By Stanley Azuakola
So I’ve already written one piece about Friday’s meeting at Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s residence and intend to do one more on my takeaways from the meeting after this one.
For this piece I want to highlight Osinbajo’s response to the two questions I had the opportunity of asking. I will try not to opine and just reproduce the exchange.
There were about 15 people in attendance and so questions per person had to be limited in order to stay within the scheduled two hours. Good questions were asked all around and the vice president – of course – is one of a few knowledgeable politicians with keen thoughtful perspectives on the issues. So it was a brilliant session.
The one drawback with the format for me was the lack of opportunity for follow-up questions, again due to the limited time. Usually, follow-ups bring some of the most interesting exchanges during an interview.
Anyway, I asked the vice president two questions which I will reproduce almost verbatim below:
Q1. There are generally two perceptions of President Buhari. The first perception is a seeming sluggishness to take crucial decisions until it is too late. We saw that with his delay in appointing ministers. We are seeing that with his delay in composing chairmen and members of FG boards and parastatals. We saw that with the delay in taking away subsidy and the foot dragging over the forex issue.
The second perception about the president, which is linked to the first one, is that he does not defer to superior opinion on issues until it is too late. How will you react to these perceptions and are you willing to admit that the government was wrong to carry on with its policies on deregulation and forex for this long?
Q2. You have said here that the government feels the hardship Nigerians are going through and that people will have to suffer a bit before things get better. But there are some Nigerians who will say they ain’t seeing the government making sacrifices. For instance, president Buhari still maintains a large presidential fleet despite decrying it while campaigning to be president. What’s happening with that?
“I think it will be unfair to say the president has been sluggish. I like the word you use – “seeming”. It seems so but it is not true,” Osinbajo said. “Consider the issue of subsidy. As soon as he came to office, we made it clear we won’t continue with this subsidy and in the 2016 budget there’s no provision for subsidy.”
Osinbajo went on to explain as he’s been trying to for weeks that the increase in price of fuel was not a subsidy removal issue but a forex problem.
On the delay in adopting a more flexible forex policy, the vice president said, “the argument on whether to devalue is sometimes an ideological issue, sometimes an economic issue and sometimes a combination. So I think for a rational president, the thinking is how to balance it.”
Osinbajo said the president listens to his advisers even though he has his own opinions. “Of course he listens to his economic team. You must have heard him say he wants his economic team to convince him. He’s extremely open to other opinions but he has his own opinions. I think personally that he has been a fair-minded leader. But he has a perspective which always wants to know how it affects the common man, which is something most economists and analysts arguing for one thing or the other do not consider.”
On the issue of sacrifices by the presidency, Osinbajo described his boss as a “very frugal person. It reflects on his lifestyle. I’m not even close to his type of frugality.”
He said the executive has been considering options as regards the sale of planes in the presidential fleet but want to make sound economic decisions. “You can either sell them off at a false price. Remember there’s a depression. The president himself doesn’t need a large fleet but it’s about taking a wise decision, not just saying you want to sell and then selling cheap,” he said.
Osinbajo argued that Nigerians understand that Buhari is not an extravagant person. “The optics of selling planes may look good but you must make sound economic decisions. If you sell a plane at a time you shouldn’t at a price you shouldn’t, it may not be wise. The president is not one to care too much about optics.”
He concluded by reiterating the point that he and Pres. Buhari are not extravagant. “I was doing far better in terms of earnings as a lawyer with SimmonsCooper Partners than I am as vice president. Far better. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying,” he concluded.
I will share my thoughts on these and all the other issues in my final piece from that interaction.