My reason, My path: Seun Olufemi White

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Many of us grow up with the belief that the political process in Nigeria is designed by and for those with the worst character traits, no scruples, talent or wherewithal to succeed at anything else.

Until now, this negative perception has made me a bit unsure about how to explain my transition to my peers; that, I, mid-twenty, left a promising legal career with a world-leading firm, for a seemingly less prestigious field they see as marred by violence, mal-practice, avarice and unrestrained ambition. So I have been quiet, up until now.

Nearly a year into the change in my career path, I am ready to discuss why I have pitched my tent where I have. In doing so, I hope to encourage more young people, who look like me, wherever they can, with whomever they find the conviction, to pull up a chair and sit at a table with the intention to shape Nigeria for the better. If we do not, we leave our destinies in the hands of others.

1993 Election; a watershed

Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (‘MKO’) Abiola won the landmark presidential election on June 12, 1993. Eleven days later, however, General Babangida annulled the election, later handing over power, on August 27 to an Interim National Government (‘ING’) selected by his military government.

Given the history of the military, Abiola himself quickly became cynical about the prospect of regaining his democratic mandate. However, a young senator representing the Lagos West district was bold and unrelenting in the quest for reestablishing democracy. That senator was Bola Ahmed Tinubu. So aggrieved by the annulment of what was said to be Nigeria’s freest and fairest election, Tinubu took his elderly mother, Alhaja Mogaji, who had known Babangida for years to plead with the general to affirm the democratic election. The emotional appeal failed to persuade the military head of state. Refusing to surrender, Tinubu turned to another branch of state; the judiciary, to seek the redress of justice. Assembling an outstanding team led by Professor Alfred Kasunmu SAN, he ‘engineered and proposed’ one of the ‘most significant court cases in Nigeria’.

At trial, Tinubu’s team established the illegality of the military-imposed ING. The case involved a simple yet devastating technical error that the head of state’s legal team failed to note. Babangida signed Decree 59 officially ending his eight-year reign effective from August 26, 1993. On August 26 he signed Decree 61 promulgating the ING. By the time Babangida signed the decree to create the ING he was no longer head of state, according to his own doing. Consequently, the ING was illegal. Abiola was president-elect and a judgement was issued restraining the extension of military rule via the ING. The young senator’s challenge to the military and its contravention of the rule of law would be the prelude to the subsequent fight for democracy that would take several years and, unfortunately, claim many lives.

The lovers of democracy in the country will…make this country ungovernable

The military ignored the courts and continued their role. In response, on May 1994 a group of veteran politicians and pro-democracy groups, under the leadership of Pa Ajasin, formed the National Democracy Coalition (NADECO). Tinubu was a founding member of NADECO and its backbone of financial support. NADECO gave the military government a deadline by which to resign. Asked what would happen if the dictatorship refused to step down, Tinubu said ‘the lovers of democracy in the country will…make this country ungovernable.’ For this, he was targeted and harassed. His home was petrol bombed and a bounty was placed on his head. To preserve his life he was forced into exile; losing his homes and life. In exile, he continued to support NADECO and Abiola’s judicial trial. Lawyers like Alao Aka-Bashorun, Femi Falana and Ajibola Olanipekun all worked closely with him.

Four years later, in 1998, both Abacha and Abiola died under different but equally mysterious circumstances. With ceaseless pressure from NADECO, democratic elections would be conducted. Three dominant parties made a bold statement of intent; the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, All Peoples Party, APP and the Alliance for Democracy, AD. The PDP was a coalition of divergent interests, friendly if not explicitly allied to the military establishment. The APP was cynically nicknamed ‘Abacha People Party’. The AD political party grew out of NADECO and had its strongest base in southwestern Nigeria. The PDP emerged dominant at federal level (producing General Obasanjo) and remained the “party in power” for sixteen years until 2015.

Tinubu, the former Mobil executive was elected governor of Lagos State as the AD candidate. Many AD leaders had been active in politics in previous periods of civilian rule through the Action Group, a party that—along with its successors—had long dominated southwestern politics. Tinubu had to grapple with serious internal and external political threats during his first term. He drew the anger of influential AD party elders early on by appointing political outsiders to ministerial positions. In interviews, some of the former governor’s critics said he installed his clique. Most interviewees, however, emphasized the high calibre of top Tinubu appointees. Tinubu’s competency as a consummate professional adept at building excellent teams attracted new people, people like me, then, to public service in Lagos state.

