On 28, March 2015, Nigerians rallied together to put an end to sixteen years of political leadership by the Peoples Democratic Leadership (PDP). The main beneficiary of this political tsunami was the All Progressives Congress (APC) and flying the flag for the APC was Muhammadu Buhari, a retired General and former military dictator.
For his running mate, complex nature of ethnic and religious relations made it mandatory that Buhari choose a candidate from the South, preferably a Christian. Such a candidate would be serving two major purposes. One would be to soften Buhari’s rumoured bigoted profile, baggage that had trailed him for most of his political life. Two was for a semblance of balance, one that would help secure the all-important Southern vote, imperative as incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan hailed from the South-South geopolitical region.
Names like Rotimi Amaechi, Adams Oshiomhole, Babatunde Fashola and Kayode Fayemi, all former and (at the time,) serving governors were touted to be frontrunners but when Buhari announced his choice at the APC secretariat on 17, December 2014, the name on everybody’s lips was Yemi Osinbajo, Law Professor and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). This was the culmination of months of high wire political horse trading fronted by the three main pillars of the APC party structure.
In the address explaining his choice, Buhari described Osinbajo as ‘’a man of unimpeachable integrity, an excellent professional, a man of faith, a devoted family man and a role model to our fellow countrymen and women.’’
Indeed, little was known about Osinbajo beyond Lagos state where he had previously served as Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice under the Bola Tinubu administration but the country gradually warmed to his quiet mien and sterling credentials. Osinbajo was positioned as the wind beneath Buhari’s wings and the man to lead the administration’s (if elected) intellectual thrust. His carriage and conduct on the campaign trail further endeared him to many. His moral authority blossomed from the fact that he was also serving as Pastor in charge of the Lagos Province 48, Olive Tree provincial headquarter parish, Ikoyi, a branch of the hugely popular Pentecostal behemoth, the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Missing In Action
On resuming office however, Yemi Osinbajo was visible for all of five minutes before disappearing into the background where he was promptly overshadowed by his principal. While Buhari travelled the world on the excuse of wooing foreign investors and made a farce of leadership with unguarded comments (the 97% vs 5% constituencies debacle) and unnecessary delays in appointing ministers and board members of agencies, Osinbajo stayed quietly in the background, swaying like decorative props at a bad stage performance.
In the early days of the administration, Osinbajo tried to play the role of consoler in chief, an important one seeing as the stoic, tough as nails retired General, Buhari remains incapable of expressing human empathy.
Following the tragic tanker explosion which claimed about sixty nine lives and injured many more in Upper Iweka, Onitsha, Osinbajo was dispatched to the scene where he expressed condolences on behalf of the President and to Toronto Hospital where victims were recuperating.
Addressing journalists, the Vice President announced that ‘’Every Nigerian citizen matters to the federal government no matter his status or where he resides,” thus igniting hope that things had indeed changed for the better.
Things got worse instead and for the most part, Osinbajo was missing in action. When the federal executive council was constituted, Yemi Osinbajo was named lead of the administration’s economic management team, a lacklustre composition comprising the ministers of finance, budget and national planning, trade, industry and investment, agriculture and information and culture. Rounding out the team is the Governor of the Central Bank, Godwin Emefiele.
To say that the performance of Osinbajo’s economic management team has been less than stellar would be a gross understatement. CBN governor, Emefiele, effectively surrendered independent monetary policy decisions to the presidency while finance minister, Kemi Adeosun fiddled as the economy went up in smoke.
Buhari who has historically shown very limited understanding of world economies and the dynamics of global markets ran roughshod over the team. Questionable policies like import and foreign exchange restrictions were compounded by a stubborn refusal to devalue the Naira, even as reserves shrunk rapidly and countless businesses were forced to shut down. By the time the CBN agreed to a somewhat controlled float of the national currency, the economy was already neck deep in a recession, the worst since 1987 when similar conditions conspired to bring the economy to its knees.
Doormat or Matador?
The office of the Vice President, especially in democratic dispensations, has always been a tricky one and historically occupants of the post have always succeeded or failed depending on the frame of mind and benevolence of the number one man. For every Joe Biden who enjoyed an interesting bromance with their principal and left office tearfully clutching the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, there has been a John Nance Garner, who suitably frustrated and side lined by his boss famously described the Vice-Presidency as being “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
In Nigeria, the story has not been different. Incidentally, Babatunde Idiagbon, the man widely considered to be the most influential Vice-President in political history served under a Buhari administration, during his first stint as Military Head of State.
As Chief of Staff at Supreme Headquarters, Idiagbon’s powers were sweeping as he controlled all visible instruments of national, political, and administrative powers. Idiagbon it was who introduced and enforced major government policies like the War Against Indiscipline (WAI), import substitution regulation and a curious exchange rate programme.
