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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.