By Adagbo Onoja
From a great distance to both Nigeria and the Bola Ahmed Tinubu power machine, Intervention got it analytically right how the Nigerian president operates. The online platform wrote “The MetaTinubu Game and the Fuel Subsidy Decision on June 4th, 2023 amongst other paragraphs on the fuel subsidy palaver that “It is the MetaTinubu crisis that the decision reveals. MetaTinubu would mean the Tinubu epistemology of Tinubu politics, the mainstay of which is the facility of an inner core of heady ideologues who take a ‘disinterested’ look at major moves a Tinubu makes so that potential weaknesses of such a move may not only be anticipated but the dangers also argued. This is more so that the Tinubu in question is presiding over the entire Nigeria and the decisions he takes has implications for very, very vulnerable people in society. That well-known feature of Asiwaju Tinubu politics which privileges the practice of simulation obviously did not feature ahead of this decision taken at the time it was taken. The situation around the president suggests that there are no ‘big boys in the room’ to say, “Sir, this is not your inaugural speech to Nigeria in the current situation”.
The second session of the paragraph feared that the president did not appear to have the benefit of the Tinubu ‘Big boys’ facility this time or the fuel subsidy part of the speech would not have slipped through into an Inaugural speech. Subsidy might make sense somehow but announcing it on Day One was simply inappropriate because it could trigger and subtract something from the honeymoon which it did. No serious aides would let in such a sentence without a fight.
Now, the president has said that two of his aides – Dele Alake and Wale Edun – actually pulled it out. He said that sentence came only as a slip. A president has many ways of saying whatever s/he wants to say. We may never know how the sentence resurfaced. But the important point is that the president has made two statements.
The first is that the president has simply confirmed to all who care to know that Intervention does not write rubbish. For, if the analysis about MetaTinubu and ‘big boys’ is true, then whatever else we write are true, conceptually, empirically and interpretively. That is more than a billion Naira from Mr. president and coming quite early.
The second is a Tinubu statement on a substantive feature of politics anywhere in the world. But we shall restrict this to recent Nigeria and to only the presidency, meaning that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is the starting point.
As is usual with Obasanjo which is perhaps because of his military background, it is difficult to know if he had such aides who had understood him so well as to be an omnibus actor when Obasanjo was president from 1999 to 2007. He, indeed, had numerous aides, too numerous because he could reach far afield to surprising spaces to recruit for just a single task. But those are not the kind of aides we are talking about. When the concept of ‘big boys’ or internal critics are mentioned, it refers to those whose stakes in the power project is almost at par with that of the boss because a failure would be the aide’s failure too. Such aides are much lower in authority gap but they can wake up the boss at 2 am if the need arises. And they can say certain things without such being misinterpreted by anybody in the inner circle.
Let’s illustrate. Once upon a time, a certain Government House operatives in a certain state went to the governor to infer that his media adviser could not be quite loyal. They interpreted his rejection of almost all the pictures of the governor’s activities on the ground that they are not qualitative as evidence of the perceived loyalty. When the complainants left, the governor called the adviser to inform him that he has been reported for disloyalty and sabotage and both laughed over the incident. They could laugh over something that could have been a serious allegation because they have already a level of understanding of each other’s criteria of what constitutes good pictures. In other places, the issue may not be pictures but something more serious.
The only aide that came closest to a palace ‘big boy’ in the Obasanjo set up was Mr. Ad’Obe Obe. Officially, he was the speech writer or the main one. His power and access had nothing to do with his title in the Presidency. It had to do with his interaction long before Obasanjo ever dreamt a return to power in 1999. Ad’Obe Obe was the engineer graduate who went on to edit West Africa, the London based weekly in those days and met Obasanjo as his rebellious self. Obasanjo who loves such a person because of that strain in him, took to the editor and they came to the Villa together. He could tell the president whatever he wanted, both out of rebelliousness and out of the ‘big boy’ syndrome or concern for propriety. The unconfirmed story is that they left the Villa not the great friends they were before it happened.
