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Nigeria: Vice Presidency And The Power Game – OpEd


The recent publication and launch of My Participations, an autobiography of  former governor of Osun State, Chief Bisi Akande opened a can of worms as it relates to the intrigues that attended the choice of a vice presidential candidate for the newly formed All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015. Back then, the flag bearer of the party, General Muhammadu Buhari was under tremendous pressure to pick former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as his running mate. However, realpolitik dictated that a Muslim-Muslim ticket would be a hard sell. In the end, Yemi Osinbajo, a law professor and former Attorney-General of Lagos State was picked as Buhari’s running mate. 


So why the jostling for a position that’s more  or less ceremonial and lacks real power? Indeed the president is the custodian of real power and authority.  Nobody at the moment doubts where the real power lies. Besides the president is the focus and locus of power as envisaged by the Constitution. Yet a vice-president who has the ears of the president could combine influence and a measure of power. The important thing is to have a good chemistry between both parties.  

The truth is the office of the vice-president is more or less a dead-end for an ambitious politician. The Constitution does not confer any real power on the holder of the position. Basically, it’s high status with no real power. Whoever is vice- president holds the office at the pleasure of the president. Depending on the president, he could keep the vice-president busy or make him redundant.  A commentator has observed that anyone in that position must remain as unobtrusive as a wastepaper basket if he wants to survive the power play inherent in that kind of set up.

Indeed any politician with the ambition to become president should steer clear of that position. Otherwise sooner than later there will be clashes with the president. A classic example is Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who was vice-president to President Olusegun Obasanjo. As politicians go Atiku is a very ambitious man. He was in the Social Democratic Party (PDP). He contested for president on the platform of that party.  However, his protégé the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua persuaded him to step down for Bashorun Moshood Abiola with the promise that he would be picked as the running mate. But at the end of the day, Abiola ditched him and picked Ambassador Babagana Kingibe. He later resurfaced in the PDP having inherited the mantle of leadership from the late Yar’Adua.  Thus as leader of the Peoples Front, which later subsumed into the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), he played a crucial role in the emergence of Chief Obasanjo as president in 1999.

 As a kingmaker, this got into his head. But it is apt to note that at the outset Atiku enjoyed a very cordial relationship with President Obasanjo. He was kept busy and given quite a number of assignments. When it became obvious that he wanted to upstage the president, his troubles began. He was fingered as the author of the Mandela option, which is to say, as President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Obasanjo would step down after the first term in office. This did not go down well with President Obasanjo.

Not done yet, Atiku Abubakar openly challenged his boss for the PDP ticket in 2003. He had rallied the governors behind him and Chief Obasanjo was on the verge of being humiliated out of office. The old soldier used all the tricks in the bag to get the governors to fall in line. He begged, he cajoled, and eventually railroaded his way into power once more. You didn’t need a soothsayer to tell you that Atiku was already in the black book of President Obasanjo. As soon as Obasanjo was sworn in for a second term, Atiku’s relationship with the president took a turn for the worse. His wings were cut to size, so to speak. His aides were fired and replaced. He was shunted aside in the day-to-day affairs of the state. A probe was instigated on his role as Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Development Fund.  As expected, he was indicted by the probe panel. All these actions were aimed at checkmating on his ambition to run for president in 2007.Atiku got so kicked around that he had to declare for another party in order to run for president. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, he had been hobbled, and he lamely limped into the presidential race. The rest is history. Nonetheless, Atiku fought the third term agenda of President Obasanjo to a standstill.


Another example of a vice-president who understood the limitation of that office is Dr Alex Ekwueme. He served under President Shehu Shagari in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) administration. He had his role well cut out for him. He neither stepped out of bounds nor tried to upstage the president. He understood the dynamics of power and realized that power flowed from the office of the president. He held that office with grace. There was no trace of vaulting ambition in him, and he enjoyed a very cordial working relationship with President Shehu Shagari. Assuming the second republic was not truncated by military adventurers, perhaps Dr Ekwueme would have picked the NPN ticket in 1987.

The recent experience of Dr Goodluck Jonathan is also a study in how to be a successful vice president. All through the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua presidency, Dr Goodluck Jonathan maintained a dignified poise and posture. He remained in the shadow of the late president. He was neither loud nor vain. He flowed along with the tide and complemented the president. Even when ill-health did not allow the president to perform to optimum, Dr Jonathan remained in the background without giving offence. Again, in the face of constitutional crisis engendered by Yar’Adua’s failure to transmit a letter of vacation to the National Assembly, Jonathan trudged along with admirable dignity. In short, the Ekwueme and Jonathan examples are models for success in that office.

