The People’s Republic of Lagos

By Tolu Ogunlesi

(Originally published on August 17, 2011, in Ongoing Concerns, my column in NEXT)

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Benin Republic, through its debonair president, Boni Yayi, has declared itself Nigeria’s 37th state. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. This paper reported it, on August 10. Mr. Yayi strolled across the border, and made his way to the hilltop mansion of former President, Olusegun Obasanjo.

“I have come to visit my father, Baba Obasanjo, who is a world leader who should not be ignored. He contributes positively towards the ongoing genuine democracy in my country, Benin Republic, and many other African nations. I shall forever remain grateful to him,” My Yayi gushed.

He wasn’t done. “Obasanjo is a great man. What is important to me is for God to give him long life. My plan is to be coming to Nigeria every month because we cannot do without Nigeria. Benin is like the 37th state of Nigeria,” he said.

I wonder what his citizens thought of that – a president visiting another, to gleefully surrender his sovereignty, in peace-time. Even though the news reports did not say that Mr. Obasanjo, a former Army General, held up a gun to Mr. Yayi’s temple, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some duress involved. Mr. Obasanjo is not a novice in this bullying business. Ask Mathieu Kerekou, one of Mr. Yayi’s predecessors.

It was in August 2003, during Mr. Kerekou’s second stint in office, that Mr. Obasanjo – as President of Nigeria – ordered the closure of the Nigeria-Benin border. Mr. Obasanjo did it to force Benin to surrender Hamani Tidjani, cross-border robbery kingpin, to Nigerian authorities. For a long time Mr. Tidjani’s car-snatching bandits had terrorised Lagos and Ogun States.

Not long after the border was closed, Benin – whose economy partly depends on the smuggling of second-hand cars into Nigeria – delivered Tidjani, like a DHL package, to the then blameless Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun.

But let’s not deal in conspiracy theories – there’s no evidence that Mr. Yayi’s statements, last week, in Mr. Obasanjo’s house, were obtained under duress. Mr. Yayi seemed to mean what he said.

Which leads to the exciting part: the tantalising possibilities of a peaceful 21st century geo-constitutional revolution in West Africa. If – or when – Benin eventually becomes a Nigerian state, a Nigerian state will have to be given the chance to declare its independence, so as to ensure the preservation of Nigeria’s 36-state structure.

My vote, like yours, is for Lagos to be that lucky Nigerian state. If things go as envisaged, before long we will witness the birth of the People’s Republic of Lagos, as the African Union’s 55th member country. Coming in the wake of the historic independence of South Sudan, this can only be great news: another bloodless redrawing of borders, in a continent better known for its propensity to shed blood on the flimsiest of grounds.

The prospect of a People’s Republic of Lagos excites me. “If Lagos were a country,” notes the Economist in its May 5, 2011 edition, “its GDP of $43 billion would make it the fifth-biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa.” And if Lagos were a country, its population of 15 million would put it in the ‘Top 20′ on the ranking of most populous African countries.

Indeed, Lagos is already by far Nigeria’s most independent state; two-thirds of its revenues are internally-generated. And it has already started to act like an independent nation anyway: Babatunde Fashola’s government has for a few years now been regularly deporting hordes of non-Lagosians to their Nigerian home states.

Now, the question to be faced is this: why should the Federal Republic of Nigeria allow Lagos to emerge as an independent nation?

Simple – the PDP government will finally get a chance to get rid of Bola. Tinubu and his band of “rascals” (libel lawyers should please note that I did not coin that appellation; and the person that did is currently covered by constitutional immunity).

The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) can therefore have Lagos to themselves, in exchange for a promise to immediately cease interfering in the political affairs of south west Nigeria. Led by a rehabilitated Olabode George, the PDP can thereafter reclaim the renegade west in a series of spectacular ‘do-or-die’ battles.

Nigeria will no doubt miss Lagos – imagine the commercial potential of Lagos ports’ alone – but, according to the PDP’s reckoning, that’d be a small price to pay for saying goodbye to one of the world’s most dysfunctional urban agglomerations. From then on Nigeria will not have to bear the shame of ‘Welcome to Lagos’ and all other dubiously conceived Nigeria-bashing BBC documentaries.

Besides there’s still Port Harcourt anyway, which will be enthusiastically developed to replace Lagos as a viable port city. And don’t forget that the Republic of Benin will also be bringing to the Nigerian table its own port city, Porto Novo.

Under the new arrangement – i.e. the People’s Republic of Lagos co-existing with the Federal Republic of Nigeria – Mr. Tinubu’s long-standing presidential ambitions will be realised, as will be the dreams of all those people eager to see Mr. Fashola take up national-scale responsibility. A Putin-Medvedev combination will be recreated in the People’s Republic of Lagos – President Bola Tinubu and Prime Minister Tunde Fashola, or vice versa.

