Nigeria 2023: Can VP Osinbajo defeat political giants next month?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 17:25

Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo makes a remark during the Tony Elumelu Foundation's African entrepreneurship forum in Abuja, on July 27, 2019. - (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)
Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo makes a remark during the Tony Elumelu Foundation's African entrepreneurship forum in Abuja, on July 27, 2019. - (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Nigeria’s Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has finally joined the presidential race ahead of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party primary. However, with no strong support base in the APC, will Osinbajo be able to defeat the more experienced politicians in the party to clinch the ticket?

Days after Osinbajo’s presidential declaration, it is now time for him to officially hit the campaign trail as an aspirant and not as the vice-president.

The charismatic cleric and professor of law will be going up against veteran politicians like Lagos godfather Bola Tinubu, two serving governors (Yahaya Bello of Kogi State and Ebonyi’s Dave Umahi) and the minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, who has won four elections and headed two presidential campaigns.

However, he has one big problem: the lack of a solid base in the party.

Unlike Tinubu (the man behind the rise of many APC politicians who are now indebted to him and are willing to repay him with their votes at the primary), Osinbajo’s story isn’t that straightforward.

The grassroots challenge

Although he started his public service career as an adviser to Nigeria’s Attorney-General Bola Ajibola in 1988, Osinbajo remained a technocrat. Even as Attorney-General of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007, he focused mainly on judicial reforms and never contested any election until 2014 when he was selected as the APC’s vice-presidential candidate. Even though his nomination helped attract votes, mainly from Pentecostal Christians who had earlier perceived Buhari as a Muslim fanatic, his popularity within the APC never really grew.

This is because since becoming vice-president, he has never really engaged in party politics at the grassroots level (like other politicians who fund party members there, thereby earning their loyalty and trust. In fact, until February last year, he was not registered to vote in his hometown as has been the norm with other politicians who often vote at their fathers’ ancestral homes.

If you want to win an election in Nigeria, you have to have structures, deep structures across the country that you have built for over 20 years.

In 2015 and 2019, he cast his ballot at the upscale Victoria Garden City in Lagos State, losing his polling unit in the latter year to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It was not until February 2021, during the APC’s registration exercise that Osinbajo eventually decided to register at Ward 1, Egunrege unit 3, Ikenne-Remo, Ogun State.

Last year, at the last ward, local government and state congresses of the APC tried to elect their party leaders at the grassroots level. It was mostly governors, senators and ministers who sponsored their candidates to emerge top across the board. Osinbajo is not known to have sponsored anyone and therefore lacks a political base even in Ogun State where he is from.

These elected party leaders are expected to constitute a large number of the over 7,000 delegates who will vote at the APC primary next month, should the party opt for the indirect mode of primary.

Others who are expected to vote at the primary will be statutory delegates comprising members of the National Assembly, members of the State Houses of Assembly, serving and former governors, the president, the vice-president and members of the National Working Committee of the party.

“If you want to win an election in Nigeria, you have to have structures, deep structures across the country that you have built for over 20 years. That is what you need to win the presidency of Nigeria. This is what Tinubu has,” says Joe Igbokwe, a staunch supporter of Tinubu and former spokesman for the APC in Lagos State.

Government hold the aces

Since the president has no delegates, he relies largely on the governors to do his bidding and this is what makes them powerful. Currently, 23 out of the 36 governors are members of the APC and they firmly control the political structures and delegates in their states. The remaining 13 states that lack an APC governor either have powerful ministers or senators holding down the fort. Governors, ministers and senators are the ones who will determine who wins the party’s ticket next month.

This is why Osinbajo gathered the APC governors on Sunday: to inform them of his decision to vie and to solicit their support for next month’s primary. So as not to be outplayed, Tinubu swiftly invited the governors to a meeting the next day, where he also solicited their support.

The governors are now expected to hold separate meetings in the coming weeks to agree on the way forward. Governors Umahi (Ebonyi) and Bello (Kogi), both of whom are contesting, have already rallied support from delegates in their respective states.

When you give birth to a child in African culture, it is your prayer that your child will be greater than you.

However, at least four governors have publicly endorsed Tinubu, including Abdullahi Ganduje (Kano), Babajide Sanwo-Olu (Lagos), Gboyega Oyetola (Osun) and Abubakar Bello (Niger).

