USAfrica: Nigeria’s presidency, Tinubu and ‘Drug Money Laundering’ saga


By Chudi Okoye, PhD., contributor to USAfrica and

“Love and marriage,” says a song first recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1955, “go together like horse and carriage.”

In much the same way, politics-and-dirty tricks have long been seen as intricately linked. So much so that the portmanteau word, ‘politricks’ (which has a Jamaican provenance and implies politics characterized by perfidy), is an official entry in the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang.’

In the long, kaleidoscopic history of the world, going back even to the ancient dynasties of Sumer and Egypt, more practitioners of politics have been tainted than sainted.

The subject of political vice has been studied by philosophers and theorists down the ages, often as a departure from Plato’s abstract utopianism to the deft empiricism of Aristotle.

We see it most vividly in Machiavelli who proclaimed that political practice always involved deception, treachery, and crime. And it’s seen today in what theorists call ‘the problem of dirty hands‘. Machiavelli, a foremost figure in the realist tradition of political thought, argued in his famous book, ‘The Prince’, that immoral acts were justified if they served the interest of the ruler.

The book focused on the effectual truths of rulership, directly contradicting the dominant scholastic doctrines of the Renaissance era when it was published, especially those concerning political virtue. It’s not far from the Italian thinker to the grim concept of realpolitik that governs political practice today, in the domestic and international arenas.

If politics is not a noble but an inherently dirty game, per the popular claim, why do we persistently yearn for virtue in public officeholders? Why do we consider personal virtue a moral armament for public office and not merely a laudable ornament of personal disposition? We often think, in our ‘great man’ conception of leadership, that we need leaders who have courage, fortitude, conviction, stamina, decisiveness, and composure. We long for leaders who are brave, intelligent, thoughtful, tactful, compassionate, competent, charismatic, visionary, and inspirational. We admire those seen as good communicators, good listeners, and good decision-makers who can manage, delegate or pick the right talents, etc. We also usually add to these, ethical qualities such as honesty, integrity, morality, probity, compassion, and a sense of justice. We insist on these ideals of public virtue even though we rarely elect virtuous leaders. Puritanist America, for instance, elected shady Donald Trump, as it did even shadier characters in its past, despite the insistence of John Adams, founding father and second US president, that the American “constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”

As in America, so almost everywhere else, going by the tracking of Transparency International and other agencies. So, most certainly, in Nigeria.

If our political leaders have not been virtuous in practice, why do we insist on the ideal of public virtue?

This question is fundamental to the issue now bubbling around Bola Ahmed Tinubu, flag-bearer of the All Progressives Congress (APC), involving sordid allegations of drug trafficking, money laundering, and forfeiture of funds in the United States of America. There is some speculation that this might impact Tinubu’s chances in the 2023 presidential election, with some expecting the worst for the candidate.

It is likely that this issue will soon blow over and that at the end of it all, Teflon Tinubu may not really suffer any serious political setback. For one thing, though there seems to be a serious circumstantial presumption against his innocence, he was never personally indicted in the case – as his spin doctors insist on saying – and was thus never actually tried in court, let alone convicted. Also, it seems, for whatever reason, that the Nigerian authorities have been reluctant to seriously pursue any of the investigatory leads in the case. Finally, there’s the curious fact that his political opponents – despite their constant cackling in the media – seem so far unwilling to test the matter in court. The diffidence of the opposition is baffling given the political capital they could gain from litigating the case. It’s even more surprising when you consider some evidential circumstances of this case against constitutional provision.

It may well be, parsing the recently released US court documents and also the claim of Tinubu’s spokespeople, that the APC flag-bearer does not have any personal legal liability in this matter. Yet, some untidy aspects of the case would seem to challenge that presumption. Tinubu’s personal US bank accounts were indicted, allegedly used as conduits for illegal funds. The amounts involved did not appear to correlate to any legitimate earnings at the time associated with him. The case involved a dodgy home address linked to Tinubu and even dodgier characters associated him. Moreover, according to the records, Tinubu did not contest the penalty of a huge forfeiture imposed on his accounts by the US authorities to settle the matter. Considering all these, there seems to be a prima facie case against Bola Tinubu in the whole US drug trafficking and money laundering saga that needs to be resolved within the legal jurisdiction of Nigeria.

Hesitation about Litigation
The case for litigation is compelled by the fact that the allegation touches on Tinubu’s qualification for the upcoming presidential election. Section 137 (1d) of the 1999 constitution (as amended) makes clear that “a person shall not be qualified for election to the office of President if… he is under… a sentence of… fine for any offense involving dishonesty or fraud (by whatever name called) or for any other offence, imposed on him by any court or tribunal or substituted by a competent authority…” On the face of it, it seems that Mr. Bola Tinubu has a serious case to answer.

