Alhaji Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu is a Nigerian you cannot ignore – love or hate him. The former Lagos State Governor is credited with having good eyes for spotting and nurturing talents. Certainly for a Governor who had the likes of Tunde Fashola (SAN), Professor Yemi Osinbajo, Pastor Ben Akabueze and host of other respected technocrats in his cabinet, it must be given to him that he had a good measure of self-confidence – even before he became stupendously rich. The common tendency, among many Governors, is to pack their cabinet with lily-livered aides and ‘yes men’, who cannot look ‘His Excellency’ in the eyes and respectfully tell him the truth.
In this reflection, I will interrogate Tinubu’s recent attempts to re-invent himself as a patriot.
While speaking to newsmen at Obalende, Lagos, on August 11 2019 Tinubu was reported to have urged Nigerians to work for growth, not separatism. As he put it: “First, we must learn to embrace peace and be tolerant. Aside from that, we must demonstrate love and expect peace because stigmatization will not help the country at this stage in our life”. Elsewhere Tinubu had called himself a ‘nationalist’. Again while visiting Pa Reuben Fasoranti, leader of the Afenifere, whose daughter Funke Olakunrin was allegedly killed by Fulani herdsmen in July 2019, Tinubu was reported to have said:
“How many years ago have we faced the insecurity in the country? There are cases of kidnapping, is Evans too, who was arrested and made disclosures, also a herdsman? I don’t want to be political, but I will ask where the cows are?”
The above are certainly words of one, who on face value, probably does not want to be confined to a clannish groupthink. Given Tinubu’s recent antecedents and rumoured interest in running for the presidency in 2023, it is legitimate to interrogate his newly found patriotic rhetoric: There are a number of observations:
One, patriotism is often defined as an emotional attachment to a nation which an individual recognizes as his/her homeland. Patriotism is sometimes called ‘national feeling’ or ‘national pride’ – hence, a nationalist/patriot is a person who strongly identifies with his/her own nation and vigorously supports its interests, even against his/her own personal or primordial interests. Patriotism and nationalism are often used interchangeably. The core features of patriotism include special affection for one’s own nation (country); a sense of personal identification with the nation, special concern for the well-being of the nation and willingness to sacrifice to promote the nation’s good. Though used interchangeably by patriotism advocates, there are differences between ‘nation’, ‘state’ and ‘country’. While ‘country’ and ‘state’ are synonymous terms that apply to self-governing political entities, a ‘nation’ however is usually used to refer to a group of people who feel that they are one or ought to be one. As an ‘imagined community’, it is easier to evoke a sense of patriotism among citizens where the nation-building process is advanced (‘proper nations’) than in societies where the basis of togetherness remains contested (where the country is seen as a mere geographical expression).
A common tendency among some ‘patriotism’ advocates is to mistake patriotism for groupthink where, loyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial or non-conforming issues and ideas or even alternative solutions. The use of ‘patriotism’ to stifle debate or blackmail people into joining the bandwagon in servicing narrow interests or accepting values they do not agree with is perhaps what Samuel Johnson, the English poet and essayist had in mind when he called patriotism “the last refuge of the scoundrel”.
Two, it is important to underline that in a multi-ethnic society like ours, ‘national feeling’, does not automatically translate into ‘Nigerian feeling’. Here we get into the tension between ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’. A ‘nationality’ could be defined as a ‘stateless nation’. A nation or nation-state often has different nationalities within its range. For instance the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Hausa/Fulani, the Ijaw, Idoma, etc. are nationalities within the Nigerian nation-state. In countries where the basis of nationhood remains contested, nationalities often compete with the nation-state. In such countries, one’s identity as a member of a particular nationality competes with one’s identity as a citizen of the country in which that nationality exists. The fact that one is a proud Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani, Ijaw or Idoma however does not necessarily mean that the person is less patriotic than others who do not flaunt their pride in their ethnic homeland. The decisive issue is the manner in which this pride in the ethnic homeland is portrayed and narrated.
Three, patriotism is a good and desired attribute of citizens. However what we call ‘patriotism’, at any moment, is based on certain power configurations and power relations. For instance in garden talks and beer parlour political conversations, it is not uncommon for one side to charge the other: “Please let’s put sentiments aside and be patriotic here.” In reality, what the person who is playing the patriotism game is saying is simply: “let us accept things the way they are for the love of the country” or “try and see the issue from my perspective.” Further interrogation will reveal that the patriotism advocate in such conversations is often either a supporter of the existing regime or governing party or a direct or indirect beneficiary of the existing order. This means that the whole notion of patriotism has an underlying power substructure, in which words like ‘patriotism’ and ‘incompetence’ are merely tools of blackmail deplored in the intra-elite competition for power and lucre. So if Tinubu is suddenly playing the role of a patriot, we will have to ask if his current stance on issues were also his stance on those issues when he was thought to be marginalized by the government shortly after the APC came to power in 2015.
Four, was Tinubu being a patriot, regional irredentist or simply self-serving, when, during the 2019 election, he virtually threatened the Igbo in Lagos to vote for his party the APC or..? It is widely believed that Tinubu’s utterances and body language, (including remarks by his wife Senator Remi Tinubu that “we no longer trust the Igbos”) helped to trigger xenophobic attacks and disenfranchisements in Igbo-dominated areas of Lagos during the election. Groupthink is antithetical to democracy which thrives on a vibrant marketplace of ideas. It also undermines the notion of a nation as an ‘imagined community’. Where do we locate Tinubu’s, machine-type, money-driven and in-your-face brazen form of god-fatherism and greedy cornering of political appointments for his cronies, often without being sensitive to the needs of contending power players or the need for justice and equity to others?
Five, to be fair to Tinubu, he has not, until recently (when he thought he faced humiliation in Lagos) been known to be antagonistic towards other ethnic groups in Lagos State. As Governor of Lagos State, he was one of the first governors in Nigeria to initiate the idea of appointing non-indigenes of the State into his cabinet. The question here is: Are these ‘nationalistic gestures’ of the past enough to compensate for Tinubu’s recent regional irredentist politics and groupthink as manifested eloquently during the 2019 elections? Are they enough to compensate for his rumoured push for Muslim-Muslim ticket (with himself as Buhari’s running mate in the run-up to the 2015 general election) in a religiously and ethnically diverse society as ours? Also what are Tinubu’s positions on critical national issues such as restructuring, the nature of the national economy, Nigeria’s foreign policy, herdsmen-farmers crisis – when he was Governor of Lagos State? What are his positions on such issues now? It is important to interrogate the consistency (or lack of it) of his position on national issues with a view to teasing out the motives that animate his positions over time.
Six, as Tinubu begins re-inventing himself as a patriot, is it possible that in trying to become a ‘nationalist’ (to help actualize his rumoured presidential ambition) that he also unwittingly becomes alienated from his regional base as he seeks to win the affection and support of the Northern wing of the political class? I believe that Tinubu, just like any other Nigerian, has a right to aspire for any office in the land. However as politicians start plotting for the next election cycle, and begin re-inventing themselves solely for the purposes of capturing power, it also behoves on us to ‘shine our eyes’ and ask them the hard questions.