Other benefits: Benin will immediately start to benefit from Nigeria’s oil wealth. Nigeria will officially become a multi-lingual country – French and English as official languages. (Think of the size of the contracts that will be awarded, for French textbooks, French lessons for all government officials, including First Ladies) etc.

Abuja will no longer have to deal with any envy-inducing challenge from Lagos – think of how many people out there still consider Lagos to be the capital of Nigeria.

The above looks, to me, like a classic win-win-win scenario, for all parties. Doesn’t get any better than that, does it? Now join me in saying: ‘Thank you, Boni Yayi.’

 Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2013

(ON)GOING CONCERNS: December 16, 2006 – The night of the giant Tipp-Ex

excerpt from my most recent column article, published in Next, Wednesday June 15, 2011

Let’s turn to former FCT Minister, and Obasanjo-era insider Nasir El-Rufai, to hear his own account of that same December 16 night (contained in a now widely distributed profile of Yar’Adua, published online in 2009)

“At the night of the primaries, Umaru Yar’Adua sent for me and came out of the State Box at Eagle Square and intimated me of this. An acceptance speech had been prepared for him, containing the announcement of Peter Odili as running mate. This was not acceptable to him, but he was also unwilling to disagree with Obasanjo so early in the game. I suggested that he rallies the governors to oppose the decision to announce Odili as running mate, and decline the nomination if all else failed.”

So, while a meeting was going on in Uba’s house, another equally frantic one was going on at Eagle Square, between El-Rufai and a nervous Yar’Adua; both sharing the same purpose: “Odili Must Go!”

Never in the history of Nigeria have so many been united against the Aso Rock ambitions of one person (apart from Ibrahim Babangida, that is).

Absolute authority on the matter lay in the hands of god: Olusegun Obasanjo, ably supported, El-Rufai tells us, by “Tony Anenih, Ahmadu Ali and Ojo Maduekwe” – in my opinion the supreme council of lesser gods of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

El-Rufai tells us that he had to settle for a “last resort”, as follows: “I sent people to wake up Nuhu Ribadu, then Chairman of EFCC to help persuade Obasanjo since all else appeared to have failed. It was not until about 5am that Ribadu succeeded in getting Odili off the ticket.”

Read the full article here

(ON)GOING CONCERNS: Choosing the next president

(On)Going Concerns, my weekly column for NEXT, appears on Wednesdays, in print and online. This week’s piece (Feb 23, 2011) below:

Choosing the next president

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd recently told the Financial Times: “I believe in politics for the two questions it asks of us. One is: ‘What do you stand for and why?’ And the second is: ‘Do you know what you are talking about?”

These are excellent questions to carry over into the Nigerian situation.

Think of Nuhu Ribadu. What comes to mind is a man who came into public reckoning on the strength of his fearlessness, and determination to rid Nigeria of financial crime. Think Fola Adeola and Pat Utomi, and their impressive resumes speak for them, evidence of a consistently-manifested genius for visionary thinking, and for the management of people and resources. Tunde Bakare brings “conviction”, “fearlessness” and “integrity” to mind.

I think of Dele Momodu and of a certain drive and eclectic ambition; a man who, once he sets his eyes on a goal, will work to make it happen. Muhamadu Buhari evokes frugality and (to borrow from Wole Soyinka) “dis’plin” – qualities sorely needed in a country ravaged by lawlessness and recklessness.

Now think of Goodluck Jonathan, and what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s time to confess my confusion. Has Mr. President done a great job of letting us know what exactly he stands for, and to what extent he knows what he’s talking about. I honestly can’t say for sure.

Maybe it’s simply a personality issue. Mr. Jonathan does seem to be an introvert, which in itself is not a bad thing. But I fear that he is not doing a good enough job of asserting himself in the office he occupies. (Now, sadly, this is one of those lines that I fear someone in one of the anti-Jonathan camps will seize and proclaim on Facebook, for campaign purposes).

Continue reading here

An ‘Evening of kingmakers’ – PDP Presidential Primaries 2011

My article, An ‘Evening of kingmakers’ – PDP Presidential Primaries 2011, has just appeared in Y! online, here

President Goodluck Jonathan (right) and V. P. Namadi Sambo (left) - Photo Courtesy http://www.thisdaylive.com

An excerpt:

There must have been millions of Nigerians watching through the traditional media – the live TV and radio broadcasts.