In addition to internal party rivalries, the Lagos State government under Tinubu repeatedly clashed with the federal government. Tinubu demanded true Federalism – increased state powers from the central government while then president Obasanjo blocked numerous Lagos projects ranging from independent power generation to traffic control, claiming they exceeded state authority.

Last man standing

As the 2003 elections approached, Obasanjo engaged in a forceful strategy to capture all southwestern governorships for his party, the PDP. Tinubu nevertheless won reelection. He was the only AD governor to do so. The AD was severely weakened, and Tinubu 2006 formed a new party, the Action Congress (later Action Congress of Nigeria). He established himself as southwest Nigeria’s most prominent opposition leader. By holding fast to Lagos Tinubu stopped PDP’s from converting Nigeria into a one-party state.

Governing Lagos; the Politics of Progressive reforms

In 1994, Robert Kaplan wrote that Lagos’s “crime, pollution, and overcrowding make it the cliché par excellence of Third World urban dysfunction.”
A decade later, Lagos started gaining a different type of international attention, not for the disorder but instead as a possible model of effective governance—in Nigeria and in Africa. During his tenure, Tinubu and his team overhauled the tax system, increasing compliance, ensuring government accountability on expenditure, building roads, improving security, and revenues shot up from $190 million in 1999 to over $1 billion. In an unprecedented move, Tinubu’s government began the payment of WAEC fees for all finalists in Lagos state irrespective of the state of origin; this singular act prompted mass migration to Lagos from all regions, of the country,

After Tinubu served two terms in office, his chief of staff, Babatunde Raji Fashola won the democratic mandate to govern Lagos. Fashola was a respected lawyer without political experience. His nomination drew strong intraparty opposition and prompted several prominent defections. Fashola nevertheless won the 2007 election with 828,484 votes to the PDP’s 389,088. Elected in 2007, Fashola was widely perceived as a technocrat willing to elevate good governance over politics. He won reelection in 2011 with over 80 per cent of the vote and has garnered praise in the international media as “a rare good man” and “the man who tamed Nigeria’s most lawless city.” Notably, Fashola by all accounts contributed to a substantially more efficient administration. Importantly, Fashola’s most significant initiatives were engineered and established in the administration of his predecessor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

Jagaban of Borgu, Asiwaju of Nigeria

A burning sense of injustice followed the death of MKO.

A generation experienced grave oppressive military rule and marginalisation, a young fearless senator consistently fought and invested in restoring their freedoms, the freedoms of the most populous black nation on earth. At the the time Tinubu was protesting, it was a death sentence. But for the devotion, bravery and doggedness of one man and his team, Nigeria could still be under military rule, with no platform for the likes of the PDP, or the Labour Party to contest.

Lagos became the template of what Nigerian unity truly could be; cabinet members from various regions of the country – chosen for excellence, and long-term development planning, focused on bringing jobs, opportunity and a fair chance to people previously disregarded.

The advent of democracy then brought in the dominance of one political party, which had been unable to cut its military roots, for many there was no way to confront that dominance, again the fearless senator, who had faced the fearful dictatorship would now be a leading catalyst to amalgamate major opposition parties to form the All Progressive Congress.

This role that Tinubu played as a supporter of democracy, a helper of people, and a promoter of equity is what has prompted the loyal following he has.

Many in my generation reading this, would not have known that among those vying for the presidency, he alone has a consistent track record of personal sacrifice for our democracy, adept governance and progressive reform, in spite of deep difficulty. In reading this, whether you like the man or not, I hope you understand he is not the enemy and at the very least you now have facts, not opinions or emotions to form your conclusions.

My Reason, My Path

I am a Nigerian lawyer, qualified in Britain and in New York. Having trained at one of the world’s most preeminent law firms, Clifford Chance, I have worked on some of the largest finance deals in history. In my time in practice, I advised and invested in impact ventures. In selecting leaders for the venture, we would assess past records of candidates. If there’s a proven track record, the odds are higher that success can be repeated.

Having become an active investor in project ‘a better Nigeria’, I have chosen to align myself with the leader who has the best track record, capacity and doggedness to renew hope in our country. My abiding belief is that through democracy and progressive governance, Nigeria will grow and achieve its best destiny. This is why I have pitched my tent where I have.

I now serve as the youngest aide to Bola Ahmed Tinubu and also serve as the youngest (and as one of eight women) executive in his Presidential Campaign Council. In my service, I hope to draw more attention to the multi-dimensionality of human ability and excellence. I continue to devote myself to becoming a polymath per excellence, pioneering a unique path. I remain dedicated to creating impact and amplifying the voice of young people, particularly the heretofore.

Seun Olufemi-White



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