It is the season for all the common symptoms of end-of-term political ailments. Politicians in prime positions are of course the most prone. At the apex of power, a vice president in our kind of system can show more pronounced symptoms than other political animals. In function, he is expected to be neither a politician nor a technocrat strictly speaking. But his job requires that he tries to be something of the two, a politically inert creature located in the place where the shoe hurts most but has to remain calm and bear the excruciating pinch.
In normal term time, the system finds work for the vice president in a few janitorial roles including of course the usual delivery of condolence messages. In Buhari’s Nigeria, I suspect this aspect has been carefully edited out. There are too many deaths that even a dozen vice presidents may not cope with sending and delivering condolence messages on such an industrial scale. When death knocks frequently on nearly every door, no words can condole a nation overwhelmed by the gravity of pain and mourning. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of other harmless assignments for a politically inert presidential deputy. There is still a copious deluge of these seminars, conferences, high-end weddings, and other festivities where the pomposity of state is expected to add gravity to the sense of special occasion.
More often than not, a certain crisis of consciousness dogs the imminent end of a vice-presidential tenure. To run or quietly walk home at the end? The crisis runs deep whether the Vice President in question is a politician recruited to add his political asset to his principal’s ticket or is merely a decorative intellectual or technocratic add-on to an otherwise vacuous throne. Either way, the imminence of term-end haunts the vice president with the threat of future irrelevance or a retirement tormented by regrets and haunted by the specter of missed chances and lost opportunities. Who wants to spend his retirement explaining and defending policies you neither believed in nor endorsed except that you were on the same boat with your boss when the poisonous fish was baited? For this reason, vice presidents often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being recruited or commandeered to run for the prime office at some point in the hereafter. It is one of three things: ‘I too can continue our mission; ‘I can right the wrongs of my principal’; ‘I almost got there, so why not brace the tape of personal accomplishment?’ etc.
From his recent pronouncements, Mr. Osinbajo seems to be caught up in this familiar end-of-term bind. He has not told anyone in the open that he is running for or from any office known to any political dictionary. Yet a stream of self-appointed advocates have shown up. I was struck by one announcement that was so professionally packaged, produced, and delivered that it could not just be the work of casual busybodies. Even from Mr. Buhari’s northern bastion, some politicians have turned campaigners for a possible ‘Osinbajo for President’ campaign. From his home base South-west, there is understandable studied silence. After all, there is a huge political bull in the shop whose presence can make Osinbajo’s possible ascent quite troublesome. But the vice president’s current choice of subjects and slant of discourse seems to suggest a subtle intent to free himself from the worst burdens of what may emerge as the Buhari legacy. His pronouncements on national issues are becoming increasingly statesmanlike, conciliatory, and independent.
There seems to be a deliberate effort to strike a note of national inclusiveness and optimism when the dominant temper of the Buhari administration is clearly a tough gun divisive note. In all this, there is a suggestion of a certain straining to find an independent voice and to find a national middle ground that points in the direction of a deputy who could do a better job of diversity management than his boss. The hint is that what a Buhari succession requires is a president who will unify the nation and calm its frayed nerves in a period of wild insecurity and virulent discord.
Whatever may be the intent and direction of his current discursive activism, we can safely say that Mr. Osinbajo has earned his stripes and indeed grown on the job. We can even calibrate his stewardship into three distinct phases over the last six years.
In the first phase, he enjoyed the absolute confidence and trust of Mr. Buhari who appreciated the value he brought to the office. At this first stage, Mr. Buhari personally had no doubts that Mr. Osinbajo had his back. If he was travelling for a long stretch, he transmitted the instruments that enabled the vice president to act for him with no limitations. This was the stage at which Mr. Osinbajo tackled the problems of ‘Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria’ by easing the bottlenecks at the international airports and the Investment Promotions Council while Buhari was away on hospital vacation. This was also the stage at which he engaged with the Niger Delta militants and brokered the peace that restored quiet to the oil and gas fields. It was also the initial days of IPOB when Osinbajo travelled to the South East to reassure the people while invoking his long-standing personal links with fellow Nigerians of Igbo extraction.
The second phase followed from these successes. Nigerians across board and geography increased their confidence in the team spirit of the Buhari presidency. In spite of Mr. Buahri’s failing health at that point, the confidence became widespread that in the worst eventuality, an Osinbajo was no less worthy of the office of president than his principal. The antenna of the Fulani power-mongering cabal that encircles Buhari at Aso Rock went up. The collective of Dark Knights of the corridor of power convened and resolved. My late friends Abba Kyari and Isa Funtua along with the ubiquitous presidential uncle, Mamman Daura, Babagana Kingibe, Lawal Musa Daura, and some nameless others saw a threat in Osinbajo’s rising profile. Their hegemonic agenda was under threat. Osinbajo needed to be tamed and his influence curtailed. He could upset the hegemonic apple cart and dilute the absolutism of the fledgling ‘democratic’ authoritarianism.
His job description quickly shrank as formal communications authorizing him to act for the President in his prolonged absences were no longer automatic. His responsibility for grassroots empowerment and emergency management programmes was abridged. All the youthful staff responsible for these rapid impact programmes were moved away from the Vice President’s office to new ministries hurriedly created. During one of Buhari’s medical vacations, Osinbajo had fired the then Director-General of the Department of State Security, Mr. Lawal Daura who had drafted masked goons to the National Assembly to interfere with legislative processes. His sack of Mr. Daura scorched the scorpions of power. So, his appointment of an acting Director-General from the wrong direction of the compass of power was quickly reversed. Daura, the man he fired from the position, was literally allowed to handpick his own successor. Suddenly, Osinbajo became a marked man and was compelled to revert only to his constitutionally allowed roles. He needed to adjust to a new “siddon look” third phase of his tenure.
Recovery from this shriveled status required time and thinking. I suspect that Mr. Osinbajo has found time to reclaim his soul in this third and final phase of his tenure. He needed to understand the algorithms of a hegemonic power grab. Yet as a political office holder at the apex of power, his survival is ultimately a function of political computations. The imperatives and considerations of his background count for little in the rough jungle of political survival. The standard expectation, therefore, is that Mr. Osinbajo plays the politics of his principal and carries the nasty consequences while struggling to find his authentic voice in the wilderness of power.
In the case of the Buhari presidency, strict political loyalty for Osinbajo dictates that he bandies the now usual worn-out clichés and myths of Buhari’s messianic infallibility to the very end. This is perhaps the reason why he was recently quoted as saying that Mr. Buhari is the most ‘popular’ leader Nigeria has ever had. Of course Osinbajo knows better than that. Yet he can be excused such Freudian mishaps and linguistic travesties on account of the political imperatives of his office. He has not yet found another job. He needs to survive to the very end as a worthwhile deputy and a good party man.
Increasingly, however, Osinbajo has found a more independent voice in a safe zone, the area of policy and the imperatives of nation-building. But even in this safe zone, finding an independent voice is precarious. It may pit him against the main policy stream of the administration where he remains a leading light. As the constitutionally designated Chairman of the National Economic Council which supervises economic policy at the highest level, he has lately struck consequential independent notes. When the Central Bank announced an unsolicited ban on cryptocurrencies in Nigeria, the Vice President openly opposed the measure as archaic. He insisted openly that Nigeria should instead have the humility to learn the intricacies of the new digital economy. We need to be part of the new world instead of reverting to the ancient regime of bans and roadblocks.
Just last week, Osinbajo’s independent voice again struck a new consequential resonance still on economic policy. Following the rapid decline in the value of the Naira, the Vice President used the opportunity of a Ministerial assessment retreat to hit a sensitive button on the nation’s currency exchange rate policy. Osinbajo openly condemned the system of dual exchange rates. There is in existence an official exchange rate of N410 to the US dollar alongside a parallel market rate of N580 to the dollar. In his view, we need to find a market-determined exchange rate by floating the Naira against international currencies to determine its real value. For him, the current dual exchange rate regime is fuelling corruption through the use of forex arbitrage as patronage. Well-connected business persons and entities secure forex allocations from the Central Bank at the official rate and leverage the differential between that rate and the parallel market rate to make a profit for doing literally nothing. This arbitrage market has assumed the status of an industry of patronage which has discouraged external investors from bringing in dollars into the economy. Technically, this position strikes at the very root of our current economic tragedy. The Vice President’s position was quickly interpreted as a call for outright devaluation of the Naira which would run counter to the rhetorics of the administration.
At other times, Osinbajo has variously harped on the sanctity of national unity in response to the series of separatist and secessionist pressures raging across the nation. He has similarly expressed absolute confidence in the unity and indivisibility of Nigeria. He has consistently voiced the now scarce optimism that Nigeria will emerge from the present dark alley to a brighter place in the future. His confidence in the promise of youth as a redemptive force has been a recurrent theme in his exhortations to civil society, religious and political groups alike in recent times.
On the surface, these largely neutral, independent, and intellectual themes and preoccupations would seem to be natural consequences and products of Osinbajo’s diverse background. As an intellectual in government, he can only be expected to strike a note of deliberate rationalism on national issues. As a professor of law in the central arena of power, he can only be expected to remind his political colleagues of their ultimate responsibility to govern according to the rule of law without which every democracy withers and dies. Moreover, as a high clergy of the Pentecostal faction of Christianity, he can only be an advocate of concord, peace, unity, and a visionary of harmony rather than the prophet of an impending national apocalypse.
As the tenure of the Buhari Presidency rolls into a transitional lame-duck phase, therefore, Osinbajo has the narrower burden of defining his own personal legacy from the vortex of regime liabilities. He is safer defining himself in the context of himself as a political animal with a triple heritage: academic, lawyer, and clergyman. Inevitably, he has to add ‘politician’ to that already sagging portfolio. And that is where the burden of his career resides at the moment. How does he find an authentic voice without running counter to the policy thrust of an administration he has been part of for the last six years?
If he decides to chart an increasingly different course, it will not be strange in the history of the vice presidency. When former US Vice President Al Gore decided to run as a successor to Bill Clinton, he needed to distance himself from the moral baggage of Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal. Though on a different wavelength, any aspirant in the APC who wants to succeed Mr. Buhari has a bag full of political and governance liabilities to distance himself from if he wishes to be taken seriously. Lopsided appointments, armed herdsmen, RUGA, insecurity, mountains of debts, quantum poverty, divisiveness, an epidemic of separatism, harassment of the media, etc.
As vice presidential exists go, Al Gore had a simpler choice than Mike Pence, Trump’s deputy. Though like Osinbajo an ordinarily decent man, Pence had served as the devil’s deputy for four remarkable years. When the hour came for him to choose between Trump and America’s future as a democracy, Pence chose the path dictated by the US constitution. As Trump boarded Air Force One to head home to Florida, Mike Pence attended the inauguration of Joe Biden and thereafter returned home to his family. In the circumstances, we in Lagos anxiously await the homecoming of Yemi Osinbajo in the afternoon of May 29th, 2023.