In the same vein, both Architect Namadi Sambo who was vice-president to President Goodluck Jonathan and the current vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo have shown that they are good students of power. They understood their role as partners meant to help their respective president consummate his agenda. Both of them have handled their positions with grace, humility, and consumate skill. In fact, the Jonathan-Sambo presidency was the hallmark of decency and remarkable friendship. Both Sambo and Osinbajo had always been supportive of their respective principal, never stepping beyond the limits of their power. 

In Nigerian political parlance, the vice-president or deputy-governor is described as a spare tyre. In the United States, it’s described as a heartbeat away from the presidency. The job is prestigious but mainly ceremonial. The vice-president is expected to serve as an all-purpose adviser and troubleshooter for the president. The job holder will do well to enjoy the affinities and atmospherics of power while it lasts. More often the vice-president is sent abroad to attend funerals, conferences, sports fiesta and sundry talk shops. His role really is to wait in the wings, in case the president is impeached, resigns, suffers permanent incapacity or dies in office. On this score, the vice- president automatically morphs into president.

In the Nigerian political context, a vice-president should see no evil, hear no evil or speak no evil. He must guard his utterances. His utterances either in private or public will be dissected to discover any whiff of ambition in it. Tale bearers and favour seekers who abound in the corridor of power will be available to relay tidbits of information to the powers that be. Enemies posing as friends will come trying to draw him out of his cocoon. Once he lets his guard down, he will not only be quoted out of context but will be misrepresented in order to inflict maximum damage on his career and ambition.  

Lyndon Johnson who served as vice-president to John Kennedy of the United States of America described the role of the vice-president as a helpmeet to the president. For him, on no account should a vice-president try to supplant the president. Johnson further declared that the role of the vice-president was such that the job holder would do everything possible to advance the agenda of the president. When he eventually became president after the assassination of John Kennedy, Johnson lamented that he had hated every minute of the vice-presidency. Why? Because he was a very ambitious politician. He felt like a castrated bull while he was vice-president.

The presidency is such a powerful office that only the president is allowed to bask in the sun. The president is supposed to be the only bright star in the firmament. No one upstages the president and gets away with it. There can only be one captain in a ship. Once you have two captains there would be a crisis. Other minions in the presidency are expected to revolve around the orbit of the president.

All the same, fate has conspired to transform some vice-presidents into presidents. The most recent example is Dr Goodluck Jonathan, who stepped into the shoes of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. In the United States, Vice-President Gerald Ford became president when President Richard Nixon resigned from office due to the Watergate scandal. Lyndon Johnson also became president when John Kennedy was assassinated. Richard Nixon who once served as vice-president to President Dwight Eisenhower later on won elections on his own terms to become president. Also, George Bush Snr won elections, after serving  as vice-president to President Reagan for eight years.

Anyone who would be vice-president must have infinite patience. He must be loyal, tolerant, and cautious to avoid clashes. Above all, he must be a team player.  On the other hand, the office could serve as a training ground for a politician who is prepared for the long haul. It, therefore, behooves any politician with a king-size ego and loads of ambition to avoid the vice-presidency like a plague. Inability to keep such an ambition well-folded under the babanriga or traditional flowing gown could spell doom for any such vice-president. Otherwise, it will mark the graveyard of his political career.

Sure enough, the Nigerian constitution provides some functions for the vice- president. He deputizes for the president and acts for him in his absence. The specific depends on the functions assigned to him by the president. He is by statute a member of the National Security Council, National Defense Council, Federal Executive Council, and the National Council of State. He is Chairman of the National Economic Council. He also chairs the National Council of Privatization. Under the current arrangement, several parastatals of the presidency are supervised by the vice-president including the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPPS).

All said, for an ambitious politician all this is mere tokenism. Such a personality would need an elbow room and when push comes to shove, guess who suffers. On the whole, the office  of the vice-president is prestigious but devoid of real power. In real terms, the vice-president is a servant of power, which the president symbolizes. In sum, the grandeur of the vice presidency is in stark contrast to its alluring powerlessness.

Kola King

Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist. He worked for more than two decades as a reporter, correspondent and editor in major national newspapers in Nigeria. He's the founder of Metro newsletter published on Substack. His debut novel A Place in the Sun and was published and released in 2016 by Verity Publishers, Pretoria, South Africa. His writing has appeared in Kalahari Review, The Missing Slate Literary Journal, The New Black Magazine and Litro magazine. He earned a Bachelors degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.

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