Nigeria’s 74-year-old president is ill—just how ill we don’t know. But President Muhammadu Buhari has been in the UK for more than a month now for medical treatment. Speculation is rife and even the president’s cabinet is in the dark. Normally an African president’s health troubles or long-term European sojourn wouldn’t be big news, but Nigeria is Africa’s largest country by population and (no matter how you measure it) one of the continent’s most important economic players. It’s also deeply polarized along lines of ethnicity and religion, and only a creaky set of norms and the faint bonds of shared history work to keep the country together. Buhari’s precarious health is testing these norms and straining the political unity of the country.
One of those norms is the informal rule that presidents and vice presidents have to come from different regions and religious backgrounds. Buhari is a Muslim from the North, and his VP, Yemi Osinbajo, is a Christian from the South. And now that Buhari is sick, Nigerians can’t help but think of the parallels to the political crisis 2009-2010, when a Muslim President, Umaru Yar’Adua, died and his Christian VP, Goodluck Jonathan, assumed office. This time at least, the president is doing a somewhat better job managing expectations, reports the WSJ:
Nigerian commentators say there are important distinctions between the optics of Mr. Yar’Adua’s illness and Mr. Buhari’s, with the latter disclosing he was having medical tests and promptly transferring legislative powers to his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo.
The BBC has more on what Osinbajo has been able to achieve while Buhari is away:
But, perhaps, one of the most striking things about President Buhari’s absence has been the go-getting style of the acting leader.
Yemi Osinbajo is preparing to launch an economic recovery plan.
He also led a high-profile delegation to the Niger Delta to voice support for a government agreement with local militants groups that have seriously disrupted the region’s oil production.
But the Southerner’s newfound energy and willingness to negotiate with the Niger Delta Avengers who devastated oil production last year will no doubt alienate members of Buhari’s mostly Northern and Muslim inner circle. The FT has a penetrating analysis of the political situation:
At the heart of that issue — and simmering power struggles — is the concept of “zoning”, a defining principle of Nigerian politics since military rule ended in 1999. It holds that the presidency should rotate between the mainly Christian south and the mostly Muslim north after every two terms.
If Mr Buhari, a northerner, leaves office before his first term ends, Yemi Osinbajo, his deputy and a southerner, would take over until elections were held. But whether Mr Osinbajo then becomes the APC’s nominee in 2019 is “anybody’s guess”, said a senior party member from the south, predicting that the party’s northern elite might argue they need to finish “their turn”.
“Will the cabal let go?” said a northern Nigerian technocrat, using the term some employ to describe Mr Buhari’s closest aides, who are also Muslim northerners. “A scenario where they maintain northern control over government is what they want.”
The issue has become more sensitive because the last president from the north, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died in office in 2009, prematurely ending the region’s hold on the all-powerful executive. Goodluck Jonathan, Mr Yar’Adua’s deputy, went on to secure his party’s nomination for the 2011 polls and served another term. In the two-decades since the end of military rule, northern politicians have held the presidency for fewer than five years.
“A lot of politicians are already looking ahead to 2019 and how best to position themselves,” said Antony Goldman, head of London-based PM Consulting, which provides advisory services to the Buhari administration. “The current speculation, actively fuelled by political interests, is only accelerating the process.”
Commentators noted as early as last May that Buhari appeared frail in public appearances. In June 2016, the Nigerian President had a two-week stay in London to treat what his staff described as an “ear infection,” prompting some chatter about his health. But it is only with this most recent (and continuing) absence that the Nigerian political world has begun speculating in earnest about the possibility that Buhari might not finish his term and stand for reelection in 2019. What this means for the running of the Nigerian government and the health of Christian-Muslim politics in West Africa’s regional power remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t bode well.