By Okey Ndibe
If you asked him, Ahmed Bola Tinubu would declare that he’s running to become Nigeria’s next president. Yet, his campaign’s recent antics suggest that the man has his sights on a different title: bully-in-chief.
A few days ago, the editors of ThisDay and Arise TV – owned by Nduka Obaigbena – issued a searing rebuke of Tinubu. They accused the APC’s presidential candidate of threatening to rain fire and brimstone on Obaigbena and his media group should Tinubu clinch the presidency. Apparently, the media group drew the candidate’s ire by reporting on his alleged implication in a narcotics operation in the United States. For years, Tinubu had been dogged by allegations that he was once something of a drug lord in the US. But the details remained foggy until recently. The equation changed recently thanks to painstaking archival work by an enterprising private journalist, David Hundeyin. He dug up court documents that removed the matter from the zone of mere conjecture. According to those documents, American authorities had compelled Tinubu to forfeit hundreds of thousands of dollars. And those funds were unambiguously identified as the proceeds of drug crimes.
ThisDay and its publisher claimed that Tinubu’s handlers had flung vitriol, blackmail and worse at them for daring to highlight the would-be president’s shady past. They alleged that two of Tinubu’s spokesmen, Bayo Onanuga and Dele Alake, had aimed verbal howitzers at the media for scrutinizing their principal’s record.
The editors refused to quake in fear or retreat. Indeed, they declared themselves unapologetic and undeterred. They wrote: “It is important to state that for national security, foreign policy, and national interest, any candidate aspiring to be the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should not shy away from media scrutiny concerning any link with drug trafficking, or be associated with anyone so involved, however tangentially.
“It is a national security question for which all patriots must seek answers: it goes to the heart of our nascent democracy and indeed our political stability. We need full and complete answers on the entire circumstances leading to the forfeiture.
“Nigeria cannot afford a Noriega moment despite some of the acrobatics of APC spokesmen trying to make light of forfeiture of funds linked to drug trafficking.
“Have the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the Nigeria Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) investigated this? We need their reports and clarity, one way or the other, in this most important national security question on the 2023 elections with implications for our democracy.”
The editorial board also accused senior APC officials of demanding that ThisDay fire two of their most intrepid journalists, Shaka Momodu (who edits the newspaper and writes a column) and Rufai Oseni, a co-host of Arise TV’s popular morning show. The media group said it was asked to brace for severe consequences from a Tinubu presidency if the two needling journalists remained at their post. It would not yield. “The boards of editors of ThisDay newspapers and the Arise News Channel would like to state without equivocation that we do not fire journalists because of their views. Facts are sacred and opinions free is the age-old dictum to which all free-thinking men subscribe. We allow our editors the freedom to air their opinions unfettered and have created the Office of the Ombudsman to take any complaints and discipline any abuse of office by any of our staff members.”
For its temerity, the media group and its owner received a fusillade of accusations from Onanuga and Alake (full disclosure: both were colleagues of mine at the defunct Concord newspaper group). They stated, in effect, that Obaigbena had no ethical legs to stand on. They said that Muhammadu Buhari’s administration had forced him to return hundreds of millions of naira in illicit funds he’d collected from former President Goodluck Jonathan. They also accused him of betraying the late Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, a benefactor of his and presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Obaigbena, according to Tinubu’s spokesmen, was so morally bankrupt that he sold his soul to the junta that annulled Abiola’s election.
Obaigbena has responded to the charges against him. He agreed that he had refunded monies he received from the Jonathan Presidency, even though he disputed the illegitimacy of the funds. He denied ever abandoning Abiola.
Is Obaigbena a crook in the sense suggested by Tinubu’s camp? He may well be, but that’s neither here nor there. The question strikes me as a distraction, an attempt to deflect from a more pertinent line of inquiry.
Obaigbena is not seeking to run Nigeria; Tinubu is. If the former ever presented himself as a candidate for Nigeria’s highest office, I’d insist that he respond to any questions impinging on his moral capacity. If he collected questionable payments from a former administration, readers and consumers of media should decide whether there was any use reading his newspaper or watching his TV network. That’s as far as that goes.
The stakes are far higher, and more consequential, for Tinubu – for the simple reason that he’s asking that Nigeria’s entrust him with managing their storm-tossed, imperiled ship of state. If he’s an ethically wretched man – for example, a erstwhile dabbler in narcotics trade – that should be a disqualifying fact.
It’s deeply troubling that Tinubu appears to believe he doesn’t have to level with Nigerians about his past. He’s haunted by the drug scandal, but also caught in a miasma of other scandals. Lots of people have raised credible questions about such basic details as his real name, birth date, early-to-late academic career, and the source of his gargantuan wealth.
His handlers assert that he has nothing to hide. Yet, he passes on every opportunity presented to him to declare his bona fides. In a sense, his war with Obaigbena is rooted in his refusal to show up at a town hall on Arise TV to debate other presidential candidates. Rather than appear at the second town hall, he skipped off to London where he put up a cringe-inducing show at Chatham House. He could not answer the softest of questions from moderator Alex Vines and others. Instead, he took to distributing questions to members of his delegation.
In my immediate past column, I had invited Tinubu to consider removing himself from the presidential race. It’s not because I didn’t think he could win. On the contrary, for Nigeria has a solid history of catapulting verifiable misfits onto the presidency and other elective offices. I asked him to quit because he is, as I argued, clearly physically diminished and mentally enfeebled. Despite the mounting proof of his malaise, a few of his supporters accused me of writing out of an ethnic impulse. As if they were blind to the man’s many visible deficits.
Tinubu’s performance in London seemed primed to remove all doubt. His inability to respond to the most basic of questions could be summed up as the case of a charlatan at Chatham.
Tinubu’s team may go after Obaigbena and his editors all they want. But they can’t erase inescapable questions deeply embedded in the minds of Nigerians. Nor can their bullying reignite confidence in their man’s fitness for office of president.