Osinbajo, Ruto: Divided by diffidence and defiance
Both men were Vice Presidents, whose fortuitous circumstances made them acting Presidents. For Nigeria’s Prof. Oluyemi Osinbajo, it was the health challenges of his principal, President Muhammadu Buhari that opened the window of opportunity for him to seat atop the apogee of the country’s political power.
On his part, William Ruto became acting President, when his principal, Uhuru Kenyatta, was enmeshed in the International Criminal Court saga to answer questions regarding his role in the post-election violence that trailed the country’s 2007 poll.
Officially communicating his decision to hand over to Ruto in parliament, President Kenyatta had written: “To protect the sovereignty of the Republic of Kenya, I will sign a legal notice appointing Hon. William Ruto as acting president, while I attend the status conference.”
So, Ruto served officially as acting President from October 6 to 9, 2014 while President Kenyatta was away at The Hague. It is possible that the Kenyan politician had his eyes trained on the big office. The acting opportunity, therefore, came as an encouragement that he was on the right path.
On September 13, 2022, Ruto was sworn into office as the fifth President of Kenya. As the evangelical Christian took his oath of office in Nairobi, many Nigerians, who traced the contrasting features between his political odyssey and that of Prof. Osinbajo, could not help, but wonder why and how the Nigerian Vice President missed his Ruto moment in the run-up to the country’s presidential election.
Ruto and Osinbajo shared great contrasts in their political life story and milieus such that it would have been easy for Kenya and Nigeria to post their age-long pairing in national development.
Prior to serving as the 11th Vice President of Kenya, Ruto had been around in various administrations, where he occupied the offices of Ministers of Home Affairs, Agriculture and Education. Having worked with the country’s leaders, including Daniel Arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta, the new President felt exposed and experienced enough for elective offices.
First was for a member of parliament and then for Vice Presidency through the United Republican Party, which positioned him as running mate to Kenyatta of The National Alliance (TNA). As Ruto won the 2017 election with Kenyatta under the Jubilee Party, his aspiration for the top job in 2022 did not receive the support of his principal, Kenyatta, who was more inclined toward his former rival, Raila Odinga.
Ruto’s decision to take his political destiny into his own hands meant that he had to brave the odds and sought the mandate of the Kenyan people through the platform of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). And it paid off.
In all, it was obvious that Ruto’s years as a volunteer mobiliser for Moi, as well as his political visibility through the various ministerial appointments he held granted him the street credibility and acclaim that propelled his defeat of the potentates, Kenyatta and Odinga.
2022 was not the first time Ruto was beating establishment candidates. For instance, in the 1997 Kenyan general elections, when he contested the parliamentary seat, he handed a surprising defeat to Reuben Chesire, who was backed by President Moi. That exploit endeared Ruto to Moi, who made him a Director of Elections under the Kenya African National Union (KANU).
From that vantage position, Ruto was able to render strategic support for Uhuru Kenyatta, who was President Moi’s preferred candidate in the 2002 general elections. For his support to Kenyatta, Ruto was appointed junior minister of the interior (Home Affairs) and later promoted to full cabinet Minister, when some ministers resigned to stand for election, in which KANU lost.
In 2005, when Kenyatta was elected as KANU chairman, Ruto was also elected Secretary General. But, during the referendum on constitutional review, while KANU opposed the move, Ruto teamed up with former KANU ministers, who had joined the opposition to fight President Kibaki for not honouring a pre-election memorandum of understanding (MOU) on power sharing and establishment of the office of Prime Minister.
Coming under the collective banner of Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which was coined from the orange colour of the ‘No’ vote, Ruto strengthened his grassroots hold of the Rift Valley Province, which helped to hand the ODM victory in the referendum.
