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How Nigeria’s vice presidents can succeed their bosses

By Andrew Agbese

One of the views I find most improbable in Nigerian politics is the claim by some that the 1983 coup which ousted the Shehu Shagari administration, was staged in order to stop then vice president, Alex Ekwueme from succeeding his boss.

Those who believe that say the main reason for stopping Ekwueme is because other Nigerians were not ready for an Igbo president less than two decades after the civil war.

If that coup, which thrust Muhammadu Buhari as head of state had not taken place and Shagari had been allowed an eight years reign with Ekwueme as his VP, some believe, it would have been difficult to stop the Oko born architect from succeeding his boss.

There are reasons to believe that Ekwueme’s political profile rose on account of his ability to retain the Number 2 position after a successful first term with his boss and there are reasons to believe that it will soar further by 1987 when the curtain would have fallen on the Shagari administration, but his stepping into the shoes of his boss to take the NPN presidential ticket would have been a different matter all together.

The road seemed to clear for him with the exit of MKO Abiola from the party and the death of Joseph Tarka, two prominent aspirants for the presidential ticket of the NPN.

But the main hurdle for Ekwueme would have been to convince his fellow party men that he could lead the NPN to victory in the general elections.

This is because as at 1983, the Southeast had not fully embraced the NPN and was only struggling to outpace NPP in its stronghold.

Though CC Onoh of the NPN won as governor of Anambra State in 1983, Imo, the  second state in the east was still under NPP and all the party’s bigwigs like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jim Nwobodo etc were from Anambra State.

Convincing the other NPN leaders to give the party’s ticket to Ekwueme when it was most definite that his people would first line up before Zik or whoever he supports wouldn’t have been easy.

Though it was beginning to appear by 1983, after NPN won its landslide victory against other parties, that the political heavy weights of that era like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Waziri Ibrahim were already battle weary and may not have contested again.

Even as the clamour for rotational presidency had not begun then, it is hard seeing how the NPN which strength lies in the north would have given its ticket to Ekwueme.

But give it to Ekwueme, he has within the four and half years of his vice presidency, been able to shore up the support base of the NPN in the east.

With men like Chuba Okadigbo who was then political adviser to Shagari and Emeka Ojukwu who just returned from exile and Onoh, Ekwueme was able to build structures in his home state though he was not able to suppress the influence of Zik, Sam Mbakwe, Jim Nwobodo in the region.

But all that remains within the realm of speculation as the 1983 coup denied Nigerians the chance of seeing what would have played out had there been an election in 1987.

Whether it was by design or accident however, since Ekwueme missed the opportunity to succeed his boss, no vice president after him has been able to do that in the manner  George Bush Snr succeeded Ronald Reagan after eight years as vice president.

If Yar’Adua had not died, it is contestable if the hawks in the PDP would have allowed Goodluck Jonathan to succeed him as many had early enough, started showing signs of defying the order of progression to upstage Jonathan.

In the same breath, it was not likely that Namadi Sambo would have succeeded Jonathan as Sambo appeared too timid to confront his boss even as Jonathan was known to prefer others.

The closest any VP had been to stepping into the shoes of his boss was Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who had the rare privilege of even contesting at the primary after eight years as VP.

Abubakar Atiku who so far is the most powerful VP Nigeria has had, did not come close to doing that as all sorts of obstacles were placed on his path such that by 2007, he was even lucky not to have been removed as the VP.

For Osinbajo, though many accept he is competent and has the wherewithall to be president, the intrigues within the party were beyond him that he had to concede to the superior fire works of others interested in the ticket.

With the Osinbajo experience, it is like the fate of vice presidents has been sealed.

The Atiku and Osinbajo experiences ought to teach other future VPs a lesson or two about what to do to succeed their bosses as they reveal certain facts about the dos and don’ts of such intrigues.

One, is the fact that without the support of the president, it is nigh impossible for the vice president to succeed his boss.

This is discernible from the way Obasanjo was able to put all the stops on Atiku’s path until Atiku was compelled to leave the PDP to try his ambition in another party.

He survived threats to declare his seat vacant, then his suspension from the party, then putting the EFCC on his trail and his eventual exit from the party.

Though Atiku showed resilience and political wizardry, it did not help him in the long run to achieve his ambition.

Two, is that even when the support of the president is secured, the president has to stick out his neck to make it happen.

It is possible that Buhari may not have been averse to having Osinbajo win the APC ticket but the fact that he did not stick out his neck by choosing to appear neutral gave other members of the party the opportunity to cash in and outdo the vice president.

Thirdly, the vice president must not in the name of being loyal to the president, fear using his office to build structures to support his ambition. Atiku has been the only VP to put this into practice as all the others including the current one has not shown much courage in building structures for themselves.

Fourthly, the vice president must not build structures so that he is not stopped on his track like Obasanjo did to Atiku.

The third and fourth factors may seem contradictory but it is the ability to combine both that makes the fifth factor.

One can be ambitious without antagonizing his boss. Obasanjo moved against Atiku not because Atiku was ambitious but because Atiku was too much in a hurry and nearly humiliated him out of power as a result.

So, it goes without saying that the VP should also not be in a hurry to take over from the outgoing president.

Agbese is a Senior Legislative Aide in the National Assembly of Nigeria.

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