Nigeria: leadership and politics of the vice presidency

John Otim

In politics the second in command is far from a glamorous position, even though the man or woman that occupies the position may be only a heartbeat away from the top job. Should anything happen, the second in command is, by most constitutions next in line of succession. But the second is only the second and never the captain.

Stories abound about how leaders have preferred someone less than themselves for their second in command. Given the competition and the raw reality of power I probably would. Such leaders do so for fear of being upstaged, or simply to set off themselves in the best of lights against the presumed lesser qualities and capacity of the other. Many people believe that this consideration informed the choice of Lyndon Baines Johnson by John F Kennedy as his running mate in the 1960 American election. Johnson, a great legislator, was not a man without gifts but he was a rustic without charisma compared to the young and urbane Kennedy.

The choice of Spiro Agnew by Richard Nixon and later Dan Quail by Bush the father are seen in the same light. With Nixon you could never be sure. The man attracted too many haters just as he attracted worshipers. But people say that Nixon said that Agnew was his insurance policy against assassination. You bump me off and you end up with Spiro Agnew. In 1974 at the height of the Watergate scandal, at a time when Agnew’s appeal was on the rise against that of the beleaguered Nixon, Agnew was caught receiving bribes in his official office. Agnew resigned under a pardon.  Within the year Nixon himself resigned under a pardon. Who was the lesser man?

The politics of the second in command is discernable in Nigerian politics. We could go back to 1967 at the beginning of the country’s civil war when the 32 year old Col Yakubu Gown, later General Gown, became his country’ second military head of state. Gown was a mild and gentle figure rare in Nigerian public life. The real test for the politics of the second in command came in Nigeria in 1975 when the flamboyant General Murutala Mohammed overthrew the government of General Yakubu Gown in a coup d’état. It was not Murutala’s first entry into the wild and dangerous land of the coup d’état.

For those not familiar with Nigerian affairs, by right of arms Murutala Mohammed had earned himself the right to take power right back in 1967. He wanted to but could not because he lacked the necessary “international backing”. He had carried out the coup that killed and overthrew the government of General Agiui Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military leader.

Now in 1974 when Murutala again carried out a coup and this time took power he needed a second in command. For that he chose Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo. The two were agemates, Murtala was a Northerner, Obasanjo was a Southerner. By the principles of the balancing act, a feature of Nigerian politics, the choice was proper. Obasanjo was a young officer of 38 that did not particularly stand out although a few years ago he had distinguished himself in the civil war.

When Murutala Mohammed picked him, Obasanjo was neither the most senior nor the most prominent Southern officer. In choosing Obasanjo the indication was that Murutala was going for someone he believed was somehow less than himself.

Barely four months into power Murutala was assassinated in a failed coup bid. The government he led survived. The Supreme Military Council confirmed Obasanjo as the successor to Murutala. Obasanjo’s self effacing ways in those days must have convinced the Northern dominated military to confirm him, a Southerner, in that role. But they took care to name as his deputy a dynamic young Northern officer, Shehu Musa Yar’adua. Yar’adua, the older brother of the man who would later become president of Nigeria, was intended for the role of the power behind the throne, a role he never got to play, clever though he was.

Obasanjo though remaining outwardly mild soon proved just how tough and clever he was. He did all the right things. Under his firm control, the military remained in power for just the four years it had promised. As promised, Obasanjo handed power back to an elected civilian government. It was a remarkable move, the first such transfer of power in Africa. It showed how deft Obasanjo could be. In Olusegun Obasanjo, the politics of the second in command was stood on its head. It had produced a worthy leader who had now earned himself international respects.

So close to 2015 postponed Nigerian election as we write, it is worthwhile to consider how the politics of the second in command has impacted on the present situation in Nigerian life and politics.

In its nearly 65 years of independent existence, Nigeria has produced many a surprising leader for a head of state. The mild and gentle Muhammadu Umaru Musa Yar’adua was one such. In the year 2007 Yar’adua was handpicked by Olusegun Obasanjo whose term in office was ending and whose bid for a third term had been rejected by the Senate. Obasanjo imposed the shy and gentle Yar’adua on the ruling PDP party to run for president, which the candidate won in a disputed vote.

Once in office the gentle and lightly built Yar’adua, a Northern politician, proved unexpectedly tough, independent and capable. The brieft time he spent in office Yar'adua came across splendidly as presidential. Boko Haram first reared its head in 2009 during Yar’adua’s watch. Yar’adua went after it with resolve. Before he could resolve matters or finish his first term in office ill health and death cut him short.

Enter Goodluck Jonathan, the luckiest man in Nigerian politics. But good luck can have its own downside. And with Goodluck Jonathan his repeated good luck seem to catch him as a man ill prepared for the high stakes it was thrusting upon him.

An unknown academic from a small Nigerian University, Jonathan was picked as running mate in the Governorship election of 2003 in the small Southern and oil producing State of Bayelsa. Their ticket won the race and Jonathan became Deputy Governor. Soon his boss ran into trouble, was arrested in London under charges of corruption and deported back to Nigeria where he was impeached and removed from office as Governor. As Deputy Governor, Jonathan became the new Governor. This was the second time luck smiled on him.

A few years later the newly nominated Presidential candidate of the ruling PDP party, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, was shopping for a running mate. Luck smiled again on Goodluck Jonathan. He was picked and approved for the Yar’adua ticket. Luck smiled again and the ticket won. Jonathan, now Vice President, was still quite young. Small of stature, and uncertain of himself, Jonathan cut an unlikely figure in his new role. But there he was. The President dies in office and Goodluck Jonathan is sworn in as President of Nigeria.

He completed Yar’adua’s unfinished term of office. In the 2011 election Jonathan offered his candidature and is elected President in his own right. Jonathan completes his first term and as was his right decided run for a second term in office.

In so doing Jonathan alienated a good chunk of the population of Northern Nigeria who saw him as usurper, stealing Northern Nigeria’s turn to rule Nigeria. There existed some soft arrangement within Jonathan’s ruling PDP party whereby the presidency of the country is rotated between the south and the north of the country every eight years.

It was never a clear and cut rule and it depended on the chance of the ruling party always winning power. The unfortunate death in office of Umaru Musa Yar’adua messed things up. By offering himself for reelection, as was his ritht, Goodluck Jonathan underscored the mess.

One can imagine Olusegun Obasanjo in exactly the same position Jonathan found himself in. My guess is, Obasanjo would not have chosen to offer himself for reelection and would have let a Northern politician run in his stead. Many observers agree that the coming Nigerian presidential election is the closest ever in the country. The personality of Goodluck Jonathan and his decision to stand for reelection has a lot to do with it. And now many people blame Jonathan for the continued problem of Boko Haram.

Goodluck Jonathan and the present impasse in Nigerian politics in which he is the central figure, is the product of the practice of the principle of the lesser man. In the peculiar Nigerian circumstances the principle and practice has brought about the present mess. But all is not lost for Nigeria. If the country can pull off a successful election, and why not, if will have bought itself precious time in which to recast itself anew.

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