ENGAGEMENT BY Chidi Amuta
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is a man of subdued political symbolism and a compact admixture of values. It comes across mostly in his costume which is, in some ways, emblematic of his ambiguous adventure in the political arena.
On an average day, he is most likely to show up in a darkish variant of a Nigerian traditional jumper and pant with a cap that hints somewhere between Obafemi Awolowo and Lateef Jakande but slanted more to the left of centre. That outfit is a subtle indicator of his political ancestry and his tacit endorsement of its progressive implications. On a few carefully selected occasions, he dons a modest business suit, a subtle reminder that, perhaps left to his own desires, he would be content as a weekend Pentecostal pastor or a brilliant Lagos lawyer and university professor on week days.
In the best traditions of the presidential system, the office of vice president can be inconsequential and would not attract front page attention. In its implicit redundancy, the job is reserved for self –effacing, intellectually inert, politically tepid bureaucratic passengers, literal janitors in the place of power. It was John Adams, the very first vice president in US history who described the role as: “The most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”.
Yet, the ultimate constitutional wisdom that undergirds the role of vice president is the unstated eventuality that there may come some moments in a presidential tenure when the president is not available to discharge the functions of his lofty office. At such moments, the spare tire becomes the front tire!
Therefore, there is a silent code that assumes that the vice president, while dwelling eternally in shadows, needs to be of such substance that he can step onto the podium to take the midnight call if he has to.
In places like Nigeria, Turkey and Iraq, for instance, sovereignty is an eternal dance of political compromises, a precarious balance between North and South, Christian and Moslem, Sunni and Shiite, ancient and modern, conservative and progressive and sometimes traditional and avant garde. This reality prescribes a slightly deeper requirement for the office of vice president than what the letter of the constitution explicitly states but is everywhere implicit in the spirit of the ultimate law. In addition to the classic template of the US -type presidential system, therefore, the Nigerian vice presidency is not necessarily a politically inert fixture.
In his specific case, Yemi Osinbajo came onboard with an unstated burden. The man is a curious trinity of things that do not mix freely with political pre eminence. He is an accomplished intellectual, a professor which implies a certain fidelity to reason and knowledge in matters of public policy. He is also a lawyer with immense public exposure and experience rooted in the finest traditions of jurisprudence. This implies that his political judgments are likely to conform to the rule of law as the fundamental rubric of democratic order. On top of these, he is a self confessed pastor of the Pentecostal order (specifically The Redeemed Christian Church), the free will department of protestant Christianity. This last affiliation implies an adherence to a certain moral imperative in decisions at the highest level of governance which may include decisions on life and death and ultimate right and wrong.
This conflation of affiliations and backgrounds is made more problematic by the origins of the political power to which he is invited by the president and his party. The political essence of sovereign power in a democracy overrides all the other variables in Osinbajo’s rich resume. Matters of politics do not necessarily lend themselves to logical rationality, legality or moral piety. Politics is politics. It is a self -defining province with its own intrinsic logic, reasoning, dynamics and wisdom. Political wisdom sometimes confounds all commonsense and human understanding.
The office of vice president is first and foremost a political office and has to conform to the rules of the overriding political order. Caught in this complex web of identities and multitude of conflictual perceptions, backgrounds and expectations, Osinbajo has to define his mission, find his authentic voice while remaining a faithful adjunct of the Buhari presidency. This has always been his defining imprint, a problematic canvass against which his tenure will eventually be measured and judged.
In the US tradition that we are aping rather badly, some vice presidents have however escaped this charmed cycle. They have been able to balance personal idiosyncracy with political expediency in order to break out of anonymity and political castration. These are the few vice presidents who have risen to prominence by deploying their strengths and special skills to add value to the ticket they hold with their principals to public acclaim. While the best vice presidents perennially remain in the shadow, the best presidents apportion strategic roles to their deputies in order to harvest their strengths to the advantage of their joint ticket. Some of the most outstanding names in this tradition also happen to be among the best vice presidents in US history to date: Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Joe Biden.
