. The central government was initially sceptical about his efforts. The rest is now history.
The Lagos State government has not just protected Lagos from the ravages of the ocean. A new city is springing up in that place. It was all his idea.
He tried to rejig the Civil Service. He introduced computerisation and everything in the service. He built roads that will last. I remembered before he left, around 2006, I went to him and said, you are going next year, what legacy do you want to leave behind?
At that time, he was already talking about building the Blue Line and rail line and so on, but nothing concrete had been done. The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) was being implemented. He opened his drawer and brought out a detailed map of Lagos Island.
He said, he will reconstruct the entire roads on the Island. He did. His government gave the contract to Julius Berger and it was done before he left and handed over to Fashola.
Fashola continued with some of Tinubu’s programmes. That was why Fashola called himself the Actualiser. Lagos kept progressing.
The only problem Lagos had was during Ambode’s time. Although he did a lot of things, he didn’t continue what Fashola left behind and that was why you find the Blue Line, for instance, having a four year-gap, because he didn’t touch it.
The Lagos-Lekki Road to Epe, Ambode did not put one inch of tar on that road, he just abandoned it. He went to develop Epe town itself, leaving the road to the town, untouched. Ambode behaved more like a disruptor, by slowing down many things. If he had continued, Lagos would have gone far. Sanwo-Olu is now building the Lekki-Epe Road and he is now making it a concrete road, not an ordinary road.
Though I was not in government at that time when Tinubu was governor, I was a witness to many things he did and many innovations that he brought to government. For me, it was not difficult to sell him as a man who has a lot of ideas, as a man who can help this country to attain our dreams of a prosperous country.
That was why I said, his campaign was easy for me. I knew who he was, I knew where he was coming from and I knew he could do a lot to help this country.
There is a book he co-wrote, called “Financialism: Water from an Empty Well.” Anyone who wants to understand Bola Tinubu will need to read it to know his worldview. He told them at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group early this year that he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that deficit budget is bad. He said it can be good if it is used for productive things. If you are using it to consume then it is a compound negative, he said.
There is no nation in the world today that doesn’t do deficit budgeting. Is it America? America is the greatest debtor today. The debt per person in America is the highest in the world. In West Africa, Nigeria has one of the lowest debt per capita, despite all the money political opponents claim Buhari has borrowed.
How were you able to carve out a ‘political highway’ into the North, and achieve a synergy that has led to the eventual victory of the Asiwaju vision?
Tinubu is a good politician. Ever since he came to the Senate in 1992, he has tried to build bridges across, not just to the North, but to the East, everywhere, even in the West.
As a Senator, he had many friends across the country and that is why when June 12 was annulled and some members of the National Assembly were arrested, he was among them.
He was the person who organised some of the legislators from all over the country to protest against the annulment. When he was endangered, he went into exile with his family.
Then, in his early days as a politician, he was a member of the Primrose Group in Lagos. The group was instrumental to (Gen. Shehu) Yar’Adua beating (Lateef Kayode) Jakande in Lagos in the former SDP (Social Democratic Party) primary. He also supported Dapo Sarumi for governor before the Babangida government cancelled that primary election.
Even when he was governor, he had friends across the parties. Some of them were in PDP and some in ANPP and so on.
And he was close to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua when Yar’adua was one of the leaders of SDP or the then PF (Peoples Front). That was where he knew Abubakar Atiku and a lot of others. In fact, many of the people who he had known since 1992, they are still with him till today.
Keeping those friends and acquaintances paid off for him. If you compare him to the class of 1999 to 2007 governors, while most of those his colleagues have gone into oblivion, he remains relevant. He is still the only one around, while people have forgotten about the others like they never existed. He is still the only relevant politician because he keeps improving his politics, expanding the frontiers of his politics and having friends all over the country.
He also takes a lot of risks. Things that others are afraid to do, he will say let’s do it. You remember in the South West, after the 2003 elections, he was the only governor standing. But he didn’t say because he was the only one, he should simply surrender. Rather, he chose to fight to retrieve all those other places in the 2007 election.
When his party’s candidates were rigged out, he inspired a new way of proving rigging: forensic analysis of ballots. The novelty showed that many of the thumbprints on the ballots were either from palm nuts, or done by a few people. The analysis also showed that the voters’ register contained strange names.
That was how he was able to help, Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Labour Party candidates to retrieve stolen mandates.
He has shown over the years that he is not just an ordinary politician, but a courageous politician. And, he is a fighter.
