Nigeria: The Anatomy of How Osinbajo Projects Competence

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari remains ill in London amid his second prolonged medical leave of 2017. In his absence, Acting President/Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has continued to win domestic acclaim for his management of the government and his engagement with different crises in Nigeria.

Reading the transcript of Osinbajo’s June 8 speech in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, I was struck by how the speech showcases the elements of his approach to being acting president. All of these elements are extremely basic, but that is part of the point – I think Osinbajo has received so much praise partly because he is doing these basics and doing them in combination. Here are a few of the things he does:

  1. Showing up: Osinbajo physically goes to troubled areas such as Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram sect. (He has also visited the Niger Delta and southern Kaduna, two other conflict hotspots, in recent months.) He proceeded with the visit to Maiduguri even after an attack by Boko Haram there the previous night. By physically showing up, Osinbajo communicates a sense that the Federal Government cares about troubled communities.
  2. Mediatizing his activities: Osinbajo uses media, particularly Twitter and Medium, to communicate directly with the public, or at least with those segments of it that are regularly online. He makes heavy use of photographs and some use of videos, meaning that Nigerians literally see him working or, if you want to be more cynical, they see images that may or may not correspond to the actual work.
  3. Acknowledging ordinary people’s difficulties: Osinbajo sometimes speaks with considerable candor about the problems ordinary Nigerians face. For example, in a recent speech on the economy, he said, “Often our economic development plans and budgets assume a trickle down approach, namely; that if we put resources in promoting industry and commerce, jobs would eventually be created and the poorest will be reached. The other premise is that GDP growth should translate to jobs. But both premises are flawed. First the trickle down model has proved far too slow to stem the tide of poverty in one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Secondly, most of the growth was on account of the oil sector which is capital intensive but not labour intensive. So, while we were recording growth levels of 7% because of the high oil prices, unemployment figures grew.”
  4. Explaining government programs: Osinbajo regularly provides updates and explanations concerning new Federal Government programs, of which there are currently many. In his Maiduguri speech, for example, he launched and explained the government’s new grain distribution program for internally displaced persons. He did so, moreover, in a way that conveys a sense that the government is using individual programs to advance multiple, interlinked objectives – in this case, meeting needs, giving people more dignity, reducing corruption, and boosting local agriculture.

These habits are, or should be, unremarkable. But I would say it’s been at least a decade since Nigerians have regularly seen their head of state deploy all these elements routinely and in combination. Of the most recent three heads of state, two – Umaru Yar’Adua (2007-2010) and Buhari (2015-present) – had/have serious health problems that prevented them from steadily projecting an image of activity and energy. The other, Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015), came to seem increasingly disconnected from key problems the country was facing, especially the Boko Haram crisis, widespread poverty, and endemic corruption. I am also not aware of any of those three figures undertaking the kind of diverse in-country travel schedule that Osinbajo has pursued this year – it is rare, at least from what I can remember, for a Nigerian president to conduct multiple widely praised, high-profile visits to multiple hotspots within just a few months. Jonathan appeared reluctant to visit the northeast, and Buhari appears reluctant to visit the Delta. So Osinbajo, with this combination of travel, media, candor, and clarity, is giving Nigerians a different view of what the presidency can be.

Now, with all that said, crediting Osinbajo with successfully managing the optics and theater of the presidency does not mean that the Buhari/Osinbajo government is successfully addressing Nigeria’s challenges. Optics count for a lot, however: the line between optics and policy is quite blurry, especially in the case of a presidential visit that calms tensions, intimidates malefactors, or inspires new efforts at accountability and good performance by local officials.

In terms of the country’s main problems, the economy remains in recession but may be poised to turn a corner, and the Buhari/Osinbajo administration could benefit politically from that – although the problem of jobless growth, as Osinbajo himself has pointed out, is real, and unemployment actually seems to be getting worse. On the security front, the trend is concerning – Boko Haram remains a degraded but still significant threat in the northeast, conflicts involving pastoralists are causing widespread tension, and things in the Niger Delta seem to still be tense. In this context, if Osinbajo is doing the basics well, that sets him up to succeed, but does not constitute success in and of itself.

Finally, the issue of Buhari’s health hangs over Nigeria. I have written before that if Buhari dies suddenly, that might dry up the goodwill that many Nigerian elites, particularly northerners, currently show toward Osinbajo. And to voice a note of pessimism, perhaps Osinbajo has the space to project this kind of image of a hard-working, honest, competent administration precisely because the uncertainties around Buhari’s future free Osinbajo, temporarily, to concentrate on the work of the presidency rather than on the politics of the office.

Recent Writings on Nigeria

I’ve written two pieces on Nigeria recently, addressing very different topics. One, at The Maydan, looks at Shi’ism and anti-Shi’ism in Nigeria. The other, at World Politics Review, looks at the politics surrounding the question of President Muhammadu Buhari’s health. If you read either or both, I welcome your comments below.

On Buhari’s Absence from Nigeria

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been on extended medical leave in London since January 19, which has occasioned considerable anxiety and commentary in Nigeria and abroad. I wrote about the situation last week for Global Observatory, comparing Buhari’s absence to the absence of President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2009-2010.

