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.

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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.

Five Recommendations to the USG on Engaging the Buhari Administration

Yesterday, after a hard-fought election, Nigerian President Gooduck Jonathan conceded to General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military and four-time presidential candidate. Buhari will take office May 29. His party is the All Progressives Congress or APC.

Nigeria is by many measures (population, economy, cultural production, etc.) the most important country in Africa, and it is a key partner for the United States. Under Jonathan, the U.S.-Nigeria relationship has been strained at times. Buhari’s presidency will offer an opportunity for a fresh start.

The issues the two countries can work on together are obvious – countering Boko Haram, strengthening democratic institutions and economic development, etc. But just as important as the substance of the partnership will be its form. Jonathan often seemed isolated behind a wall of sycophants, which made him difficult to reach – not that the U.S. has major leverage over Nigeria in any event, but it’s even harder to have influence when you don’t have a strong relationship. Here are a few basic suggestions about how to get off on the right foot with Buhari and his administration:

  1. Treat Buhari as an equal. Don’t start the conversation with a list of “asks” or “advice” that are in reality just demands. Talk to Buhari the way you would expect a foreign leader to talk to the United States. Send someone very senior (cabinet rank at least) to his inauguration. And President Obama should visit Nigeria at some point in 2015 or 2016. In light of this election and this historic transition, the old justifications for not visiting (worries about seeming to endorse the incumbent, tolerate corruption, etc.) no longer seem strong enough to warrant ignoring Nigeria.
  2. Engage Vice President-elect Yemi Osinbajo early and often. Buhari’s allies in the South West played a major role in his election – perhaps even making the difference between 2011 and 2015. Osinbajo will be that southwestern cohort’s most senior formal representative in Buhari’s government. As an accomplished politician in his own right (he was Lagos Attorney General from 1999-2007) and an influential Christian leader, he will likely play a stronger role in Buhari’s government than outgoing Vice President Namadi Sambo played in Jonathan’s. If I were a US policymaker, I would figure out what issues Osinbajo cares about and stay in touch with him about them. In other words, don’t just call him when you have an ask – cultivate a real relationship, and not just an ad hoc one managed by the Embassy in Abuja. A congratulatory phone call from Vice President Biden would be a good way to start.
  3. Keep in close touch with Bola Tinubu. If Osinbajo is the southwest’s formal representative in the next government, former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu was the campaign’s mastermind and will likely remain the APC’s informal leader. As such, he will likely have an influential voice in shaping the government’s decisions, especially with an eye to politics and 2019. This relationship, too, is worth cultivating and maintaining. A quarterly call from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Tinubu would give Washington a strong line to the new administration’s political nerve center.
  4. Bring all the governors to Washington. It’s not just about engaging the federal government – sub-national actors, especially state governors, are hugely influential in Nigeria, including on security and development issues. In March 2014, the U.S. Institute of Peace brought most of the northern Nigerian state governors to Washington for a symposium and for meetings around town, including with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Given that many of the governors elected on April 11 will be new faces (due to term limits), it would be wise to repeat the endeavor, and this time by inviting all thirty-six governors.
  5. Continue to think long-term about Boko Haram. The final weeks of the presidential campaign saw some military progress against Boko Haram, although the effort was marred by the murky quality of some information (making it unclear whether some towns had really been recaptured or not) and by the complaints of Nigeria’s neighbors that Nigerian forces were not coordinating with them effectively. Hopefully Jonathan will sustain the gains and improve the regional coordination in his final weeks in office, and then Buhari will consolidate the progress and address any remaining problems of coordination after he is inaugurated. Even in this best case scenario, however, long-term challenges will remain: preventing Boko Haram from regrouping, prosecuting and/or reintegrating its fighters, holding security forces accountable for abuses, addressing joblessness and underdevelopment in the northeast, etc. There is even a danger that a moment of euphoria over recapturing territory could divert attention away from these long-term issues and encourage a premature declaration of victory. Washington should give the new administration time to breathe, but should from time to time respectfully remind them that the goal is not just to defeat Boko Haram, but also to prevent it – or anything like it – from re-emerging in the years to come. As I said above, though, a conversation like that can only happen if deep relationships are cultivated from the start.