By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
On World Teachers Day, 5 October, 2021, a collective of former students from different parts of the world congregated to pay homage to a former teacher. They included professors, army generals, senior judges, several Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), a Queens Counsel (QC, Queen Elizabeth was still alive then), and senior public servants. All of them had one thing in common: they were full of gratitude for the inspiration, motivation, and mentorship provided by the teacher.
That teacher was Oluyemi Oluleke Osinbajo, the law professor and SAN, who became Nigeria’s fifth elected Vice-President on 29 May 2015. That occasion in 2021 marked forty years since he joined the faculty of University of Lagos as a 24 year old law lecturer at the beginning of a life-long commitment to ideas, teaching, and mentorship. He was armed with a graduate degree in law from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
When Muhammadu Buhari first happened on Nigeria as military Head of State on the last day of 1983, Oluyemi Oluleke Osinbajo, was a 26 year old, who was into the third year of life as a university lecturer. 18 months later, Ibrahim Babangida, Buhari’s gap-toothed Army Chief, overthrew his boss citing causes summarised by Foreign Affairs contemporaneously then as “due primarily to his anti-democratic behavior; regionalism, factionalism and economic woes.”
Over the next 32 years preceding his somewhat improbable emergence as the running mate to Buhari on their winning presidential ticket in 2015, Osinbajo would compile a quiet record of outstanding accomplishments in the academia, civic activism, public service, and legal practice, accompanied by a peerless understanding of the intricacies of successful policy advocacy and public service reform in the country. As a marriage, a more unlikely pair would have been difficult to conjure up.
He was always among the brightest of his generation. Ikenne, his natal origins in Ogun State, South-West Nigeria, is famous as the home of Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo – whose grand-daughter, Dolapo, would become his life-long partner – the lawyer and political leader who, more than any other in Nigeria’s history, cast the longest shadow of achievement. It is also known for the humanist activism of Tai Solarin, whose vision of co-operative education pioneered a model in the Mayflower School, established in 1956, the year before Osinbajo’s birth. Between them, both men set high standards of attainment for children from the community.
Osinbajo’s primary education at the Corona Schools Trust in Lagos was followed by high school at Igbobi College, where early intimations of his later forensic and oratorical skills were evident in his rich collection of an assortment of prizes in English language, literature, and history, among many. Upon graduation from the Law Faculty of the University of Lagos in 1978, he added the top prize in commercial law. In the year that Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1979, Osinbajo became a lawyer. He was 21.
On assumption of office in August 1985, General Babangida claimed rather impressively for a soldier that even a government of men in military fatigues needed the consent of the people and that he did “not intend to lead a country where individuals are under the fear of expressing themselves.” To lead the country’s de-compression from the authoritarianism of the Buhari era, Babangida asked Bola Ajibola, at that time the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, (NBA), which was severely estranged from his predecessor, to become his federal Attorney-General.
Two years into his tenure, Ajibola requested Osinbajo, then in his seventh year as a university lecturer, to join his team as one of a remarkable duo of advisers. The other member of that team was Awa Kalu, himself also another outstanding practitioner-academic who graduated at the top of his class from the University of Ife in 1977. Between them, Yemi Osinbajo and Awa Kalu (who would one generation later parallel one another in the Attorney-General’s office in Lagos and Abia States respectively) envisioned and implemented arguably the most ambitious programme of legal reform ever evinced from the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation. From criminal law to family law; evidence to procedure; international treaties to institutions, no area of law was left untouched.
When Ajibola left in 1991 to succeed Taslim Elias as a judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Osinbajo worked with his successor, Clement Akpamgbo, himself also a former lecturer and president of the NBA. When Osinbajo returned to the University system at the end of that sojourn in public service, it was as a Professor of (Public) Law at the Lagos State University from where he would later return to the University of Lagos.
By this time, his unobtrusive skill and interest in activist lawyering had begun to blossom. In this enterprise, his experience in public service would prove to be an invaluable asset in crafting resistance to the worst excesses of military rule. Through this work, he built common cause with a small coalition willing to ask awkward questions of the military when most of the country had lost the will to do so. Parlaying that experience into later civic life, Osinbajo signaled his priorities in founding the Orderly Society Trust and the Convention on Business Integrity.
When the military traded their fatigues for civilian clothes in 1999 without necessarily giving up power, Osinbajo returned to public service, this time as Attorney-General of Lagos State. Over eight tumultuous years, he transformed the office as well as perceptions of the role of the Attorney-General, engrafting a muscular pastoral component to the capacities of the Ministry of Justice, creating the office of the Public Defender (OPD), a Directorate for Citizens’ Rights, and a Citizens Mediation Centre (CMC), and mentoring staff of the Attorney-General’s Chambers into roles in ministering to the public that most of them never associated with the office. He also reformed Magistrates Courts in Lagos state as well as the Coroners.
When he emerged as Vice-President in 2015, Osinbajo arrived with an intellect and record more accomplished than any previous occupants of the office since Dr. Alex Ekwueme in 1979. It was a record built on an ethos of empathy, clarity, relentless application, timeless values, and stubborn belief in the better angels of the human nature, all of which have been severely tested in eight years at the most rarefied levels of Nigeria’s public life and politics. The expectations were unrealistically stratospheric and he may, in hindsight, be surprised at how quickly many in and around the government dispensed with the platform on which they were elected.
As the Buhari presidency quickly descended into a misadventure, Osinbajo proved to be the one oasis of thoughtful competence. On the occasions when the president entrusted him with responsibilities for running government or any part of it, he delivered capable leadership with clear results.
Some close to the president chose to loath his fair-minded insistence on rule-based administration and held it against him that that he did not brook the privileged lawlessness that characterizes government in Nigeria. People who lacked an inkling as to his life-long passions mistook his advocacy for and leadership of the government’s social investment programmes as political pandering. Many more on the outside who do not care about how the levers of power and government work expected him to be out-front bad-mouthing his boss or, even worse, throwing away the pram and resigning. They forget that progress in government sometimes is also about preventing some of the worst things from happening.
In this, posterity will be kind to Osinbajo and with good reason. As Acting President and against the timorous advice of securocrats in government, he attended a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Nigerian Civil War in 2017 with a powerful personal symbolism and message of national healing.
In a regime short on any notable displays of empathy for a traumatised country, he never lost sight of the pastoral role of government. On 8 March, 2023, Yemi and Dolapo Osinbajo were in Maiduguri to spend the day at the North East Children’s Trust, NECT, in a school which he founded six years earlier to support the education of children orphaned by Boko Haram. It was his last birthday in office as Vice-President but also the clearest signal from him that his commitment to education, mentorship, and investment in empathy will be undimmed long after life in the presidency.
A Lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org