Nonetheless, his declaration to contest the 2007 presidential election presented as if he was stretching his luck too far. Despite the condemnation of his aspiration by KANU bigwigs, particularly former President Arap Moi, Ruto went ahead to seek the nomination in ODM. He was however beaten to third place in the straw poll, which was won by Raila Odinga. In demonstration of the spirit of sportsmanship, Ruto congratulated Odinga and pledged his support.
It was as if Ruto’s keen eyes were able to read the political barometer of Kenya accurately, because although the December 2007 poll was inconclusive and crisis-ridden, Odinga and Kibaki, who were claimants, later forged an accord. That was after the post-election violence died down. In the power-sharing arrangement that ensued, Odinga agreed to be Kibaki’s deputy. Subsequently, Ruto was appointed Minister for Agriculture in the coalition cabinet.
It was after he was relieved of his ministerial post that Ruto teamed up with Kenyatta to found the Jubilee Alliance for the 2013 poll. However, despite the contributions of Ruto to the electoral triumph of Kenyatta, the outgoing president demurred from supporting his deputy to succeed him.
IN Prof. Osinbajo’s case, the fact of Nigeria’s ethnic and identity politics, as well as the North/South dichotomy worked on his ambition to succeed his principal, President Muhammadu Buhari. Not that alone, President Buhari’s control of his Presidency has been a subject of public conjectures. His taciturnity and aloof leadership style made it challenging to place a finger on where he stands on major issues.
But, unlike Ruto and Kenyatta, who did not hide his aversion to his Deputy President’s presidential aspiration, Buhari seemed to have his mind clogged by considerations of the implication of open support for Osinbajo in the light of Tinubu’s interest.
While Ruto contributory to Kenyatta’s electoral success, he also showed loyal support to the achievements of their administration, especially when Uhuru went to answer the ICC summons. Conversely, although Osinbajo discharged his duties with utmost loyalty and patriotism, it was Tinubu’s contributions to Buhari’s electoral success that paved the way for his (Osinbajo’s) eventual emergence as Vice President.
Therefore, given the dissolute nature of Nigeria’s Presidency, where as much as three distinct power foci exist, all Osinbajo could do was second guess his principal, a former military officer, who is adept at camouflage and taqiyya strategies.
Like Ruto, Osinabjo is a teacher and has been around politics and governance circles. For instance, from 1999, when he was appointed the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Governor Bola Tinubu’s administration, he was able to deliver justice reforms in the state.
After his tour of duty in those exciting eight years, the law Professor returned to the University and continued his lecturing, as well as pastoring in the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), a Pentecostal church with a large congregation in and outside the country.
Given his vast knowledge of law and reform-mindedness, Osinbanjo was enlisted among other notable legal and political thinkers that put together the emergent All Progressives Congress (APC). APC was an amalgam of previous opposition parties that came together in a merger to confront the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that continued to monopolise the Federal Government through successive landslide victories in country-wide elections.
Drawing from his experience in Lagos State, Prof. Osinbajo ensured that such mass-oriented programmes like free school meals, and conditional cash transfer programmes as a safety net for the poorest of poor Nigerians, were articled in the APC action plan.
It was therefore perhaps on account of the far-reaching projections by the Osinbajo manifesto drafting committee that Buhari, who was nominated on December 4, 2014, as the new party’s presidential standard-bearer, effortlessly settled for the law professor as his running mate for the 2015 presidential poll.
In the course of the electioneering for the 2015 general elections, Osinbajo emerged from the shadows of his former principal in Lagos to showcase innovative styles in canvassing for votes. As he addressed countless town hall meetings, tailored after the United States scheme, many who thought he was a rookie politician had a second thoughts.
The electorate saw the APC presidential ticket as a balanced one, given the combination of the former military ruler and his law Professor pairing. Their promise to change the way things were done in politics and governance in the country caught national attention. And, for the first time in the political history of the country, the inchoate APC defeated the incumbent PDP and its serving President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan.
Although there were hushed complaints of electoral malfeasance, the election was deemed to have reflected the wishes and aspirations of Nigerians, particularly given the incumbent President’s decision to concede before the final tally of the ballot collation process.
