Questions and concerns over Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s absence from the Nigerian public space, which has trended on Twitter for days on end, are not misplaced or ill-willed gotcha maneuvers by political detractors. They are legitimate expressions of anxieties over the fitness of a man who has the most probable chance to be Nigeria’s president in 2023.
Forget what flawed, poorly designed—and, in some cases, transparently partisan—polls say about the 2023 presidential election. The auguries, for now, favour a Tinubu win next year. Atiku Abubakar and the PDP are mired in an irrecoverably debilitating internal turmoil, and Peter Obi’s wild popularity in the Southeast, the South-South, and some parts of the Christian North is not sufficient to win a presidential election—unless it transcends these regions and leads to actual votes in his favor.
So, heightened apprehensions over Tinubu’s disappearance from public view—and at events where his presence is required— aren’t the idle, bilious indulgences of his haters that his defenders might say they are. They sprout from an acknowledgement that he could be president who will decide the destinies of 200 million Nigerians.
Tinubu was the only presidential candidate who failed to show up in person when presidential candidates of Nigeria’s 18 registered political parties met on Thursday to sign an accord that commits them to a peaceful campaign in the 2023 presidential election. That event was too momentous to miss. Why did Tinubu miss it? What was more important than it, and where is he?
A member of the APC Presidential Campaign Council by the name of Ayo Oyalowo told Arise TV’s Charles Aniagolu that Tinubu is resting in London. “What’s he doing in London? He can’t rest in Lagos,” Oyalowo said. “They will not let him rest. So, he came [sic] into Abuja most of the time. They will still not let him rest. This man has been working for an average of 20 hours in 24 hours in each day. So reasonable people thought, ‘Oga, you need to leave this country because they will not let you rest.’”
This is a curious defense of Tinubu’s self-engineered blackout from public view. Even if it’s true that he needed to take a break from the high-pressure exertions of political campaigns, why did he choose to leave the country on or shortly before an event as important as the signing of a peace accord among presidential candidate, a yearly ritual since 2015 that attracts international media attention? Isn’t that a self-own?
Most importantly, though, if he becomes president, he would be under even more ponderous pressure than he is as a presidential candidate. Is Oyalowo suggesting that a President Tinubu would relocate the Nigerian presidency to London to evade or minimize the perpetual pressures of the presidency? Which self-respecting patriot who wants to rule his country runs away from it to another country (and a former colonizer’s country, to boot) in moments of pressure? Where else in the world does that happen outside of banana republics?
And why London? Why not, for example, Obudu Ranch in Cross River State or the Yankari Game Reserve in Bauchi State? Or the hills of Iragbiji in Osun State? These are serene, idyllic places in Nigeria whose quietude can restore inner psychic equilibrium and calm frayed nerves. Why do the people who rule or want to rule Nigeria have such deep-seated resentment of and disdain for the country and a corresponding slavish reverence for our former colonizer?
In this, Tinubu is not alone. Even Peter Obi who markets himself, and is touted by his supporters, as “different” from the rest routinely travels to London to “consult” and strategize for the 2023 election—when he is not seeking the endorsement of the same failed old stagers he says he’s different from. He is an Establishment, neocolonial flunkey dressed in borrowed robes. Atiku Abubakar is no different. He is gripped by the same xenophilic fever that causes our leaders to worship the foreign and despise the nation they want to rule. Dubai is his second—some would say first—home.
But Tinubu is the front runner and the likeliest, for now, to succeed Buhari, far and away Nigeria’s most neocolonial president who finds more comfort in London than he does in Abuja and who has abandoned all pretenses to governance.
In a September 16, 2017 column, I described Buhari as suffering from “Obsessive Compulsive Runawayism,” which I defined as the impulse to desert Nigeria for London, or anywhere else in the West, when the going gets tough, which Tinubu appears to be afflicted by, too.
“This is a president who will leave Nigeria for anywhere at the drop of a hat,” I wrote. “He spent most of 2015 and 2016 traveling the world (for no justifiable reason, in retrospect) and a good bit of  on ‘medical vacation’ in London. So, when he said (or, if you will, joked) that he felt like ‘absconding’ after the enormity of the task he was elected to do stared him in the face, he wasn’t being faithful to the facts. He actually did abscond.” It got even worse after the column was published.
The worries and queries about Tinubu’s frequent habitation in London when he is needed in Nigeria are a direct consequence of our experience with Buhari who has elevated absenteeism, nonchalance, and “ungovernance” to an art. Nigeria’s problems are too enormous to be additionally burdened with another absent, detached, inelegantly insouciant presidency, which Tinubu’s current attitudes suggest we will have should he become president.
Tinubu and his minders need to come clean about the state of his health. If they insist that he is as fit as a fiddle, they need to tell us why he has been uncommunicative in the last few months. Communication with the public is a core feature of the American-style presidential democracy we practice in Nigeria. It is public communication that affords the president the opportunity to influence public opinion, to interface with citizens, and to frame and reframe the contours of national conversations.
That is why we now talk of the “rhetorical presidency,” where the goal of presidential communication is no longer to just persuade lawmakers (which is unnecessary in Nigeria since National Assembly members are often pliant yes-men and yes-women) but to win the popular approval of the public. What sort of presidency does Tinubu want to have if he becomes president? A continuation of Buhari? Well, he may not be as lucky as Buhari has been.
After eight years of Buhari’s vacant, dementia-plagued presidency, the last thing Nigeria needs is another presidency that will double down on it, that would be conducted through dishonest press releases by presidential spokespersons, paid social media troll farms, and TV appearances by deviously mercenary mind managers.