The twisted saga of Nigeria’s missing president has come to symbolize a nation’s broken political system. For more than a month now, the country’s elected officials have offered contradictory explanations for their leader’s absence, alternating between vaguely worded denials that President Muhammadu Buhari is sick and outright lies about his health.
The ship of state, meanwhile, has continued to drift. On Tuesday, the official statistics agency announced that Nigeria’s economy contracted last year for the first time in more than two decades.
Buhari flew to London on Jan. 19 for what was billed as an annual vacation during which he would undergo routine medical checkups. When he did not return as expected on Feb. 6, the rumor mill began to churn. Five Nigerian leaders have died in office — three were assassinated, one died mysteriously, and another succumbed to illness — and the government was soon batting down speculation that Buhari was the sixth.
On Feb. 5, two weeks after Buhari had left the country, the government finally acknowledged that the president’s doctors had recommended he remain in London to complete his medical tests. Ten days later, a delegation of federal lawmakers visited Buhari in London, a spectacle that may have been intended to reassure Nigerians but had precisely the opposite effect.
Photos from the visit show the gaunt 74-year-old in his typical garb: a loose fitting gray caftan with a black collar and a sturdy black hat. He is smiling next to Senate President Bukola Saraki on a flower-patterned couch.
“The president I saw today is healthy, witty and himself,” Saraki said in a statement after the visit. “[T]here is no cause for alarm!”
Few Nigerians were convinced — by the official assurances or by the proof-of-life photos.
But the government has refused to say anything more, either about the specific medical tests the president is undergoing or about when he is expected to return
But the government has refused to say anything more, either about the specific medical tests the president is undergoing or about when he is expected to return.
When a reporter from Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper showed up at Abuja House in London, where the president is staying, to request an audience with Buhari, security guards called the Metropolitan Police and tried to have him arrested.
Back in Nigeria, religious leaders have called on people to pray for the president’s health. The obvious question many are asking: Why must we pray for a president who is “healthy, witty and himself”?
Nonetheless, nearly 300 Islamic leaders gathered in Kano state last week to pray for the president’s recovery. Buhari reportedly called in to the prayer session, which was broadcast live on several radio stations and hosted by the state governor, to say thank you.
“It was an evidence of life, because the man [Buhari] was talking,” said Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, a journalist from Kano who listened to the radio broadcast and heard Buhari’s live phone call. “But it’s hard to tell if he is sick or healthy, because it was a very brief conversation between him and the governor. For me personally, I didn’t think the conversation was a basis for any health assessment, only that he is alive.”
Nigerians have good reason to worry about their president’s health. In May 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua died after receiving months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He left Nigeria without handing power to his deputy, and his absence tipped the country into unprecedented political turmoil. Lawmakers ultimately passed a motion authorizing Goodluck Jonathan to replace Yar’Adua as acting president.
At the time, Buhari, who was a member of the opposition, called for Yar’Adua to be declared incapacitated and impeached, a fact that has not been lost on Nigerians during the current political crisis. Farooq Kperogi, a well-known journalism professor and commentator, has described the government’s campaign of obfuscation as the “Yar’aduaization of Buhari’s health.”
Other political analysts have mockingly suggested that Information Minister Lai Mohammed should give an hourly bulletin about Buhari’s health in the same fashion that Mohammed, who was then the spokesman for the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria party, demanded an hourly bulletin of Yar’Adua’s health.
But Mohammed says Nigerians should stop comparing “apples to oranges.”
“Mr. President is not ill. He is not in hospital,” he said during a State House address on Feb. 8.
Whether or not the president is seriously ill, he has left Nigeria in an unsteady place. The economy is in recession, inflation has soared to 18.7 percent, and people have been forced to endure price hikes for daily necessities like food and fuel.
“Nigeria, right now, could be compared to a snake with no head,” columnist Ndubuisi Ukah observed recently in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. “We are probably the only country on earth, whose number one public figure could just leave the citizens guessing and wondering.”
If there is one ray of hope to be gleaned from the bizarre saga of Buhari’s disappearance it’s that his deputy, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, has filled in admirably in his boss’s absence. He has worked with the opposition to launch a 60-day plan to boost the flagging economy, met with state-level officials to address the issue of skyrocketing food prices, and traveled to the restive Niger Delta region as part of ongoing negotiations aimed at stopping frustrated youth there from destroying oil installations.
Osinbajo also made a surprise visit to the country’s busiest airport in Lagos, walking through the chaotic terminal to personally inspect infrastructure — broken toilets, nonfunctioning escalators, faulty baggage carousels, and dusty air conditioners — and call for much-needed repairs. Many Nigerians have been taken in by his energy and enthusiasm, which contrasts sharply with the trademark lethargy that earned Buhari the nickname “Baba Go-Slow.” (Buhari has yet to visit Lagos or the Niger Delta during his presidency.)
“Osinbajo is not a career politician, so he never even planned on being a vice president, yet he is already so much more than Buhari, who has campaigned 12 years to become the president of this country,” said Salaudeen Hashim, a political analyst and officer at the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center in Abuja. “[Buhari] ran in 2003, 2007, and 2011 before he finally won in 2015. And now that he is president, Nigerians are wondering what has he done at all.”
But reports that Buhari’s closest aides are uncomfortable with Osinbajo’s rising popularity have already leaked to the press. It’s times like these that political loyalties are tested, and when working closely with Osinbajo could be seen as abandoning Buhari.
“What we have in Nigeria is personality-driven politics where one person monopolizes power and Buhari’s cabal sees Osinbajo as a threat to Buhari,” said Hashim. “Osinbajo needs to be allowed to do the work and fix the economy, but in the context of Nigeria, we can expect that some politicians will undermine him.”
Correction, March 4, 2017: Lai Mohammed was a spokesman for the Action Congress of Nigeria party in 2010. A previous version of this article incorrectly identified him as the spokesman for the All Progressives Congress party.