Buhari takes Trump call from London as Nigerians ponder president’s health

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, who spoke with Donald Trump on Monday, has been in London indefinitely for nearly a month. (Facebook)

It was something of a surprise to Nigerians to learn that their president was well enough to discuss global matters with US president Donald Trump on Monday, as much of the country has wondered for weeks if Nigeria’s leader is on his deathbed. 

Muhammadu Buhari, a longtime opposition figure who defeated sitting president Goodluck Jonathan in March 2015, on a promise to curtail widespread corruption, left Nigeria for a holiday in London on January 19. But he has not yet returned, pending the results of medical tests. His administration is incredibly opaque about the nature of Buhari’s illness and his medical tests, and in the absence of any real information about the president’s health, Nigerians are increasingly speculating that Buhari is being treated for grave illness or possibly already dead, at a time when Buhari’s administration is struggling to cope with economic and security challenges.

Buhari, in a cryptic letter on February 5, said that he would stay in London indefinitely ‘until the doctors are satisfied that certain factors are ruled out.’

No one knows whether Buhari scheduled the original London holiday in January for medical reasons, but it’s noteworthy that the 74-year-old Nigerian president skipped trips to neighboring African countries last summer while he made time for a 10-day trip last June to see his London-based doctors about an alleged ear infection.

Nevertheless, Buhari is apparently healthy enough to take a call from Trump, and a Buhari aide said that the new US president had kind words for Buhari’s work in tackling Boko Haram and other radical terrorist groups in Nigeria. Insofar as the presidential call provided Nigerians with some secondhand news as to the health of their president, the news is perhaps one of the nascent Trump administration’s top foreign policy accomplishments.

Buhari’s absence is troubling for a country that has the largest economy and the largest population in Africa — at 188 million, Nigeria is now the seventh-most populous country in the world (just behind Pakistan). So long as Buhari and his aides refuse to answer basic questions about the health of the president, many Nigerians will fear the worst.

In 2010, another Nigerian president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (like Buhari, from Nigeria’s chiefly Muslim north) was elected in 2007, only to leave the country in November 2009 for treatment in Saudi Arabia for pericarditis. His vice president, Jonathan (from the Christian south), took power in February 2010 under the ‘doctrine of necessity,’ a controversial step that nearly precipitated a constitutional crisis for a fledgling democracy. Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria in May 2010 and promptly died three days later, when Jonathan permanently assumed presidential duties (and won election to a full term in 2011).

It’s true that Buhari and the Nigerian army is defeating the threat of Boko Haram. In October, Buhari’s administration secured the release of 21 of around 300 girl kidnapped in 2014 from a school in Chibok.

But Buhari has had a rough time otherwise since taking office in May 2015.It took him six months to name his cabinet and, when he finally got around to naming his ministers, it was a disappointing list of old faces associated with the longstanding failures of Nigerian politics. Buhari’s lethargy contributed to the sense that he has failed to use his campaign’s momentum to carry out the kind of change that Nigerians want to see.

Meanwhile, the global decline in oil prices has left the commodities-heavy Nigerian economy in a deep recession. That, in turn, has exacerbated regional tensions. Rebels in the oil-heavy Niger Delta in the country’s southeast, who have agitated for decades for a greater share of the oil wealth that comes predominantly from their region, have increased their anti-government activity in the last year. Moreover, population growth and climate change-driven desertification have pushed traditionally nomadic Fulani herdsmen from the north ever further south and into increasingly violent conflict with southern farmers.

Though Buhari inherited an economy in collapse, his actions to keep the value of the naira artificially low throughout 2016 only made matters worse, as the price of imports rose. With limited foreign reserves coming into Nigeria, Buhari then started dictating which businesses would receive foreign currency to import products. Though Buhari has attempted to boost domestic production in Nigeria, he has not yet put in place the kind of plan to develop the physical infrastructure of roads and bridges that could facilitate it. Meanwhile, the resulting combination of inflation and recession has made Nigerians more vulnerable to food and other shortages.

Critics also charge that Buhari is falling back on the same authoritarian tactics that characterized his short-lived government in 1984 and 1985. His risible ‘war on indifference’ in the 1980s attempted to root out Nigerian corruption and wean his country away from oil wealth, but the staggering depth of Buhari’s economic mismanagement ended with a military coup to oust him. It is probably too soon to call Buhari’s administration a failure — or even dismiss Buhari as an autocratic retread. But his first full year as Nigeria’s president was hardly a success, and it’s obviously not great news that he is now sidelined (perhaps for months) in London.

In the 2000s, Buhari returned to politics as a committed democrat, and he ran for the presidency in 2015 on a similar anti-corruption theme rooted in his (chiefly legitimate) reputation as an honest ascetic who rebuffed the trappings of power and the graft that accompanies so much of Nigeria’s political patronage.As a northerner and a Muslim, Buhari’s campaign also carried the implicit promise that he could defuse tensions with Boko Haram. In practice, however, Buhari’s administration has chiefly prosecuted political opponents for corruption and not his supporters, and while Boko Haram’s attacks are on the decline, attacks by Fulani herdsman are growing with impunity.

If Buhari were to die or become severely incapacitated, it is possible that Nigerial’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, could take power. Osinbajo was a relatively little-known law professor until he became involved with what was then the umbrella opposition movement, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Born in Lagos to a well-connected family, Osibjago studied law at the University of Lagos and the London School of Economics before holding several positions as a professor at the University of Lagos from 1979 until turning to politics in 2013, though he served in advisory role to the justice ministry from 1988 to 1992.

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