Osinbajo: In Atiku’s Shoes


Proceeding from the light hearted to the ponderous we begin the analogy with what can be cited as a thesis on Nigerian name calling. Atiku is the first name of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar while Osinbajo is the surname of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (as if I needed to remind anyone). Perhaps what I need to remind readers is the peculiarity (this peculiarity should have been spotted in the title above) of the normalisation of the name reference to Atiku Abubakar as simply Atiku not Abubakar in contrast to the incumbent Vice President who is more conventionally referenced by his surname.

The peculiarity bears tentative scrutiny. I think it has to do with the penchant of conferring identity distinction on prominent public figures in the public imagination. Abubakar, like Mohammed, is a rather iconic pan Islamic name hence its universal vintage and popularity among adherents of Islam whereas Atiku has a relatively obscure origin and purview in Hausa/Fulani antiquity. Its usage thereby benefits from this uniqueness and confers an element of distinction on the bearer.

This thesis is similarly applicable to the notable instance of the former head of state General Abdusalami Abubakar. Seldom will you hear anyone call the former head of state, Abubakar, without including his first name. Quite often, it is just Abdusalami. You can go down memory lane and figure out the thesis in the identikit of Tafawa Balewa, Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi, Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Shagari, Alex Ekwueme, Mohammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Ernest Shonekan, Sani Abacha, Umaru Yaradua, Goodluck Jonathan and Namadi Sambo.

Now to the more ponderous contemplation-inherent in the office of the Nigerian presidency (the President and the Vice President) is the obligation of serving the role model of chief promoter of the national unity of Nigeria and the attendant politically correct behaviour (and just as it should be the case)-being the chief beneficiaries of the political status quo. This anticipated role and utility were integral to the recommendation of the Presidential system over the previous Parliamentary-Westminster model in the 1979 Constitution.

Whereas the Prime Minister is elected from just a federal constituency (as Balewa was elected from the Bauchi federal constituency) the President is elected directly by the entire Nigerian electorate. And the more contested and untenable the constitutional status quo, the more defensive the occupiers of the office tend to get. More than any other Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo exemplifies this role.
Whatever other appraisals may be given of Atiku Abubakar, there is an incipient nationalist-cosmopolitan flavour to his politics. His contemporary advocacy of constitutional restructuring-which is somewhat at odds with the prevalent political position of his Moslem North pedigree, bears eloquent testimony to the point. More pointedly-with regards to the analogy of Osinbajo was the position Atiku was obliged to canvass in the testy early days of his stewardship as Vice President to President Olusegun Obasanjo. At the height of the Sharia crisis heralded (Moslem North) political revolt against Obasanjo, Atiku Abubakar was called out to play the federal government protagonist.

Addressing a press conference after a controversial National Council of State meeting, Atiku announced that the Council resolved that all parties to the Sharia crisis should revert to the status quo ante-to contrive momentary respite from the escalating conflict. He was instantly controverted by no less a personality than General Mohammadu Buhari who conversely asserted that the Sharia crisis was neither on the agenda of the meeting nor discussed. In one of those Freudian slips, Atiku subsequently featured as a special guest at a nightclub reception in Lagos where he casually disavowed Sharia with the retort that in the spirit of the occasion, he was not Sharia compliant.

At any other time and political season in Nigeria this innocuous banter would have passed unnoticed and of no consequence but in the Sharia poisoned Nigeria of 1999 to 2001 it met with the equivalent of a fatwa on borderline apostasy by an erring symbolic adherent. In doubling down on this defiant ‘detribalised’ behaviour, Atiku was acting the pan Nigerian logic and obligation of his position as Vice President. This is a good precedence to situate and seek an explanation of the political behaviour of Yemi Osinbajo as Vice President.
Like Atiku, Osinbajo is obliged and it is in his enlightened self-interest to play Nigerian nationalist politics and for the most part, he has conducted himself with competence and panache in enacting the role. His obligation in this regard has been uniquely compounded by the inadvertent consequence of (his principal) Buhari’s protracted indisposition and the vacuum thus engendered. The irony of an acting President is that he is both President and Vice President. Officially he performs the constitutionally assigned functions of both offices.