Unlike four years ago, however, there was another community observing – those tuned in through social networking media. What that group may have lacked in size (the truth is that there are far fewer people within than outside it) they more than made up for in the aggressive energy with which they pushed out their opinions – on Twitter, 140 unruly characters at a time.

This community didn’t exist when the PDP selected the late Umar Yar’Adua as its Presidential candidate in December 2006. Its members did exist of course, but the ‘wiring’ and ‘platform’ that made it possible for them to ‘network’ and aggregate their voices into one raucous, witty, irreverent conversation didn’t exist back then.

Read the full piece here

Nigeria’s ruling party presidential primaries #2011

by Tolu Ogunlesi

This is the first of a series of articles that will be appearing between now and April, on Nigeria’s 2011 general elections.

Update: You may also read this on the Nigerian daily, NEXT’s website, here

Anyone would be forgiven for assuming that Nigeria’s presidential elections will actually be holding in Abuja today, and not in April as advertised by INEC. Five thousand persons – imagine an outsized papal conclave – will assemble at the Eagle Square cast ballots to decide on the candidate that will run for presidency on the platform of the PDP.

The attention being focused on the primaries by local and international media suggests that there is an assumption that Presidency is the PDP’s birthright, and that whoever wins today will easily go on to become Nigeria’s next President. The reason for this is simple: the PDP has held the position since 1999, and despite recent judicial losses of a number of state governorships, still maintains an overwhelming majority in executive and legislative offices at Federal and State levels across the country. There is no real opposition to the party’s hegemony at national level.

When, at the end of today, a chieftain of the PDP counts the ballots publicly, many watchers will recall the 2003 primaries, when incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice President Alex Ekwueme (this time again the leading contenders are an incumbent President and a former Vice President) were the top contenders for the party’s presidential ticket. Instead of a hotly-contested race, what emerged was a very predictable – and overwhelming – victory for Obasanjo.

Cash and carry

Party primaries in Nigeria are typically cash-and-carry affairs; the only rule being the absence of rules. Delegates ‘eat’ from all contending camps, and keep their options open till the last minute. This can make it a most frustrating exercise for candidates, requiring an endless supply of cash, often denominated in dollars. (Richard Dowden has a fascinating account in the chapter on Nigeria in his book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”)

There is no evidence that today will be different, whether in how the battle will be fought (with cash), or in the outcome (victory to the ‘incumbent’). No incumbent Nigerian President has ever lost a re-election bid. In a political system in which the President is seen as “leader” of the party, it is hard to imagine how a challenger would succeed staging an upset, and dislodging the person from whom all patronage – contracts and appointments – flows. Already a number of party leaders have insisted that there is “no vacancy” in Aso Rock.

But it is worth pointing out that the Atiku of eight years ago would certainly have floored Goodluck Jonathan, or anyone else, in a contest for the PDP presidential ticket. Indeed Atiku, as a super-powerful Vice President in 2003, was on his way to snatching the ticket from his boss, President Obasanjo, in the primaries of that year.

It took much pleading on Obasanjo’s part to convince his deputy to give up his ambitions. Today, Atiku probably realises, regretfully, that in 2003 he passed up his most viable chance to become President of Nigeria.

In the years since then his influence within the PDP has diminished considerably. Between 2007 and 2010 he was a member of the opposition Action Congress (later ACN), to which he defected when it became clear Obasanjo did not have any plans of handing over to him. Having returned to the ruling party only a few months ago, it is doubtful that he has had any time to (re)build the sort of structure and network that could pose a noticeable challenge to an incumbent.

The Obasanjo factor

One person who may play a deciding role in today’s outcome will be the 73-year-old former President. Obasanjo’s influence within the PDP may have suffered a massive whittling-down since he left office, but anyone who thinks him down-and-out will be greatly mistaken. For one he remains the Chairman of the party’s influential Board of Trustees.

There is no doubt that Mr. Obasanjo will throw his weight behind Mr. Jonathan, who he handpicked as Vice President in 2007. A bitter fight between Obasanjo and Atiku, dating back to the 2003 primaries incident (presumably Obasanjo is still smarting from the humiliation Atiku subjected him to), and which consumed their second term in office, suggests that Obasanjo is not likely to sit back and watch his one-time deputy clinch the PDP ticket.

Atiku will be counting on his vast wealth, the fact that he emerged as the ‘consensus candidate’ of the ‘North’, and on the residue of his once intimidating influence on the PDP; Jonathan on his incumbency advantage, and the endorsement of most of the PDP Governors, who will be providing the delegates.

But if the past is anything to go by, today’s winner will be the person whose cash speaks loudest.

Follow me on Twitter at @toluogunlesi