The size of President Tinubu’s delegation to the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai has raised a bit of dust. On closer examination, I think it was unnecessary noise based on incomplete understanding of the president’s sense of mission. In these matters, context is everything. There is a sense in which Mr. Tinubu’s presidency straddles two opposing traditions of sovereign authority. The man is first and foremost an elected president of a constitutional republic. But he acts and carries on more like an African king with more of ceremonial authority inspired from some primal ancestry.
In the formal context of an elected presidency, a 1,411 (or the officially admitted 422) strong size of the Nigerian delegation to just one conference is undisputedly scandalous. With hardly any roles specified for this huge train, the entire mission smacks more like a jamboree than anything else. For an elected executive presidency, accountability also implies accountancy, close attention to numbers in terms of cost. Ferrying either 1,412 persons (or even 422) to a jamboree in Dubai at a cost of N3bn cannot be badge of honour for a Nigerian government no matter where and when.
But as the entourage of an African king, a 1411 train would not make much news. The African king is a creature of ceremony, a bastion of festivity and a mobile theatre wherever he goes. A modern African president who opts to incorporate this element in his present day official outings must also be ready to bear the cost in terms of cash and public opnion in his country.
The contradiction in Mr. Tinubu’s emerging presidential tradition is that it is manifesting elements of two divergent traditions of power display. While his sovereign authority derives clearly from a presidential constitution, Mr. Tinubu’s personal orientation and cultural affinity seems replete with elements from some decadent African royal traditions. The king is always right and beyond reproach because his authority derives from a place that the mob can not fathom.
This president seems to relish the colourful pageantry of power. The retinues, the honour guards, the army of praise mongers, festival crowds lining the streets , all the clear trappings of monarchical craving. Even before he became president, this monarchical inclination was evident. When he went to present his campaign’ case at London ‘s Chatham House, Tinubu took a retinue of APC political scavengers. When asked to respond to specific issues around his campaign , he simply listed his entourage of cheer mongers as the ones to respond on his behalf! They all took turns to answer policy questions. At the end, the ‘king’ took the glory of being at the head of a ‘team’.
From the inception of his presidency, his interminable motorcades raised eyebrows. His airport departures are greeted by numerous senior government officials all of whom have to leave their offices to troop to the airport just to grin at the president. The ritual is repeated in each of his increasing returns even if from a country next door.
The African king as president is not in appearance and ceremony. The position comes complete with a litany of royal entitlements. There is the universal entitlement of the king to all the resources of the land. The king as Petroleum Minister, de facto foreign minister etc ; the right of the king to help himself and his surrogates to pots of public treasure. The transposition of this divine right of the king into a modern potential produced Obiang Nguema, Bokassa, Mobutu, Biya, Omar Bongo and others in the lineage of infamy.
Already under Tinubu, we are witnessing the early onset of a royal entitlement syndrome and a sickening personality cult from within the president’s family. A viral video of one of his daughters at a social event being hailed by crowds of praise singers as the new ‘Queen’ of Nigeria made the rounds of the social media a few days ago. The president has had to openly request his son to stop attending the weekly Federal Executive Council meetings of ministers. The same son also featured at the Dubai COP28 jamboree as part of the ‘official delegation’. The same royal son has recently been reported to have interfered on the side of a candidate contesting for the leadership of the influential National Association Nigerian Students (NANS).
Now our new budgeting style is being structured around royal precincts and key individuals: a yacht for the president, wagons and luxury automobiles for the First Lady’s office, a new mansion for the deputy king- Vice President, frightening sums for upgrading the offices of the Chief of Staff to the president , a fleet of SUVs for the law givers as royal appendages and cheer leaders of presidential fiat etc. Of course the predictable crumbs are left for the mob, the rest of us.
Contrast this to the strict formalism of constitutional Republican presidency. This requires that the president as CEO of Nigeria incorporated be relentlessly innovative and explore fresh
options in response to changing national challenges. The elected president is one of us, one with us and never one above us. He is supposed to feel our pain and appear to carry our burden.
When the resident of the US is travelling, he U.S walks the greens of the White House lawns either alone of with his wife to board his official helicopter Marine One. He is received at the foot of the aircraft by the Marine pilot who flies him to Andrews Air Force base to board Air Force One. At the foot of Air Force One, the president is welcomed by the pilot, head of the cabin crew and a Secret Service personnel as he boards to fly to anywhere in the world. Washington does not come to a standstill because the president of the most powerful nation in the world is going or coming!