So far, Abdullahi Sule (Nasarawa) is the only governor who has stuck out his head for Osinbajo, while Governor Babagana Zulum (Borno State) is believed to be supporting him, even though this has never been made public. Some Northern Muslim governors who have vice-presidential ambitions may also be disposed to an Osinbajo candidacy over Tinubu, who is a Muslim.

National Assembly delegates

Apart from the governors, the National Assembly members are also stakeholders in the party. Federal lawmakers who are members of the APC are about 375 in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Already, the APC caucus in the House of Representatives, which has about 305 members, has endorsed Tinubu for the presidency thanks to his political godson, Femi Gbajabiamila, who is the Speaker.

Osinbajo is expected to hold a meeting with lawmakers this week. James Faleke, a federal lawmaker who is one of the key Tinubu campaigners, tells The Africa Report that Osinbajo’s consultation is happening too late in the day as the APC caucus in the House has already endorsed Tinubu.

“We are for Bola Tinubu. I’ve said this repeatedly. I am aware Osinbajo has invited my colleagues to a private dinner. I [will] not [be] attending,” Faleke says.

Consensus to the rescue?

With Osinbajo clearly outgunned by Tinubu’s forces and with no delegates in his pocket like Amaechi, Governor Bello and Governor Umahi, the best chance for him would be the consensus option, analysts say.

This would involve an endorsement from President Buhari, a move that would mandate the governors to support him as was done during last month’s convention (Buhari made the governors endorse Senator Abdullahi Adamu as the APC’s national chairman, which compelled other contestants to step down). As an incentive, the president could allow the governors to impose their successors and candidates for other positions at the state level as was done at the last convention.

However, the new electoral law stipulates that in the event a party picks the consensus option, all other aspirants for that position must step down by submitting a letter of concession to the party. Anything short of this would mean an open contest.

However, will the APC take the consensus approach? The chairman of the APC Governors’ Forum, Atiku Bagudu, says the party would prefer the consensus option as was done in the last convention. “Members of the party always want to see [a] consensus if it is possible, but we are a democratic party. In our last convention, we had consensus in some of the offices and election in some others,” says the Kebbi State governor.

This is someone who could not even win his polling booth. I am not aware of any change in political relevance and popularity since the last elections.

Mindful of Osinbajo’s challenge, support groups are pushing for the consensus option and want Tinubu to step down for him. For example, the Osinbajo Grassroots Organisation, led by Femi Adeleye, says it is certain that Tinubu will step down for the vice-president in next month’s primary. “Asiwaju Bola Tinubu is the leader of the party, no doubt, but what we are saying is that we have seen Osinbajo’s performance, loyalty and acceptability across the country. If we are going with consensus, Tinubu will support Osinbajo, I can tell you that.”

Another support group, the National Coalition Group for Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, has called on Tinubu to “anoint his son” ahead of the primary.

The national secretary of the group, Eli Eberechukwu Dibia, says: “When you give birth to a child in African culture, it is your prayer that your child will be greater than you. We urge Tinubu to anoint ‘his son’ so that we can have fresh air.”

Kayode Ajulo, the convener of the Progressive Lawyers for Osinbajo, said Osinbajo has been lobbying governors for a long time and he is confident of their support.

“In Yoruba custom, we always pray for our sons to be greater than us. Yes, Tinubu made people, but people also made Tinubu. The Yoruba elders like Chief Ayo Adebanjo and Abraham Adesanya were the ones that made Tinubu who he is today. They always prayed for Tinubu to be greater than them. This is what Tinubu should do for Osinbajo, who is his son,” he tells The Africa Report.

Tinubu supporters demand open contest

Nevertheless, Tinubu has rejected entreaties to step down for Osinbajo, insisting that he has no son in the presidential race. “I don’t have any son grown up enough to make such a declaration,” he told journalists after he was asked about his ‘political godson’.

Tinubu’s supporters have rejected all entreaties for him to step down, describing the pleas as an insult. They are insisting on an open contest. The Lagos State chapter of the APC, led by Tinubu, says Osinbajo lost his polling unit at the last election and thus has no bragging rights.

“The only demand is for us to go to the primary. Let us see how much support Osinbajo can garner from the party members. This is someone who could not even win his polling booth. I am not aware of any change in political relevance and popularity since the last elections,” said Seye Oladejo, the spokesman for the APC in Lagos.

Magnus Abe, a Tinubu campaigner, also insists that the consensus option is not in the APC constitution and, as such, it cannot be adopted for the presidential primary.

As the war of words between Tinubu and Osinbajo supporters rage on, the possibility of a consensus now remains slim.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options