Dr. Patrick Dele Cole would fit into the big boy club under Obasanjo, not for how the two related in the Villa but much, much earlier. It was when Dele Cole was Managing Director of the great Daily Times and Obasanjo was complaining that the paper was giving too much publicity to armed robbers. Armed robbery was a big problem then unlike today when banditry and kidnapping are its twin successor. Dele Cole then told Obasanjo that it was the business of Daily Times as a newspaper to report all the stories it could get while it was the business of government to deal ruthlessly with armed robbery. He thus implied that there was a division of labour which Obasanjo’s grumblings against the newspaper was disrupting. Cole then went on to elaborate. If, as MD of DTN, his mother got crazy and a photographer ran into her, the picture was usable on the pages of the paper because it was the duty of the paper to do while it was his own duty to go and take his mother to Aro. If my memory serves me right, it must have been General Shehu Yar’Adua who saved Cole from Obasanjo. That Cole came along with Obasanjo in 1999 shows that they had thoroughly understood each other even as that did not prevent their going different ways long before Obasanjo finished in 2007.
Mallam Tanimu Kurfi was obviously that aide in the Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua regime. Again, if that is correct, the relationship built up long before the arrival in the Villa. Both were student activists and socialists, consciously. And remained so, warts and all. They did not relate to each other in terms of the designation of President Yar’Adua and Chief Economic Adviser which Tanimu occupied. Even as Commissioner for Finance under Yar’Adua in Katsina State, the authority gap didn’t matter.
One is not sure which of the aides fit the bill under Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. The closest would seem to be the late Oronto Douglas. How close the two were long before Jonathan became president is unclear and how powerful Oronto was is even more unclear, all because Jonathan was not such a long feature in power before his ascendancy.
2015 – 2023 presents the most intriguing case. All the two individuals with the best ‘big boy’ qualifications did not show up anywhere near Buhari. One would have been Mallam Adamu Adamu while the other would have been Col Hameed Ali. From the distance, Mallam Adamu Adamu was Buhari’s best private secretary while Ali was the estimated best Chief of Staff. It never happened. In terms of intellectual grooming for the position of Chief of Staff, the late Abba Kyari was certainly a more fitting material for that office. It is safe to speculate from the benefit of hindsight that the Buhari regime might not have been the way it came to be if he were alive. But such is the beauty of speculation. Why Adamu Adamu and Ali remained in locations far away from the day – day dynamics of power will never be known beyond the numerous hypotheses: to stop him from infecting the president with his Izala tendency; to implement an unspecified agenda in the Ministry of Education; to reduce the Bauchi influence on a Daurawa and all sorts of street speculations. They may be speculations but Adamu Adamu was not someone who would have campaigned to be a minister. One may not know how he fitted into that job but it must have taken him time. He is a perfect political secretary to a Buhari with whom he had developed an incredible rapport. It would never be known if he was going to the president behind the scene regularly as things were spinning out.
Now, all the foregone is story! The big man has confirmed at least two of his ‘big boys’. That is not totally new but hearing it from the president’s mouth is good. Presidents are besieged individuals. All manner of forces and interests are on them, piling powerful pressures. Even a strong minded president can give in. That is where hard headed ‘big boys’ come in as the last frontier of the big man against sundry pressures for decisions that seem right from the standpoint of the pressure bearers but make no sense within a larger context.
It is never easy. The classic might still be the exchange between late President Reagan and the White House spokesperson. Reagan wanted to go for a medical checkup. The spokesperson said he has to issue a statement. Reagan said no, it was a private affair. The spokesperson said he would still issue a statement because there is no such thing as private affair in the president of the United States doing his checkup. I think it was Larry Summer or so. He said there was no way Reagan could quietly go to the hospital, do checkup and return without the media getting to know. and when they discovered such, only God could imagine the headlines. And what then happens to the stock market and so on and so forth. So, Reagan then conceded victory but not without asking the White House spokesperson: why don’t you then hang my underwear too. He was saying how totally he had lost privacy. I cannot recollect the name of Larry Summer’s book immediately.
Right here in Nigeria, Alhaji Sule Lamido, a one-time governor of Jigawa State was used to introducing one of his aides to people as his ‘Chief irritant’. It was his own way of acknowledging the services of the aide in question but wishing he did not have such an aide to contend with. Lamido was not a president but it is the same syndrome.
In other words, presidents are difficult to defeat on such matters. But what has happened is that there were two ‘big boys’ who fought valiantly. Their boss has advertised them to Nigerians as valiant warriors. Even though the boss had his way, there is hope that the Villa would not disorient some of the aides in terms of the alert functions of gatekeepers in power. They are the people who actually manage power. Kudos to Dele Alake and Wale Edun and the other ‘big boys’ waiting in the wings.