By Festus Eriye
In presidential politics picking a running mate is a fine balancing act. The needs of a candidate: how to play to his strengths, and compensate for his weaknesses, usually determine who he ends up selecting. Those laboring to convince themselves that the All Progressives Congress (APC) flagbearer, General Muhammadu Buhari, made a mistake by picking Professor Yemi Osinbajo, do so without considering these factors.
To argue that the opposition should have gone for livewire political types like governors, Rotimi Amaechi, Babatunde Fashola or Adams Oshiomhole, forget that people don’t pick deputies who would outshine or be in competition with them. It has to be clear that there’s just one captain on the ship.
That is why there is usually more emphasis on loyalty and competence than political gravitas in making this sort of decision.
In 1999, the then Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was confronted with names like Atiku Abubakar, Abubakar Rimi, Bamanga Tukur, Abba Kyari, Jibril Aminu and Adamu Ciroma – all heavyweights as he sought to make his choice.
As legend has it, Obasanjo sought the counsel of former Minister of Works, Chief Tony Anenih, who famously advised that if he chose Rimi he should ensure that there was a police orderly waiting outside the door at all times as they would quarrel often. However, if he wanted unalloyed loyalty he should go for Atiku. The rest is history.
All that Buhari needed to do for his choice to be considered correct was name a Christian and Southerner. This balances the ticket nicely given that for months the flirtation with a possible Muslim-Muslim slate had stoked controversy. The candidate, perhaps miffed by the fact that he was being forced to overlook several excellent candidates because of the religion issue, seemed to equivocate in several public statements on the matter.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which had been salivating at the prospect that Buhari would make the fatal mistake of picking a fellow Muslim in spite of being painted a fundamentalist by his foes, must have been sorely disappointed. The former head of state sidestepped the trap. His enemies have now moved to the option of deriding Osinbajo as APC leader, Bola Tinubu’s puppet. That is when they are not dismissing him as a political lightweight who adds nothing to the ticket.
We have been reminded that this is the second time Buhari would be pairing with a clergyman. In 2011 he ran with popular pastor and activist, Tunde Bakare of The Latter Rain Church in the vain hope that it would give him the much-needed Southern breakthrough. It never happened.
By settling for Osinbajo, a senior pastor with The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) – Nigeria’s largest Pentecostal congregation, Buhari has triggered inevitable comparisons with what happened four years ago.
Those who compare the 2011 and 2015 picks and assume the result would be the same this time ignore the context. Although Bakare was a popular clergyman, he had no political structures to speak of. Before the general selected him he was not a member of any party and was not known to associate with politicians. If anything, he was more likely to lampoon them in one of his fiery sermons. It was the height of naivete on the part of Buhari and those who advised him to think that Bakare’s celebrity alone would translate into votes.
The pastor was a kind of Gani Fawehinmi type of personality who was incredibly well liked in media and activist circles, but whose popularity never translated into political muscle. That was why in spite of his immense popularity on the streets, the late radical lawyer’s National Conscience Party (NCP) was, and remains, largely a fringe player in the polity.
Osinbajo, on the other hand, is a totally different case. For eight years he served as Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice under the then Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu. Back in 2011 when the then Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) were flirting with some late-hour electoral collaboration, his name featured in the calculations for running mate.
But the most important thing is that he’s not on the ticket because of his personal political weight but as the face and representative of a political tendency within APC. He is a member of the Tinubu political family and longstanding confidant of the former governor. His presence on the ticket keeps both Tinubu and the South-West caucus in the party engaged and committed to the Buhari challenge.
I will just mention in passing the fact that he’s related by marriage to the family of the late acclaimed Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. While his political influence has waned with his passing many years ago, sentimental attachment to that famous name can only help and not hurt the APC running mate.
Aside his political and familial connections Osinbajo’s selection disrupts the PDP’s bid to make Jonathan the main beneficiary of the Christian vote. Buhari’s running mate is a pastor in RCCG whose General Overseer, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, has become one of the most influential religious leaders in the land.
During the last election cycle all presidential candidates of key political parties beat a path to his door to seek his blessings. Many would remember the famous photograph of President Jonathan kneeling with eyes closed while Adeboye prayed over him.
Knowing the RCCG leader’s reserved and statesmanlike style, don’t expect him to openly take sides – even when one of his spiritual children is involved. In such a huge assembly you’re likely to find people from diverse political persuasions. It would be inappropriate for a father to take sides. Though I would love to be a fly on wall when Adeboye casts his vote for president and VP!
But even without overt official backing, it would be naïve to think a very senior pastor in this massive congregation contesting for such a high profile position would not influence a chunk of the millions who worship in this church.
This, again, is another difference between Bakare and Osinbajo. Whereas the former, with all due respect, presides over a one-branch church in Lagos – by design maybe – the latter can potentially tap into a support base with nationwide presence.
Anyone who then tries to analyse Osinbajo’s impact without factoring in this backdrop is ignorant, mischievous or engaged in a fruitless exercise in self consolation.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Festus Eriye/The Nation