A Heartbeat or An Election Away What Will 2023 Mean for Yemi Osinbajo?

Pastor, professor and now politician, if Osinbajo seeks to add president to the alliteration of his career progression, he must consider the fact that he is no longer the public figure with little or no baggage of 2015.

The average presidential candidate in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic (1999-present) is a former head of state or governor. They can leverage on the networks, funds and contacts they have amassed over years, or decades, of being in the public sector. The restrictive nature of Nigerian politics, the need for excessive funds and national recognition, means that there are few feasible alternatives.

On 11 April 2022, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo declared his intention to run for president in the 2023 election as the All Progressives’ Congress candidate. Should he win the APC primary election, he won’t be dramatically different from his predecessors. Two of the three recent vice-presidents —Atiku Abubakar, who was vice-president from 1999 to 2007, and Goodluck Jonathan (2007 – 2010) also ran for the office of president. But, in comparison to his predecessors, the incumbent brings a different background to this contest. Osinbajo’s rise to prominence was meteoric; he was so little known a political figure in 2015 that his surname was misspelt and even his running mate mispronounced his name on the campaign trail. But this factor, for better or worse, might prove the difference between Osinbajo’s future being that of a senior lawyer with government experience or the next president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

THE UNBLEMISHED BIOGRAPHY

One of the advantages of being relatively less popular in such a proliferated political system as Nigeria’s is the ability to write and structure your narrative. Many Nigerians can dictate the background of their political leaders, often including which coup such leaders were involved in, benefited from or were victims of. Some Nigerians can describe the different positions these leaders held and how such positions determined the source of that leader’s wealth or prominence. But, before he was tapped to join the APC ticket in 2015, Osinbajo was largely unknown to the average Nigerian. It means that in a society with little or no appreciation for thorough investigative reportage that risks political fury, the Osinbajo story, as determined by his team,  is largely the defining background we are privy to.

A major part of Osinbajo’s mythos is his relation to one of the most prominent families in Yoruba history—the family of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. His marriage to the late leader’s granddaughter features in the first paragraph of both his personal and government-sanctioned biography—which are exactly similar. There are several mentions of prizes won at secondary and tertiary academic levels, which lend credence to the persona of an academic giant with the intellectual mien to tackle any challenge. A master’s at the famed London School of Economics and Political Science is mentioned and worth noting, especially as his potential election would see him become the first Nigerian president with a degree from one of the world’s finishing schools for leaders.

In his biography, several experiences highlight Osinbajo’s legal expertise and growing proximity to administration—first, from 1988 to 1992, he served as an adviser to Nigeria’s attorney-general and minister of justice, Prince Bola Ajibola; then, from 1999 to 2007, he was appointed commissioner for justice and attorney-general of Lagos under the then-governor, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu. A series of academic experiences in the field of law follow, which may have been outlined to match the doctorates received by former presidents Jonathan and Yar’Adua. The first mention of any active partisan political involvement is in the creation of the APC in 2013, during which he was a member of the manifesto developing committee. His official biography, one could argue, seeks to tie his political antecedents to the lifecycle of APC and make it clear that he is part of a new era of Nigerian politics.

The coda to Osinbajo’s story is a mention of his spiritual contributions as a pastor of one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in Nigeria, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). In previous elections, Osinbajo’s Christianity was often cited as one of his biggest contributions to the ticket, being able to counter the narrative that his running mate, Buhari, is a northern extremist. Osinbajo’s overall background appeared to do what it needed to do in 2015: appeal to the intelligentsia, people of faith and those seeking a person in democratic law and order. The question now is whether Osinbajo’s background will be just as effective in 2023.

A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE

The rationale behind having a vice-president in Nigeria does not come with the context and thought process that inspired the original creation of the role in the United States. The American style of government uses an Electoral College, where states cast votes based on their representation in Congress. Framers of the constitution were worried that the nascent republic, a new 1787 federation of 13 colonies, would fracture if states only voted for their own candidates. The vice-presidency emerged as a solution—by ensuring that each state cast two votes, of which one could not be for a candidate of their own state, there was the ability for a truly ‘national’ candidate emerging.  The winner of the vote became president and the runner-up was then selected as vice president.

