ABUJA – The newly elected president of Nigeria is the first person chosen to lead the country with less than 50% of the vote. And his rivals have yet to signal that they accept the legitimacy of the election.
Suffice to say, the glass is not looking half full as Bola Tinubu, a former accountant and politician for more than 30 years, prepares to take the reins of Africa’s largest economy, a nation of more than 200 million that is suffering from widespread poverty, violent crime and religious extremism.
There are questions about how the 70-year-old Tinubu — one of Nigeria’s richest politicians — became so wealthy. And many younger Nigerians doubt his ability to improve economic opportunities for all, let alone reduce violence and corruption, in a country that is one of the world's leading suppliers of oil.
“Despite how long Tinubu has been in the political area, there is very little known about him,” said Leena Koni Hoffmann-Atar, associate fellow in Chatham House’s Africa program. “There are indications that his wealth derives from the control he has had on Lagos politics for the last 20 years or so. He has evaded scrutiny for much of his political life.”
Tinubu is rarely seen without his signature hat and its embroidered image of a broken shackle, emblematic he says of the fractured nation he will break free of poverty. How exactly he plans to do that is not clear.
But he is confident he deserves the chance to try. The former governor of Lagos state boldly told party members last year: “It's my turn!” speaking in the Yoruba indigenous language.
Tinubu, who is Muslim and garnered strong support in Nigeria's heavily Muslim northern region, emerged victorious from a crowded field of nearly two dozen others vying for the ruling party's nomination, including the incumbent vice president.
With 37% of the vote, the president-elect is scheduled to take office on May 29. His main opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar won 29%, and third-place finisher Obi took 25%, according to official results.
Hours after the election result was announced Wednesday, Obi’s running mate told reporters in Abuja that they plan to challenge the outcome in court on the basis that it didn’t follow the provisions of Nigeria’s electoral law.
After receiving a certificate that confirms him as president-elect, Tinubu asked for support from all Nigerians, promising to unite a divided nation. “For this to be a victory at all, it cannot simply be a victory for one man or even one party.”
Observers say Tinubu is not only tenacious but has been a kingmaker in politics for years.
“Godfather of politics in Lagos just about describes him perfectly," said Malik Samuel, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. "Since he left office as governor in 2007, he’s single-handedly determined who became governor of the state.”
In 2018, Tinubu had a falling out with the man holding his former governorship.
“So (Tinubu) pulled every string to ensure that the governor was denied the party ticket that would have enabled him to go for a second term,” Samuel said. "He’s that powerful that not even a sitting governor in Lagos from his party can afford a falling out with him.”
Now Tinubu prepares to lead a country that by 2050 is forecast to become the third most populous nation in the world, tied with the United States after India and China.
Despite the country's vast oil wealth and the ultra-wealthy individuals who have benefited from the industry, rampant poverty has helped fuel an Islamic insurgency in the northeast that has spilled over into Nigeria's neighbors. Attacks by armed groups in the north and separatists in the south have killed thousands in the last year.
Much about his early life is unknown, prompting some to even question his age on the campaign trail.
It is believed that Tinubu spent time in the United States as a young man, working as a security guard, a taxi driver and a dishwasher to make ends meet while living in Chicago and Virginia. He has said that he went on to work as an executive at Exxon Mobil.
He once told a newspaper that he was “almost killed” as part of a group fighting the military regime’s annulment of Nigeria’s 1993 presidential election, which has become the symbol of democracy in the country. He then spent four years in exile abroad before returning home.
Only months later he was elected governor of Lagos state, and he spoke often about his tenure while campaigning for president.
“I led the transformation of Lagos from a dangerous, unwelcoming place in 1999 to a clean, safe and vibrant place,” he said after clinching the ruling party’s ticket last year.
But his connections and track record couldn’t bring him victory last weekend in Lagos state, which was instead won by opposition candidate Obi.
Analysts say he did well elsewhere in the southwest and his campaign clearly benefited from the All Progressives Congress party’s position of power under incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
“Tinubu has utilized alliances he has established with regional power brokers and the ruling party’s dominance over state resources,” said Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence firm.
Still, he faced many questions during his campaign from those who doubt his promises to fight corruption, and those who question his age and health status. He was also under investigation by Nigeria’s anti-graft agency as recently as 2021.
Tinubu now must strike a delicate balance in a country where the presidency is used to rotating between faiths. For years there was an unwritten rule that Nigeria's presidency alternated between a Muslim in the north and a Christian from the south.
Because Tinubu hails from the southwest of Nigeria, that could ease the concerns about having two back-to-back Muslim presidents. But Tinubu also has chosen a Muslim northerner as his vice president.
“The breach of power rotation among different regions and ethno-religious groups will likely remain a source of tension,” said analyst Durmaz.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal and Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed.