Acting President Professor Yemi Osinbajo has been receiving deserved kudos for the way he has been holding forte since Buhari went on medical vacation in England on January 19 2017. In this round as Acting President, Osinbajo seems to have brought a new style, which he had not displayed previously.
As Vice President, Osinbajo started on a somewhat shaky note. For instance one of his first faux pas was his comments on the Federal Character Commission. Daily Trust of June 28 2015 had reported that the Vice President criticised the setting up of the Federal Character Commission and had declared that “henceforth employment and appointment into political offices in the country should be based on merit and not where anyone hails from”. The paper further quoted him as saying: “Where you come from should not be criteria. Let us de-emphasise this issue of federal character and place more emphasis on merit. For instance, I take my health seriously, therefore, if I am ill I should not just look for a medical doctor from my state but for the best, irrespective of his state of origin”. The Vice President reportedly made the statement at the height of the criticisms of the Buhari government for alleged lopsidedness in political appointments.
Though Daily Trust of July 29 2015 reported that the VP denied the report and had clarified what he actually said or meant to say, some of us took the opportunity to re-visit the issue of the application of ‘federal character’ and ‘zoning’ principles in appointments and the distribution of infrastructures as well as the envisaged role of the FCC in nation-building. In an article, ‘Between the V-P and the Federal Character Commission’, published on July 2 2015, I argued that while I agreed with the VP that merit should come before ethnic considerations in appointments, “it could also be argued that there is no region or part of the country where any type of talent could be said to be lacking – meaning that reflection of federal character in appointments is not necessarily incompatible with merit.” I also noted that while ethnicity, religion and regionalism are mere masks used by the elites in the struggle for power and lucre, over time these categories have become ‘ideologized’ such that they have now acquired objective existence of their own. Following from this, I further argued that the symbolism and psychological satisfaction that ‘one’s own’ is part of the leadership structure of the country is salutary to both development and the nation-building process.
Another instance of a faux pas by the Vice President was when he castigated Niger Delta militants as agitating only for their pockets in July 2016. The Punch of July 6 2016 quoted the Vice President as saying that the “Niger Delta Avengers are not freedom fighters, they are not fighting for any freedom, they only fight for their pockets. You can’t be blowing up pipelines and compound the problem of the region and be saying you are fighting for freedom.” Some of us disagreed with the way the Vice President framed the issue.
In an article entitled, ‘Osinbajo and the Role of Intellectuals in Politics’, (August 4, 2016) I wrote: “On the Niger Delta Avengers, would the Vice President have lost anything if he had said something like: ‘There are in several parts of the country seemingly good grounds for anger and we will respect people’s rights to feel aggrieved. But the solution will always be to dialogue rather than compound the problem by blowing up the pipelines’. Formulations like this will bring out the VP’s compassion as a pastor and satisfy the expectations that intellectuals are expected to empathize with the weaker parties in any conflict - even if they disagree with their methods of expressing their grievances.”
As Acting President this time around, a more compassionate Osinbajo appears to have emerged from the old Osinbajo that eagerly framed issues in the simplistic and hard line approaches favoured by his boss. The new and more compassionate Osinbajo now no longer sees the Niger Delta activists as opportunists but as young men that must be “properly engaged.” He even declared that the federal government would work with illegal refineries and would convert them to modular refineries. Professor Osinbajo also spoke kindly and respectfully to the governors of the Niger Delta region and even gave one of them the pet name of ‘Mr. Projects.’
In the same vein, when the Acting President met with anti-government protesters who marched to the presidential villa in Abuja in early February 2017, he conceded to them the right to be aggrieved using the now popular passage: “To those who are protesting...we hear you loud and clear. You deserve a decent life and we are working night and day to make life easier."
It would seem that what Osinbajo has brought into governance this time around is not just a show of compassion but perhaps a new approach to managing conflicts. Every part of this country has its own story of perceived injustice and a starting point is always to concede to people the right to feel aggrieved before engaging them. Sometimes the strategy in conflict management defines the outcome. The deliverables from the Acting President may be sparse on ‘the ground’ but the perception of what he has delivered so far as Acting President far outstrips the actual deliveries.
There are several useful lessons to be learnt from the re-invention of the Vice President:
One, there is a learning curve for every office holder. The Acting President has evolved from a Vice President eager to mimic his boss’s simplistic and hardline framing of issues (perhaps either to ensure that the government speaks with one voice or assure the President of his loyalty) to one who wants to privilege compassion and reconciliation in his engagement with opposition groups. And it would seem that most people prefer this strategy to Buhari’s hardline and militaristic approach.
Two, while Osinbajo deserves accolades for this new approach to governance, there is always the danger of ‘over-lionizing’ a deputy while his boss is around or only temporarily away. In fact some unrestrained admirers of this new approach of the Acting President may be unwittingly sowing seeds of potential discords between Osinbajo and Buhari. Some have even suggested that Buhari should take the remaining part of his first term in office as medical holidays so that Osinbajo could continue as Vice President until 2019. The truth is that such unfavourable comparisons with Buhari would make the cabal around the late Yaradua feel justified on why they played all manner of games to prevent Goodluck Jonathan from becoming the Acting President. It could also make Buhari’s kitchen cabinet (or cabal as we call them) determined to whittle down Osinbajo’s growing popularity and influence when Buhari returns. The truth is that Buhari is the top of the ticket in the Buhari/Osinbajo joint ticket. Usually the top of the ticket gets the credit or criticism for the actions or inactions of any official of the government. This means that whatever is accomplished by Osinbajo while Buhari remains the de facto president is a credit that rightly belongs to Buhari.
Three, every leader has a defining moment – an action for which the leader will be remembered long after he or she has left office. Obasanjo became a global statesman by a simple act of handing over power to elected civilians when he was a military dictator in 1979. Goodluck Jonathan might not have been the most inspiring leader the country has produced but he became a hero to many people by a simple act of conceding defeat in a hotly contested presidential election. Similarly, despite his own failings, Buhari, for each of the occasions he has gone on a medical trip abroad dutifully handed over power to the Vice President as demanded by our constitution. While these actions are routines and ‘no big deal’ in other climes, in ours, they are small things that matter. As they say, in climes where telling simple truths is a rarity, the mere fact of telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
Four, how Acting President Osinbajo navigates that fine line between being seen to effectively hold the forte for the President and being misunderstood by Buhari’s inner cabinet (the cabal) as trying to ‘outshine’ his boss will determine whether in the future a President will trustingly hand over substantive power to the Vice President while away on medical vacation. The truth is that in any government there are usually many polarities and centres of power and the polarity that becomes the centre of gravity in the substantive president’s absence may not necessarily be that of the Acting President. It is possible that a President can fulfil ‘all righteousness’ by handing over power to the Vice President as demanded by the Constitution but cunningly shifts the locus of power elsewhere.