By Segun Ayobolu
At last, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), this week, formally announced, via a recorded video shared on social media, his aspiration to contest the 2023 Presidential election in a bid to succeed his boss, President Muhammadu Buhari. This move has been much speculated and anticipated despite the good Professor’s hitherto public reticence on the matter. Numerous individuals and groups across the country had been calling on him to join the race, most of them, stressing that his two terms of loyal service and supposedly productive experience in this administration place him in the best position to consolidate and improve on its achievements between 2015 and next year.
Understandably, many supporters of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the obvious frontline aspirant of the All Progressives Congress (APC), perceive Osinbajo’s ambition as a betrayal of the APC National Leader. They argue that it was Tinubu who, as Governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007, appointed Osinbajo as his Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General for the eight years, thus giving him an opportunity to break into Nigerian politics and public life in the emergent democratic dispensation.
Osinbajo has remained an integral part of Tinubu’s inner circle and one of his closest confidantes who thus implicitly accepted the Jagaban as his political leader with the latter proposing him to be the Vice Presidential candidate to the then Presidential candidate, Buhari on the ticket of APC in 2015.
True, there was an original understanding that Tinubu himself would be Buhari’s running mate in the 2015 elections following the successful merger of the legacy parties that produced the APC as comprehensively and meticulously documented by the founding National Chairman of the party, Chief Bisi Akande, in his explosive book, My Participations; an account which is yet to be credibly challenged beyond vulgar abuse by those who have not even read the book. But with the emergence of Buhari as Presidential candidate of the APC in 2014, opponents of a Muslim-Muslim ticket had the upper hand leading to Tinubu’s choice of Osinbajo for the position, a nomination accepted by Buhari.
Attempts by revisionists to proffer an alternative narrative delinking Tinubu from Osinbajo’s emergence as Vice President in 2015 have largely fallen flat being empirically vacuous and analytically untenable. Indeed, those in the know posit that Osinbajo was not Tinubu’s first choice for the position. Rather, his first choice was, reportedly, Mr. Olayemi Cardoso, his Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget between 1999 and 2004 when he left government for the Harvard Kennedy School on winning the Micheal Romer Memorial Scholarship. A fervent Catholic from an illustrious Lagos family, Cardoso, a respected financial sector and development policy expert, Cardoso was one of the critical architects of the Tinubu administration’s 10-Point Agenda that guided its developmental trajectory. His strict enforcement of budgetary discipline earned Cardoso the cognomen, “headmaster”, among his Cabinet colleagues and top civil servants.
This remarkably self-effacing technocrat, astonishingly, stoutly refused all attempts to put him forward as Vice Presidential nominee. Much earlier, when there was a vacancy in the office of the Deputy Governor of Lagos State with the exit of Senator Bucknor Akerele from the Cabinet, Cardoso was Tinubu’s first choice to occupy the office of Deputy Governor. Strenuous efforts by Tinubu and other party leaders of the defunct Alliance for Democracy to persuade him to accept the offer was, again, stoutly resisted by Cardoso, hence the emergence of the no less astute banker and technocrat, Otunba Femi Pedro as Deputy Governor in 2003.
Did Tinubu do Osinbajo a favor by appointing him as Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of Lagos State in 1999? Most certainly no. Osinbajo’s appointment was predicated on his solid intellect, professional expertise and ethical integrity. Also, he had previously served as Special Assistant to Justice Bola Ajibola who was Minister of Justice and Attorney General in the regime of military President, General Ibrahim Babangida. Tinubu recognised Osinbajo’s expertise in the legal profession and gave him an opportunity to showcase his talent and flower along with other outstanding professionals and technocrats that he assembled in his still unrivaled Cabinet of 1999.
Supported by some other very bright members of his Ministry’s management team such as the Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary, the cerebral writer, Mr Fola Arthur-Worrey, who was later elevated to the position of Commissioner for Lands, Osinbajo shone brightly in the Ministry. There are hundreds of equally brilliant, perhaps even more accomplished, scholars in diverse fields in Nigeria, who are unsung and unheralded outside academia because they have had no opportunity to actualise their potentials in the public sphere and have not been given wings to fly.
Is Osinbajo’s joining the Presidential race then a betrayal of his former boss and political mentor who had, three months earlier, publicly expressed his aspiration for the same office? Most certainly no, in my view. He is eminently, legally and morally qualified to do so. Moreover, a Pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Osinbajo surely did not swear to any oath before an Okija shrine pledging not to aspire to any higher office in future. So the question of betrayal does not arise. But are there pertinent moral and ethical questions involved in PYO’s decision? I think so.
