BusinessDay

2023: Would Osinbajo run for president or chicken out?

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State and national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, has not formally declared he would run for president in 2023. But we know that he wants to vie for the presidency. How? Well, his apparent confidant, Tanko Yakasai, a founding member of the Arewa Consultative Council, ACF, told us so.

In a recent interview with a national newspaper, Yakasai said that Tinubu’s highly-publicised visit to him on November 24 was to solicit his support for his presidential ambition. Asked if Tinubu told him he would join the 2023 presidential race, Yakasai replied: “He did and he asked for my support.”

For a start, Tinubu’s cosying up to Yakasai is curious for two reasons. First, Tinubu must still secure his party’s nomination and Yakasai is not a member of his party, so why is his public endorsement needed at this stage? It smacks of a presumption that the APC ticket is a shoo-in, already in the bag. Or, perhaps, it’s an attempt to shoo off potential rivals in his party by signalling that he has the support of major power brokers in the North. Which leads to the second reason Tinubu’s fraternity with Yakasai is curious. Yakasai is a vociferous and visceral opponent of restructuring. Is Tinubu nailing his colours to the mast on restructuring Nigeria by putting himself in hock to its inveterate opponents in North? You might argue that he could try to ensure that they have an epiphany on the issue, but that stretches credulity.

To be sure, Tinubu’s decision to run for president in 2023 raises a number of issues that are legitimate subjects for future interventions in this column and elsewhere. But the one that concerns me here is whether Tinubu’s presidential ambition would throw up a political oddity in which a sitting vice-president defies the law of natural progression and refuses to run for president because his “godfather” wants to run for the office.

Surely, if Tinubu wants to run for president in 2023, the inevitable questions are: What about Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo? Would he too seek his party’s nomination? Or would he chicken out and throw in the towel because of Tinubu?

Now, let me state at this point that neither Osinbajo’s candidacy nor, even less so, Tinubu’s candidacy is of interest to me. This is because my principled position is that Nigeria’s next president should be of Igbo extraction. If a Yoruba becomes president in 2023 and does eight years, power will then return to the North for another eight years. Thus, by 2039, the Igbo would have produced no president for 40 years since 1999. That’s not a fair way to treat one leg of the tripod of the largest ethnic groups on which Nigeria originally stood. Nor is that sustainable in terms of this country’s unity and stability. So, my preference is for the two main parties, APC and PDP, to pick their presidential candidates from the South-East.

That said, my pragmatic assumption is that APC would not give its presidential ticket to the South-East where it is electorally weak. Consider the recent Anambra State governorship election: Andy Uba, the APC candidate, came a distant third. So, more likely, APC would give its presidential ticket to the South-West, the zone that contributed significantly to its victory in two general elections. But if APC zones its presidential ticket to the South-West, that then makes the political calculations of the Tinubu and Osinbajo camps interesting and intriguing.

Read also: Memo to the Vice President

Tellingly, the argument about why Osinbajo should not run for president if Tinubu wants the job turns on loyalty and gratitude. The argument goes like this: Osinbajo would not have been vice president without Tinubu, so he owes Tinubu an eternal debt, and would be disloyal to challenge him for their party’s presidential ticket. But this is utter hogwash! The argument is based on a false narrative that Tinubu helped Osinbajo to become APC’s presidential running-mate in 2015 out of sheer generosity or favour. But that’s not true!

In reality, once it became clear that Tinubu couldn’t become General Muhammadu Buhari’s running-mate because Nigerians wouldn’t accept a Muslim-Muslim ticket, the challenge for the APC was finding a Yoruba Christian who would boost the Buhari ticket. It’s worth remembering how deeply unpopular Buhari was in the South-West.

Even in 2011, when he ran with Pastor Tunde Bakare, a Yoruba Christian, as his running-mate, he secured only 321,609 votes in the South-West as against Goodluck Jonathan’s 1,369,943. In 2015, Jonathan, who had cultivated and warmed himself to Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s biological and political families, secured the support of Afenifere by promising to implement the report of his government’s 2014 National Conference, if re-elected.

In those circumstances, Osinbajo’s choice as Buhari’s running-mate was strategic. A pastor of the popular Redeemed Christian Church of God, he received the public endorsement of the revered Pastor Adeboye, head of the church, and the support of most Pentecostal Christians in the South-West. Then, there was the Awolowo connection. Osinbajo is married to one of Chief Awolowo’s granddaughters, and Awolowo’s wife, HID, publicly welcomed and blessed his choice as Buhari’s running-mate.

Truth is: Osinbajo’s choice won the APC lots of Christian votes in the South-West and blunted Afenifere’s support for Jonathan. Even so, Jonathan still won 42% of the South-West votes as against Buhari’s 56%! Hard to imagine the outcome without Osinbajo on the ticket!

Of course, no one can deny Tinubu’s role in Osinbajo’s emergence as APC’s vice-presidential candidate in 2015. But everyone gets a helping hand in life, including Tinubu himself. He became the gubernatorial candidate of Alliance for Democracy, AD, in 1999 because Chief Abraham Adesanya and other Afenifere leaders, who controlled the party, preferred him to his rivals, including Funsho Williams, the popular Lagos politician who was previously thought to be the favourite to win the party’s governorship ticket in Lagos State.

My overarching point here is that Osinbajo’s choice as Buhari’s running-mate in 2015 was not merely a product of Tinubu’s generosity or altruism; rather, it was a function of strategic and pragmatic calculations: Osinbajo brought something significant to the table!

But let’s leave aside how Osinbajo became APC’s vice-presidential nominee in 2015. The fact is that he has been Nigeria’s vice president since 2015 and has served the president loyally and the country meritoriously. I have often, in this column and elsewhere, described him as the only acceptable face of the Buhari government; as the prime minister to Buhari’s “ceremonial” presidency!

Recently, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI, a non-partisan private sector organisation, paid a glowing tribute to Osinbajo, calling him “a pride of Africa.” The LCCI’s then vice president, now president, Dr Michael Olawale-Cole, described Osinbajo as “a worthy Vice President of our country and a fantastic leader of this nation.” Wouldn’t it be strange if he doesn’t run for president?

In the US, over the past 50 years, no vice-president who sought to succeed a president has failed to get their party’s nomination. In Nigeria, no previous vice-president, except Jonathan, went on to become their party’s presidential nominee. Alex Ekwueme was a victim of a coup d’etat; Atiku Abubakar fell out with his boss. But by 2023, Osinbajo would have served outstandingly as vice-president for 8 years. Elsewhere, he would have the inside track when it comes to running for his party’s presidential nomination.

Well, here are two questions for Professor Osinbajo: Does he believe he can run Nigeria as president? Does he have the fire in his belly to fight for his party’s nomination? If he answers “yes” to both questions, history will judge him unkindly if he chickens out of seeking his party’s nomination to run for president in 2023. History is watching!

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