Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once described the vice president as a “spare tyre”. The Americans call theirs a “heartbeat from the presidency”. These descriptions imply that the vice president is only there to step in when the president is dead, incapacitated or impeached. Where none of these happens, however, the vice president functions almost entirely at the behest of the president, deriving his powers from delegations from his boss.
The Nigerian constitution puts it unequivocally. The “executive powers of the Federation”, it says in s.5, are “vested in the President”, and they “may be exercised by him either directly or through the Vice President and Ministers …” Section 148 reiterates the position, saying that the President “may, in his discretion”, assign any state responsibility to the vice president or any minister. So, the vice president can only be as effective as the responsibilities that the president, “in his discretion”, assigns to him!
That said, the Americans give their vice president the constitutional role of President of the Senate, and, in Nigeria, ours has the constitutional role of Chairman of the National Economic Council. But neither the Senate Presidency in the US nor the chairmanship of the National Economic Council in Nigeria confers any significant powers. For instance, as Senate President, the US vice president presides over the deliberations of the Senate but can only vote to break a tie.
In Nigeria, the National Economic Council, which consists of the state governors and the governor of the central bank, is only there to “advise the President”. The real economic influence lies with the President’s Economic Team. But under President Obasanjo, the Presidential Economic Team did not include the then Vice President, Atiku Abubakar. Obasanjo asked the then Finance Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to lead the team but insisted that he would “preside over it as chair”, as Okonjo-Iweala wrote in her book, Reforming the Unreformable. President Goodluck Jonathan went further. He made the Finance Minister, who again was Dr Okonjo-Iweala, the “Coordinating Minister for the Economy”, effectively rendering the vice president, despite being the chairman of the National Economic Council, a hapless bystander in the country’s economic policy-making.
However, all that changed under the Buhari administration. From the start, the vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, a constitutional lawyer, interpreted his constitutional role as chairman of the National Economic Council to mean that he, and not the finance minister, should coordinate the economy, and President Buhari agreed. Thus, Vice President Osinbajo became chairman of the government’s Economic Management Team and was also put in charge of the administration’s social welfare intervention programme.
But, despite being the head of the economic management team, Osinbajo doesn’t command the instruments of concentrated executive authority. According to the authors of the book The Political Economy of Policy Reform, edited by the famous economist John Williamson, an economic team must have executive authority and enjoy the full support of the president. But Osinbajo had little power to influence, on critical issues, the direction of the government’s economic policy or the president’s thinking.
As we all know, the first two years of the Buhari administration were characterised by policy paralysis, coupled with actions that hugely damaged the economy. Take the central bank’s misguided decision to ban importers of 41 intermediate and consumer goods from accessing foreign exchange through the official window, a policy that seriously hurt industries. Even worse, for over two years, the government stubbornly defended a fixed exchange rate that led to a crippling dollar shortage and created a massive disincentive to foreign investment inflow. “When you are in a hole, stop digging”, the saying goes. But the Buhari government was in a hole, as Nigeria’s economy suffered its first annual contraction in 25 years, yet it was still digging, with irrational and destructive economic policies. What Osinbajo thought about those barmy policies we didn’t know, although his body language suggested he favoured bold economic reforms but for his boss’s adamantine opposition.
So, let’s return to our thesis: the vice president is only as effective as the president allows. But there is a little window. The constitution provides a rare opportunity for the vice president to demonstrate to the nation, albeit temporarily, his ability and leadership style. If the president is on vacation or otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, he is expected to transmit a written declaration to the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives transferring his powers to the vice president. And under those circumstances, according to s.145 of the Constitution, the president’s functions “shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President”. Well, on the few occasions that Osinbajo has been Acting President, he used the opportunity to prove his mettle!
