Bayo Onanuga, the Director of Media and Publicity for the All Progressives Congress (APC) Presidential Campaign Council, goes down memory lane in this interview to explain the various political undercurrents before the party primaries. He explains how he and his team were able to market Tinubu to Nigerians.
How did it feel to be at the helm of the Asiwaju Tinubu Presidential Campaign’s messaging?
You know, the campaign was divided into two parts: the primary election campaign and the presidential election campaign.
Because he wanted me to be there, Asiwaju asked me to lead the Media and Publicity Directorate. Since 1992 or so, we’ve come a long way. So I knew him, and he knows me pretty well. That is why he stated that no one can be better than someone who has been with him for a long time.
I was also his public relations director when he ran for governor in 1998/99. As a result, it was a familiar role. And, as you may be aware, you can only sell a brand if you are intimately familiar with it. So I’m familiar with him.
Throughout the campaign, we attempted to sell him as a candidate with a lot to offer in both phases. In my interactions with him, I have found him to be a man of great knowledge and ideas. He has profound ideas about a variety of topics.
When you talk to him, you will notice that he possesses what is known as native intelligence. The way he solves problems astounds you, and you wonder where this man is coming from. And other such things.
So, the central message of our campaign was that here is a man with a lot of ideas, who has been governor of Lagos State, and who has done exceptionally well in Lagos State. If you were in Lagos in 1999, you should have realized that the Lagos he inherited was in shambles.
A woman from the United States paid me a visit and asked me to take her out. The first thing she said while driving around Lagos was, Mr Bayo, you don’t seem to have road signs in Lagos. This was around the year 2000. Did I mention road signs? I’ve lived in Lagos since 1977 and I’ve never noticed a lack of road signs. So I went to Governor Bola Tinubu and informed him of my findings. He, too, had missed it.
He immediately called the Commissioner of Transport and directed him to begin putting up road signs throughout the city. That’s how they got started. That was also a simple one because he takes advice.
When he arrived in Lagos in 1999, there were mountains of garbage all over the place. He found a solution by enlisting the help of the private sector. In Lagos, refuse collection has become an industry, employing thousands of people. Despite its population, Lagos is one of, if not the, cleanest capitals in Nigeria.
In terms of revenue, he used to tell us about the difficulties he faced in governing a state without money. He got around it by first reducing waste and plugging financial gaps, and then creating a template to increase Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). Even before Obasanjo seized the funds for Lagos councils, Tinubu was considering how to raise funds. He was successful in raising it, and he left a model for other governors to follow.
When (Babatunde Raji) Fashola came in, the revenue skyrocketed. Ambode (Akinwunmi) came in and increased it as well. Today, Lagos is easily, effortlessly raking in over N50 billion per month under (Babajide) Sanwo-Olu.
The state does not have to rely on federal funds to survive. Lagos, like Rivers, does not need to wait for federal government funding. Lagos, based on its development over the last 24 years, is capable of functioning as a nation state in its own right. It was entirely his idea. He is endowed with the ability to see things that others cannot.
For example, when it came to saving and developing Bar Beach, everyone just saw it as Bar Beach, and they came year after year. The ocean was approaching, sweeping away the sand and everything else. And then there was no longer a beach. The Federal Government used to pour sand into the sea every year.
As a result, he thought this was a stupid idea. He and his team looked for a long-term solution. His efforts were initially met with scepticism by the central government. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Lagos State government has not only kept Lagos safe from the ravages of the sea. A new city is emerging in that location. It was entirely his idea.
He attempted to restructure the Civil Service. He revolutionized the service by introducing computerization. He constructed long-lasting roads. I remember going to him around 2006, before he left, and saying, you’re leaving next year, what legacy do you want to leave behind?
He was already talking about constructing the Blue Line and rail lines at the time, but nothing concrete had been done. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) was being implemented. He pulled out a detailed map of Lagos Island from his drawer. He stated that he intends to rebuild the entire island’s roads. He did. His government awarded the contract to Julius Berger, who completed it before leaving and turned it over to Fashola.
Fashola continued some of Tinubu’s initiatives. That is why Fashola referred to himself as the Actualiser. Lagos kept moving forward.
