2nd February, 2023
By Wale Adebanwi
Whoever wins the February 2023 presidential election in Nigeria would have done so chiefly because of, or, in spite of, Mamman Daura, the 83-year-old senescent nephew of President Muhammadu Buhari. This might seem an ostentatious claim or an inflationary attribution of power to a man whose only claim to it, in the present circumstances, is that the president is his younger nephew. Yet, this is an open secret among those with a deep knowledge of the current struggle for the presidency and the nature of power under the Muhammadu Buhari administration. But most people are not eager to discuss the matter directly in public, either because of discretion and/or fear of the ‘almighty’ Daura.
However, between the candidate of the ruling party, Governor Bola Tinubu, and the candidate of the main opposition party, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, there is a clear recognition of the central role that Daura is playing and would play regarding who becomes the next president of Nigeria. For the former Lagos Governor, this could not have come as a surprise. He recognizes that the presidency, which has been, for the most part of the last eight years, effectively under the control of Daura, is being mobilized one way or the other against him. Perhaps more than any other person, it is Daura who has ensured that Tinubu would not reap, as ‘designed,’ the full benefits of his total investment in making Buhari president. When Buhari declared upon acceding to power that he “belonged to nobody,” it was in part a ventriloquist shot from his nephew in the direction of the man who had assumed that he would be the power behind the throne. At the centre of the process that eventuated in the much analyzed “outburst” of the Jagaban at Abeokuta, when he let it be known to the world that “emi lo kan” (“it is my turn”; or “I am next”) was Daura’s machinations to ensure that Tinubu would not be the presidential candidate of the ruling party, let alone succeed Buhari.
Those who thought that the outburst sealed Tinubu’s fate were to realize later that the man has not governed Nigeria’s most important state either directly or by proxy for 22 years for nothing. By taking the battle to Buhari and his handlers, the Abeokuta wager turned out to be a courageous venture that helped to stop Daura and his constituents in their tracks – and thus, made a mockery of their desperate bid to hand over the party’s ticket to the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan. If Tinubu’s spirited survival of the President Olusegun Obasanjo-led “tsunami” that swept all the other AD governors out of power in 2003 did not convince most people about the man’s political genius, how he retrieved every single South-western states in installments from the opposition and ended up installing Buhari as president in concert with other forces, should have confirmed his unusual political potency. No doubt, that potency was at its most vulnerable when he formally joined the bid to win the APC ticket – and remains so now that he goes for the ultimate prize. Yet, it was also the point at which all of his accumulated political assets had to be mobilized in the service of his life-long ambition. However, it must be noted that it was not until Tinubu encountered Daura that he experienced his first major sustained checkmate in the politics of the Fourth Republic. The man who has since become the most valuable player in Yoruba politics was dealing with an unusual adversary in Daura. None of those that Tinubu had had to wrestle with since 1998 – that is, when he started his campaign to be the governor of Lagos State – possessed the strategic advantage of a combination of stealth, reticence and unaccountable power as Daura does.
Cerebral, generous but taciturn, Mamman Daura, the fascinating power-monger par excellence, and the former newspaper editor and manager seems resolved to terminate Tinubu’s political ambition on the eve of the latter’s ultimate home run. As the only surviving member of the triumvirate that can lay claim to almost unbridled influence over Muhammadu Buhari, Daura is well-placed to either hinder or advance the ambition of the two leading presidential contenders, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar in the February 2023 presidential election. And he is not shy to use his leverage in tipping the scale against the former Lagos governor. With the passing of the two other closest people to Buhari, that is, the late Emir of Borgu, Haliru Dantoro Kitoro III, who died in October 2015, barely five months after Buhari came to office, and Liman Ciroma, Nigeria’s first qualified archaeologist (who the Guardian of London described in an obituary in 2014 as a “a fine public servant” who was ‘courteous, considerate and generous”), the Daura-born presidential nephew has had no counter weight since 2015. Had he lived well past 2015, the late Emir, who was singularly responsible for brokering the rapprochement that made the “political marriage” of Buhari (CPC) and Tinubu (ACN) possible, would not have allowed the deliberate distancing between the two that followed Buhari’s ascendancy to power. The first lady, Aisha Halilu Buhari, could not replace the late Borgu monarch. Her intrepid effort to stand up to Daura ended in semi-exile in Dubai, as her husband declared that her place was in the “other room.” But the resolute woman is back with vengeance. Now, as we move towards February 25, she wants to ensure that Daura’s reign would end with that of his kin.
It was as if fate was conspiring against Tinubu and Nigeria in the passing of the Emir of Borgu and Ciroma. Not a few around Buhari believe that his administration would not have come to this sorry pass if the two had lived longer. At least, Daura would not have had a debilitating unchecked leverage over Buhari in the last eight years, which most people believe to be a tragedy for Nigeria. These two late gentlemen, not having to be around the Villa like Daura, would have provided some other avenues of reaching Buhari in moderating the excesses of those who have determined the terrible trajectory of his headship of the Nigerian state. But those who know Daura well still wonder how such an otherwise fine mind and quiet soul had turned into one of the most consequential and hindering power mongers in Nigeria’s history. Those in this category even insist that Daura’s influence on Buhari and his leverage in this government have been overstated. They would add that if the country were to have been differently organized, the suave, lettered and cultivated man would have been the president and his not similarly lettered uncle would have been his aide.
But the reality of Daura’s influence and imprint on the most devastating actions and inaction of this administration are too glaring. Take the way he has preserved and protected the tragedy that answers to the tag of the Governor of the Central Bank, Godwin Emefiele – even encouraging, as many believed, the latter to run for the presidency, and keeping Emefiele in office after that abortive ambition. How could such a man who clearly had a conflict of interest be allowed to not only continue in office, but claim to be changing the colour of the currency in order to affect the outcome of the presidential election?
Imagine the untold suffering of the poor masses of the country that this ill-considered measure has caused. Whatever you think of the leading contenders for the presidency, his adversaries would insist, there are fewer stronger examples of Daura’s gamble with the fate of the nation and of democracy than the recent moves by edgy fifth columnists of all stripes.
For those still wondering what happened to the candidness of ‘Candido,’ the famed masked newspaper columnist of the defunct New Nigerian: it is power. This is what power does to human beings, especially when they assume that they have Power with a capital “P” – though all that any of us can have, even in the best of circumstances, is only power with a small “p.” No one can have Power. It eludes even the most deranged among us throughout human history. Yet, that does not stop some people from attempt to play God.
Will Daura’s role as the “unseen god of the Aso Rock Villa” in the last eight years be confirmed or repudiated in the next presidential election? We have only a few weeks to find out. But whatever happens, Daura would no doubt have done his best to determine who would (not) be our next president.
•Adebanwi, author of Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, is the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.