Sunday, June 18, 2017

Osinbajo yet to be truly tested - Idowu Akinlotan

FOR the unspecified period Vice President Yemi Osinbajo will hold the fort for the ailing President Muhammadu Buhari, he will walk a tightrope in the most gingerly and exasperating fashion possible. The president left many knots entangled before travelling abroad for medical attention; there is very little Professor Osinbajo can do to disentangle them. The president didn’t assemble the most inspiring of cabinets, especially his fairly insular kitchen cabinet; the vice president can do nothing about that.

No matter how much he pretends, it will gall the vice president to have to embrace the status quo with smiles for the duration of the president’s uncertain absence. He will see and feel how urgently he needs to take action concerning deep and fundamental problems assailing the country, but he will be constrained by the straitjacket bequeathed him by the president.

When he first acted for the president last year, Prof Osinbajo dazzled the country with his placatory visits to areas of discontent. For a country on tenterhooks before the president travelled, it warmed the cockles of the people’s hearts that the acting president spoke peace and helped establish peace. But beyond superficialities, Prof Osinbajo was unable to do much else.

Even the little he accomplished in tinkering with the system drew the ire of vested interests and caused tremors to pulsate through the ranks of the president’s diehard aides. It took some special efforts to douse the enthusiastic comparisons — some of them sarcastic, and others quite morbid — which commentators launched into before the president made an abrupt and premature return to the country. It is therefore not surprising that this time around, the vice president has been more muted and more philosophical about the country’s many ills.

Should the president stay away for much longer than seems logically and constitutionally tolerable, Prof Osinbajo will face real and far more troubling tests that will compel him to deploy and project powers the president’s aides may be unwilling to yield. On the surface, there will of course be no attempt to circumscribe the acting president’s powers, whether in acting or in substantive capacity.

But behind the presidential villa’s oak doors, President Buhari and his formal and informal kitchen cabinets have structured the reins of power in such a manner that any other person, no matter how constitutionally empowered, is an outsider.

One of those fiery tests is already manifesting. The separatist ferment poisoning interethnic and interreligious relationships in the country was of course evident even before the president took gravely ill. His style of tackling it was to dismiss it contemptuously with both a wave of the hand and the platitudinous talk about the unity of Nigeria being non-negotiable.

Prof Osinbajo himself, perhaps more out of caution and dread than conviction, has parroted that impractical and futile line. Whether his fond wish for Nigerian unity will prove strong enough to resolve a problem that is seething and festering beyond any remedy can assuage remains to be seen. And whether that wish and the various meetings he scheduled with stakeholders can translate into something more positive in the face of the bellicose utterances of separatist campaigners is also uncertain.

Nigeria is perching dangerously on the edge of a cliff. The deep fissures in the country require the intervention and innovation of a president enjoying and deploying his full powers and exuding such knowledge and brilliance that it is impossible for anyone to gainsay. Not only was President Buhari almost wholly without such amenities, even as he preferred to live in denial, the acting president is obviously unable to project such powers, assuming he has them, not to say deploy them.

What is certain is that one day, the separatist clamour, herdsmen rampage, and other dangerous fuses could trigger a wider revolt. With the president unable to anticipate these troubles and thus prepare against them, and the acting president barred by circumstances and strictures from dealing with them proactively, it will be difficult to put out the fire when it is finally lit.

Presidential aides, the kitchen cabinet, and the vice president’s men may deny it all they want, it is however unlikely that Prof Osinbajo can do more than just breath salubrious air in the rarefied and forested precincts of the villa, placate angry groups as best as he can on an ad hoc basis, paper over the social, religious and political cracks gnawing at the heart of the country, tiptoe around the controversial issues of regional and ethnic power dynamics, and moralise in general but ineffective terms about the virtues of nation-building.

He cannot appoint anyone of substance into any high position, and cannot on his own sack anyone of substance, as indicated by the unlawful violation of the PenCom Act which he permitted. The president’s kitchen cabinet, divided even in the best of times, will continue to hold the fort, even as the acting president gives the impression of being in office and in power. Indeed, there is nothing the acting president can do about the dichotomised power structure that is evident in Aso Villa. It is the structure he met; and it is a structure he cannot change.

If Prof Osinbajo faces a test bigger and more severe than he has faced so far, he will have to resolve, one way or the other, the conundrums stymieing the progress of the country, especially the change the All Progressives Congress (APC) promised without a clue regarding how to implement or energise it.

There is nothing to suggest that with the president staying away for much longer than a few more months, the genial and eloquent but apparently apolitical professor will not finally confront the dilemma of being in office but not in power, surrounded by general and kitchen cabinet misfits, and shackled by parochial forces who view the country and its security structures through ethnic and religious prisms. Would to God the auguries were less alarming than they really are.

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