Lagos had only one problem during Ambode’s tenure. He did a lot of things, but he didn’t continue what Fashola left behind, which is why the Blue Line, for example, has a four-year gap because he didn’t touch it.
Ambode abandoned the Lagos-Lekki Road to Epe without laying a single inch of tar. He went on to develop Epe town, leaving the road to the town alone. By slowing down many things, Ambode acted more like a disruptor. Lagos would have gone far if he had continued. Sanwo-Olu is currently constructing the Lekki-Epe Road, which will be a concrete road rather than a regular road.
Though I was not in government at the time Tinubu was governor, I witnessed many of the things he did and the innovations he brought to government. It was not difficult for me to sell him as a man with many ideas, as a man who can help this country achieve our dreams of a prosperous country.
That is why I stated that his campaign was simple for me. I knew who he was, where he was from, and that he could do a lot to help this country.
Anyone interested in understanding Bola Tinubu’s worldview should read “Financialism: Water from an Empty Well,” a book he co-wrote. He stated at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group earlier this year that he does not believe a deficit budget is bad. He stated that it can be beneficial if used for productive purposes. If you consume it, it is a compound negative, according to him.
There is no country in the world today that does not practise deficit budgeting. Is it the United States? Today, America is the world’s largest debtor. America has the highest per capita debt in the world. Despite all of the money political opponents claim Buhari has borrowed, Nigeria has one of the lowest debts per capita in West Africa.
How did you carve out a ‘political highway’ into the North and achieve the synergy that led to the Asiwaju vision’s eventual victory?
Tinubu is a capable politician. Since his election to the Senate in 1992, he has worked to build bridges not only to the north, but also to the east, everywhere, and even to the west.
As a Senator, he had many friends all over the country, which is why he was among those arrested when the June 12 elections were called off. He was the one who brought together legislators from all over the country to protest the annulment. When he and his family were threatened, he fled to exile.
He was a member of the Primrose Group in Lagos in his early days as a politician. The group helped (Gen. Shehu) Yar’Adua defeat (Lateef Kayode) Jakande in the former SDP (Social Democratic Party) primary in Lagos. He also backed Dapo Sarumi for governor before the Babangida administration cancelled the primary election. Even as governor, he had friends from both parties. Some were in PDP, some in ANPP, and so on.
And he was close to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua when he was a leader of the SDP or the then-PF (Peoples Front). That’s where he met Abubakar Atiku and many other people. In fact, many of the people he’s known since 1992 are still with him today. Keeping those acquaintances and friends paid off for him. When compared to the class of governors from 1999 to 2007, he remains relevant while most of his colleagues have faded into obscurity. He is still the only one around, while the others have been forgotten about as if they never existed. He is still the only relevant politician because he is constantly improving his politics, broadening his political horizons, and having friends all over the country.
He also takes many risks. He will say, “Let’s do it!” to things that others are afraid to do. You may recall that after the 2003 elections, he was the only governor left standing in the South West. But he didn’t say he should simply surrender because he was the only one. Rather, he chose to fight for all of those other positions in the 2007 election.
When his party’s candidates were rigged out, he pioneered a new method of proving rigging: forensic ballot analysis. The novelty revealed that many of the thumbprints on the ballots were either made from palm nuts or were done by a small group of people. The analysis also revealed that the voters’ list contained unusual names.
That is how he was able to assist candidates from the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the Labour Party in recovering stolen mandates.
He has demonstrated over the years that he is a courageous politician, not just an ordinary politician. He’s also a fighter.
For example, he brought in Enron. Enron was supposed to produce electricity at no cost to the Lagos State government. All the state needed to do was make room for the barges from the Philippines. The Federal Government almost derailed the effort. Its officials were busy quoting laws prohibiting states from generating power, even when the people were without power. He was able to persuade the government to see reason and allow the project to proceed, albeit reluctantly, with Lagos being asked to pay for a portion of the cost of power supplied to the national grid.
He agreed to choose the bill because he was thinking about the big picture. Enron intended to produce additional power for Nigeria in addition to the initial 270MW. Unfortunately, Enron ran into financial difficulties in the United States. It declared bankruptcy.
However, prior to the arrival of Yar’Adua, Lagos State had been paying the excess that Enron was charging. However, because the power was placed on the national grid, it was not directly used by Lagos. The Lagos government went to court to challenge some of the Federal Government’s excesses. His state won the majority of the cases.
