By Tim Cocks
LAGOS (Reuters) - "I am a talent hunter. I put talents in office, I help them," says former Lagos state governor and opposition alliance leader Bola Tinubu, being quite open about his role as one of Nigeria's most powerful political godfathers.
"I use the best hand, the best brain, the best experience for the job," he told Reuters after voting this month in a governorship election in Nigeria's economic capital which, as expected, his hand picked candidate Akinwunmi Ambode won.
But it isn't only in his traditional fiefdom in the ethnic Yoruba southwest that Tinubu has sought to be a kingmaker. His support for former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari was seen as a key factor in the latter's win against President Goodluck Jonathan in the March 28 presidential election in Africa's biggest economy and oil producer.
The pro-Buhari alliance that Tinubu headed, the All Progressives Congress (APC), rallied elites around Buhari in the southwest, Nigeria's wealthiest region. That enabled Buhari to tackle a perception that his support lies only in the dust-blown, largely Muslim north. The religiously mixed southwest had voted overwhelmingly for Jonathan in the 2011 race.
So 'The Jagaban', an honorific title beloved of Tinubu's supporters, could have much say in what reform policies the new government will focus on, and who fills which cabinet posts.
"The party he led is half of the APC. He can ... lay claim to that power," said Clement Nwankwo of the Situation Room civil society group. "Buhari will feel (an) ... obligation to him."
To supporters Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim, is a wily political operator with a passion for getting the job done and a knack for picking bright, committed technocrats to do it. To critics he is a ruthless godfather who doles out lucrative contracts to his friends' firms, insists on installing his man in office and is capable of sending in street thugs if he fails to get his way.
The APC, which came to power on anger over corruption and growing insecurity, has declined to speak publicly about policies.
The Nigerian practice of political godfathering has long been criticized by rights campaigners as impeding democracy by enabling powerful oligarchs to capture state institutions.
But few deny that in Lagos, at least, the former governor managed to fix things no one thought fixable.
Under his tenure at the turn of the millennium and that of his successor Babatunde Fashola, a technocrat hand picked by Tinubu, the city scrubbed up dramatically. Trash got collected, crime fell, trees were planted and traffic was better managed.
"There were refuse mountains around, tax collection was very low," recalls Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, a former council leader under Tinubu. "But very quickly he seemed to sort things out."
Gbadebo-Smith noticed an advantage Tinubu has over other Nigerian "big men" is that you could disagree with him and he listened, changing his mind when faced with a good argument.
He also sets high standards, says Lagos waste management head Ola Oresanya, to whom Tinubu gave three months to make a noticeable difference or be fired.
"He likes to say 'I promised I would do this, and I have.'"
But like other powerful political figures in Nigeria, Tinubu's power resides largely in the huge patronage he wields, which has given him influence over, for instance, the 'area boys' -- Lagos street toughs who run rackets and guard cars. Ingeniously, he gave some of them uniforms and turned them into traffic cops.
After he voted on April 11, a group of area boys mobbed The Jagaban, and he lectured them on their disorderly behavior.
"If you want me to do something for you, line up in an orderly manner. Then I can share my peanuts," he told them, adding: "some of you have not even voted."
A day later, when celebrations erupted outside his home, two groups of area boys got into a fight over money that had been distributed and they began hitting each other with planks of wood, a Reuters reporter saw. But interviewed later, many of them said they loved Tinubu since "he's a man of the common people."
A businessman close to him says although Tinubu runs a formidable business empire, he is often short of cash because he gives so much away to oil the wheels of patronage.
Yet Tinubu may have less influence over Buhari than he had hoped, argues Kayode Akindele, CEO of consultancy 46 Parallels.
"He didn't really deliver in the southwest. It was only a slight lead," he said, compared to the absolute thumping Jonathan received from voters in the largely Muslim north.
"The APC, post-elections, is now very northern," he added. That could limit any influence The Jagaban has -- and replicate the north-south rivalry that divided Jonathan's outgoing party.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)