Politically and informally, the acting President responds and panders to the politics of the pressure/interest group that is individually specific to himself on one hand and his principal on the other hand. The degree to which Nigeria is steeped in identity politics is the extent to which he will labour to fill the gap created by Buhari’s absence and reassure the ailing President’s primary political constituency. And the more conflictual, the more zero-sum bounded the politics-as it is the case with Nigeria, the greater the acumen needed in playing the balancing act.

All this constraining ambience and atmospherics will serve as extenuation for Osinbajo as he grapples with the fragmentary and fraught Nigerian political situation. To the bargain, the acting President is a professor and certified preacher-a pedestal that entitles him to the presumption of a pundit-of which he has generously availed himself. But sometimes, as the wit punted, too much of a good thing can become bad. Context and the identity of a messenger can equally render a message problematic and questionable.

On the perennial debate on the political development of Nigeria and the advocacy of returning rhyme and reason to the constitutional structure of the country, Osinbajo has sent mixed and sometimes convoluted platform messages. There was the initial debacle of apportioning the relevance of restructuring to Nigeria as limited to the restructuring of the economy. In clearer and meaningful language he should be understood as talking economic diversification and this is perfectly in order so long as it is not conflated with the proper understanding of restructuring advocacy as drawing attention to the crying need to remedy a failed constitutional structure.
To his credit and unlike those who presume to be more Nigerian than the rest of us, for whom discussion on the unity of Nigeria is a no go area, he subsequently evolved to the position of concurring that there was nothing wrong with the citizenship right and privilege of debating the political future of their country. And then in a remarkable lapse into grossness, he superfluously zeroed in on a remark that was synonymous with the late Obafemi Awolowo-‘Nigeria is a mere geographical expression’.

My first observation was that Osinbajo could adequately canvass whatever point he wanted to make without reference to this otherwise valid remark (at least in 1948). Second is that more than other Nigerians, he has a personal reason not to do so – not in the critical light, he recalled the remark. Third, that he did so thrice within weeks was the height of indiscretion and insensitivity. And if he meant well, he should have qualified his recall with the fact that in 1948, this was a plausible description of Nigeria but more importantly, Awolowo did not proceed from this premise to recommend the dissolution of Nigeria. On the contrary, he employed this perspective to postulate federalism as the optimal political ground norm for Nigeria and was proven prescient by the affirmation of this postulation in the Oliver Littleton constitution of 1951 and thereafter.

For that matter, Awolowo’s peers including, Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa, qualified Nigeria in worse abrasive verbiage which does not detract from the subsequent maturity of their views on Nigeria. If the originator (in Nigeria) of the expression did not intend it as a rationale for Nigeria’s dismemberment (which was quite logical in 1948 by the way) where is the compulsion to repeatedly falsify its applicability to Nigeria?

The Professor would go further to embarrass himself with his citation of other ‘false narratives’ when his own appraisal was the real false narrative. And thus he proceeded to proffer this Humpty Dumpty – “Most countries of the world came together by some accident of history, one way or the other; many were put together, many were forced together, but the wise have stayed together, the wise have remained united”. Really, Professor?.

Would Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia and any enlightened observer of the international community deem the dissolution of the USSR an unwise decision? And to think that it was the leader of the Soviet Union himself, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took the initiative that it was no longer in the interest of the Soviet state to deny the obvious and the inevitable; and thence provided the necessary leadership to peacefully end the charade. What about Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia? Is there any suggestion that the successor states of Czech and Slovakia now regret their thriving separate independent existence? What about India and Pakistan? What about Tanzania and Zanzibar?

I don’t know how objectively the acting President has been following the sequence and trend of political opinion in Nigeria. Not even the Biafra warlord, Nnamdi Kanu, started his protestation with the Biafra battle cry. The discernable logic is that inherent in the foreclosure of remedial measures to rescue Nigeria from itself, is the potential for ultimate implosion. Rather than come to terms with this reality, Nigerian leaders are more comfortable with the hypocrisy and blackmail of seeing the ghosts of secession in any argument that adverts attention to the open secret that Nigeria will not long endure with the dead weight of the prevailing constitutional structure.

Did Professor Itse Sagay say this? “The Northern elites are so used to proceeds of oil that they abandoned the things that make them great as a region. It is better for them to accept federalism and autonomy… The North will be the greatest beneficiary of autonomy. They have a great means of revenue which they are ignoring. They should convince the cattle-rearers to build ranches instead of whipping cattle to the south”.