Following a return to democracy in 1999, Atiku Abubakar found himself more or less running the affairs of government during the first term of the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency. The newly elected Obasanjo spent a good deal away, serving as Nigeria’s ambassador the world, hoping to mend relationships and lure investors back to the country.
As Chairman of the National Council on Privatisation, Abubakar was effectively responsible for the country’s capitalism push and with formidable political contacts developed from decades as a grassroots politician, Obasanjo soon began to feel threatened. The details of their falling apart are a matter of public record.
Goodluck Jonathan and his eventual deputy, Namadi Sambo were cut from the same cloth. Quietly unassuming but ineffectual fellows whose prized assets were loyalty and a saintly knack for keeping their heads down during upheavals. No one is likely going to remember their stints in office, unremarkable as they were.
In the first season of the Netflix series, House of Cards, lead character Frank Underwood classifies occupiers of the Vice President into two broad categories; doormat or matador. He then goes ahead to bulldoze everything that gets in the way of his endless ambition.
Yemi Osinbajo does not quite fall neatly into either category. He may shun the spotlight whenever his principal is around but he’s been known to be a hard worker behind the scenes. State House correspondents report that the man has the stamina of a horse and is usually in the office till about 9pm.
Incidentally, Osinbajo hasn’t been the kind of deputy to share the spotlight with his boss. He routinely defers to the presidential team conclusions on major policies even when they don’t always make sense and defends such decisions, even at the risk of people questioning his intellect. It has taken the prolonged absence of President Buhari and Osinbajo’s elevation to Acting President to prove his mettle, as a politician and as a leader.
A pastor and a gentleman
60 year old Oluyemi Oluleke Osinbajo was born on 8, March in Lagos where he has spent most of his life. His father, Opeoluwa Osinbajo was a teacher and civil engineer who was trained in the United Kingdom. The family credits the elder Osinbajo with introducing the first automated saw-mill into Nigeria.
Yemi Osinbajo studied Law at the University of Lagos and obtained a Masters degree, also in Law from the London School of Economics. He lectured at the University of Lagos from 1981 to 1999 when he was appointed by Governor Bola Tinubu, his political godfather, to serve the state as Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice. Osinbajo would remain in this position for all eight years of Tinubu’s tenure.
As Commissioner, Osinbajo, who had previously served as adviser (legal advice and litigation) to the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Bola Ajibola, was big on judicial reforms. He is credited with attempting to curb corruption on the bench by raising the conditions of living of Judges. He also introduced in Lagos state, the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) and Citizens Medication Centre, innovations that helped provide free legal services to indigents and provided a platform for people to settle quarrels without recourse to the law court.
He was also in the frontline of Lagos state’s epic battle with the presidency over the establishment of Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs) and President Obasanjo’s misguided decision of withholding the state allocations.
Osinbajo returned to the University following his stint in public service and was also named senior partner at Simmons Cooper Partners (Barristers and Solicitors). At a special welcome and thanksgiving Service organized on his behalf at the RCCG regional headquarters in Abuja in 2015, Osinbajo reiterated that he is merely on loan to government and he remains Pastor in Charge of his Ikoyi parish.
All the right moves
President Buhari has been on vacation since the 19th of January and has extended his leave on health grounds. He did not leave without placing Osinbajo at the helm as Acting President. Since then Osinbajo has been quite the busy bee. He’s been to Kaduna, he’s been to Lagos, he’s been to Rivers, he’s been to Bayelsa. He’s been everywhere.
To understand the significance of these visits, it is important to recall Buhari’s aloof, seemingly unconcerned nature especially in the face of tragedy. For the past year, murderous herdsmen have been going on rampage across large swathes of the country- from the North to South. Thousands have lost their lives but Buhari for the most part hasn’t been bothered to acknowledge the attacks, or visit troubled areas. His Spokesman, Femi Adesina in defence of his boss, stated that the President is under no compulsion to speak about every national happening.
Buhari’s response to the January accidental bombing of an Internally Displaced Persons camp in Rann, Borno state by an Air Force fighter jet was a disinterested tweet, followed by a dispatch of a condolence delegation. By the time Buhari was leaving to the United Kingdom, he left behind an economy in turmoil and a country battered by the numerous effects of a recession.
The Buhari administration’s legacy will eventually be judged on two key areas; security and the economy. Boko Haram attacks have been pushed back considerably but herdsmen have continued to run riot, largely unchecked. On the economy, the National Bureau of Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures inflation, increased by 18.72 per cent (year-on-year) in January, up from 18.55 per cent recorded in December.