I recall that a number of times when Chief Bola Ige, as Governor of Oyo State between 1979 and 1983 and even after, during Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s lifetime, was asked if he had an interest in contesting for the Presidency of Nigeria, Ige’s consistent refrain was always that ‘For as long as Chief Awolowo is alive and is interested in contesting for the Presidency of Nigeria, I have no desire to contest for the office’. Was it that Ige considered himself inadequate for the office or inferior to the great Awo? Obviously no. Despite his unhidden dislike for the person and politics of Awolowo, the preeminent African novelist, Prof. Chinua Achebe, for instance, wrote in his 1983 slim classic, The Trouble with Nigeria, that ‘Awolowo’s team of state executives has men of undoubted ability. Bola Ige, however the “political ebullition” of Oyo State may toss him around, is one of the brightest and most accomplished members of my generation’.
Many of those who had a personal antipathy against Awolowo outside Yorubaland, for instance, would have found Ige more acceptable. He was an erudite legal mind, a Senior Advocate like Awo. Ige attended the prestigious Ibadan Grammar School and the University of Ibadan before graduating in law from the University of London. As a result of his impoverished background, Awolowo had a variegated educational career attending mission schools at Ikenne, Abeokuta and Ibadan, obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree of the University of London through correspondence courses before acquiring a law degree from the same institution as an external student through strenuous hardwork. Ige was fluent in Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Awolowo spoke only Yoruba and English. Ige was a charismatic orator. Awolowo was not an eloquent speaker. Ige was reportedly not antithetic to the good life – quality wine, tasteful music and… I don’t know. Awolowo’s rigid asceticism put off many who saw this as a mark of arrogance. Ige could well have made a credible bid for Nigeria’s presidency in Awolowo’s lifetime but he never did. Why?
Could it be that the famed Cicero from Esa Oke never forgot that at the age of 23, he became the organising secretary of the defunct Action Group in 1953, courtesy of Awolowo who recogwhsed his organisational and oratorical talents? The heavens would not have fallen if someone else had been appointed to the party position. Could it be that he never forgot that this early opportunity paved the way for him to become Commissioner for Agriculture in the Western Region military government between 1967 and 1970? Could it be that he always remembered that all these in turn contributed to his becoming elected Governor of Oyo State between 1979 and 1983? Could it be that he reasoned that with Awolowo’s superlative performance as Premier of Western Nigeria in the First Republic, the leader could readily perform the same feat for Nigeria at the national level and there was no need for him to vie for the same position if it was not about selfish interest? Could it be that, for him, faithfulness to leadership was a spiritual and moral desideratum once there is no fundamental difference of value and principle between leader and mentee?
Much earlier, in the First Republic, the successor to Chief Awolowo as Premier of Western Nigeria in 1959, the no less illustrious Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola made a different value judgment. It is unfortunate that the turn of events has denied SLA his rightful place in the country’s political history. He was an otherwise sagacious lawyer, quick-witted orator, fluent multi-linguist, powerful writer and editorialist, ruthless polemicist and more. In the words of Awolowo, whose foremost adversary SLA later became, ‘Chief S. L. Akintola is also an able lawyer. He is a breezy, affable character who cannot be ruffled easily, if at all. His peculiar gift consists in his capability to argue and defend two opposing points of view with equal competence and plausibility. This quality backed by his sense of humour and his capacity for nuances made him an insoluble puzzle to our opponents’. But what is SLA, rightly or wrongly, largely remembered for today? A perceived desperate attempt to subvert and supercede his political leader. A deficit of loyalty. A deficiency of fidelity. A willing tool in the hands of those political forces bent on dividing and destabilising the South- West politically. History has a capacious memory and can be a brutal and unforgiving judge.
Some commentators particularly on social media have sought to castigate Osinbajo for premising his campaign on what he perceives to be the legacies of the Buhari administration, which he promises to consolidate if elected. But every government has its merits and deficits. Should the Vice President base his campaign on the failings of the administration in which he serves? Of course no. Despite the insecurity crisis that has blurred many of its achievements in diverse sectors, the Buhari administration has recorded some gains that any APC candidate will naturally campaign on. Is Osinbajo the best candidate to continue and consolidate on these legacies as he promises to? I don’t think so. We will consider why some other time.
Published in The Nation newspaper of Saturday, 16th April 2022