In our brief encounter with democracy so far, we have had a mixed bag of experiences. That office has become for us an instrument for strategic balancing of geo politics, diversity, faiths, strengths and weaknesses. Our presidents have tended to see their deputies more as ‘spare tires’ than active partakers in the prime slot of national power. To a great extent, Yemi Osinbajo’s activist roles in Buhari’s first term would seem to mimic the best examples of deploying the vice president to great advantage.
However, by the nature of these things, a Vice President who is self assured, confident, eloquent and eager to be seen delivering results must always be in search of an alternative job. Even worse, a vice president who consciously cultivates a political following of his own is bound to run into stormy waters. Ask Mr. Atiku Abubakar about his experience as president Obasanjo’s deputy during their second term. In contrast, Alhaji Shehu Shagari never for once felt threatened by the politically mature Dr. Alex Ekwueme.
By some curious logic of events, Yemi Osinbajo may have the distinction of being the first vice president in Nigerian history to experience two distinct tenures under one presidency. In the first Buhari tenure, he was an activist deputy of the president. His diverse competences and preparations were fully deployed in the service of his boss who apparently had no problems entrusting his able and enthusiastic deputy with befitting strategic roles. Specifically, while the president was content with keeping the machinery of government grinding at no hurried speed, he left the office of the vice president to inject innovative energy with far reaching social democratic and even populist elements into the programme mix of government.
The vice president’s office originated and developed such novel programmes and initiatives as the Trader Money, School Feeding Project, Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Incubation Clinics, Ease of Doing Business, N-Power and others. To match innovation with new knowledge and best practices, an expanded office of the vice president was equipped for these new roles by engaging a crop of young, bright and futuristic Nigerians. That was the highpoint of Osinbajo’s power and relevance and he rose to the occasion with blistering dedication and unforgettable efficiency.
There is not likely to be any return to those good days when in Buhari’s absence, Osinbajo stepped forward to show his loyalty through ebullient and patriotic service. On occasions, he was either inspecting travel protocols and even toilet facilities at the Lagos airport or went reaching out to traders and market women in Wuse market. The result was a bringing together of government and people to Mr. Buhari’s glory.
There was a massive improvement in Nigeria’s ease of doing business profile as a result of the V-P’s executive orders easing the many bottlenecks at the nation’s points of entry and exit. Mr. Osinbajo is no longer likely to head for the creeks of the Niger Delta to sue for peace and calm restive youth and aggressive militants. That era seems to have gone for good, thanks to the hegemonic arithmetic of palace power knights. That was Osinbajo’s first term as vice president. That was also a bright spot in the Buhari presidency, a moment that now seems lost forever. Osinbajo has returned to the shadows but Buhari’s brief bright light moment has dimmed and died.
The onset of Buhari’s second term saw a conscious political recalibration of the vice president’s role and prominence. The restructuring swept off the digital brilliance of the vice president’s office as the engine room of world class service delivery and incremental modernization of government processes.
To all intents and purposes, Mr. Osinbajo is currently in what many Nigerians see as the political equivalent of a Siberian exile, confined mostly to the humdrum routines in the constitution. Yet this presidential role readjustment has not altered the pubic perception of Mr. Osinbajo as the modern efficient and enlightened face of the Buhari presidency.
By its conservative restructuring, the Buhari presidency may have lost its initial advantage of being an admirable duality of ancient and modern fused into one institution of national unity. In terms of method, the Buhari presidency briefly became a fusion of old school military starchy regimentalism and the liberal flexibility that the politics and economy of modern Nigeria badly needs.
Here was a fitting marriage of the orthodox and the avant-garde, the contemplative sluggishness of the old order and the swift decisiveness of a nation that needed to be in a hurry. Buhari and Osinbajo in those early days symbolized this essential complementarity at the apex of national power. When the former Director General of the DSS drafted hooded goons to overrun the National Assembly, Mr. Osinbajo as Acting President ended the dangerous standoff and fired the errant security chief. The Nigerian public hailed the quality and swiftness of that quintessential leadership action. The presidency then was wearing a transformational badge.
