It is not easy being a deputy to anyone, in particular being the Vice President of a country. On the face of it, it is a prestigious position because nominally you are the Number Two in the power hierarchy. However, substantially you are only as powerful as the President wants you to be. In essence, to be a ‘good’ Vice President is to be good at playing a second fiddle, which may not be as easy as it sounds. Though it is seen as a joint ticket in a Presidential system of government (albeit the bottom part of it), once elected; it is a mortal political sin for a Vice President to see his position as such. The American entertainer Will Rogers summed up the job description of a ‘good’ Vice President: “The man with the best job in the country is the Vice President. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, ‘How is the President?’” For Hubert H. Humphrey, the 38th US Vice President under President Lyndon B Johnson (1965-1969): “Anyone who thinks that the Vice President can take a position independent of the President of his administration simply has no knowledge of politics or government. You are his choice in a political marriage, and he expects your absolute loyalty”.
In countries like USA where the level of literacy is high, and constitutionalism has a long history; friction between the President and the Vice President is well managed, often away from the public glare. A President who demeans the Office of the Vice President by completely sidelining the occupant risks a political backlash as much as a Vice President who is seen as disloyal or too ambitious. In sharply divided and low-trust societies however, the story is often different. Consider these stories:
In Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad, the country’s fourth and longest-serving Prime Minister (1981–2003), had a running battle with Anwar Ibrahim, a Malay of Indian extraction, when the latter was the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance (1993-1998). Though Anwar had risen as a protégé of Mahathir, matters came to a head when he began asserting himself, forgetting, so to say, that he was simply meant to be a spare tyre. For instance during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, in his capacity as finance minister, Anwar publicly favoured options that were antithetical to Mahathir’s, such as supporting the International Monetary Fund’s plan for the country’s recovery, which included instituting an austerity package that slashed government spending by 18 percent and deferring major investment projects. Mahathir’s supporters subsequently began suspecting Anwar of nursing an inordinate ambition to replace the Prime Minister, inspired by the downfall of Indonesia’s President, Suharto, who was forced to resign in 1998 following the hardship caused by the Asian financial crisis. In 1998, the Malaysian government brought charges of sexual misconduct and abuse of power against Anwar, who was later fired from the Cabinet amid other allegations of being a homosexual and a serial sodomite.
In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki had a running feud with Jacob Zuma when the latter was Deputy President (1999-2005). It was said that Mbeki had little regard for Zuma, the rough-hewn but popular farm boy who spent ten years in jail on Robben Island prison. Zuma, an uneducated, self-confessed polygamist, who at 67 recently married his third wife, claimed that when he became Deputy President in 1999, Mbeki stripped the role of any real power. Within a year of coming to power, Zuma, discovered he was under investigation over corruption allegations linked to the purchase of frigates for the South African navy. Zuma, who was also accused of raping an AIDS activist, was convinced that Mbeki was behind the allegations. Eager to save his political career, Zuma went on television and pledged loyalty to Mbeki but it was apparently insufficient to mollify Mbeki who later fired Zuma from the government. Zuma decided to fight back, with support from his Zulu ethnic group, trade unionists and left-leaning groups. In 2007, Mbeki lost to Zuma in a contest to be the Chairman of the ANC. In 2008, High Court Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that Thabo Mbeki had used ‘presidential powers’ to interfere in the legal action against Jacob Zuma. Radicals within the ANC forced Mbeki to resign as President of South Africa – in one of the rare cases of victory for a Vice President in any contest with the substantive President. In May 2009, Zuma was elected President of South Africa.
In Nigeria, there was the epic feud between Obasanjo and the then Vice President Abubakar Atiku, which dominated much of the regime’s second term in office (2003-2007). While the open quarrel effectively prevented Atiku from succeeding Obasanjo, it however turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the Ota farmer as his carefully cultivated public image of an incorruptible statesman was severely battered by counter allegations of corruption and innuendos about sex escapades from the Atiku camp. Supporters of Obasanjo locate the root of the discord to their principal’s doubts about Atiku’s loyalty to him, while Atiku’s camp believed their principal was being persecuted for opposing Obasanjo’s third term plot.
In the three instances cited above, we have Vice Presidents who clearly nursed ambitions of succeeding their bosses, which in turn could have led to suspicions (real or imagined) of disloyalty. In the case of Goodluck Jonathan, he appeared to be an apotheosis of the good Vice-Preside: almost without an ego, self-effacing, comfortable with playing a second fiddle, not bombastic and shuns the limelight. So if Jonathan is in theory the ideal Vice President, why is he apparently not trusted by the kitchen cabinet of an ailing President who has been away from duty for more than a month and a half?
We can all speculate on this or attribute it as part of the transaction costs in low-trust societies – the fear, real or contrived, of being double-crossed in any gentleman’s agreement. In essence, while Yaradua’s prolonged illness and lack of formal transfer of power to the Vice President may have brought us to the throes of a constitutional crisis, the situation more importantly calls attention to the special burden of being a Vice President (and also Deputy Governor) in our type of societies. How many Deputy Governors in Nigeria have become substantive Governors? Can a Vice President in Nigeria ever become the President? In the situation we found ourselves today, can the Vice President appropriate more functions to himself under the doctrine of necessity? If he does, will that make him a closet power hawk? If he chooses to be extremely cautious – seeing banana peels everywhere, so to say – will that reinforce suspicions of some critics that he is perhaps too weak and not up to the job of being President?
For the Vice President, it is a dicey situation, which calls for understanding. As Donald Rumsfield, the US Secretary of Defense (2001-2006) under President George W Bush would counsel: “Being Vice President is difficult. Don’t make it tougher”.