Recently, when President Buhari was on a 10-day vacation in London, Osinbajo, as Acting President, took bold decisions that earned him praise from most Nigerians, prompting a BBC Africa journalist, Ishaf Khalid, to call him “Nigeria’s favourite leader”. For instance, the Acting President sacked the powerful director-general of the Department of State Service (DSS), Lawal Musa Daura, for sending DSS operatives to lay siege on the National Assembly, an act Osinbajo rightly described as a “gross violation of constitutional order”. He ordered the Inspector-General of Police to “overhaul”the police unit called Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) for alleged human rights violations. And he took the decisive step of recognising the Pinnick-led Board of the Nigerian Football Association to avert the threatened ban of the association by the world football governing body, FIFA. These were decisions that President Buhari had not, and probably would not have, taken himself.
Last year, Osinbajo had a chance to step into Buhari’s shoes for a longer period when the president was on medical vacation for 50 days. During that period, he caught the world’s attention with the way he got things done. For instance, he intervened to stabilise the naira by getting the CBN to inject millions of dollars into the forex market; took steps, with the CBN, to address the problem of multiple unofficial exchange rates; and ensured the completion of the government’s long-delayed economic recovery plan.Osinbajo was hailed by Nigerians and the international media. David Pilling of the Financial Times said he “injected real energy into policy-making”.
But, hold on, what kind of government is this that gets nothing done, and allows policy paralysis or inertia, until the president is out of the country and executive power is transferred to his deputy? Buhari’s presence in the country, it seems, is a real obstacle to effective government. Femi Adesina, Buhari’s senior media adviser, said the president was consulted on, and approved, all the decisions that Osinbajo took in his absence. Okay, but why did Buhari not take those decisions himself when he was at home? Does he have to be away on long vacation or medical leave before this country can make some progress?
Last week, the FT reported that President Donald Trump had described President Buhari as “lifeless”. Of course, Trump was being typically rude. But,let’s face it, Buhari’s government is lifeless, lame, slothful, name it! The president is laid-back and lethargic; he is not called “Baba Go-Slow”for nothing. What’s more, he is an obstructionist.He refuses, and would not let anyone, to take difficult yet critical decisions on the economy, and, indeed, on security and social issues. He has a phobia for making positive, far-reaching decisions!
But the result is a failed, sclerotic government. Think of it: the economy has flatlined, growing at just 1.5%; corruption, according to Transparency International, remains widespread; insecurity, thanks to the impunity and spread of Boko Haram and the killer Fulani herdsmen, is debilitating; and poverty and inequality are deepening. We now know, thanks to the Bookings Institution, that Nigeria has the largest number of extreme-poor in the world. A recent World Bank report also says that 92.1% of Nigerians live at below $5.5 a day. Yet, the government keeps saying that it is taking Nigerians out of poverty, trumpeting its “achievement” of putting 500,000 graduates on its N-power programme, after three years in power, to earn N30,000 per month, less than $3 a day!
All of which puts Osinbajo’s popularity in perspective. The vice president is being praised not because his government has significantly touched the lives of ordinary Nigerians; rather, because he is always, as Acting President, taking steps to address some of the critical things that Buhari deliberately left unaddressed when at home. Secondly, Osinbajo is popular because his dynamism puts Buhari’s performance in the shade. As Buhari himself once said, “youth and intellect are squarely behind Osinbajo; age and purely military experience are behind me”. That, let’s face it, is why Osinbajo makes Buhari pale in comparison; why he is the acceptable face of a sluggish government!
But don’t be deceived. Being Acting President for a fleeting, transient moment is not the same thing as being the substantive president of Nigeria. And, truth be told, Osinbajo would be very unpopular as Nigeria’s president. Why? Well, because, like Buhari, he is idiosyncratic, didactic and self-willed. His patronising preachiness on corruption and poverty, without much done to tackle them, would soon irk Nigerians. Similarly, his habit of rose-tinting government’s mediocre achievements, thereby, as George Orwell put it, “giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, would soon make people angry.
What’s more, Osinbajo is guilty of naivety and hubris. He sees governance purely through the prism of technocracy, saying “I am not a politician”. His persistent view that “Nigeria’s problem is not restructuring” is myopic. How any perceptive leader can dismiss the imperative of restructuring Nigeria beggars belief. But that’s a discussion for another day!
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