By Dare Babarinsa
Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice-President of the Republic, marked his 66th birthday on March 8. It is his last birthday in office, as his term expires on May 29, when the President-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, would be sworn-in as the 16th ruler of independent Nigeria.
Many Nigerians, especially those of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), thought Osinbajo should be President. He tried to win the nomination of his party, but lost out to his former boss and benefactor, Tinubu. After almost eight years as the Second Fiddle, he has earned his ticket to a comfortable retirement.
The Vice-Presidency is, perhaps, the most significantly powerless office in the land. In 1979, Dr. Alex Ekwueme was elected the VP to President Shehu Shagari. It was as if Ekwueme was born for that office. He was reticent, handsome, loved to give a good smile and kept his opinion to himself. He wielded his influence quietly, but never tried to compete with the boss.
One day, in 1983, there was a plane crash in Enugu that claimed the lives of many prominent Nigerians, mostly Igbos. President Shagari was off to South America for a summit among leaders of the Third World. Ekwueme was now acting President. He demanded that he would like to make a national broadcast over this tragedy. The Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) was put on standby. State House correspondents were fretting over the proposed broadcast. It was the request that made hot-heads at the State House, Ribadu Road, (the old Dodan Barracks), Lagos, to realise that if anything happens to President Shagari, Ekwueme was actually the person next in line.
Osinbajo is luckier. He is VP at a more clement time. He has had opportunities to act for President Buhari for many months. He had wielded his temporary power with temperance and grace. That few times had not made him to develop new taste and new craze for power. He knows his limits. His apparent closeness to his principal and the bonding did not make him to extend the universe of his influence. He remains the man in the shadow. It was the influence of that office that Ekwueme understood and embraced. In politics, influence is more potent than power. Power has its limits; influence is a universe of unstable frontiers.
By 1966, Ekwueme was already one of Nigeria’s best-known architects. He was having a rich practice and had a wide clientele. He built his house in an upper-middle class enclave of Apapa. His neigbour was a young lawyer, Olasubomi Balogun, who was having a new romance with banking. When the Civil War broke out in 1967, Ekwueme fled, abandoning his large, beautiful house. Three years later, he returned to meet new occupiers in his house. He was not surprised because many houses, abandoned on the eve of the war by Igbo people, were taken over.
But Lagos and other parts of Yorubaland were different. So, he met his old friend and neighbour, Balogun, who gave him the good news that those who occupied the house were tenants. Balogun gave him the rents they paid and Ekwueme took possession of his old house. Nine years later, Ekwueme became the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
At that time, during the Second Republic, Balogun had applied to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), for the licence of his new venture, the First City Merchant Bank, and the powers that be at the CBN, in those days, were playing games with him. Then he remembered that his friend, Ekwueme, was the VP and a man of influence. He approached him and Ekwueme promised to help. “You know, I collected my rent in full,” he told him.
Balogun got his licence and the FCMB was born.
On March 9, Otunba Balogun celebrated his 89th birthday, a man of great achievements, full of years and honour. His old bank has undergone many mutations and it is now known as the First City Monument Bank. Balogun is never tired of telling the story of the birth of his bank, which has survived and thrived despite the treacherous waters of the Nigerian banking industry.
He and Ekwueme, who died in 2017, remained friends till the very end. Their personal bonding is the story of Nigeria’s future.
Both Ekwueme and Osinbajo had their roles defined for them by the Constitution. Those who have been number two before them, or even after, have not been so lucky. When Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa was the Prime Minister, it was not clear who was his deputy. When Muhammadu Ribadu, the first Minister of Defence, was alive, it was clear that he was Balewa’s deputy. Then Ribadu died suddenly in 1965 at 56. On January 15, 1966, Balewa too was killed in the Nigerian first coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
It was a difficult period. The Prime Minister was missing, the President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was on a cruise in the Caribbean Sea. The acting President was Dr. Akweke Nwaifo Orizu, who was the President of the Senate. The British High Commissioner got in touch with the rump of the Balewa’s government and promised that his government would be willing to offer military assistance if the cabinet could appoint an acting Prime Minister.
Under the 1963 Constitution, it was the President, who appoints the Prime Minister, the person in his opinion, who controls the majority in the House of Representatives. Orizu, the acting President, was not available to carry out this constitutional duty and in the end, the cabinet handed over power to Major-General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army. Military rule had arrived.
Ironsi’s deputy was Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. When Ironsi was killed on July 29, 1966, Ogundipe tried to rally the army, but he was rebuffed by ordinary soldiers, who were now taking orders from the leaders of the coup makers. Ogundipe fled into hiding and finally surfaced in the UK.
Nigeria had no ruler for two days until Colonel Yakubu Gowon, erstwhile Chief of Staff to Ironsi, emerged as the new strongman. He made Ogundipe, his former boss, as the Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK. Ogundipe died in the UK in 1971.
Gowon had two deputies; Admiral Akinwale Wey, who was number two in the military hierarchy, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was Federal Commissioner (Minister) for Finance and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council.
Though Gowon was in power, there was no doubt, that everyone considered Awolowo to be a man of tremendous influence within the government. So great was his influence that he was even accused of having a domineering impact on military strategy during the Civil War. He was credited for the strategy that finally aborted the dream Republic of Biafra. When Awolowo contested for President in 1979, he faced a hostile reception in Igboland, partly because of the role he was credited with in the Gowon government.
This Saturday, Vice President Osinbajo would be voting in Ikenne, his hometown in the governorship and House of Assembly elections. He is now the dominant political force in the town, once dominated by his grandfather-in-law, Chief Awolowo.
While Awolowo was Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council for four years, Osinbajo has been in power for eight years. It is not clear whether he is wielding the kind of influence commensurate with his high office.
One place where the old game of influence would be at play is Lagos State, where the President-elect would be in the market of influence with his old rivals, led by Chief Olabode George, the former military Governor of old Ondo State and an enduring chieftain of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
This time around, George is said to be rooting for the Labour Party, while Tinubu is rooting for the incumbent Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Lagosians would have to decide whose influence they consider more important and more beneficial. Tinubu and George know they cannot sleep until the Lagos State governorship results are released .