So these are the characteristics that shaped his image as a fighter and constitutionalist. As a politician, he believes that we must follow the rules and that states should have some autonomy from the federal government.
Concerning his battles, particularly within the APC, there were numerous attempts to detach the party structure from him, culminating in the dismissal of the Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee (NWC) thought to be loyal to him. Can you pinpoint his triumph over those minor obstacles?
Those who were doing it didn’t know who he was. As I previously stated, this man has built bridges all over the country. He has many friends, some of whom are silent, but they all know how they feel about him.
So, even when they deposed Oshiomhole and sacked the NWC, the people in charge were not strangers to him. Some people believed he would be disqualified during the screening for the party primaries. People speculated that Chief John Odigie Oyegun, the screening panel’s chairman, would disqualify him. Oyegun did not disqualify him because he went there.
They thought the governors would disown or betray him, but he went into the primary and won convincingly because the governors, contrary to popular belief, supported him. It was payback time for some of the governors because he had also helped them in their time of need.
Tinubu received strong backing from Abdullahi Umar Ganduje and Aminu Masari. So it was no surprise that he easily won the primary election.
Prior to the primary, particularly the June 4 meeting, it appeared that Asiwaju’s career was over. The South West caucus meeting was held at Osoba’s house. How did he overcome the expectation that Osinbajo would refuse to step down?
The South West was more concerned with presenting a united front in the primary election. At the time you were referring to, Amosun was running, as were Osinbajo, Fayemi, Borofice, and Dimeji Bankole. So the concern was: there are a lot of you; go there as a group. That was Osoba’s, Baba Akande’s, and others’ concern. So it was to ensure that the South West presented a unified front.
Osoba and Akande supported Asiwaju and wanted others to see reasons to support him, particularly Osinbajo. Osinbajo declined. And you witnessed what occurred on the pitch.
People claimed he spent money, but this is all nonsense. There is no such thing as a politician who does not spend money. Even Osinbajo spent money; he gave it to politicians. But the politicians knew who they really wanted, and Tinubu easily won.
How did you handle negative press?
Dele Alake and I are both journalists. The negative press was coming from a specific section of the press, primarily Nduka Obaigbena’s Arise TV and ThisDay. So we had to fight back to demonstrate their hypocrisy and the fact that they were being paid to attack our candidate. They didn’t completely back down, but they did soften up a little.
Throughout the campaign, we kept selling him as a candidate with the vision to truly transform this country. That was the message we kept repeating: he had done it before. He’s capable of doing it again.
Was Obi better than Bola Tinubu as governor? They ruled over two states that were, to put it mildly, similar. Anambra was bordered by the River Niger. Anambra could have had a river port if the governor had been visionary and creative.
Here is Anambra, possibly the state with the most billionaires in the country, and any governor would have said, “Billionaires come, let us make our state bigger than what we have.” But he didn’t do any of that until he left Awka. In fact, The Guardian reported that Obi had left Awka as a village. He arrived as a village and left as a village. And, just a few years later, we were told that a man who failed in Anambra would make a good Nigerian president. It was insane.
Our pitch was that our candidate arrived in Lagos with a mountain of trash, low revenue, and poor infrastructure and left it much better than he found it. He even left a continuity template. Our candidate clearly outperforms the Obi and Atiku that they were promoting. That was the message we kept hammering home.
However, the campaign was nearly derailed near the end due to the introduction of the Naira swap and fuel scarcity. The Naira swap, which resulted in currency shortages throughout the country, was clearly aimed at him in order to instill deep resentment against the ruling APC.
At one point, he was so concerned about the plight of our people that he considered withdrawing from the race so that Emefiele and his co-conspirators could provide some relief to our people. It was unthinkable that a ruling party would propose a currency swap just weeks before the election. It was a very inconvenient programme that further impoverished the poor.
The currency swap decapitalized Nigeria’s poor people. You discover that people selling peppers and fruits are unable to find buyers. Without buyers, products spoiled. I pumped my tyres for N1000 each one day in Lagos. As a result, he increased the money from N200 to N1000 per person. Poor people were further impoverished.