I contacted several lawyers to test my perspective on this matter. Whilst some dismissed any notion of Tinubu’s culpability, all agreed that the matter is litigable. Yet, as at the time of penning this piece, there is no legal process filed by any of the opposition parties to test the matter in court.

This is rather baffling. Indeed it borders on campaign ineptitude, as the opposition parties appear to be squandering a hugely laden opportunity. On a purely tactical level, a legal sortie could have a spoiler effect: it would keep the issue on the front burner and also likely keep the incumbent party rattled and disoriented.

But beyond the prosaic calculation of campaign advantage, this case touches on the fundamental question of character and morality in our political culture. The issue affords us chance to make a definitive statement about the moral basis of our politics.

Moral Moment for a Moralizing Candidate
Incidentally, this issue of character and morality, along with ‘competence’, has been the major campaign platform of Peter Obi, flag-bearer of the Labor Party for the upcoming 2023 presidential election. So it is rather astonishing that Obi has uttered hardly a word on the Tinubu case.

In August 2020, whilst accepting the Democratic Party nomination to face then incumbent, Donald Trump, for that year’s presidential election, Joe Biden told America that “character [was] on the ballot.” It was a not-so-subtle dig at Trump who was considered unscrupulous. Biden ran with that theme throughout the campaign. Even at the presidential debates, he would point to Trump and tell America that the campaign was as much about character, honor and decency as anything else.

Mr. Peter Obi, to his credit, has consistently brought up the issue character in his campaign speeches. But he seems to bring it up mainly in self-reference. He doesn’t invoke the issue as a direct indictment of his opponents, only implicitly. The Tinubu drug trafficking and money laundering issue presents Peter Obi with an opportunity to go beyond rhetoric. His party ought to press the matter in court, and Obi himself should find an artful way to litigate the issue in his campaign outings, breaking it down for his audience without, of course, inviting legal jeopardy.

I bring up Peter Obi because, among the major candidates in the 2023 presidential field, he presents the best as a potential departure from the politics of the past, at least going by his governing claim and his insistent rhetoric of moral character and competence. Such rhetoric probably presents us with the most plausible path out of our current morass, offering a vision of technocratic competence built on a solid foundation of virtue and morality. It is a vision founded on sound theory.

Morality Matters
Notwithstanding the Machiavellian view of value-free politics, public virtue and moral character are critical to realizing the legitimate goals of a democratic state. These goals are, in the main, to maintain order and rule of law, provide security and promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, to borrow Jeremy Bentham’s famous formulation. I use the word ‘happiness’ not merely in terms of Bentham’s so-called ‘felicific calculus’ but in the grand philosophic sense of the Greek term eudaimonia, which implies ‘a good human life’ or ‘a life of human flourishing’. Ancient Greek thinkers typically addressed themselves to the question of what virtues are necessary to achieve such a life and how to acquire those virtues.

The Nigerian constitution sets up for itself “the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country,” a formulation which hints slightly at the Greek eudaimonia. Unlike in Greek thought, however, our constitution and its related statutes do not erect a test of piety for presidential qualification. They do not demand a high degree of moral rectitude. Nevertheless, they do require that our officeholders be above moral reproach. On one level, this is codified in various ethical standards, rules, norms and sundry precepts pertaining to public office that incumbents are expected to uphold. They are also, less formally, established in the sphere of personal values and private morality: the normative codes and moral universe guiding individual conduct.

These are the moral principles antagonized by Bola Tinubu’s American saga. The APC presidential candidate may not face a legal challenge if the opposition parties remain diffident or constrained by their political calculus. But Tinubu should face a moral accounting. The American drug trafficking and money laundering saga is one negative too many in Tinubu’s tally. He may not have been directly indicted by the Americans, but he is implicated through his bank accounts. There are too many unanswered questions related to this case which cannot be discountenanced simply because the Americans did not indict him. There are already too many other negatives, pointing to moral turpitude, related to this one person. We are dealing with allegations about his place of origin and uncertain provenance, certificate forgery, doctored date of birth and unaccountable wealth, all on top of his evident ill-health and frailty. This is far below what we should tolerate even in our utterly perverted system.

The opposition candidates, especially Peter Obi with a campaign anchored on moral character, should challenge the eligibility of this contestant whose presidency, were he to win, would even more deeply corrode our political culture. If the opposition candidates do not want to mount a legal challenge, they should at least litigate the matter of Tinubu’s ineligibility in their campaign trails. This is a test especially for Mr. Obi, if we are to believe that his persistent invocation of “character” is not a meaningless rhetoric.


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