In the arena


FREEPRESS – The greatest asset in public life is courage. The worst is what Bola Ige, no laggard, called siddon look. Ige had to rise from the ennui of the onlooker to get his feet dirty, his brain tested and his life taken.

All the men in our history who matter have not recoiled from the ring of action. They may fail. They may be caviled at. They may stumble and even end in disgrace. But they never want to become spectators, eyes alive and lusty but flesh weary and inert.

The man who would never belong to that tribe of low blood pressure is another Bola, who turned 64 last week to great eclat. He had what some philosophers will call the promethean spirit, a restless energy to rebel, to challenge, to endure, to imbue humanity with the brio to conquer his environment.

When Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu was celebrated last week, it was that vitality that seized the minds of his compatriots. But more specifically, it was to acknowledge what he started, the history he dared to foist not only on a nation, but a political class noted for its complacent surrender to quick profit.

But those who saw him begin the idea of an APC hardly expected the turnout. Some took up the idea as just a compulsive activity. The man wanted to dare Jonathan. What else did you expect of him? He was not going to go far. The new project would lumber, meet an obstacle, lose oxygen, asphyxiate, die.  The prospect seemed daunting. Jonathan’s rating had hit the heavens and his swagger menaced the potential opponent.

Tinubu had Southwest. Buhari was still sulking from a shellacking. Politicians were flocking to the PDP. The price of oil was over $100 per barrel. Pock was barreling into the pots of any political harlot. It was not a case of David daring Goliath. In the imaginations of many, David was not even born.

Others shrank into their ethno-regional comforts. CPC in the North. ANPP in the Northeast. APGA in the East. AC in the Southwest. PDP everywhere. It was no suicide to remain so. But Tinubu started. He worked the phones, called meetings, contrived committees, flew from one wheel horse to another.

But it was clear he was knocking on the door of many who preferred their sleep to hunting at night. Many of them saw the Jonathan triumph, and had developed the anti-heroic tranquility of Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s immortal novel of the sea, Lord Jim. They wanted action. They wanted to be heroes. They did not see their opportunities. When they saw it they were reluctant to take advantage. Like Jim, they jumped into the sea rather save others in a shipwreck. Nigeria was a shipwreck in the making. The news had begun to show Jonathan’s footloose attitude to the nation’s purse. Billions had been devoted to projects that never took off. A certain somnolent surrender had overtaken the men of politics. Let us wait for the election cycle and we will see what can be made of it. That was their thought mode.

Asiwaju was ready to wake them up. He was like the United States President Theodore Roosevelt, who would rather fight than faint. Hear Roosevelt on the man in the arena:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Roosevelt, often called TR to distinguish him from his relative FDR, remade himself from the profile of a high class to a frontiers man, rugged, warrior, intellectual, a nature romantic, a sort of Renaissance man.

Asiwaju was told of the menaces ahead. The big egos. The territorialism of those party bigwigs who thought him an interloper. The Jonathan men would plant spies that would undo the party. We saw that with OBJ in Labour Party. Ethnic bigots would derail them. Others said the issue of party leader would destroy the coalition. If not that, the presidential candidate.

He knew all that, and he said he had formulas for every obstacle. He who dreamed the project had seen the scenarios. Each time it happened, he sailed it. It was a fight with wrinkles. The victories came all the same. But always with wrinkles. Giants don’t fight without bruises. Bruises are often badges of honour. Sometimes he confronted roadblocks and dream enders. He took the attitude of the Ballad of St. Andrews: “I am struck and wounded; I lay me down and rest awhile and I will rise and fight again.”

He did not take this project without attention to detail. At one stage, the issue of the symbol of the party, or the name of the party, created its own challenges. Egos clashed. But he had a way of giving everyone their sop. He sacrificed much of the AC to get APC. He thought it was worth it.

Yet while it is easy to say the APC is his best political achievement yet, we may sometimes forget his best trait. In a series of tributes to him on his birthday, perhaps the best words came from party apparatchik, Ismaila Ahmed, who noted that Asiwaju had made more leaders than any leader. We know some of them: Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN), Abiola Ajimobi, Kayode Fayemi, Rauf Aregbesola, Akinwunmi Ambode, Adams Oshiomhole, et al. It is a tribute to self-confidence and selflessness. The first task of a leader is to make leaders.

But not least of all is that he knows how to make leaders win. You have to win, or else you will never be realised. In spite of the opposition of bigwigs, he stuck with Buhari, and worked the game like a chess player. The other contenders saw Buhari overcome the negatives as they, with money and other virtues, fell. Buhari, sometimes aplomb to a fault, might have been dazed to see Asiwaju the prophet turn right at every turn.

When the story of this generation is written, he will be on the front ranks of those who stopped this republic from falling, and from being charmed into decay or one-party tyranny by prostitutes and carpet baggers. In fact, if he were not here, it seems no one else was ready for the task with what Buhari called his “creativity” or even the courage and sense of timing. The other imponderable he came with is called charisma.

But the task to right the wrong has just started, with fuel queues, cascading naira, and jobs lost, he knows he has to play a role to make this era whole.

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