In 1800, this process eventually led to two bitter rivals in Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tying for the presidency. American law dictated that, in the event of a tie, the House of Representatives would vote to determine the winner of the election and, following a vote, they elevated Jefferson to the presidency and made Burr his deputy. This incident led America to introduce its Twelfth Amendment to the constitution as well as the decision to make parties present joint-candidacies for president and vice-president—the forerunner for the modern presidential ticket. The voting consideration has taken on a new form in Nigeria, where political parties seek to balance religious in addition to ethnic and geographic considerations. But the challenge in Nigeria has also been ensuring that the position of vice president can serve as more than a tool for electoral suitability.

The vice-presidency seldom has a defined or set role, as it is subject to the whims and dictates of the president. John Nance Garner, who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice-president from 1933 to 1941, described the role in a 1948 interview by saying ‘…there cannot be a great vice president. A great man may occupy the office, but there is no way for him to become a great vice president because the office in itself is almost wholly unimportant.’ History would seem to prove his statement right. Few remember vice-presidents in American history, except for those who have since succeeded to the top job. Of the 49 holders of this job, 15 have subsequently become president but only six did so without succeeding a principal directly as a result of a death or resignation. The statistics are more glaring in the Nigerian context, only three deputies have succeeded to the role of head of state and did so following a death—Olusegun Obasanjo, following Murtala Muhammed’s death in 1976, Goodluck Jonathan, following Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s death in 2010 and, albeit on a technicality (as there was no official second-in-command), Abdulsalam Abubakar succeeding Sani Abacha in 1998. But even this route to power has not been universally followed—Babafemi Ogundipe, for instance, did not succeed J. T. U Aguiyi-Ironsi when Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed in the second 1966 coup.

The fact that vice-presidents have not had positive career advancement prospects has not deterred people from attempting to use the role as a route to the top job. Alex Ekwueme, Shehu Shagari’s vice-president from 1979 to 1983, did not have the chance to directly succeed his principal since their second term was cut short by the December 1983 coup. But that did not deter Ekwueme from seeking the presidency in 1999 and 2003 under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose primaries he lost to Obasanjo.

Likewise, Abubakar, Obasanjo’s deputy from 1999 to 2007, has also sought the presidency in almost every cycle since he left office. Even in the military era, where leaders could not assume the top job without force, Oladipo Diya, who was Sani Abacha’s deputy as chief of defence staff, was removed from his post because of an attempted coup plot to assume the top job. This ambition can also be traced to unsuccessful candidates for the role. Chuba Okadigbo, the senate president between 1999 and 2000, decamped to the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party to contest the 2003 elections as Buhari’s running mate—no doubt with the belief that moving from number three to number two could help his chances of clinching the top role. Tunde Bakare, Buhari’s running mate in 2011, has also announced a prophesy that he claims will see him succeed to the presidency in 2023. It is why despite being referred to as ‘not worth a pitcher of warm spit,’ by former US vice-president, Garner, the role of vice president in the Nigerian context has always come with the idea that someone in the right post, at the right time, could become president one day.

THE MAKINGS OF AN OSINBAJO CANDIDACY

If the vice-president is successful in making the move to the villa, there will be a considerable shift in how Nigerians view the route to power. For starters, it changes the expectation that only seasoned politicians can become president (since part of the Osinbajo appeal is that he is largely a neophyte in the political space). It also challenges what Nigerians seek to reward electoral power with—contrary to most successful campaigners, Osinbajo has largely avoided inflammatory and incendiary rhetoric when making speeches.

Few politicians can claim to be as erudite and, daresay, as ‘responsible’ as Osinbajo has been, when speaking from such a government platform. Achieving victory with such a disposition could open the polity to similar candidacies and, potentially, change the tone of our very partisan and divisive politics. Lastly, it also changes the stature of the office. Without the exposure of the vice-presidency, it is difficult to see a potential President Osinbajo this soon in our nascent political experiment. Future party leaders might see the appeal in selecting candidates without the political baggage and tainted reputation that often comes from a long and storied career in politics. We might have more rising stars appreciated in comparison to the seasoned warhorses that line the corridors of power.

However, and rightfully so, Osinbajo’s candidacy is not rooted solely in promise. The roads to the Nigerian presidency are often paved with ‘good intentions’ but riddled with tenuous potholes. Where Osinbajo comes into the challenge of unflattering political records (that he was previously immune from as a new politician) will be his association with a president that increasingly appears unable to live up to the promise of his historic election in 2015. Part of what made Osinbajo originally appealing was his record as a law professor and his potential to temper Buhari’s military background. However, despite serving as vice-president to, in Osinbajo’s words, the ‘most popular Nigerian politician that we have ever had in generations,’ Osinbajo has had little or no public criticism for or disagreement with the government even when he has been sidelined.