Yemi Osinbajo hasn’t turned the tide, but he’s been able to steer the ship with an aura of capability and sincerity that for the first time in a long while, Nigerians have felt like someone is actually in charge. Nothing he has done has been out of the ordinary but it has been all in the way that he does what he does.
This isn’t the first time Yemi Osinbajo has sat in for his boss in an acting capacity. He first took charge when Buhari embarked on a five-day vacation in February 2016. Four months later, Buhari was on a trip to the United Kingdom for two weeks to treat an ear infection. This latest, which commenced in January, and initially meant to last for ten days, has been extended by more than a month.
Since returning from Davos, Switzerland where he was leading Nigeria’s delegation to the World Economic Forum, Osinbajo has barely had a moment to catch his breath. A lot of movement can translate to little tangible results but Nigerians received some respite when after the first National Economic Council meeting of the year,-chaired by Osinbajo,- on February 16, the CBN reviewed its strangulating foreign exchange policy.
The meeting resolved that $250 million be injected into the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). Subsequently, the CBN released about $500 million through the interbank market, where 23 banks purchased $371m.
The direct result is that the US Dollar crashed against the Naira, from a record high of about 525 to between 400 and N450. More importantly, the CBN began funding commercial banks with additional Forex to cater for school fees, medicals, personal travelling allowance (PTA) and business travel allowance (BTA) needs of Nigerians at a special rate. The Naira also recorded considerable gains against both the British Pound and the Euro.
After Buhari spent months dallying on the issue of appointing a substantive Chief Justice of the federation, Osinbajo sent the name of Walter Onnoghen, who had been performing in an acting capacity for three months to the Senate for confirmation. Onnoghen has been subsequently sworn in as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Osinbajo has also embarked on a tour of the Niger Delta, the heartbeat of the country’s economic activities, interacting directly with oil producing communities and stressing the Buhari administration’s commitment to the clean-up of Ogoniland.
An expanded meeting of the Presidential Enabling Business Council which included the Senate President and House of Representatives Speaker, among other government officials, adopted a 60-day national action plan for business reforms. Osinbajo chaired this meeting which is expected to make doing business in country less cumbersome.
In a survey carried out by NOI Polls for February, about 50% of those polled, approved strongly of Osinbajo’s month long stint as Acting President, up from the 44% recorded by the presidency in January. Majority of those polled cited reasons like a slight reduction in market price of goods and services (22% of citizens polled), his recent visits to the South-South and South-East regions (19%), improved security (16%), and a slight appreciation in the value of the Naira (9%).
Some of the wrong ones
For all the confidence that Yemi Osinbajo inspires as a leader, there is still cause for concern. He had an embarrassing outing at Davos when he was queried on his government’s marshal plan for lifting the country under recession. He rambled on sub-confidently about the restiveness in the Niger Delta, going back to his government’s rest mode of whining about the insufficiencies of the last administration, thereby impressing no one anywhere. Osinbajo also mentioned the National Economic Recovery and Growth Plan which was launched in February, months after the economy had officially tanked.
Another government programme with the blessings of Osinbajo that is still being regarded with suspicion is the Presidential Task Force on Food Security, which has reportedly been mandated to reduce prices of food items in the country via outdated policies like import restriction.
One and the same
Because every single issue has a political spin, there may be elements seeking to ignite a rivalry between Osinbajo and Buhari by drawing attention to Osinbajo’s strengths vis a vis Buhari’s weaknesses. But the reality is that Buhari and Osinbajo are merely two sides of the same coin, elected together to deliver on a mandate of change.
While excitement over Osinbajo’s brief but solid performance is justified, caution should be taken so as to avoid drawing a wedge between both men. Nigerians have been suffering for the longest time, waiting (im)patiently on the dividends of democracy.
The country deserves a respite and if it is going to come in the form of the diminutive Law professor with a gift for soothing frayed nerves, then it is just as well. Osinbajo and Buhari were after all, elected to turn the fortunes of the country around in the first place.
Speaking of future plans on Osinbajo’s behalf are entirely premature at this point but it would be a shame if he is allowed to shrink back into the background once Buhari returns from his sojourn. Critics point out that Osinbajo is merely plucking low hanging fruits and Buhari had notably brought the bar down low with his closed off style of leadership and next to zero engagement
Osinbajo has proved himself a reliable asset and a dependable team player, holding forth for his boss in ways more admirable than not. Before he assumed duties as Acting President, the Buhari administration was desperately in need of a shining light and Osinbajo has proven to be up to the task if given room to breathe. If the Buhari presidency is anywhere interested in leaving a solid legacy, then Professor Yemi Osinbajo may yet be the man to get the job done.
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