Nigeria: A Look at Lagos in the Lead-Up to the 2019 Elections

In earlier posts, I’ve surveyed gubernatorial politics in three Nigerian states – Osun, Kano, and Borno – in the lead-up to Nigeria’s 2019 general elections. Another crucial state is Lagos, the country’s most populous state, commercial hub, and crucial node in the national ruling coalition.

For a long time after Nigeria returned to multi-partyism in 1999, gubernatorial politics in Lagos was relatively straightforward. Former oil executive and career politician Bola Tinubu won the governorship in 1999 and served two terms, then handed off power to his hand-picked successor, his chief of staff (and current Federal Minister of Power, Works and Housing) Babatunde Fashola. After Fashola ran into term limits in 2015, Tinubu again selected the winning candidate: Akinwunmi Ambode, an accountant and career civil servant. The party names have changed during this period – Tinubu initially won on the Alliance for Democracy ticket, part of which then merged in 2006 into the Action Congress, which then merged in 2013 with other parties to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), Nigeria’s current ruling party.

Now, however, things have gotten more complicated in Lagos, as the APC decided to switch horses. The party’s gubernatorial primary, held October 2, anointed Babajide Sanwo-Olu as the next candidate, sidelining Ambode. For his part, Tinubu endorsed Sanwo-Olu, speaking euphemistically about Ambode’s deviations from the “master plan”:

When I was elected governor in 1999, my administration faithfully implemented that plan. The government of my immediate successor, Tunde Fashola, also honoured this enlightened plan.

Where state government remained true to that blueprint, positive things happened. During my tenure and Governor Fashola’s, Lagos state recorded improvements in all aspects of our collective existence.

I make no pretence that the master plan is perfect. It can always be fine-tuned.

However, whenever a government departed from this plan without compelling reason, the state and its people have borne the painful consequence of the improper departure.

In other words, it sounds like Tinubu felt Ambode was bucking his authority. Following Sanwo-Olu’s victory, moreover, Tinubu urged the Lagos APC to stay united and look ahead to 2019: “You don’t bring the roof down. You don’t bring the house down. Safeguard the foundation. The exercise you have witnessed today is a prelude; it is good for the general election of the party.”

The splits in Lagos reportedly brought some tensions, however, between Tinubu and the presidency. Nigeria’s Sun wrote that initially, Ambode felt he had some chance to defy Tinubu and win the primary:

He was emboldened to challenge the age-long power establishment in the state through words of encouragement from the Presidency and some notable Yoruba traditional rulers and leaders. Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, never hid their preference for Ambode’s second term and had put pressure on Tinubu to allow the governor re-contest. This remained their position until last Monday when Ambode addressed a world press conference, where he lost his cool, accusing his challenger in the race, Sanwo-Olu, of fraud and mental illness. This, presidency sources revealed, forced the Villa to soft-pedal on their support for him.

So far, Ambode himself has fallen back into line. Initially, some observers expected him to do as frustrated/ambitious politicians in other states have done and leave the APC, but his public statements have turned conciliatory, as he tells audiences “you can therefore be rest assured of the continued sustenance of this programme by an All Progressives Congress-controlled government in Lagos State.”

Or has he? More recent reports have bubbled with rumors that Ambode is still thinking of defecting, and that APC leaders are considering a drastic move – impeaching him. The threat may motivate him to finish out the rest of his term quietly and not defect.

All of this seems like a demonstration of Tinubu’s continued power, but it also exposes some potential fault lines in the southwest. I’ve argued before that Buhari is not fundamentally threatened by the recent defections of northerners such as Bukola Saraki and Rabiu Kwankwaso to the former ruling People’s Democratic Party – but that Buhari would be threatened if he lost the support of the more or less solid southwest. Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, Buhari is scheduled to be in Lagos today. In any case, it will be crucial to watch what happens in Lagos and the surrounding states between now and February.

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