For instance, he brought in Enron. Enron was supposed to produce electricity at no cost to the government of Lagos State. All the state needed to do was just to provide the space to put the barges from the Philippines. The Federal Government nearly frustrated the effort. Its officials were busy quoting the laws about the exclusion of states from generating power, even when the people didn’t have electricity. He was able to make government see reason and allow the project to go ahead, grudgingly, with Lagos being asked to pay for part of the cost of the power supplied to the national grid.
He agreed to pick the bill because he was looking at the larger picture. Enron had plans to produce more power for Nigeria, in addition to the initial 270MW. Unfortunately, Enron itself ran into financial trouble in America. It was declared bankrupt.
But for several years, Lagos State, until Yar’Adua came, was paying the excess that Enron was charging. Yet, the power was not used directly by Lagos as it was put on the national grid. The Lagos Government took the Federal Government to court to challenge some of its excesses. His state won most of the cases.
So, these are the things that carved his image as a fighter, a constitutionalist. As a politician, he believes we must follow the rules and that the states should enjoy some modicum of autonomy from the overbearing Federal Government.
Talking about his fights, especially in the APC, there were serial attempts to detach the party structure from him, which culminated in the sacking of the Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee (NWC) believed to be loyal to him. Can you situate his victory over those little hurdles?
Those people who were doing that didn’t know him. As I said, this man has built bridges across the country. He has so many friends, some of them are silent friends, but they know how they relate with him.
So, even when they took the party from Oshiomhole and sacked the NWC, the people who took over were not strangers to him. Remember some people thought he was going to be disqualified in the screening for the party primaries. People said Chief John Odigie Oyegun, who was the chairman of the screening panel, would disqualify him. He went there, Oyegun did not disqualify him.
Again, they thought the governors were going to disown him or betray him, he went into the primary, he won convincingly because the governors, unlike what they thought, supported him. For some of the governors, it was pay back time as he had also helped them at their hour of need.
Abdullahi Umar Ganduje and Aminu Masari gave Tinubu a solid support. So, it was not surprising that at the primary election, he won convincingly.
Prior to the primary, especially the meeting of June 4, it was like it was all over for Asiwaju. The caucus meeting of South West was held in Osoba’s residence. How did he cross that hurdle because it was expected that Osinbajo would refuse to step down?
The South West was more concerned about going to the primary election as a united front. At the time you were talking about, Amosun was in the race, Osinbajo was there, Fayemi was there, Borofice was there and Dimeji Bankole. So, the concern was: there are many of you, go there as one united front. That was the concern of Osoba, Baba Akande and so on. So, it was to make sure that the South West had a united front.
Osoba and Akande were supporting Asiwaju and they wanted others to see reasons to back him, especially Osinbajo. Osinbajo refused. And you saw what happened on the field.
People said he spent money; it is all balderdash. There is no politician who doesn’t spend money. Even Osinbajo spent money; he gave politicians money. But the politicians knew who they really wanted and that is why Tinubu won massively.
How did you handle bad press?
Dele Alake and myself are journalists. The bad press was coming from a particular section of the press and mostly from Nduka Obaigbena’s Arise TV and ThisDay. So, we needed to fight back to show their hypocrisy and that they were being funded to attack our candidate. They didn’t back down totally, but at least they softened down a bit.
What we kept doing all through the time was to keep selling him as a candidate who has the ideas to really turn this country around. That was the message we kept dishing out, that he has done it before. He can do it again.
Obi was governor, was he better than Bola Tinubu? They governed, I will say, two similar states. There was Anambra banked by River Niger. Anambra could have had a river port if the governor was forward-looking, if he was a deep thinker.
Here is Anambra, perhaps with the largest number of billionaires in the country, that any governor will have come in and said billionaires come, let’s turn our state into something bigger than what we have. But, he didn’t do all those things till he left Awka. In fact The Guardian published that story that Obi left Awka as a village. He met it as a village, he left it as a village. And, just some years after, people were now telling us, a man who failed in Anambra, will be a good president of Nigeria. It was crazy.
Our pitch was that: our candidate met Lagos with mountain of refuse, with low revenue, with bad infrastructure and left it much better than he met it. He even left a template of continuity. Our candidate is clearly better than the Obi and Atiku that they were selling. That was the message we kept pushing.
But the campaign was almost derailed towards the end with the introduction of Naira swap and the fuel scarcity. The Naira swap, with currency shortage all over the country, was clearly aimed at him, to create deep resentment against the ruling APC.
At a stage, he was so concerned about the plight of our people and he contemplated withdrawing from the race, so that Emefiele and his co-conspirators could give our people some respite. It was inconceivable, unthinkable that a ruling party will come up with a currency swap, weeks to the election. It was so ill-timed; a very senseless programme that pauperised the poor people more.
