Yemi Osinbajo and the burden of sinecure public office
Yemi Osinbajo, Vice President and studious Professor of Law wears a noble face even in his small frame. Smallish, pocket-size and dour, he is however exciting to behold.As a school boy, he spoke good English, kept himself clean in his khaki shorts and tops and was more dignified than most youngsters. He was also extraordinarily well-mannered. He had little interest in athletics but loved books and music. Many of his classmates liked him for he was reserve, considerate and lacked the tendency to dominate. He disciplined himself stringently even as he bottled up his emotions. He drove himself unmercifully and was usually on top of his class. He also participated in debate in the top rank. Imbued with the spirit and “progressiveness” of a nominally secular institution which he attended, Osinbajo is understandably steeped in the received principles of the past. He is less responsive to the creative findings of the present in spite of his cultivation of a mind possessing unusual power which in turn has made him eminently fitted for the profession of law.
Forced to husband his energy on being found to be too involved in exacting vocations and assignments, he accepted office only when it was thrust upon him. As Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, he was beloved for his integrity, gentleness and dignity. The memory of his character in office is today the mainstay of that pivotal institution. As a teacher, Osinbajo drove himself relentlessly even as his students felt obliged to work just as hard as himself. He is a born teacher with the natural attributes of patience, tact and devotion to the cause. He excited even the dullest student with a perception of the majesty of the law.
His trail-blazing achievements as chief law officer of Lagos State (1999-2007) probably put him on the spot for consideration as a visibly appropriate holder of a higher political office in future rather than the presumed squeaky calculations of some forlorn political mogul. Osinbajo deems both the Constitution and statutes to be fixed in meaning and inflexibly or immutably executed by officials. He launched a series of impassioned attacks for change by judicial interpretation as was witnessed in the celebrated case of the controversial with-holding by the Federal Government of the statutory allocations accruing to Lagos State when the duo quibbled over the propriety or otherwise of the extra-constitutional creation of additional local governments by the state government.
The office of the Vice-President with its larger strengths and obvious weaknesses is however quite dis-similar to the ornateness of style of a class teacher or of a primus law officer. As a spare rib in the body politic of the presidency, the holder of the office is quite dispensable or expendable. One is apt to identify the chasm between law and the dynamic force of politics, morality and industry or hard work. The conservative character of the performance of lawyers in public office is glaringly reflective of the influence of powerful brokers or of their appointors than of the proverbial inhibiting character of legal education. The more important and able the lawyer, the more he is in touch or in agreement with official positions or thinking and with the most important business interests of his “community”; and the more he is unable to propose or advocate any reform of an extensive or radical character which will be unwelcome to his principal’s interest. Lawyers in public office regrettably manifest Holmes’ disdainful view of the law as containing “only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics”. They display a great sense of immediate utility and less of the requirement for posterity or the demands of an enduring legacy or heritage. They are eager to get what they can and to, for instance, “win” their cases.
On Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the Vice President met more than his match and was visibly flustered when in Benue State he came face to face with the ire and fire of the leadership of a traumatised people. In the history of public altercation or of the expression of angry disputation, that meeting will go down as the most virulent verbal attack or assault on a high ranking public figure. No holds were barred – no restrictions or rules were observed. Courtly etiquette was dispensed with. Speaker after speaker said it as it is. But that is as it should be. Our public men have gone away too long with the view of the common people’s predisposition to continue to suffer in silence or, to borrow Fela’s aphorism, “suffering and smiling”. Many communities had been sacked, hundreds of people have been gruesomely hacked to death, many more have been maimed and rendered homeless and helpless under the watch of a seemingly inert government. The uncouth perpetrators of these crimes against humanity are deemed sacred cows and have remained unquestioned, unchallenged and un-prosecuted. A most gruesome or horror-inspiring incident in which officiating priests at a funeral Mass celebration in a church were cold-bloodedly murdered along with members of the congregation did not excite the immediate or peremptory visit of the President or his Vice to the startled or grieving community.
Osinbajo, the community moaned, did not live up to his billing as a church minister or pastor beyond vainly decrying the horror. He was alleged not to have caught the universal sense of disapproval which demands that he makes an unequivocal statement condemning the inactivity or ineffectiveness of his government regarding the reign of terror, chastising implicated officials, moving against the bandits vi et armis and declaring the armed militia men as terrorists rather than lamely dubbling the orgy of killings and criminal insouciance as “farmers, herdsmen clashes.” The high pitch of the people’s observation of government’s insensitivity to their plight was reached at a glittering reception of the Vice President at an IDP camp. But the people did not toast him warmly, generously or felicitously.
They responded with the perfect enunciation, measured emphasis and cold tones of a people who understood the scheming of a government that rates them a little higher than money’s worth. ₦10 billion was solicitously offered the people for the rebuilding or repair of damaged structures in Benue and other affected states. The people angrily recalled that the President had offered the sum of ₦500 million to any state that was willing to offer part of its territory as grazing land for Fulani herdsmen in the wake of the searing debate for and against an antiquated open grazing advocacy. They deduced that herds of cattle could attract a greater policy attention than human beings and their settlements. They questioned Osinbajo’s avowal of the Christian faith or conscience. He weakly talked back in reply employing a hackneyed or dis-used argumentum ad hominem.
Political instincts can be helpful. Their lack can be disastrous. The cause or struggles of the people must be viewed with considerable sympathy. It is hard not to see the people through the eyes of their true leaders. We can hardly win the people’s esteem and affection through speeches no matter how gainly cadenced. Last Wednesday’s meeting could easily rank as the most engaging and rewarding experience of the Vice President, if the right political and ethical lessons are drawn therefrom. Osinbajo needs to bear the burden of his office more gracefully, conscientiously and with the puritan conviction of a professed priest abjuring all deceptive niceties of contending philosophies or dogmas. He must be his own man and not allow himself to be dwarfed by the self- serving demands of a non exculpating doctrine of “collective responsibility.” Everyone, after all, will be answerable for his own actions or inaction when the birds eventually return home to roost.
Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs analyst.