By MacDonald Dzirutwe
ABUJA (Reuters) – When reporters asked Bola Tinubu last month if his health was good enough for him to serve as president of Nigeria, he responded that he wasn’t applying for a job as a professional wrestler or as a cement mixer.
Both combative and evasive, the response was typical of the wily former governor of Lagos State, who was chosen by Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress party on Wednesday to be its presidential candidate next year.
In a country with a long history of electoral fraud where the ruling party has a major advantage, Tinubu is now the front-runner to be the next leader of Africa’s most populous nation and top oil exporter.
“I will hit the ground running from day one, if elected,” Tinubu said before voting in the primary started, with his trademark confidence.
Supporters portray him as an effective administrator with a track record of picking competent technocrats to get jobs done.
Critics denounce him as a godfather figure who doles out lucrative contracts and plum jobs to his loyalists and is not above sending out street thugs to intimidate opponents if he fails to get his way. He rejects that description.
The 70-year-old has appeared frail during some public appearances, prompting speculation about his health.
“I’m not competing to be a WWE wrestling man,” he said last month. “They say ‘he is sick, he is not well’. Am I sick? I’m not.”
His main challenger in the presidential election, scheduled for February 2023, will be veteran politician Atiku Abubakar, who was vice president from 1999 to 2007.
Born in Lagos in 1952 to a Muslim family from the Yoruba ethnic group, the majority in southwest Nigeria, Tinubu emigrated to the United States in the 1970s.
According to a biography on his campaign website, he worked as a dishwasher, taxi driver and night guard to fund his studies. It says he graduated from Chicago State University in 1979 with a degree in business administration.
After working for U.S. consultancy firms, he returned to Nigeria in the 1980s and worked for the local branch of the oil major Mobil as an auditor.
He first got involved in politics in the 1990s, and was elected governor of Lagos at the advent of multi-party democracy in 1999. He served two terms, until 2007.
His supporters say he improved infrastructure and services in the chaotic megacity, but many Lagosians say it remains deeply dysfunctional.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by James Macharia Chege and Alex Richardson)