The currency swap de-capitalised the poor people of Nigeria. You find that people selling pepper and fruits couldn’t even get buyers. Products became rotten without buyers. There was a day in Lagos that I pumped my tyres at N1000 each. So, he increased the money from N200 to N1000 each. Poor people were pauperised further.
So, the two policies that happened at that time made our people to hate APC more. We could have lost the election, as a lot of odds were stacked against us. But Tinubu won because of the belief in his track record. The voters believe that this man could make a difference.
They believe he could perform as president.
In Lagos, part of the reasons we narrowly lost the state was that we did not even have money to pay party agents. So, the Labour people had a field day. There was the hand of God in the outcome of that election. We lost Lagos where we thought we were going to get three million votes. We won in Benue where we thought Governor (Samuel) Ortom has sold Benue to Labour Party. Ortom said he was ready to sacrifice his senate seat to Labour and he lost it. His candidate did not win the state at the end of the day.
Tinubu’s victory is God-ordained. It was God that splintered PDP, making it go into the election factionalised as G-5, Kwankwaso in Kano, Obi in the South East. How could Atiku have won the election?
Atiku was counting on just the northern votes and, unluckily for him, most of his northern states are not in the hands of PDP. Even in Sokoto that he claims he won, he beat us narrowly. It was the same in Katsina State. Atiku won Kebbi but we still had our 25 per cent. There was a logical pattern to Tinubu’s victory. Where he did not even win outright, it was either he came second, sometimes coming close second.
How did you feel about the backlash over the letter you wrote to NBC for which Channels was fined and people saying that NBC was taking dictation from you?
This was not true. The NBC had taken its disciplinary action before our letter arrived. Our letter did not trigger the sanction. It came after the act. People who were attacking me got it all wrong.
The letter was not our first. Channels and Arise were all misbehaving. We had cause to write NBC before, to complain about the professional violations being committed by the stations.
You see, unlike the print media, the electronic media is better governed, they have rules and it is those rules we were saying they needed to abide by.
There are certain things you cannot do on television. If you have a guest, who is saying things that Nigerians should go and riot, you are not supposed to allow that man to speak on your station. You are supposed to say no, don’t say that on air and it is either you take him off air or you do something to show he can’t say those things on air. It is against the governing rules of radio and TV transmission.
We didn’t do anything wrong in asking NBC to sanction according to the rules, to sanction Channels over the interview that Datti Ahmed gave. Go and listen to that interview! What Seun could have done was to cut the man off air, that he was talking trash. How can the man be saying the Supreme Court should follow his dictate, that the winner of the election should not be sworn-in, and all that rubbish?
The interview came at a time when the LP had announced to the world that they are filing case in the court; when you file a case in the court, why do you go again talking about it. It was sheer blackmail.
Look at what the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trace Union Congress (TUC) are doing. How can you say along with some NGOs that you are going to set up a register to shame judges? NLC owns Labour Party but if you check in all the election cycles, NLC tries to keep some distance from the party. But in 2023, they put themselves inside Labour Party.
The NLC and TUC belong to all Nigerian workers, who are members of other parties.
I know that they are going to face problems under Bola Tinubu presidency. How will Mr. Joe Ajaero and the TUC man, face a Bola Tinubu team and say, you are negotiating on behalf of Nigerian workers. Which workers? Labour Party workers? They are going to have problems because they are already partisan; they are politicians. So, I don’t know how they are going to get out of this problem.
What role did research play in your messaging because we saw effective campaign messaging? What was the level of research that went into it?
If you check most of the things we pushed out, we normally try to at least dig deeper not just write something, to check our facts, to know that whatever we want to write is based on facts. We do that a lot.
We worked as a team; I won’t just generate a statement from my desk. We have some level of people we work with. They do a draft, they send to me, after I read, I will send to some other people. They will make suggestions. So, that was the way we were operating.
Sometimes, we ask the candidate to check it, is that what you want us to push out? Sometime, he will say don’t do this, don’t dabble into this, leave them alone.
There was a time we wanted to attack Ngige when they asked him on television, are you supporting Bola Tinubu? And he could not say yes or no, and we said this one will not be a good party man and you are APC and you are working in APC government and you cannot come out to say yes, he is our candidate, we are supporting him.
So, at that point, we said we should try to, at least, scold him for the position he took publicly. We asked Tinubu; he said leave Chris alone.
As somebody who has been around Asiwaju Tinubu for a long time, can you give Nigerians a window into his federal executive council meetings? And also executive-legislative relations?
He is a democrat. Of course, I am sure he will ask anybody who is bringing a memo to the council to have done research very well.
Continue reading from the source: The Guardian