As a result, the two policies that occurred at the time increased our people’s dislike for the APC. We could have lost the election because the deck was stacked against us. Tinubu, on the other hand, won because people believed in his track record. The voters believe that this man has the potential to make a difference. They believe he is capable of serving as President.
In Lagos, one of the reasons we narrowly lost the state was a lack of funds to pay party agents. As a result, the Labour Party had a field day. God had a hand in the outcome of that election. We lost in Lagos, where we expected to receive three million votes. We won in Benue, where we believed Governor (Samuel) Ortom had sold the state to the Labour Party. Ortom stated that he was willing to give up his Senate seat to Labour, and he did. At the end of the day, his candidate did not win the state.
Tinubu’s victory is predetermined by God. God splintered the PDP, causing it to run in the election as G-5, Kwankwaso in Kano, and Obi in the South East. How did Atiku win the election?
Atiku was counting solely on northern votes, and unfortunately for him, the majority of his northern states are not controlled by the PDP. Even in Sokoto, which he claims he won, he narrowly defeated us. The same thing happened in Katsina State. Atiku won Kebbi, but we still had 25% of the vote. Tinubu’s victory followed a logical pattern. Where he did not win outright, he finished second, sometimes very close second.
How did you react to the backlash over the letter you wrote to NBC, for which Channels was fined, and claims that NBC was taking your dictation?
This was not the case. Before our letter arrived, NBC had taken disciplinary action. The sanction was not triggered by our letter. It happened after the act. People who were attacking me were completely wrong.
This was not our first letter. All of the Channels and Arise were misbehaving. We had previously written to NBC to express our displeasure with the stations’ professional violations.
You see, unlike print media, electronic media is better governed; they have rules, and it is those rules that we said they had to follow.
Certain things are not permitted on television. If you have a guest who says that Nigerians should go riot, you are not supposed to let him speak on your station. You’re supposed to say no, don’t say that on air, and either take him off the air or do something to demonstrate that he can’t say those things on air. It is against the rules of radio and television transmission.
We did nothing wrong in asking NBC to sanction Channels for the interview that Datti Ahmed gave in accordance with the rules. Listen to that interview now! Seun could have cut the man off the air because he was talking trash. How can the man say the Supreme Court should follow his orders, that the election winner should not be sworn in, and all that nonsense?
The interview came at a time when the LP had announced to the world that they were filing a case in court; when you file a case in court, why do you go talk about it again? It was pure extortion.
Consider the actions of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC). How can you say, in collaboration with some NGOs, that you intend to establish a register to shame judges? NLC owns the Labour Party, but in all election cycles, NLC tries to maintain some distance from the party. However, in 2023, they will be incorporated into the Labour Party. The NLC and TUC represent all Nigerian workers, including those who are members of other parties.
I’m sure they’ll have issues under Bola Tinubu’s presidency. How will Mr. Joe Ajaero and the TUC representative stand up to a Bola Tinubu team and claim to be negotiating on behalf of Nigerian workers? Which employees? Workers for the Labour Party? They will have difficulties because they are already partisan; they are politicians. So I’m not sure how they’re going to get out of this jam.
Because we saw effective campaign messaging, what role did research play in your messaging? What was the level of research involved?
If you look at most of the things we’ve released, you’ll notice that we usually try to dig deeper rather than just write something, to double-check our facts and ensure that whatever we’re writing is based on facts. That is something we do frequently.
We collaborated; I will not simply generate a statement from my desk. We work with a certain level of people. They write a draught and send it to me; after I read it, I will send it to some other people. They will make recommendations. So that’s how we were doing things.
We sometimes ask the candidate to double-check it; is that what you want us to send out? He will occasionally say, “Don’t do this, don’t dabble in this, leave them alone.”
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We wanted to attack Ngige when they asked him on television if he supported Bola Tinubu. And he couldn’t say yes or no, and we told him, “This one will not be a good party man, and you are APC and you work in APC government, and you can’t come out and say yes, he is our candidate, we support him.”
So, at that point, we agreed that we should at the very least chastise him for his public stance. Tinubu told us to leave Chris alone.
Can you give Nigerians a glimpse into Asiwaju Tinubu’s federal executive council meetings as someone who has known him for a long time? And what about the executive-legislative relationship?
He is a democratic candidate. Of course, I’m sure he’ll expect anyone bringing a memo to the council to have done extensive research.