In 2019, fresh from re-election, Buhari dissolved the economic management team and created a presidential advisory council, which omitted the vice-president from economic decisions that are traditionally and constitutionally under his remit. The president also reassigned the special intervention projects that had traditionally been managed under his deputy’s office to a specially created Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, further isolating Osinbajo from active government decisions. In 2018, after returning from a medical trip, Buhari revoked the acting appointment of a director-general of the Department of State Services that Osinbajo made as acting president—this despite the controversies that trailed the predecessor that the president had yet to remove.

At different junctures, whether in addressing the agitations for Biafran secession or responding to an attack on the train system between Abuja and Kaduna, Osinbajo has been forced to display the emotional intelligence expected from the president but has still refused to speak up. His decision to stay with the administration means he has to bear responsibility for the raft of controversial decisions taken, from the shooting of unarmed #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki tollgate to his silence when the government banned Twitter in the country. And in an action that should have been more difficult to stomach, considering his legal background, he was again quiet during the controversial removal of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen by the president which contravened the separation of powers.

Osinbajo might not have agreed with the Buhari administration’s decisions, he might even have made strong cases against them behind closed doors, but his continued stay in the government means he must bear responsibility for the consequences. A question that he should be asked, and must ultimately answer, is why he did not resign from a government that carried out such actions that his cultivated persona must surely be against. Former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, notably challenged his boss during the reported attempt by Obasanjo to seek a third term. Osinbajo’s insistence on staying in his post means that if he does succeed Buhari, he will be the recipient of his predecessor’s legacy. He must solve the dilemma of upending the path of an administration he was a senior member of, while also trying to be his own person.

A POTENTIAL OSINBAJO LEGACY

One advantage that Osinbajo has over all other candidates seeking the presidency in 2023 is that he has already served as acting president and received plaudits for his work. But he must also reconcile with a potential incursion that he might be responsible for—the encroachment of partisan religious engagement. As a senior pastor in the RCCG, it is alleged that Osinbajo’s loyalty and closeness to the church’s overseer, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, was key to the lack of support former president, Jonathan, received in the 2015 election. That intervention appears to be even firmer in the coming elections: RCCG recently created a Directorate of Politics and Governance to support members of the church seeking political office. Objectively, it is well within RCCG’s right to do so, and establishing clear lobbying groups for this purpose is good since it makes it easier for the electorate and regulators to trace influence on policies. However, RCCG’s move is a recipe for more segregation along religious lines in an environment where tribes and geography already play a very divisive role. Already, APC national leader and expected presidential candidate, Senator Tinubu, has called on Muslims to create similar political departments to support the aspirations of followers of the faith. These actions can only lead to a polity where meritocracy is further subsumed by demographic alignment.

Finally, there is the question of what an Osinbajo presidency will mean for the ruling party. APC was a vehicle of electoral ambition masked by the myth of its presidential candidate in 2015. The next election will see this fully challenged. Candidates will either hew close enough to assume the mantle of Buhari’s successor or will disavow Buhari’s legacy fervently to attract the many Nigerians who have criticized Buhari’s term in office. No candidate will be able to attract the substantial votes that the president has been able to command in the North. Few candidates will be able to shake the toga of a party currently administered by prominent members of PDP. APC will rely on deft diplomatic manoeuvres to keep the governors, legislators and powerful chieftains. All of these should be factors when delegates decide on who will be at the top of the ticket for the next election—especially since they will want to replicate the Buhari effect that turned several states blue en route to power.

Pastor, professor and now politician, if Osinbajo seeks to add president to the alliteration of his career progression, he must consider the fact that he is no longer the public figure with little or no baggage of 2015. His candidacy, legacy and potential presidency will be shaped by how he reconciles the promise of his future with the broken ones of the past eight years. He will need to look not just at the challenge of governing the nation, but at also corralling a party that could easily implode under the weight of many existential questions. But most importantly, Osinbajo now carries the torch for a new generation of public servants. Whether he succeeds or not will either advance or delay the arrival of a new era of politicians that are able to combine political power with the necessary emotional intelligence required for a country like Nigeria. It is why the most important message that any can offer the vice-president as he seeks that close, but steep step up is that quote associated with a well-known fictional superhero, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’

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