It doesn’t take much to be seen as a “great president” in Nigeria

Acting president Yemi Osinbajo.
Acting president Yemi Osinbajo.
Image: AP Photo/Michel Euler, File
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For the past month, with Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari away on his second medical vacation to London this year, Yemi Osinbajo has been in charge. With the country mired in a recession, Osinbajo faces a tough task but the acting president has already won plaudits for his proactive, hands-on approach—a stark contrast to Buhari’s slow, delibrate approach.

In fact, Osinbajo is seen to have done so well, early talk of a possible shot at the presidency in the 2019 elections is starting to emerge.

Much of this is down to the acting president’s decisive actions. Under his watch, Nigeria has kicked off reforms at local ports, famed for their congestion and corruption, and as part of his drive to improve the ease of doing business in Nigeria, entry visa rules for investors and tourists have been relaxed.

Beyond those, Osinbajo has also scored points for attending a recent forum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s civil war. Largely regarded as a taboo topic, the war is scarcely discussed, especially by government officials. Osinbajo’s keynote speech appealing for unity was well-timed as secessionist calls have grown louder in parts of Nigeria’s southeast.

Osinbajo’s visit to Nigeria’s volatile oil-producing Niger Delta communities in March was also applauded. In a region that’s frequently been at odds with the federal government, his pacifist rhetoric was timely as Nigeria looks to boost its oil production.

The acting president’s charming photo-ops while mingling with traders at local markets and visiting school kids have also proven popular.

But the fawning over Osinbajo’s leadership and gestures reveals a deeper truth: Nigerians have very low expectations of their leaders. In part, that’s down to the kind of leaders the country has had.

Nigeria has been ruled by military heads of state for more than half of its 56 years since gaining independence in Oct. 1960. Indeed, Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari, two democratically elected presidents, are former military heads of state. As civilians, both men will have ruled for a total of 12 years if Buhari completes his current term. Essentially, for much of its existence, Nigeria has been led by military rulers or by former military rulers.

With local politics anchored less on competence and more on ethnicity and religion, there’s been little room for smart, issue-based politicking as well as long-term visionary leadership. Last week, Osinbajo, a senior pastor at one of Nigeria’s largest churches, was forced to deny claims that a majority of his aides are Christian.

As such, conditioned by decades of charmless, often corrupt, leadership and ethnic-focused politics, Osinbajo, a charismatic London School of Economics-trained professor feels like a breath of fresh air.

Of course, no one should be deemed worthy of being president on the back of nice photo-ops and a few speeches. While he’s said and done the right things, there simply isn’t anything tangible to celebrate just yet, in fact, quite the opposite. Unemployment has risen for the ninth straight quarter while inflation is beginning to tick upwards again. Ordinary Nigerians struggle to remember a worse economic environment.

The new policies are yet to fully get off the ground, though the acting president’s team is quick to point out these policies are not new, but those of president Buhari. Over time, Osinbajo might well turn out to be a great (acting) president. For now he appears to already be swaying  public opinion his way mostly by being seen to take action rather than the details of his policies. Again, it shows how little Nigerians have come to expect from their leaders.

Being from a certain part of the country, practicing a certain religion or looking and acting presidential should not be enough. The bar to lead Africa’s largest country should be much higher.