Atiku and Tinubu: A tale of two Nigerian ‘robber barons’-Ilyasu Gadu

 The term “robber baron” gained currency in 19th century United States of America and was used to refer to and describe the activities of entrepreneurs like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Leland Stanford as they consolidated their hold on sectors of American industry and life. Their methods which earned that title and reputation were decidedly mean and ruthlessly exploitative against potential or real rivals, workers and their unions.

Rockefeller ended up owning and controlling the American and indeed the world’s oil industry through his Standard Oil Company, while Carnegie who came to America as a little boy from Scotland was the king of steel supplying at one time three-quarters of the entire steel needs of America for the building of railroads, coaches, locomotives and the like. Vanderbilt was also into steel and railroads while Stanford was a real estate magnate owning vast landed properties and gold-bearing fields.

As they expanded their business tentacles they tried and most often succeeded in pocketing American politicians and the political system, securing favourable legislation and policies that aided and protected their business interests at the expense of the American political ethos. Needless to say that they were not well-liked generally nor did they care. But with their vast wealth, they left a legacy of philanthropy supporting causes ranging from education, healthcare, and peace building that subsists to this day not just in America but the world over. Does this sound familiar to us in Nigeria, especially with regard to the lives and times of Atiku Abubakar and Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presidential flag-bearers of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as they prepare to square off in 2023 elections?

There is a lot about these two Nigerian icons that certainly connect with America’s famous “robber barons” of old. And what is more, in their life trajectory covering their business and political track records, the two seem to mirror each other in ways that uncannily resemble that of identical twins. From what we know of them, both hailed from underprivileged (deprived if you like) origins. Atiku was orphaned at an early age and was raised by his mother alone for a large part of his early life and into adulthood. Whatever help and succour he got in his often difficult and hard life came fleetingly from relations on both sides of his parentage and sympathetic townsfolk in his native Jada in Adamawa state. And as this was not always frequent and sustained, he learnt to develop and rely mostly on his instincts and wits which honed his drive to succeed in whatever endeavour he set his mind to.

Bola Tinubu too as we now know hailed from the town of Iragbiji in Osun state. As we have come to know further, he was known then as Amoda Sangodele and his parentage like that of Atiku was not privileged necessitating his developing a sharp instinct for survival as he hustled through what life could throw at him in the very difficult early stages of his life and into adulthood. His present name of Bola Ahmed Tinubu came from his adoption by Alhaja Abibat Mogaji, the leader and matriarch of the famous Tinubu trading family of Lagos who took him under her wings as she is wont to with many a stray Yoruba lad who came to her for shelter and to learn how to trade.

In both Atiku and Tinubu, early adversity was ironically the spur that drove them relentlessly towards their destiny meeting and surmounting challenges that came their way in the process. This necessarily came with a streak of ruthlessness that both are known to possess and which they very often apply in their various dealings and endeavours. This is clearly manifested in their business dealings which are extensive, ruthlessly acquisitive and run in byzantine ways through proxies and shell entities making them difficult to track.

Both Atiku and Tinubu have, over the years, proven to be adept at identifying and capitalising on business opportunities and promptly pouncing on such to make vast fortunes that are seemingly bottomless. In doing this they both leveraged their areas of career training and expertise; Atiku being primarily a former customs and excise officer has a vast knowledge of the import and export business with special assent on the lucrative marine services and trade sector, while Tinubu is a dyed-in-the-wool tax and financial services expert who carved a niche as a tax and audit guru in days as an employee of the multinational oil giant, ExxonMobil, ironically one of the offshoot oil companies established by John Rockefeller earlier mentioned in this article.

Alpha Beta, the tax consulting company linked to Tinubu, has a lock hold on the entire tax receipts of Lagos state, the commercial and industrial hub and richest state in Nigeria and indeed West Africa. From this, Alpha Beta rakes in billions annually out of which a hefty mark-up goes to Tinubu’s coffers.

Atiku is the undisputed king of marine services in Nigeria’s extensive coastal port operations covering oil and gas, marine technical support, import-export and related activities. He is linked to marine operations in the various Lagos ports and in the Onne ocean port terminal in Rivers state from which flows huge revenues to his estate.

While both Atiku and Tinubu are known to be linked to vast business interests, it is their activities in the political and public sphere that most Nigerians know and are connected to. And it is in this area that their profiles come clearly and are better understood by Nigerians. As both of them prepare to come head to head in the 2023 elections representing two opposing political parties and tendencies, this is where their likely impact will be felt more by Nigerians in the coming months.


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