When I read Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s statement indicating his resolve to “waive” his constitutional immunity in order to clear his name over alleged malfeasance relating to N90 billion Federal Inland Revenue (FIRS) funds, I did not know whether to pity him or simply say: “Welcome to politics.” It is obvious that the Vice President is now having his “baptism of fire,” not in the spiritual sense, but figuratively. He had everything going for him. Now, the political hawks have remembered our dear pastor Vice President. The honeymoon appears over.
Professor Osinbajo had declared: “In the past few days, a spate of reckless and malicious falsehoods have been peddled in the media against me by a group of malicious individuals. The defamatory and misleading assertions invented by this clique had mostly been making the social media rounds anonymously.
“I have today instructed the commencement of legal action against two individuals, one Timi Frank and another Katch Ononuju, who have put their names to these odious falsehoods. I will waive my constitutional immunity to enable the most robust adjudication of these claims of libel and malicious falsehood.”
The question, however, is this: By instructing his lawyers to begin a court action against people who have allegedly defamed him, is Vice President Osinbajo really waiving his immunity or playing to the gallery? Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) says:
“(1) Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Constitution, but subject to subsection (2) of this section –
“(a) No civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to whom this section applies during his period of office;
“(b) A person to whom this section applies shall not be arrested or imprisoned during that period either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise; and
“(c) No process of any court requiring or compelling the appearance of a person to whom this section applies shall be applied for or issued: Provided that in ascertaining whether any period of limitation has expired for the purposes of any proceedings against a person to whom this section applies, no account shall be taken of his period of office.
“(2) The provisions of subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to civil proceedings against a person to whom this section applies in his official capacity or to civil or criminal proceedings in which such a person is only a nominal party.
“(3) This section applies to a person holding the office of President or Vice President, Governor or Deputy Governor; and the reference in this section to ‘period of office’ is a reference to the period during which the person holding such office is required to perform the functions of the office.”
My layman’s understanding of this provision is that the Constitution only shields the Vice President from prosecution within the period he is in office. I do not think the immunity clause forbids Osinbajo from instituting legal action. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar did go to court when then President Olusegun Obasanjo pronounced that he had ceased to be Vice President at the peak of their political fight. Atiku triumphed in court, eventually. Therefore, Osinbajo can go to court, irrespective of the immunity clause in the Constitution. However, as he said he is waiving his “immunity” to sue his detractors, he should also be willing to waive it for him to be sued or prosecuted.
Whether Osinbajo goes to court or not, it is apparent that he is seeing the other side of politics. The power mongers may have thought that he has been enjoying himself all along and, therefore, want to shake him up. For one, he emerged as vice presidential candidate without much stress. His nomination as vice presidential candidate to President Buhari was without opposition whatsoever. In the first term, from May 29, 2015, to May 28, 2019, he had the confidence of his boss, President Buhari. He was acting President at some time and exercised the full powers of the office. As acting President, he nominated former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to the Senate for confirmation. As acting President, he ordered the sack of former director-general of the Department of State Services (DSS), Alhaji Lawal Daura, over the invasion of the National Assembly Complex by masked operatives of the security outfit. He did other things using the power of the President. He has had it so good.
What is happening to the Vice President, therefore, is not strange. It is part of Nigeria’s politics. In Nigeria, vice presidents and, by extension, deputy governors, have always been pawns on the chessboard of politics. They are, most times, seen as usurpers, especially when the politics of succession begins. Therefore, it is not surprising that Osinbajo has been removed from the supervision of some agencies he hitherto oversaw. Also, that the Economic Management Team supervised by Osinbajo has been rechristened Economic Advisory Council (EAC), with President Buhari now at the head, is not shocking. It is part of a tradition of whittling down the powers of the Vice President. It is a political game of elimination and substitution.
We all witnessed the political trajectory of ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar. As then President Obasanjo’s deputy, Atiku was relevant in the federal government, in the first term, between 1993 and 2003. During this period, he was the driver of the economic agenda of government, to the extent that he supervised the privatisation programme. In the second term of the Obasanjo/Atiku administration, from 2003 to 2007, the bubble did burst. Atiku had an avalanche of problems with his boss. At a point, there was an attempt to illegally remove him as Vice President. It was the court that saved him. However, he was demonised and given the toga of corruption, without anything to back it up. He is still suffering the injury his image suffered from that political fight with Obasanjo till today.
The case of President Goodluck Jonathan was worse. Right from the time he was nominated as Vice President to when he became acting President and, eventually President, by divine providence, he was never really entrenched in government. He was, more or less, a passenger in a government in which he was supposed to be the Number 2. The buccaneers in the late Umar Yar’Adua government operated in such a way that they never took “hostages.” They went for the kill. They sidelined Jonathan. Even when Yar’Adua was ill and flown abroad for treatment, power was not transferred to Jonathan as acting President. For him to eventually become acting President, the National Assembly had to be ingenious to “manufacture” the “doctrine of necessity.” Jonathan only came out of the shackles of political wilderness when Yar’Adua died.
Osinbajo should, therefore, expect more bad days ahead. With the race for 2023 presidency unfolding, he will receive many more bashings and clipping of wings. Those who consider him a threat in the contest, which I believe he is not, would go out of their way to malign and make him irrelevant. They will keep him busy and ensure he does not have the time to think of having a presidential ambition. As he is going to court, this would keep him engaged. While the suit is on, the Vice President’s adversaries would further tell horrible stories of him, even if they are tissues of lies.
With the beginning of Osinbajo’s travail, the South West would eventually know that its political alliance with the North was for the convenience of the latter. The South West only helped the aristocrats in the North to take power, which they believe should only be held by them. It is an experiment, which would end up as an unpleasant political lesson for the Yoruba.