I recommend two other takes:

  • Chika Oduah, “Nigeria Proves a Missing President Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing” (I don’t necessarily agree, but the piece is well argued)
  • Brandon Kendhammer, “The President Has Left the Country”

I also recommend following a few Twitter accounts if you are tracking the situation: Channels Television, Presidency Nigeria, and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

On President Trump’s Call with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari

On February 13, President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Many observers, including me and Nigerian analyst Muktar Usman-Janguza, were impatiently awaiting for the White House to post a readout of the call, which it finally did yesterday. The delay, I should note, was offensive to some Nigerians in and of itself.

The main news coming out of the call was when Trump “expressed support for the sale of aircraft from the United States to support Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.”

There is a backstory here, dating to 2014, when the Obama administration blocked sales of US-made helicopters to Nigeria due to concerns about human rights violations by Nigerian security forces. As recently as December 2016, Nigeria purchased military aircraft from Russia and Pakistan after growing impatient with Washington.

Another part of the backstory, as former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell explains here, is that US security cooperation with Nigeria has also been limited for many years by the Leahy Amendment. The amendment prohibits US security assistance to foreign security force units that the US government believes have committed human rights abuses.

Some will see Trump’s offer to Buhari, then, as a change in policy, but I think this reflects more the momentum of the War on Terror (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) and the tendency of that momentum to wear down or override human rights concerns in the long term.

After all, in May 2016, the Obama administration expressed its willingness, pending Congressional approval, to “approve a sale of as many as 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria.” (You can watch a demonstration of the Super Tucano here.)

The sale does not seem to have gone forward but, as the New York Times has reported, the willingness to approve it reflected a wider change of attitude in Washington toward Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. I believe two key moments that prompted that change: the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in April 2014, and the election of Buhari in March 2015. Those two events boosted those voices in Washington who argued that the US should ease its restrictions on security cooperation with Nigeria. Trump’s offer to Buhari is not a complete break with older policy, then, but rather a demonstration that those voices are continuing to win out over those who favor more restricted security cooperation.

This is the logic of the War on Terror, I believe: when policymakers or human rights organizations raise concerns about security force abuses, they will tend, over the long term and often in the short term, to be overruled by those whose primary concern in places like Nigeria is with killing jihadists. I would bet that a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton would have also eventually approved the sale of military aircraft to Nigeria. I say all this not to let Trump off the hook or to somehow praise him – I oppose Trump unequivocally – but to point out that some policy dynamics are bigger even than Trump.

Gambia: Yahya Jammeh’s Conditions?

Gambia held elections on December 1, and opposition candidate Adama Barrow won; long-time head of state Yahya Jammeh publicly conceded. That should have been the end of the story,* but it is not, for Jammeh soon reversed himself and demand a re-run of the election. The ensuing crisis has lasted up to the present.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is mediating in the Gambia crisis, with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and outgoing Ghanaian President John Mahama as Co-Mediators. ECOWAS is working to solve the crisis before January 19, the constitutionally-mandated day when the presidential inauguration must take place. ECOWAS has suggested that if diplomacy fails, a military intervention is possible.

Jammeh is widely considered to be at least partly insane, and so some will chalk his erratic behavior up to psychological factors. But there is a rational explanation for at least some of his behavior: he wants guarantees of immunity before he agrees to step down.

Indeed, some of the opposition’s/transition team’s rhetoric may have frightened him in the days after the election, prompting the public reversal. Jammeh seems to fear what many would-be “presidents-for-life” fear: that he will be punished for crimes committed in office, and stripped of ill-gotten gains.

Barrow has publicly promised that Jammeh will not be prosecuted, and that Jammeh can remain in Gambia, and the opposition has told ECOWAS that it does not plan to prosecute Jammeh, but perhaps Jammeh disbelieves such promises.

Given all that, I was struck by a report (French) on the Senegalese news aggregation platform Seneweb. The reporter claims to know Jammeh’s secret demands to ECOWAS, which are allegedly two-fold:

  • Judicial immunity for Jammeh, his family, and up to 400 associates
  • Financial immunity for Jammeh and his family for at least 20 years

The reporter goes on to say that ECOWAS’ offer to Jammeh is exile in a friendly country, where he would be expected to keep a low profile.

Who knows if any of this is true, especially the specifics. But I can certainly give credence to the general notion that Jammeh is negotiating, behind the scenes, for his and his associates’ immunity.

There also remains the possibility of a coup by military officers who fear that the transition, even if Jammeh secures his own protection, would leave them in the cold. Presumably ECOWAS is well aware of that possibility, and would react swiftly to a coup.

 

*My initial take on the election, I fear, was too rosy, but you can read it here.

Buhari and the Perm Secs

BBC, August 29:

It is now three months since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president of Nigeria and five months since he won historic elections, the first time an opposition candidate had won…But it took nearly two months for him to replace his security chiefs and so far he has only made appointments in about a dozen government offices.

[…]

While it is clear that President Buhari has shown that Nigeria can run without a cabinet, there may be an unacknowledged cost.

On the bright side, with the briefings he is getting from civil servants, the ministers, when they are eventually appointed, will find that their boss knows more about their departments than they do – and that should keep them on their toes.

Vanguard, November 10:

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, approved the appointment of new Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service.

This came some hours after the President sacked about 17 permanent secretaries.

Permanent Secretaries are, in theory, civil servants who are not political appointees. This does mean they are immune from political controversies, however.

As the BBC said, the months without a cabinet may have allowed Buhari to interact more directly with senior civil servants than presidents usually do. Apparently the president did not always like what he saw.