Of all the leading contenders for president of Nigeria this election cycle, hardly any will be more difficult to assess than Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Of all the presidential hopefuls, he is at once closest to the seat of power, and yet farthest from it; the heir apparent and the heir presumptive at the same time. His claims are strongest, but also the weakest. How so? Indeed, how, could an aspirant have so much potential and yet be so limited?
The answer lies simply in the cruel yet opportunistic nature of electoral politics in Nigeria where a candidate’s strengths are often less important than their weaknesses. Unlike your supporters, your opponents are not interested in your strengths, but would pounce on any of your weaknesses they can find. And where they can’t find any, which is rather impossible enough for a politician, they will invent a few. More than this, non-committed voters—usually the largest portion of any electorate—also tend to be more concerned of a candidate’s weaknesses than their strengths. An analysis of the electoral chances of any aspirant for political office, therefore, would do well to focus more on their weaknesses than their strengths.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has many weaknesses. Unlike former Vice President Atiku Abubakar in 2003, he lacks a clear base of his own within the party, and is unlikely to mobilise enough of this unless power falls to his lap by unforeseen—and for many, unwished for—circumstances between now and the end of the primary elections. He has also not yet been tested and does not have the real experience of leading a complex country like Nigeria as much as he and his supporters would like to think. It is Buhari who has taken all the fire and all the heat this government has faced since 2015. So, his much vaunted “competence” is just that—vaunted. Outside the party, he enjoys a lot of support across the country, but how this will translate to electoral fortunes depends on many other factors, including which opponents he faces at the general election, if things get to that point in the first place.
However, his biggest weaknesses are two. The first is a moral one. Osinbajo owes his elevation to high office almost entirely to former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. It is Tinubu, even more than the Vice President himself, who made Osinbajo whatever he is in politics today. And Tinubu himself also happens to be an aspirant in this election and in the same party. Can Osinbajo escape the moral burden of contesting against his political benefactor in the same party?
He cannot. First of all, this is not often stated, but for Tinubu, to have nominated Osinbajo for vice president must have taken a sacrifice of the highest order in politics. In 2013-2014, the APC plan was to have Tinubu as Buhari’s running mate. In fact, Buhari himself had begun selling this idea of a Muslim-Muslim ticket. In several of the interviews he held at the time, he would point out that Tinubu’s wife is Christian, that religion doesn’t matter much in Yoruba politics because many Yoruba families are religiously mixed, and that, in effect, it shouldn’t matter if Tinubu were his running mate. This idea was not tested in the elections proper and would quite likely have failed in the political atmosphere of the day.
In the end, Tinubu had to give up the VP slot to Osinbajo, an unknown quantity in Nigeria’s national politics at the time. But Tinubu’s sacrifice remains a potent political dagger in Osinbajo’s side, should he declare today. Buhari, who knows everything about the making of Osinbajo as vice president, would be the first to interpret it as a betrayal of Tinubu, if he has not done so already given Buhari’s strict moralist perspective to everything. Many in the APC would make the same interpretation too. More importantly, Buhari’s core voters in the North will also view things the same way, once prodded in that direction. That would be catastrophic for Osinbajo in the general election, even if he manages to clinch the APC ticket.
Betrayal—and its opposite, trust—is a strong moral value in northern politics, as it is not in southern politics, at least as clearly demonstrated by former president Jonathan’s open repudiation of PDP’s zoning arrangement in the 2011 elections. In fact, this question of trust and betrayal is one reason many in the northern wing of the APC still stand by Tinubu because they know that in politics, the future comes soon enough. As Senator Abu Ibrahim put it in a recent interview with Daily Trust, if the northern wing of the party betrays Tinubu today, who will trust them again?
Betrayal may be an easy currency in politics, but it can pay both ways. So, if Osinbajo would betray Tinubu to stand against him, who else would he not betray? And if Osinbajo could do that to a benefactor like Tinubu who else can trust him? Few sounds can ring louder than that in northern politics. But from Osinbajo’s perspective, this very moral burden is also the biggest political injustice ever. How could anyone be so close to power and yet be denied of even the chance to give it a shot himself?
Osinbajo’s other big problem is his religion. Depending on other factors, religion matters in Nigeria’s presidential politics, and all candidates exploit it to their advantage or against their opponents. But religion looms larger in Osinbajo’s case in this election than for any other candidate. He is about the only aspirant so far associated with religion this election cycle because he got to high office directly on account of his religion. Were he not a Christian, and were that not important in APC’s permutations in 2015, Osinbajo would not have been Vice President, and could only have been a long shot aspirant in this election, if, as an unknown law professor and former commissioner of a state, he had chosen to give it a go by himself.
That makes religion a big problem for him, particularly in the general election, in a way that it does not for other contenders like Rotimi Amaechi, Rochas Okorocha and Godwin Emefiele who are all also of the same faith as Osinbajo, or even for someone like Tinubu, who must have to deal with the problem of a running mate. But there is a second, even more pointed reason. In Nigeria’s presidential politics, Muslim candidates have had to downplay their Muslim identity in order to appeal to southern and Christian voters in a way that Christian presidential candidates didn’t have to. Jonathan who talked national politics a lot of the time from a church still won against Buhari even in states like Katsina and Jigawa with 99% Muslim population in 2011.
Moreover, if you are a Muslim presidential candidate, and you had a politically motivated and media-manufactured tag of religious fanaticism round your neck, like Buhari had for so long, your chances are simply doomed. It really doesn’t matter whether the tag is true nor not. Now, however, and for the very first time in our presidential politics, Osinbajo, who already has the tag of religious fanaticism round his neck, will find out and show us what it means to have the shoe of religious politics on the other foot, regardless of how untrue the tag may be. Like the late Chief Bola Ige in 1997, I siddon dey look.