It is to Osinbajo’s credit that in spite of the subtle travails of his tenure, he has come to be seen as the face of contemporary Nigerian modernity in the current power mix, embodying the kind of enlightened governance that will spew statistics to justify a policy choice. He has remained that effective link between an ancient conservative order and the subsequent generations ‘X’ and ‘Y’. In this regard, Osinbajo matches his opposite numbers elsewhere in the world in rhetoric, logic and erudition.
Since the internal restructuring of the presidency that reduced the vice president’s role to that of a real Nigerian spare tire and power janitor, Mr. Osinbajo has tried to reinvent himself like the creative intellectual that he is trained to be. He has not in recent times missed any opportunity to speak in his own voice on key national issues. He has of late spoken out with an independent voice on pressing national issues. Sometimes, his views have come out as somewhat different from or even at a tangent to the policy positions of the government in essence.
For instance, on the Central Bank’s recent arbitrary ban on crypto currencies, Osinbajo came out unambiguously to oppose the policy. He insisted that what is required is a regime of enlightened regulation of the digital currency and its enabling economy as the reality of the future. On the recent noisy clamour for restructuring and even outright secession by some factions in the polity, he has reiterated the imperative of national unity and the dangers of secessionist agitations, insisting that Nigeria’s future is best guaranteed by its continuing unity. He has insisted that we must never get to that point when Nigerians will need visas to get to the familiar places they have grown to love and cherish.
In similar vein, Osinbajo has, even in the heat of the ENDSARS protests, emphasized the need to listen to the voice of our youth as the definitive power of Nigeria’s future. He has of course underlined the need for orderly dissent even while allowing youth expressiveness. Against the stifling orthodoxy of tradition and lethargy in government bureaucracy, Osinbajo has relentlessly advocated the urgent need to embrace the new knowledge economy as the pathway to Nigeria’s future and the urgent imperative of modernization. These recent interventions on pressing national issues ring through with a distinctive voice of reason. These statements are perhaps the vice president’s personal testimonies in a time of stifling reaction, conservative backlash, deep state arrogance and empty swagger. These profound independent statements are also coming at a time when the reason of state seems muddled up while the dark knights of hegemony prowl the corridors of power scheming for a tortured succession.
As machinations and debates about the 2023 presidential succession gather steam, Osinbajo has steered clear of the prevalent noisy partisanship and sectional grand standing. His steady gaze on pressing national issues and informed views on the solutions we need has focused the attention of the sober elite in his direction as a desirable successor figure. But the rare mix in his background may be a crippling disability in a nation where political ascendancy requires the deployment of a mixture of gangsterism and murky compromises.
On Buhari’s present brief absence, perhaps Aso Rock spokesman, Garba Shehu, is technically right. Mr. Buhari is not legally required to transmit his presidential powers to Osinbajo since he is going to be away for only a few days, less than the constitutionally required 21 days. It is only the physical space that he ordinarily occupies in the Villa that is vacant. In any case, we live in a world of virtual everything, compounded by a global pandemic that has obliterated the necessity for physical presences, offices or person to person contacts in business , politics and governance. The president can run Nigeria from anywhere he chooses. Mr. Osinbajo who is himself a staunch disciple of the digital virtual new world can take orders from his boss via any channel of choice. While it all lasts, Osinbajo can sit in his office and hang a sign on the door that simply says: DO NOT DISTURB!
The prevailing wisdom that describes Yemi Osinbajo’s situation in Aso Rock may have come from an unlikely quarter. In the uncertain days of the Yar’dua presidency when Goodluck Jonathan was a vice president in the wilderness of power, Mrs. Patience Jonathan was asked her husband’s whereabouts. She responded rather casually: ”He is in his office reading newspapers.” Perhaps Mrs. Osinbajo should slightly amend this witty line from her predecessor, taking into consideration her own husband’s fertile mind and intellectual fecundity: “He is sitting in his office alone. Writing notes towards his memoirs!”