It is unclear yet what President Yinubu wants to be seen as. While modern presidencies are dynamic and ‘alive’, monarchies attend to be inherently conservative and boringly inert. Nothing new happens. Unlike the best elected presidents, Tinubu is presiding over a predictable humdrum. Those who waited till after the Supreme Court’s judgment on his election have since stopped hoping and waiting for ‘something’ to happen. In fairness he has done some things. A lot of things have happened to us. He has taken off fuel subsidy and raised gasoline prices. He has unified Naira exchange rates, skyrocketed exchange rates and escalated inflation. So far, there has been no perceptible policy intervention to douse either of these vicious policies.
TOtherwise, what we have had in the past six months is a presidency of ordinary things: routine appointments of ordinary people to do nothing spectacular, predictable pronouncements, boring routine speeches and knee jerk responses to everyday contingencies etc. The combination of both a constitutional executive presidency and a shy monarchical absolutism seems to be the prevailing order. And that is the junction where Nigeria is currently entrapped. Six months after the cruel and listless Mr. Buhari left us, he seems to have left us at a bad place that is looking more like a bitter paradise lost. Going back there is unthinkable and impossible. As my friend, the late poet Kogi Awoonor famously said, “going forward is also impossible”.
Yet the criticism about the Dubai escapade is about accountability in a democratic republic. It is about realism in the republic by an executive president hired by the electorate of common folk to manage the nation as a joint stock company with us all as stakeholders . The uproar about Dubai is because we are hurting at home. The lavish entourage and waste abroad merely deepens our injuries. Unfortunately, such lavish excursions tell no one out there how badly we are bleeding at home.
Moreover, the uproar about the Dubai misadventure is mostly about commonsense and proportionality. Why compete with China in size of delegation? China is rich. We are dirt poor. China is a net polluter of the environment and so have reason to troop to Dubai to say “sorry” to everyone else. If money became an issue, the Chinese will write a cheque to the rest of the poor world to get by. Why would Nigeria spend N3bn from its borrowed funds in one week on people already feeding fat on us when many cannot find food? Concern about Dubai t is above all about the compassion of the state and the fellow feeling of those who lead us.These are accountability issues that are standard fare in the best elective democracies.
But in African demagogic monarchism , who dares question the king? Who can question the size of Paul Biya’s entourage or Obiang Nguema’s son’s fleet of luxury cars? The nation belongs to the king to do as he pleases.
The emerging duality of Tinubu’s mandate has created a crisis for his handlers: how to frighten off those who dare to question the king? This requires a condescending hostility or arrogance or both! How to defend the royal excesses of the presidential court in the context of a modern constitutional presidency? This requires attention to fact and adherence to logic with civility and respect for the rights of the public to hold and advance opinion even if it is counter to regime orthodoxy. Mr. Tinubu’s handlers are burdened into avoidable foolishness as we have seen lately. They have not yet determined whether they are royal messengers or functionaries of a modern democratic presidency. Thus enfeebled and mesmerized by the trappings and fancy titles of empty offices, they fumble along. But they are failing as both. Between the court parrot and the presidential spokesperson, the public now has to choose.
Between those who differ after doing obeisance to the king and those compelled by enlightenment and democratic compulsion to demand accountability of an elected president, the regime is already drawing a line. If you praise the king, you get appointed to something to alleviate your poverty. If you insist on the critical path, you are on the other side of an emerging political divide between regime faithful and regime adversaries or voices of the opposition.
Those who doubt the monarchical cravings of President Tinubu should reflect on how we got here. The Tinubu caveat has a clear trajectory. ‘Emi lokan ‘ is not the language of Republican democracy. It was the desperate battle cry of power as an entitlement. It is about a cry for help in a lineal succession battle in a compromised democratic succession. It became the anthem of Nigeria’s ‘turn by turn’ democracy in the run up to the 2023 pr3sdeiential elections, a shorthand for the casual ferreting of national leadership among ethnic warlords.
On ascension, ‘Emi lokan’ has since become an obligation for the new President to redefine his constituency in the best way he understands it. The Constitution imposes a nationwide constituency on any president. But this president’s primordial instincts have since shrunk the nation to a much smaller dimension. Those who are quarreling with the Yoruba lopsidedness of Tinubu’s appointments should pause and look again at the origins of his dual mandate. These appointments are a homage and tribute to primordial ancestry.
Wole Soyinka once said the only way Sani Abacha could rule Nigeria was to reduce it to his size. The only way Tinubu can rule Nigeria is to reduce it to a Yoruba republic through constitutional manipulation. This is the driving force behind the gradual emergence of Mr. Tinubu as an African King President. A pan Nigerian king is a political impossibility. A remarkable modern Nigerian president is however a vacant stool. Three and half years is time enough for Tinubu to choose where to locate his legacy.