Some observers concluded that the experience from the Kenyan 2007 violent and controversial poll inspired Jonathan’s early concession to avert any post-election trouble. The change of baton in the Presidency provided Prof. Osinbajo access to the country’s highest political office.
If his choice as Buhari’s deputy came as an accidental political decision or intended as a further opportunity for an apprenticeship, the President’s infamous battle with declining health paved the way for Osinbajo to show how far he was able to pilot the affairs of the country.
Just like Ruto stepped into his master’s shoes when the ICC conference happened, on May 9, 2017, when President Buhari transmitted a letter to the National Assembly asking the legislature to allow his deputy to act as President in his absence, Osinbajo got his golden opportunity to showcase his skills.
Within the period he acted as President, Nigerians were opportune to relish the beauty of democratic governance as Osinbajo exhibited transparency and inclusion that contrasted with his principal’s opaque and insular style. For instance, when Nigerians milled to the streets to protest the high cost of living, acting President Osinbajo delivered his famous empathic message, by tweeting, “We can hear you loud and clear,” instead of sending masked security operatives after the protesters.
However, in the course of President Buhari’s prolonged medical trips outside the country, the acting President’s decision to fire the Director General of Nigeria’s secret police, Lawal Dauran, brought about a mixed grill of reactions. While the masses hailed the action, some Presidency insiders beholden to Buhari did not find it funny, particularly the consequent decision to appoint Matthew Seiyefa as Daura’s replacement, albeit in an acting capacity.
The general mood in the country was that Daura’s decision to authorise the invasion of the National Assembly by masked and armed security personnel violated the sanctity of the parliamentary precincts. Some observers stated that but for the acting President’s swift decision, the affront would have provided the impetus to imperil Nigeria’s democracy.
Despite public approbation for the sacking of Daura and attempts to improve the public perception of the Buhari administration, it was believed that that singular action drove a wedge between the President and his Deputy. Analysts point to the fact that ever since that opportunity was extended to Osinbajo, none happened again, meaning that the even President became warty of the extent his vice could go with executive power.
It was therefore in that climate of political hide and seek that while the preparations for the 2023 general election gathered steam, some emissaries assured Osinbajo of Buhari’s support, while contrary schemes were weaved through the leadership of APC.
Amid those conflicting indicators, there were Presidency insiders who wanted the Vice President to seek a direct audience with Buhari to ascertain his stance on his succession plan. But, as usual, the President drew bland and continued his usual refrain that everybody was free to run.
After the APC presidential primary was lost and won, many had thought that Prof. Osinbajo was inclined to pull a similar stunt as Ruto, by activating the political bond he had amassed with supporters. During that period, it was gathered there were also indications that the Labour Party (LP) presidential ticket, which former Anambra State governor, Mr Peter Obi, currently has, was initially dangled before the Vice President. But, how healthy it was for the VP to leave the fold of APC and still remain in office could be among the reasons the Vice President denounced the attachment to LP as if it were a leprous offer. His aides denied it vehemently, not willing to see the possibilities.
There was the experience of former vice president Atiku Abubakar, who left the fold of his party, PDP, got the ticket of another party and still survived legally and politically.
But the times of today are different. While Atiku could count on the larger northern platform to give him some cover, Osinbajo may not find anyone on his side, except the crowd to ‘crucify him. And so, he never took a plunge, whereas, Obi, who had no strings anywhere went for it and is causing quakes everywhere.
With Buhari’s ambivalence and vacillation to endorse his deputy, it was obvious Osinbajo’s moral considerations must have assailed him from displaying Ruto’s defiance. There is no doubt that Osinabjo would have earned the popular sympathy that comes with being the underdog, but at what cost would such alacrity come?
That singular consideration could explain why Nigeria’s Vice President, Osinbajo missed the Ruto moment that enthroned William Ruto as successor to a principal that never wanted him to be.