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Osibanjo And The Role Of Intellectuals In Politics

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How has Vice President Yemi Osibanjo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Professor of Law at the University of Lagos, fared as an intellectual in politics? The role of intellectuals in politics is often a controversial one. Do intellectuals do well in politics or do they just see the public realm as an extension of their imaginary world as some argue?
In addition to being an intellectual, Osibanjo is also a Pastor, which means he is expected to be a moral authority and play morally and truth-driven politics. Essentially, therefore, Professor
Osibanjo’s actions and utterances as Vice President could be assessed simultaneously by several constituencies that may use contradictory metrics in their assessments: How loyal has he been to the President who plucked him out of relative obscurity and elevated him to be the nation’s number Two? How far has he lived up to the expectations of the religiously inclined who expect him to bring a certain moral unction to politics? And in a polarized environment like ours, how does he balance the expectations of his particularistic group with what the rest of the country expects of him? Can he satisfy the expectations of the intellectual community who expect a certain analytical rigour in his framing of issues, if not anti-establishment posture and rhetoric from him?
Since this piece is essentially about Professor Osibanjo as an intellectual it may be germane to briefly define what I mean by the term. The late Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui defined an intellectual as someone who is fascinated by abstract ideas and who has acquired some skill, through formal education, for handling such abstract ideas. Usually when we talk of intellectuals we often think of academics or those involved in the business of publicly trading ideas. Intellectuals are believed to find the most fulfilment and happiness in the life of the mind. Mazrui believed that an intellectual can degenerate into being an ‘ex-intellectual’ such as when such a person ceases to be fascinated by abstract ideas or loses his capacity for dealing with such ideas.
While supporters of intellectuals in politics will argue that if politics is merely a space meant to provide solutions and guidance for a country, then intellectuals, because of their skills, ability to see the larger picture and their love of ideas, and principles ought to be more involved than they currently do. Their critics will however argue that intellectuals are often fascinated with public attention and recognition, including the tendency to take contrarian positions simply to prove that they are smarter than everyone else. Following from this, critics argue that because intellectuals often confuse the imaginary realm with the real world, their mind-set and training often encourage the treatment of problems from vantages that are neither practical nor realistic.
How has Osibanjo fared as an intellectual in politics?
We can say that from his rhetoric and public postures he has so far eschewed any temptation to play the smart intellectual, who is contrarian. He speaks in sound bites – like typical politicians and the Buharimaniacs in the social media – even though he knows intellectuals despise such as extremely simplistic analyses. In terms of publicly demonstrating loyalty to the President, I think the Vice President has done remarkably well. In my book that is a big virtue.
I am however not very sure that the Vice President has been sufficiently sensitive to the expectations of his other constituencies. And he does not necessarily need to meet those expectations by being disloyal to the positions and body language of the President and the mantras of the government. Let me give just three examples:
On June 28 2015, the Daily Trust reported that the Vice President criticised the setting up of the Federal Character Commission and declared that “henceforth employment and appointment into political offices in the country should be based on merit and not where anyone hails from”. The Daily Trust further quoted him as saying: “Where you come from should not be criteria. Let us de-emphasise this issue of federal character and place more emphasis on merit. For instance, I take my health seriously, therefore, if I am ill I should not just look for a medical doctor from my state but for the best, irrespective of his state of origin”.
The above statement was made at a time President Buhari was under heavy criticism for alleged lop-sidedness in political appointments. The Vice President’s position was therefore probably meant to be a subtle defence of the President – something which any loyal deputy is obligated to do in public even if he disagrees with such a position in private. Though the Vice President later said he was quoted out of context, the way his criticism of the Federal Character principle was crafted was bereft of the sort of analytical rigour expected of a distinguished intellectual of his standing. He could still have defended the President with a much more sophisticated argument – at least an argument that recognises that the Federal Character principle is one of the instruments of nation-building in a diverse country like Nigeria. It can even be argued that the Vice President himself is a beneficiary of the Federal Character principle he was said to have inveighed against.
Recently the Vice President also used the same sound bite approach to dismiss the clamour for the restructuring of the country. He was quoted as saying that even “if states are given half of the resources of the Federal Government, the situation will not change. The only change is to diversify the economy.” On July 12, a day after he reportedly made the statement, the Vanguard reported that the Pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, faulted the Vice-president. In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Yinka Odumakin, Afenifere reportedly said:
“While we understand that the learned Professor, who is from the zone that has been loudest on this call may have come under pressure to lend his voice to the upholders of the status quo that has brought Nigeria to this sorry pass, we would like to respectfully admonish him to be sure footed on the subject before he speaks next time.”
On the Niger Delta Avengers, the Punch of July 6 2016 quoted the Vice President as saying that the “Niger Delta Avengers are not freedom fighters, they are not fighting for any freedom, they only fight for their pockets. You can’t be blowing up pipelines and compound the problem of the region and be saying you are fighting for freedom.”
The Vice President may have some points here but given his positions as an intellectual and a Pastor, perhaps a different narrative is expected of him. And it does not have to differ from the position of the President, which I believe he is right to give unquestionable loyalty.
I think the handlers of the Vice President are yet to appreciate the fact that there are high expectations of the VP and that he plays to different constituencies. This means that they should eschew the sort of pedestrian sound bites he has been using to frame interpretation of serous national issues. For instance, on the call for ‘restructuring the country’, would it have hurt anyone if the Vice President for instance had said something like: “change is the only constant in life and every individual and organisation needs to constantly adjust and upgrade to meet current challenges. This too is restructuring. So on the call for restructuring, I believe the first hurdle is for all of us to agree on what we mean by restructuring so that everyone will be on the same page. Agreeing on what we mean by restructuring will help us know which elements of the proposed restructuring are needed at this point in our history and which ones will compound our problems”?
On the Niger Delta Avengers, would the Vice President have lost anything if he had said something like: “There are in several parts of the country seemingly good grounds for anger and we will respect people’s rights to feel aggrieved. But the solution will always be to dialogue rather than compound the problem by blowing up the pipelines”. Formulations like this will bring out the VP’s compassion as a pastor and satisfy the expectations that intellectuals are expected to empathize with the weaker parties in any conflict – even if they disagree with their methods of expressing their grievances.
As a Pastor I also expect the Vice President to have more issues framed in moralistic terms because a Man of God is expected to bring special moral traction into politics. It will seem that right now the Vice President has focused on only one constituency – showing his loyalty to the President, which is virtue in my opinion but not good enough for his other constituents.

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