The Political Wilderness

Tolu Ogunlesi
3 min readJun 30, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the political wilderness. That place of lessened (or even absent) influence and clout that people go into, after having held significant political or administrative power.

Take the example of Nuhu Ribadu, who ran the EFCC as pioneer Chairman between 2003 and 2008. He was only in his forties, but he was easily the most feared man in the land, probably even more than the President, in some cases.

And then a new King arose who did not know Joseph. Ribadu was harassed and hounded into exile in America.

He returned to Nigeria after two years, when those who were after him had fallen out of power. It seemed as if he was back on the ascendancy, because by 2011 he was Presidential candidate of one of the two main opposition parties in the country.

He came a distant third. Over the next decade-plus, he would try his hands at gubernatorial politics, with limited success.

Today he is back in the corridors of power, in the very powerful position of National Security Adviser (NSA), and a member of the President’s kitchen cabinet. A very well-deserved return for a fine and courageous public servant. It has taken all of fifteen years of wilderness.

His close friend, Nasir El-Rufai, endured a shorter wilderness stint. If I recall correctly, both men were in exile in the US at about the same time, pursued by the same people.

El-Rufai’s own wilderness experience ended fairly early, in 2015, when he was elected Governor of Kaduna State. Even then, while in the wilderness, he very much stayed in public consciousness, through an active Twitter account, and a bestselling memoir of his time in Government, a book that named names and did not shy away from controversy.

Kayode Fayemi’s was even shorter. He entered the famed political wilderness after losing the Governorship of Ekiti in 2014. Within two months of handing over to the new Governor, he was back on the upswing, as the person chosen to conduct the much-watched APC Presidential Primaries in December 2014, at which Muhammadu Buhari emerged.

From there he went on to play a key role as part of the (ultimately victorious) campaign’s brain trust. The rest is history — he entered Cabinet in 2015, and from there returned to reclaim the Governorship of Ekiti in 2018.

You can bring up your own examples, there will doubtless be many we can all think of, men (and women) who held power, lost it, then regained it.

Bukola Saraki, who enjoyed a remarkably influential 16 years between 2003 and 2019 — Governor, Governors Forum Chair, the most powerful Governor in Nigeria in the Yar’Adua years, and then Senate President — is now in the wilderness, ushered in there by the brutal Otoge movement, with a term renewal sealed by the Atiku loss of 2023.

But nobody should write Saraki’s political obituary, not now, not anytime soon. That’s the nature of the wilderness. One moment you’re down and out, the next you’re back.

Which is not to say everyone comes back. But everyone does hope to come back, and anything and everything are possible.

With a new President in office, you will be seeing a lot of movement around the wilderness’ revolving doors. People trooping in — and out!

I am reminded of Richard Nixon, Vice President of the United States between 1952 and 1960, and losing presidential candidate (to JFK) in the 1960 election. Two years later he ran for Governor of California, and lost. A very painful, unexpected loss, a loud and humiliating swinging open of the wilderness door.

He held a press conference where he famously said (directly addressing the press): “I leave you gentlemen now. And you will now write it. You will interpret it. That’s your right. But as I leave you, I want you to know: just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

It seemed like the end of the road for Nixon.

But six years later he was President of the United States. His real political wilderness — and a permanent one at that, in a sense — was still years into the future.

Some people stay in there for a long, long time. Others are more fortunate. There’s usually no hard and fast rules to how long. Power is transient, political power even more so.

To borrow from Okigbo, “a going and coming that goes on forever…”

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Tolu Ogunlesi

Digital Communications for Nigerian Government, Journalist on Sabbatical